Category Archive: The Moral Landscape

Free Press: 2010.

Harris on objective moral facts

However, many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologic­ally “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue. I hope it is clear that when I speak about “objective” moral truths, or about the “objective” causes of human well-being, I am not denying the necessarily subjective (i.e., experiential) component of the facts under discussion. I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings—like the Platonic Form of the Good—or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. I am simply saying that, given that there are facts—real facts—to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice. [30]

When we think scientifically

Some people maintain this view by defining “science” in exceedingly narrow terms, as though it were synonymous with mathematical modeling or immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and must be put to use long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data. [29]

A broad conception of science

For the purposes of this discussion, I do not intend to make a hard distinction between “science” and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss “facts”—e.g., history. For instance, it is a fact that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Facts of this kind fall within the context of “science,” broadly construed as our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality. Granted, one doesn’t generally think of events like assassinations as “scientific” facts, but the murder of President Kennedy is as fully corroborated a fact as can be found anywhere, and it would betray a profoundly un­scientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred. I think “science,” therefore, should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in our world. [195n2]