This is my second question about the post "Is it possible to scientifically determine good and evil?" within 24 hours, but I feel that it addresses an independent concern.

I recently revised the question in order to make clearer the themes that I though were pertinent to the question, and to explicitly indicate that Sam Harris' antireligious comments were completely beside the point, for a forum such as ours where we are comfortable with having sources of morality be a subject of ongoing discussion without appeal to an organised authority. I was (and still am) sincere in the belief that my revisions only served to clarify the question.

Lennart Regebro has since revised the question to reproduce what seems to be a very close approximation to the first revision, and indicated to me in a discussion in the comments on his answer that he felt that I had substantially extended the question. While I certainly added some text — including the frank (and I think straightforward) admission that Harris' proposal only makes sense as a Utilitarianist programme — I don't agree.

I would really like to see this question treated fairly, precisely because of the ambitious nature of Harris' proposal. It would be nice to have a balanced and perhaps somewhat nuanced assessment of precisely what problems there might be with it, rather than a brusque invocation of Hume's Law when the entire proposal is to propose to make use of an axiom of the sort that Hume said was necessary (though he saw no satisfying candidates himself) to make is/ought connections.

However, I would also like to avoid getting into an edit war. An obvious solution would be to re-post the question, but this would make an obvious case for being an exact duplicate. I would like somehow to see if there is a somewhat broad consensus of whether my revision significantly altered the question, but I'm not sure how productive that is.

What would the forum advise?

  • 1
    Unless anyone has any other advice, I'd recommend simply making a separate question, as mentioned before. I'm marking this as resolved.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


You did edit it substantially, and while I didn't think it deviated from the main question too much to render it worthy of it's own question, clearly at least one person disagrees.

Easiest solution is to just ask a new question, focusing on what you wrote about your interpretation of Harris' point, and that will be fine.


Firstly, I think your first additional paragraph begs too many relevant questions. You do not need to be a Utilitarian to accept that "it should not be the case that everyone is harmed". A Kantian deontlogist can hold that the avoidance of universal harm is a categorical imperative, perhaps (if we're all being New Atheists now) as a consequence of the basic principles of human agency that our biological and social sciences investigate, rather than because harm itself is an objectively bad thing.

The main change then is that where the original question asked whether Harris's proposal had any obvious flaws, you cashed this out by asking the following (paraphrased):

If we grant a bare notion of well being as "the good", is it possible in principle for an examination of how social and environmental context impacts the ability of humans and societies of humans to thrive to determine suitable theories of behaviour in which "the good" may be effectively realized to as high a degree as possible?

This seems like you're playing on the earlier question begging. The legitimacy question around the suggestion that Harris is making is whether the premise serves to ground the proposal he makes for a rigorous scientific analysis of moral action. By holding that the slant towards Utilitarianism is the way to interpret his theory, you're driving the question towards asking whether a Utilitarian ethical theory of optimal goodness can be empirically discovered.

But that's neither the only source of problems Harris's programme might face, nor is it necessarily a direct challenge to his core aim. Harris is interested in the establishment of a theory of general morality on scientific grounds given a particular axiomatic starting point. Utilitarianism might be untenable, and yet Harris's proposal could still work if the grounds are still supported. On the other hand, he might be making false presuppositions about the methodology behind a particular notion of harm, and yet still be able to legitimately call upon rational maximization of utility as the basis for moral choice.

I do think you've changed the question. Your question is more fine-grained, and therefore more interesting, but still importantly different.

  • If I might summarize your response, it's that I've narrowed the question by framing his programme as a utilitarian one, whereas people other than utilitarians might grant [the] premise that not everyone should be harmed. (It is not clear from the linked essay alone that this is his premise; he only speaks of "well-being", but not a categorical negative of the form that "not everyone should be harmed", though he may formulate it differently in his books.) In any case, if people think that I made a non-trivial restriction to utilitarianism, that would be an adequate explanation. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:15

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