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Annotated captions of Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions in English

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I'm going to speak today about the relationship

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between science and human values.

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Now, it's generally understood that

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questions of morality --

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questions of good and evil and right and wrong --

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are questions about which science officially has no opinion.

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It's thought that science can help us

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get what we value,

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but it can never tell us what we ought to value.

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And, consequently, most people -- I think most people

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probably here -- think that science will never answer

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the most important questions in human life:

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questions like, "What is worth living for?"

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"What is worth dying for?"

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"What constitutes a good life?"

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So, I'm going to argue

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that this is an illusion -- that the separation between

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science and human values is an illusion --

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and actually quite a dangerous one

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at this point in human history.

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Now, it's often said that science

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cannot give us a foundation for morality and human values,

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because science deals with facts,

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and facts and values seem to belong to different spheres.

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It's often thought that there's no description

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of the way the world is

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that can tell us how the world ought to be.

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But I think this is quite clearly untrue.

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Values are a certain kind of fact.

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They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

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Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations toward rocks?

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Why don't we feel compassion for rocks?

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It's because we don't think rocks can suffer. And if we're more

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concerned about our fellow primates

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than we are about insects, as indeed we are,

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it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range

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of potential happiness and suffering.

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Now, the crucial thing to notice here

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is that this is a factual claim:

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This is something that we could be right or wrong about. And if we

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have misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity

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and the possibilities of experience

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well then we could be wrong about the inner lives of insects.

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And there's no notion,

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no version of human morality

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and human values that I've ever come across

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that is not at some point reducible

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to a concern about conscious experience

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and its possible changes.

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Even if you get your values from religion,

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even if you think that good and evil ultimately

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relate to conditions after death --

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either to an eternity of happiness with God

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or an eternity of suffering in hell --

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you are still concerned about consciousness and its changes.

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And to say that such changes can persist after death

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is itself a factual claim,

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which, of course, may or may not be true.

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Now, to speak about the conditions of well-being

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in this life, for human beings,

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we know that there is a continuum of such facts.

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We know that it's possible to live in a failed state,

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where everything that can go wrong does go wrong --

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where mothers cannot feed their children,

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where strangers cannot find the basis for peaceful collaboration,

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where people are murdered indiscriminately.

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And we know that it's possible to move along this continuum

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towards something quite a bit more idyllic,

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to a place where a conference like this is even conceivable.

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And we know -- we know --

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that there are right and wrong answers

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to how to move in this space.

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Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea?

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Probably not.

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Would it be a good idea for everyone to believe in the evil eye,

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so that when bad things happened to them

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they immediately blame their neighbors? Probably not.

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There are truths to be known

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about how human communities flourish,

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whether or not we understand these truths.

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And morality relates to these truths.

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So, in talking about values we are talking about facts.

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Now, of course our situation in the world can be understood at many levels --

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from the level of the genome

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on up to the level of economic systems

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and political arrangements.

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But if we're going to talk about human well-being

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we are, of necessity, talking about the human brain.

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Because we know that our experience of the world and of ourselves within it

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is realized in the brain --

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whatever happens after death.

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Even if the suicide bomber does get 72 virgins in the afterlife,

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in this life, his personality --

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his rather unfortunate personality --

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is the product of his brain.

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So the contributions of culture --

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if culture changes us, as indeed it does,

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it changes us by changing our brains.

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And so therefore whatever cultural variation there is

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in how human beings flourish

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can, at least in principle, be understood

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in the context of a maturing science of the mind --

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neuroscience, psychology, etc.

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So, what I'm arguing is that

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value's reduced to facts --

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to facts about the conscious experience

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of conscious beings.

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And we can therefore visualize a space

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of possible changes in the experience of these beings.

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And I think of this as kind of a moral landscape,

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with peaks and valleys that correspond

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to differences in the well-being of conscious creatures,

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both personal and collective.

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And one thing to notice is that perhaps

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there are states of human well-being

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that we rarely access, that few people access.

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And these await our discovery.

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Perhaps some of these states can be appropriately called

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mystical or spiritual.

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Perhaps there are other states that we can't access

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because of how our minds are structured

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but other minds possibly could access them.

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Now, let me be clear about what I'm not saying. I'm not saying

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that science is guaranteed to map this space,

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or that we will have scientific answers to every

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conceivable moral question.

