Can Science Demonstrate Racism or Genocide is Morally Wrong?

Science doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. Science can only tell us what we can or can’t do. This is all strongly related to the Naturalistic Fallacy:

I agree, though I would state it in more forceful terms. Science is incapable of telling us what we ought to do. Science is incapable of telling us what we ought to believe. Science cannot tell us that we ought to believe that the earth is more than 6000 years old.

This is one reason I say that at heart it all boils down to morality. So what if something is a “fact” if there is no reason that anyone ought to believe it. It’s not wrong to be wrong, and it’s most certainly not evil to teach things that are not true.

This is all “how I see it,” and of course I’m aware that lots disagree, but this is grounded in scholarship on moral philosophy and it came to me through the writings of Sam Harris, a neuroscientist. Here goes…

Any act, decision, etc., can be viewed as morally wrong if it leads to more total net suffering (or less net flourishing), and morally right if it reduces total net suffering (or increases total net flourishing). That can become a solidly scientific question if we one day can actually measure suffering, as a neurological phenomenon. That may seem far-fetched, but how many things were totally beyond our comprehension 100 years ago but are now routinely measured in laboratories? “Flourishing” may seem hard to define and precisely measure also, but this doesn’t have to get extremely accurate to be useful. Genocide is wrong because it causes large numbers of people to suffer - it’s not a close call where precise measurements are needed. Racism is wrong because it increases the suffering and reduces the flourishing of individuals without their consent. A lot of what I’m saying isn’t controversial. Most moral philosophers agree that net suffering, net happiness, net flourishing, etc., are the principle factors in determining whether or not something is moral. I’m just taking the next step and saying that science may one day allow us to measure, quantify, and combine those variables which would bring morality into the realm of science. That doesn’t replace moral philosophy, either, because there is still the issue of moral culpability to content with. One can do something that is, per se, immoral, but he is not culpable because he wasn’t aware and couldn’t have known, or therefore didn’t intend, the consequences that followed.

Btw, saying that science can enter this area does not mean to say that it will then all become simple. There will still be hairs to split and disagreements to sort out. But I think our ability to one day literally and physically measure suffering will have a big impact on how we look at morality.


Of course, if only a few people suffer, in that case, genocide might not be morally wrong.

1 Like

I’m thinking we might be able to get the right to life people to buy into this, if we can quantify the suffering of the unborn. Not sure if that’s on the agenda though.


I disagree with this, but it may be semantic. If “ought to do something” means “the morally better thing to do,” yes science can help us know that. That can certainly apply to actions that affect others. It probably doesn’t apply to privately held beliefs that don’t affect others, so yes, science would be silent about that, but that’s not a moral question, in my view. If you want to believe something, and it causes no harm to others, than it is also no one’s business and is morally neutral.


This comment sounds like you are hinting that science and scientists would shy away from a question like that, but I don’t think that’s true at all. If it’s a moral question, then the ultimate variables to be considered are suffering, happiness, flourishing. (Some would put freedom as a separate variable, while others put it in with flourishing.)

1 Like

If you’re talking about the case that maybe killing a small number might be permissible under this scheme, if large numbers would somehow be better off, I would counter with two points. First, that kind of dilemma plagues all other moral theories just as badly. And second, demonstrating that the suffering of the few actually facilitated the flourishing of the many is going to be difficult or impossible. Are we talking about a scenario where food so scarce that we’re resulting in cannibalism and we only eat the old and sick? If so, back to my first point.

1 Like

I think it is morally wrong to teach untruths because you are doing harm and potentially increasing suffering and reducing flourishing of the students who could have received a proper education. But if someone really believes those untruths, they are not morally culpable, and certainly not evil, because they were doing what they think is best. That’s why I would never call the YECs evil.


It has always bothered me when I hear some who claim to know Jesus’ teachings and the Bible claim that atheists “have no basis for determining morality”. Absurd. All humans have criteria for determining morality. It is not a monopoly of Christians or theists or anybody else.


It bothers me too. And I sure hope no one here is doing that.

1 Like

As stated earlier, science is a tool used for acquiring knowledge. People can certainly refuse to use that tool.

So if a group of Muslims honestly believed that they were doing what Allah wanted them to do by crashing airplanes into buildings, they are not morally culpable and not evil?


Good teachers often over-simplify.

Is that teaching untruths? Is that harmful?

“i” before “e” except after “c” – an untruth.

1 Like

If you think a pedagogical strategy that simplifies complicated material in order to teach it is the same thing, morally or practically, as teaching something that is in explicit conflict with modern scientific standards, than I can’t help you.


