Robert E. Prasch speaking on "A Wage of One's Own: The Rise and Fall of a Women's Minimum Wage in Progressive-Era America: 1912-1923"
"Eggsploitation" screening at Columbia and Fordham Universities

Should Science Determine Our Values?

Jonathan B. Wight

David Hume be damned, the answer is "yes" according to Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press, 2010). Harris argues that all values reduce to "facts" that science can provide.

Harris is a utilitarian, seeking to reduce "needless human suffering." In his view, science allows "us"—that is, well-educated liberal Westerners--to decide on the meaning of "moral progress." It should be clear, he argues, what human flourishing means and that we can adopt a definition and measurement using scientific methods. In short, there is an absolute moral standard of right and wrong, as illuminated by the "science" of human well-being.

Aside from Harris' arrogance, there is a huge dose of condescension. There is no fair conception here of what the human experience means in non-Western cultures. To Harris, the measure of human progress appears to be externally-driven by caloric intake and clothes (he rails against the "sacks" that Islamic women wear). I haven't read the book, but I am curious if Harris is aware of Nozick's Experience Machine that could make and keep us perfectly pleasured. Is that an ideal life? It would seem so to Harris.

If you don't want to buy the book, you can get the essence of his message in this TED talk.


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Oh, Lord, save us from people who assume their conclusions...

From the interview on the Amazon site for the book (emphasis mine):

Harris: Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

But why does he feel that morality "must" relate to well-being? Did science tell him that? Of course, once you decide what morality entails, science can help you further it, but science can never tell you what is moral.

Of course, this mistake is common among many economists too - take Kaplow and Shavell's Fairness versus Welfare for instance, which assumes that law and policy must serve welfare, and then "concludes" that a welfarist approach to legal policymaking is the best way to do this. (See my article on the book here: .)

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