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I don't think, for instance, that you will one day consult

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a supercomputer to learn whether you should have a second child,

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or whether we should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities,

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or whether you can deduct the full cost of TED as a business expense.

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(Laughter)

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But if questions affect human well-being

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then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them.

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And just admitting this --

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just admitting that there are right and wrong answers

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to the question of how humans flourish --

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will change the way we talk about morality,

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and will change our expectations

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of human cooperation in the future.

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For instance, there are 21 states in our country

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where corporal punishment in the classroom is legal,

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where it is legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board, hard,

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and raising large bruises and blisters and even breaking the skin.

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And hundreds of thousands of children, incidentally,

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are subjected to this every year.

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The locations of these enlightened districts, I think, will fail to surprise you.

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We're not talking about Connecticut.

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And the rationale for this behavior is explicitly religious.

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The creator of the universe himself

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has told us not to spare the rod,

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lest we spoil the child --

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this is in Proverbs 13 and 20, and I believe, 23.

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But we can ask the obvious question:

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Is it a good idea, generally speaking,

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to subject children to pain

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and violence and public humiliation

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as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development

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and good behavior?

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(Laughter)

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Is there any doubt

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that this question has an answer,

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and that it matters?

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Now, many of you might worry

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that the notion of well-being is truly undefined,

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and seemingly perpetually open to be re-construed.

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And so, how therefore can there be an

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objective notion of well-being?

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Well, consider by analogy, the concept of physical health.

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The concept of physical health is undefined.

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As we just heard from Michael Specter, it has changed over the years.

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When this statue was carved

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the average life expectancy was probably 30.

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It's now around 80 in the developed world.

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There may come a time when we meddle with our genomes

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in such a way that not being able to run a marathon

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at age 200 will be considered a profound disability.

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People will send you donations when you're in that condition.

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(Laughter)

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Notice that the fact that the concept of health

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is open, genuinely open for revision,

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does not make it vacuous.

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The distinction between a healthy person

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and a dead one

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is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science.

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Another thing to notice is there may be many peaks on the moral landscape:

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There may be equivalent ways to thrive;

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there may be equivalent ways to organize a human society

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so as to maximize human flourishing.

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Now, why wouldn't this

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undermine an objective morality?

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Well think of how we talk about food:

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I would never be tempted to argue to you

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that there must be one right food to eat.

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There is clearly a range of materials

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that constitute healthy food.

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But there's nevertheless a clear distinction

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between food and poison.

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The fact that there are many right answers

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to the question, "What is food?"

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does not tempt us

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to say that there are no truths to be known about human nutrition.

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Many people worry

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that a universal morality would require

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moral precepts that admit of no exceptions.

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So, for instance, if it's really wrong to lie,

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it must always be wrong to lie,

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and if you can find an exception,

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well then there's no such thing as moral truth.

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Why would we think this?

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Consider, by analogy, the game of chess.

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Now, if you're going to play good chess,

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a principle like, "Don't lose your Queen,"

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is very good to follow.

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But it clearly admits some exceptions.

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There are moments when losing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do.

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There are moments when it is the only good thing you can do.

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And yet, chess is a domain of perfect objectivity.

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The fact that there are exceptions here does not

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change that at all.

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Now, this brings us to the sorts of moves

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that people are apt to make in the moral sphere.

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Consider the great problem of women's bodies:

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What to do about them?

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Well this is one thing you can do about them:

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You can cover them up.

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Now, it is the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community

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that while we may not like this,

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we might think of this as "wrong"

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in Boston or Palo Alto,

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who are we to say

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that the proud denizens of an ancient culture

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are wrong to force their wives and daughters

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to live in cloth bags?

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And who are we to say, even, that they're wrong

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to beat them with lengths of steel cable,

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or throw battery acid in their faces

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if they decline the privilege of being smothered in this way?

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Well, who are we not to say this?

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Who are we to pretend

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that we know so little about human well-being

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that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this?

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I'm not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil --

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women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I'm concerned.

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But what does voluntary mean

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in a community where,

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when a girl gets raped,

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her father's first impulse,

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rather often, is to murder her out of shame?

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Just let that fact detonate in your brain for a minute:

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Your daughter gets raped,

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and what you want to do is kill her.

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What are the chances that represents

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a peak of human flourishing?