That doesn’t at all follow from my point. My point is about suffering, nourishing, and so forth, not what someone believes that God wants of them. Moral culpability still applies because they know full well all of the innocent life they are about to snuff out and the ripples of suffering that will flow from that. In my equation of morality, and moral culpability, belief about the divine do not factor at all. God gets no credit, no blame.

@NLENTS, to restate your position, you are arguing for utilitarianism with benefits and harms established by scientific inquiry.

This, however, is equivocating badly between utilitarianism and science. It is not possible to derive that the “right” thing to do is the greatest good for the greatest number. Also, in practice, there are always trade offs that arise. It is not clear how science helps us resolve them. In fact, science usually heightens our awareness of the tradeoffs.

You even allude to this at time…

Moral philosophy is NOT science. One cannot derive moral philosophy from science, though a moral philosophy might be able to make use of science to help make assessments. This, it seems, is what you are arguing for here. No one will disagree with this. However, it seems to be a grand equivocation to say that a moral philosophy that makes use of science IS science’s determination.

You also haven’t really answered my questions:

You say…

So, does this mean that if genocide reduces net suffering it is morally good? How do you establish scientifically that utilitarianism is morally correct? How you justify throwing away the enlightenment concerns over utilitarianism because of the tyranny of the majority (remember John Stuart Mills)? How do you decide who’s utility function is the correct one?

To be clear, you offer several high level statements about moral philosophy. Great. However, moral philosophy is not science. So all these “hows” have to answered somehow with the scientific method.

1 Like

The claims in the moral landscape seem incoherent to me. I believe there are actually two claims:

  1. Morally good means maximizing happiness and reducing suffering, and science can help in this goal

This is just Utilitarianism. This is not new, and the first part, “morally good means maximizing happiness and reducing suffering” is an unscientific axiom.

The other claim seems to be:

  1. Other sciences, say physics or medicine, rely on unproven axioms, so it is okay for morality, which rely on unproven axioms to be considered scientific.

This does not follow. Every philosopher of science knows that any science is motivated by unproven axioms. No one claims that that the axioms required to do physics (e.g. the logic system I choose, or the axiom of Uniformitarianism) is scientific. Further, while this trait is something that both physics and morality have in common, this similarity does not mean that they are both sciences.

Also, the axiomatic statements that underlies science leaves open the conclusion of science to be determined by the scientific process. Harris’ moral landscape on the other hand already assumes axiomatically the conclusion that Utilitarianism is correct. An easy counterargument to the moral landscape is imposing the exact same argument of Harris, but swapping utilitarianism with deontological ethic.

Finally, I think it is important to point out:

This is extremely dubious. Sam Harris I believe only ever produce ~3 papers in neuroscience, the last of which is in 2011. His PhD is funded through his own anti-religious think-tank to support a very biased experiment. Not only that, he did not do his own experiments for his PhD thesis!

You can ask @swamidass whether he would graduate a grad student who did not do their own experiment (or in @swamidass’s case numerical simulations) for their own thesis.

You can read more about criticism of his neuroscientific credentials here:

Here is a more in depth review of his PhD paper by a statistician:


8 posts were merged into an existing topic: Is Sam Harris a Legitimate Neuroscientist?

I’m not sure why a non-publishing neuroscience PhD would be the best guide to moral philosophy, but it’s worth recording that there are some significant scientists who don’t buy Sam Harris’s approach to the matter.

Before looking out that link, however, I had already noted that you (on Harris’s behalf) have already taken consequentialist and utilitarian ethics as axiomatic - how would one determine scientifically that that is the right approach?

Once it is admitted, though, there would be a good case for saying that human zoos were part of a Eugenics project that sought the greatest well-being of the greatest number, by purifying the human race of degenerate lines. If that cost a few unhappy degenerates their freedom in educating the public about that greater good, then it’s quite hard to quantify the maths, but the ethics is exemplary.

My own contemporary example, though, is simpler. Leading relief charity organisers - previously lauded for their unique planning and administrative abilities in disaster relief - have been accused of using the bait of food-aid to procure sexual favours from poor disaster victims.

The scientific calculus seems simple in this case. The abilities of Aid Director X are the best hope for the survival hundreds of thousands of shattered lives. But if his sexual needs are not met by the exploitation of a few women, he will withdraw his labour and go elsewhere, at the cost of the well being, and indeed the very lives, of the entire population. The same unfortunate outcome will arise if he is involuntarily removed by disciplinary procedures.

Quite clearly, then, the moral thing to do is to turn a blind eye to his peccadillos in the interests of the greater good.

There seems to be some reason to suppose that the guilty parties in this scandal have made something like that kind of calculation. So what scientific metric would Harris envisage that would deal justly with the abuse of insignificant poor people by “indispensible” rich people?