Most people say that science can tell us facts about the world but not about moral values. Do you disagree?
Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, are questions about human and animal well-being. The moment we admit this we see that science can, in principle, answer such questions - because the experience of conscious creatures depends on the way the universe is. In our case, the difference between the worst possible suffering and the greatest flourishing depends on everything that can influence states of the human brain, ranging from changes in our genome to changes in the global economy. The relevant details of genetics, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, economics and so on are fantastically complicated, but there is no question that these are domains in which there are truths to be discovered and they fall squarely within the purview of science.
So what is "right" is whatever maximises the well-being of conscious creatures? How is that different from utilitarianism?
People often criticise utilitarianism because any narrow concern for utility, pleasure or short-term happiness fails to capture everything that is important to us in life. We are also concerned about things like truth, justice, fairness, intellectual pleasure, courage, creativity and having a clear conscience. I believe, however, that the notion of well-being can capture all of these things.
In my book I argue that we can view all possible experience on a kind of landscape, where peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. The first thing to notice is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape - there may be many different ways for people to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive.

COMMENT: You know, I'm sure I've read something very similar to that in the past somewhere.

However, the question is not "Can you have morality without religion?" The question is "Why bother to have morality without religion?"

I know most of you lot don't like the idea of a "stick and carrot" God, but as someone who could quite happily throttle most of the hierarchy of the Diocese of Newcastle, I find it not only useful, but downright necessary for the continued existence of most of the hierarchy of the Diocese of Newcastle.



  1. Well, here’s something I found the other day:

    “Science is the process of trying to understand the nature of reality. And it’s a fundamental of science that we believe reality exists, instead of having it be a human construct or all a matter of relative point of view. There isn’t another side of the story in science. There are the right and wrong answers, and you do a better or worse job of understanding that reality, but we do believe reality is there. That’s fundamental to what we’re doing.”

    — Lucy Jones (seismologist)

    I’m not sure this really speaks to your question(s) MadPriest but your post prompted me to think of it — perhaps because whatever gives us more insight about reality is valuable for the discernment process regarding morality.

  2. There is a definite similarity between scientists and fundamentalist Christians. It’s all right or wrong and don’t you dare argue. Personally, as some people can see God in a beautiful sunset or flower I see God in the beauty of how the universe has been put together – the sheer perfection and the mind blowing intricacies of it all. I think these anti-religion scientists probably only see the brush stokes when they look at a great painting. They don’t actually look at the picture itself which is, of course, the part of a painting that transcends the technique and craftsmanship and comes from the imagination of the artist. It has not always been this way. Once upon a time scientists were shaman.

  3. I suppose I would respond that the difference is that science is (eventually) self-correcting. It’s only a right-wrong matter in that (for example) a water molecule really is two hydorgen atoms to one of oxygen or it’s not. When a certain hypothesis (or even widely accepted theory) in science is demonstrated to be false, it is abandoned. And then there is the whole peer-review thing.

    So, yes, even though there is often resistance to new ideas within the scientfic community (it is made up of people, after all, and a reluctance to change is often an aspect of human nature) eventually the truth will out. I’m thinking now of how poor Dr. Semmelweis was scorned at first when he insisted that surgeons and obstetricians wash their hands before examining or treating patients. But now hand washing and creating as sterile an environment as possible is the universal practice.

  4. What stands out to me, is the word Mr Harris doesn’t use (acknowledge): subjectivity.

    His concept of “well-being” (“Buy my book!”: wherein he’ll explain his concept—WHILE you contribute to Harris’s well-being!) is simply his subjective gut-level “Truthiness” (as the far more intellectually-gifted AND authentic Stephen Colbert would say).

    Nothing more than that. }-p