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Now, to say this is not to say that we have got the

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perfect solution in our own society.

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For instance,

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this is what it's like to go to a newsstand almost anywhere

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in the civilized world.

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Now, granted, for many men

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it may require a degree in philosophy to see something wrong with these images.

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(Laughter)

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But if we are in a reflective mood,

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we can ask,

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"Is this the perfect expression

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of psychological balance

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with respect to variables like youth and beauty and women's bodies?"

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I mean, is this the optimal environment

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in which to raise our children?

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Probably not. OK, so perhaps there's some place

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on the spectrum

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between these two extremes

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that represents a place of better balance.

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(Applause)

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Perhaps there are many such places --

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again, given other changes in human culture

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there may be many peaks on the moral landscape.

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But the thing to notice is that there will be

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many more ways not to be on a peak.

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Now the irony, from my perspective,

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is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me

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and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions

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are religious demagogues of one form or another.

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And of course they think they have right answers to moral questions

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because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind,

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not because they made an intelligent analysis of the causes

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and condition of human and animal well-being.

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In fact, the endurance of religion

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as a lens through which most people view moral questions

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has separated most moral talk

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from real questions of human and animal suffering.

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This is why we spend our time

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talking about things like gay marriage

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and not about genocide or nuclear proliferation

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or poverty or any other hugely consequential issue.

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But the demagogues are right about one thing: We need

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a universal conception of human values.

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Now, what stands in the way of this?

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Well, one thing to notice is that we

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do something different when talking about morality --

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especially secular, academic, scientist types.

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When talking about morality we value differences of opinion

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in a way that we don't in any other area of our lives.

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So, for instance the Dalai Lama gets up every morning

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meditating on compassion,

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and he thinks that helping other human beings is an integral component

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of human happiness.

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On the other hand, we have someone like Ted Bundy;

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Ted Bundy was very fond of abducting and raping

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and torturing and killing young women.

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So, we appear to have a genuine difference of opinion

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about how to profitably use one's time.

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(Laughter)

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Most Western intellectuals

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look at this situation

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and say, "Well, there's nothing for the Dalai Lama

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to be really right about -- really right about --

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or for Ted Bundy to be really wrong about

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that admits of a real argument

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that potentially falls within the purview of science.

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He likes chocolate, he likes vanilla.

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There's nothing that one should be able to say to the other

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that should persuade the other."

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Notice that we don't do this in science.

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On the left you have Edward Witten.

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He's a string theorist.

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If you ask the smartest physicists around

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who is the smartest physicist around,

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in my experience half of them will say Ed Witten.

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The other half will tell you they don't like the question.

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(Laughter)

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So, what would happen if I showed up at a physics conference

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and said,"String theory is bogus.

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It doesn't resonate with me. It's not how I chose to

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view the universe at a small scale.

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I'm not a fan."

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(Laughter)

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Well, nothing would happen because I'm not a physicist;

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I don't understand string theory.

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I'm the Ted Bundy of string theory.

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(Laughter)

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I wouldn't want to belong to any string theory club that would have me as a member.

tedtalks 15:47
15:49

But this is just the point.

tedtalks 15:49
15:52

Whenever we are talking about facts

tedtalks 15:52
15:54

certain opinions must be excluded.

tedtalks 15:54
15:57

That is what it is to have a domain of expertise.

tedtalks 15:57
16:00

That is what it is for knowledge to count.

tedtalks 16:00
16:03

How have we convinced ourselves

tedtalks 16:03
16:07

that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise,

tedtalks 16:07
16:10

or moral talent, or moral genius even?

tedtalks 16:10
16:12

How have we convinced ourselves

tedtalks 16:12
16:14

that every opinion has to count?

tedtalks 16:14
16:16

How have we convinced ourselves

tedtalks 16:16
16:18

that every culture has a point of view

tedtalks 16:18
16:21

on these subjects worth considering?

tedtalks 16:21
16:23

Does the Taliban

tedtalks 16:23
16:25

have a point of view on physics

tedtalks 16:25
16:28

that is worth considering? No.

tedtalks 16:28
16:33

(Laughter)

tedtalks 16:33
16:36

How is their ignorance any less obvious

tedtalks 16:36
16:38

on the subject of human well-being?

tedtalks 16:38
16:44

(Applause)

tedtalks 16:44
16:48

So, this, I think, is what the world needs now.

