Personal opinion on Sam Harris’ Ted Talk about science and moral

« I almost burst into tears when describing the practice of “honor killing.” I knew that I was going to talk about fathers who murder their daughters for the crime of being raped, and I knew exactly what I was going to say about them. But I hadn’t known that my own daughter would take her first steps the morning of my lecture. When delivering my lines exactly as I had rehearsed, I suddenly awoke to the reality of what I was talking about.' » Sam Harris said on his personal blog after his Ted Talk on the subject of science and morality. Indeed, the neuroscientist writer decided to tackle a quite overwhelming issue during his presentation. Convinced that moral questions can be answered by resorting to science, he tried to revoke an entire school of thoughts from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists, a school which believes that science isn’t relevant when it comes to human values. 

In order to attest his theory, Sam Harris is constantly referring to current and diverse concerns of our century, such as the Talibans, women’s oppression, as well as human nutrition. According to him, each has “values and those are certain kind of irrefutable facts. Facts about human well-being.”Thus, he analyses his different controversial examples as he ought to show that our very principles are proofs that there is a scientific dimension in human ethics. His whole theory is lying on the fact that what we do in the name of “morality” is a relatable enough source to know what could increase, or not, our capital of well-being. For instance, when he is referring to fathers being ashamed of their daughters being raped, he intends to demonstrate that those men should know how this behavior isn’t going to improve their situation, nor the one of their children. He even repeats the following rhetorical question: “What are the chances that this particular reaction could help one flourish?”

To another extent, he takes advantage of the sharia law to state that each of us is aware that a conduct is wrong, even though we’re taught to be non-judgmental about cultures and habits. However, Sam Harris believes that this domain of expertise, some kind of peculiar sense of moral, should be trusted as a genuine science since we can admit that some of those innate facts are false. He then recalls that this doesn’t necessarily mean that some individuals as Ted Bundy won’t tend to care for immoral actions. As a matter of fact, what Sam Harris is depicting in both his lecture and his book The Moral Landscape, is that we already have the right and wrong answers to ethical questions, evincing that there is a science of morals, which determines clearly procedural and substantive facts, just as distinctly as we know life and death.

Nevertheless, no matter how daring and provocative is Sam Harris by suggesting a new approach of morality based on philosophy, the vanguardism of his thesis still results in major incoherencies. To start with, the prominent author isn’t a philosopher neither is he a scientist. Moreover, his arguments remind us of the myth of the “Western Savior”, according to which a white-educated and wealthy man is able to know what is good and evil for communities he has probably not all the abilities to understand, as they live differently. It would be interesting to know if he has ever visited one of the countries that is living with the culture he is criticizing so harshly. 

Isn’t it problematic that a man should be giving his opinion about women wearing the veil or posing for magazines in underwear in 2010? Against religion and particularly opposed to Islam, we could wonder at some point if Sam Harris isn’t only trying to infuse us his own beliefs, through speeches and well-written discourses. What is striking about him is that he is promoting intolerance publicly in other interviews and hasn’t made aware any of his spectators here that his theories are confirming his own convictions and are as subjective as they are innovative. Sometimes disrespectful, he is worldwide as criticized as he is praised. If we dig further into his previous public appearances, it is to be seen that he even challenges the Muslim community to openly denounce their own religion and to, at least, recognize their supposed “absurdity”. If he really has something to prove, isn’t he able to do it with respect, him that seems so civilized and aware about good and evil?

Hence, we should be conscious that speeches such as the one he made on Ted are dangerous and could reinforce some extremist movements, which already and ultimately have hateful feelings about Islam. It could also widen the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim people, and tighten the self-segregation of this religion, almost certain that no one is willing to understand the difference between their moral values and the extremist groups a very few of them embody. 

At the moment, history proves us that we have more reasons to think that we do not own any science of ethics than the contrary. Otherwise, why human beings would have committed genocides, wars and tortures throughout the centuries? Sam Harris lacks thoughtful empirical proofs and forgets that culture isn’t universal, just as moral isn’t as well. Margaret Mead, in association with many other sociologists affirmed, already decades ago, that many tribes and social groups weren’t considering the same principles as we do. 

If we take monogamy for example, it is recognized as the most moral choice in matter of romantic relationships in the “Western World”. On the other hand, many communities have based their social links in a totally different organization. So, apologies to Sam Harris, but developed countries don’t have the monopoly on how some should behave. How could we judge something we haven’t even experienced? Deprived of truthful information assuring his debate, he will not hesitate to speak on behalf of religious demagogues such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama, even though they are sacred for many, to serve his own ideology, by saying that they all agree with him. If it wasn’t on Ted, we could easily think we’re in front of some badly managed teleshopping, confronted to a man who absolutely wants to sell a product at all costs. I personally don’t buy it. 

Portrait of Sam Harris, DR

To put in a nutshell, Sam Harris seems really naïve to believe that existential issues such as morality could be solved by only thinking that we all have the same answers. For sure, he is a good speaker, using persuasion to convince his audience that he brought a brand-new reality to life. Contrariwise, this technique, which is emphasized by people’s fears and desires, is mostly known by authoritarian leaders and often only works when there isn’t any sufficient evidence of what one is trying to demonstrate. 

Coming back to the beginning of this essay, it is hard to understand why a renowned thinker of the 21stcentury would need to show his feelings on a blog if it wasn’t to catch some tender minds. No doubt, Kant or Nietzsche wouldn’t have needed to if they had internet at that time. From the way the talk is delivered to the essence of his thinking, Sam Harris appears as biased, pervasive and unconvincing. 

It is also important to bear in mind that he even contradicts his own self, with his example of chess, in which he timidly explains that losing the queen is one of the substantial rules of the game but can be at some point avoided when needed. Not only is this state of mind Machiavellian, but it is also rather the opposite of his “we all know what we have to do” solution. Then, needless to say that his theory doesn’t work, since he has to recognize that what is moral often depends on the situation and lies more on empirical data than on science. Last but not least, he fails in answering the question of evil in human life and rallies perilously many people to his cause. 

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