tedtalks 16:48
16:51

It needs people like ourselves to admit

tedtalks 16:51
16:54

that there are right and wrong answers

tedtalks 16:54
16:56

to questions of human flourishing,

tedtalks 16:56
16:58

and morality relates

tedtalks 16:58
17:00

to that domain of facts.

tedtalks 17:00
17:02

It is possible

tedtalks 17:02
17:06

for individuals, and even for whole cultures,

tedtalks 17:06
17:08

to care about the wrong things,

tedtalks 17:08
17:11

which is to say that it's possible for them

tedtalks 17:11
17:13

to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead

tedtalks 17:13
17:15

to needless human suffering.

tedtalks 17:15
17:20

Just admitting this will transform our discourse about morality.

tedtalks 17:20
17:23

We live in a world in which

tedtalks 17:23
17:26

the boundaries between nations mean less and less,

tedtalks 17:26
17:29

and they will one day mean nothing.

tedtalks 17:29
17:31

We live in a world filled with destructive technology,

tedtalks 17:31
17:33

and this technology cannot be uninvented;

tedtalks 17:33
17:35

it will always be easier

tedtalks 17:35
17:39

to break things than to fix them.

tedtalks 17:39
17:41

It seems to me, therefore, patently obvious

tedtalks 17:41
17:45

that we can no more

tedtalks 17:45
17:47

respect and tolerate

tedtalks 17:47
17:51

vast differences in notions of human well-being

tedtalks 17:51
17:54

than we can respect or tolerate vast differences

tedtalks 17:54
17:57

in the notions about how disease spreads,

tedtalks 17:57
18:00

or in the safety standards of buildings and airplanes.

tedtalks 18:00
18:03

We simply must converge

tedtalks 18:03
18:07

on the answers we give to the most important questions in human life.

tedtalks 18:07
18:12

And to do that, we have to admit that these questions have answers.

tedtalks 18:12
18:14

Thank you very much.

tedtalks 18:14
18:37

(Applause)

tedtalks 18:37
18:41

Chris Anderson: So, some combustible material there.

tedtalks 18:41
18:44

Whether in this audience or people elsewhere in the world,

tedtalks 18:44
18:46

hearing some of this, may well be doing the

tedtalks 18:46
18:51

screaming-with-rage thing, after as well, some of them.

tedtalks 18:51
18:53

Language seems to be really important here.

tedtalks 18:53
18:55

When you're talking about the veil,

tedtalks 18:55
18:58

you're talking about women dressed in cloth bags.

tedtalks 18:58
19:02

I've lived in the Muslim world, spoken with a lot of Muslim women.

tedtalks 19:02
19:04

And some of them would say something else. They would say,

tedtalks 19:04
19:07

"No, you know, this is a celebration

tedtalks 19:07
19:10

of female specialness,

tedtalks 19:10
19:12

it helps build that and it's a result of the fact that" --

tedtalks 19:12
19:16

and this is arguably a sophisticated psychological view --

tedtalks 19:16
19:19

"that male lust is not to be trusted."

tedtalks 19:19
19:22

I mean, can you engage in a conversation

tedtalks 19:22
19:27

with that kind of woman without seeming kind of cultural imperialist?

tedtalks 19:27
19:30

Sam Harris: Yeah, well I think I tried to broach this in a sentence,

tedtalks 19:30
19:32

watching the clock ticking,

tedtalks 19:32
19:34

but the question is:

tedtalks 19:34
19:37

What is voluntary in a context

tedtalks 19:37
19:39

where men have certain expectations,

tedtalks 19:39
19:43

and you're guaranteed to be treated in a certain way

tedtalks 19:43
19:45

if you don't veil yourself?

tedtalks 19:45
19:47

And so, if anyone in this room

tedtalks 19:47
19:49

wanted to wear a veil,

tedtalks 19:49
19:52

or a very funny hat, or tattoo their face --

tedtalks 19:52
19:55

I think we should be free to voluntarily do whatever we want,

tedtalks 19:55
19:58

but we have to be honest about

tedtalks 19:58
20:00

the constraints that these women are placed under.

tedtalks 20:00
20:03

And so I think we shouldn't be so eager

tedtalks 20:03
20:05

to always take their word for it,

tedtalks 20:05
20:07

especially when it's 120 degrees out

tedtalks 20:07
20:10

and you're wearing a full burqa.

tedtalks 20:10
20:12

CA: A lot of people want to believe in this

tedtalks 20:12
20:14

concept of moral progress.

tedtalks 20:14
20:16

But can you reconcile that?

tedtalks 20:16
20:18

I think I understood you to say that you could

tedtalks 20:18
20:20

reconcile that with a world that doesn't become

tedtalks 20:20
20:23

one dimensional, where we all have to think the same.

tedtalks 20:23
20:25

Paint your picture of what

tedtalks 20:25
20:28

rolling the clock 50 years forward,

tedtalks 20:28
20:30

100 years forward, how you would like to think of

tedtalks 20:30
20:33

the world, balancing moral progress

tedtalks 20:33
20:36

with richness.

tedtalks 20:36
20:38

SH: Well, I think once you admit

tedtalks 20:38
20:41

that we are on the path toward understanding our minds

tedtalks 20:41
20:44

at the level of the brain in some important detail,

tedtalks 20:44
20:46

then you have to admit

tedtalks 20:46
20:50

that we are going to understand all of the positive

tedtalks 20:50
20:52

and negative qualities

tedtalks 20:52
20:54

of ourselves in much greater detail.

tedtalks 20:54
20:56

So, we're going to understand positive social emotion

tedtalks 20:56
20:58

like empathy and compassion,

tedtalks 20:58
21:00

and we're going to understand the factors

tedtalks 21:00
21:02

that encourage it -- whether they're genetic,

tedtalks 21:02
21:04

whether they're how people talk to one another,

tedtalks 21:04
21:06

whether they're economic systems,

tedtalks 21:06
21:09

and insofar as we begin to shine light on that

tedtalks 21:09
21:11

we are inevitably going to converge

tedtalks 21:11
21:13

on that fact space.

tedtalks 21:13
21:15

So, everything is not going to be up for grabs.

tedtalks 21:15
21:18

It's not going to be like

tedtalks 21:18
21:20

veiling my daughter from birth

tedtalks 21:20
21:23

is just as good as teaching her

tedtalks 21:23
21:27

to be confident and well-educated

tedtalks 21:27
21:30

in the context of men who do desire women.

tedtalks 21:30
21:34

I mean I don't think we need an NSF grant to know

tedtalks 21:34
21:37

that compulsory veiling is a bad idea --

tedtalks 21:37
21:39

but at a certain point

tedtalks 21:39
21:42

we're going to be able to scan the brains of everyone involved

tedtalks 21:42
21:45

and actually interrogate them.

tedtalks 21:45
21:48

Do people love their daughters

tedtalks 21:48
21:51

just as much in these systems?

tedtalks 21:51
21:53

And I think there are clearly right answers to that.

tedtalks 21:53
21:56

CA: And if the results come out that actually they do,

tedtalks 21:56
21:59

are you prepared to shift your instinctive current judgment

tedtalks 21:59
22:01

on some of these issues?

tedtalks 22:01
22:04

SH: Well yeah, modulo one obvious fact,

tedtalks 22:04
22:06

that you can love someone

tedtalks 22:06
22:09

in the context of a truly delusional belief system.

tedtalks 22:09
22:11

So, you can say like, "Because I knew my gay son

tedtalks 22:11
22:14

was going to go to hell if he found a boyfriend,

tedtalks 22:14
22:17

I chopped his head off. And that was the most compassionate thing I could do."

tedtalks 22:17
22:19

If you get all those parts aligned,

tedtalks 22:19
22:22

yes I think you could probably be feeling the emotion of love.

tedtalks 22:22
22:24

But again, then we have to talk about

tedtalks 22:24
22:26

well-being in a larger context.

tedtalks 22:26
22:28

It's all of us in this together,

tedtalks 22:28
22:32

not one man feeling ecstasy

tedtalks 22:32
22:34

and then blowing himself up on a bus.

tedtalks 22:34
22:36

CA: Sam, this is a conversation I would actually love to

tedtalks 22:36
22:38

continue for hours.

tedtalks 22:38
22:40

We don't have that, but maybe another time. Thank you for coming to TED.

tedtalks 22:40
22:42

SH: Really an honor. Thank you.

tedtalks 22:42
22:45

(Applause)