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Moral Confusion in the Name of "Science"

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Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2010 TED conference for exactly 18 minutes. The short format of these talks is a brilliant innovation and surely the reason for their potent half-life on the Internet. However, 18 minutes is not a lot of time in which to present a detailed argument. My intent was to begin a conversation about how we can understand morality in universal, scientific terms. Many people who loved my talk, misunderstood what I was saying, and loved it for the wrong reasons; and many of my critics were right to think that I had said something extremely controversial.

I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of "morality." Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind's dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want -- and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them in public.

Most educated, secular people (and this includes most scientists, academics, and journalists) seem to believe that there is no such thing as moral truth -- only moral preference, moral opinion, and emotional reactions that we mistake for genuine knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. While I make the case for a universal conception of morality in much greater depth in my forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, I'd like to address the most common criticisms I've received thus far in response to my remarks at TED.

Some of my critics got off the train before it even left the station, by defining "science" in exceedingly narrow terms. Many think that science is synonymous with mathematical modeling, or with immediate access to experimental data. However, this is to mistake science for a few of its tools. Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically -- ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc. -- and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.

There is also much confusion about what it means to speak with scientific "objectivity." As the philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms "objective" and "subjective." The first relates to how we know (i.e. epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e. ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking "objectively," we mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counter-arguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, etc. There is no impediment to our doing this with regard to subjective (i.e. first-person) facts. It is, for instance, true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me. I am not lying about it. I have been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in the upper frequencies in my right ear confirmed. There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity. And, no doubt, this experience must have some objective (third-person) correlates, like damage to my cochlea. Many people seem to think that because moral facts relate entirely to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically "subjective"), all talk of morality must be "subjective" in the epistemological sense (i.e. biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.

Many of my critics also fail to distinguish between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle to certain questions about the nature of reality. Only the latter questions are "unscientific," and there are countless facts to be known in principle that we will never know in practice. Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet, many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known. As I hope to show, this blind spot has created tremendous confusion about the relationship between human knowledge and human values.

When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know--simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.

And here is where the real controversy begins: for many people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call "begging the question." I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot. While these charges are often leveled separately, they are actually connected.

I've now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways -- from YouTube comments that end by calling me "a Mossad agent" to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume's is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time. Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume's lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth:

Attempts to derive ought from is [values from facts] are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they've done it, you don't have to check their math; you know that they've made a mistake.

This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that's not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it's not how anything that works, works.

Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth. The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: It is, after all, quite possible for everyone to be wrong, or for one lone person to be right. Consensus is surely a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Strangely, Carroll also imagines that there is greater consensus about scientific truth than about moral truth. Taking humanity as a whole, I am quite certain that he is mistaken about this. There is no question that there is a greater consensus that cruelty is generally wrong (a common moral intuition) than that the passage of time varies with velocity (special relativity) or that humans and lobsters share an ancestor (evolution). Needless to say, I'm not inclined to make too much of this consensus, but it is worth noting that scientists like Carroll imagine far more moral diversity than actually exists. While certain people believe some very weird things about morality, principles like the Golden Rule are very well subscribed. If we wanted to ground the epistemology of science on democratic principles, as Carroll suggests we might, the science of morality would have an impressive head start over the science of physics. [1]

The real problem, however, is that critics like Carroll think that there is no deep intellectual or moral issue here to worry about. Carroll encourages us to just admit that a universal conception of human values is a pipe dream. Thereafter, those of us who want to make life on earth better, or at least not worse, can happily collaborate, knowing all the while that we are seeking to further our merely provincial, culturally constructed notions of moral goodness. Once we have our values in hand, and cease to worry about their relationship to the Truth, science can help us get what we want out of life.

There are many things wrong with this approach. The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like "good," "bad," "right," and "wrong." In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What's the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, "I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings." Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here's the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is -- again, by definition -- the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.

Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that well-being is what we can intelligibly value--and "morality" (whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures. And, as I pointed out at TED, all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about well-being anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures--are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I've read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit). The doubts that immediately erupt on this point seem to invariably depend on extremely unimaginative ideas about what the term "well-being" could mean, altogether, or on mistaken beliefs about what science is.

Those who assumed that any emphasis on human "well-being" would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization -- and, therefore, with the greater well-being of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive -- many peaks on the moral landscape -- so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. As I said in my talk, the concept of "well-being," like the concept of "health," is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how happy is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions -- ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems -- that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know.

But the deeper objection raised by scientists like Carroll is that the link I have drawn between values and well-being seems arbitrary, or otherwise in need of justification. What if certain people insist that their "values" or "morality" have nothing to do with well-being? What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, "The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses." This possibility -- the prospect of radically different moral preferences -- seems to be at the heart of many people's concerns. In response to one of his readers, Carroll writes:

[W]e have to distinguish between choosing a goal and choosing the best way to get there. But when we do science we all basically agree on what the goals are -- we want to find a concise, powerful explanation of the empirical facts we observe. Sure, someone can choose to disagree with those goals -- but then they're not doing science, they're doing philosophy of science. Which is interesting in its own right, but not the same thing.

When it comes to morality, there is nowhere near the unanimity of goals that there is in science. That's not a minor quibble, that's the crucial difference! If we all agreed on the goals, we would indeed expend our intellectual effort on the well-grounded program of figuring out how best to achieve those goals. That would be great, but it's not the world in which we live.

Again, we encounter this confusion about the significance of consensus. But we should also remember that there are trained "scientists" who are Biblical Creationists, and their scientific thinking is purposed not toward a dispassionate study of the universe, but toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Biblical account of creation. Such people claim to be doing "science," of course -- but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about "morality" and "human values," but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term "morality," or that their values are distorted. As I asked at TED, how have we convinced ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?

Everyone has an intuitive "physics," but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive "morality," but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as "right" or "wrong" in a given domain, but this criterion is equally true in both domains.

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone's well-being? I am saying that we need not worry about them -- just as we don't worry about the people who think that their "physics" is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta. We are free to define "physics" any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse. We are free to define "morality" any way we want. Some definitions will be useless, or worse -- and many are so bad that we can know, far in advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have no place in a serious conversation about human values.

One of my critics put the concern this way: "Why should human well-being matter to us?" Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining "causation" in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you. Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we've built into the definition of "equality." Others will be free to define "equality" differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them "imbeciles." Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are--is there any doubt about this?--many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.

On a related point, the philosopher Russell Blackford wrote, "I've never yet seen an argument that shows that psychopaths are necessarily mistaken about some fact about the world. Moreover, I don't see how the argument could run..." Well, here it is in brief: We already know that psychopaths have brain damage that prevents them from having certain deeply satisfying experiences (like empathy) which seem good for people both personally and collectively (in that they tend to increase well-being on both counts). Psychopaths, therefore, don't know what they are missing (but we do). The position of a psychopath also cannot be generalized; it is not, therefore, an alternative view of how human beings should live (this is one point Kant got right: even a psychopath couldn't want to live in a world filled with psychopaths). We should also realize that the psychopath we are envisioning is a straw man: Watch interviews with real psychopaths, and you will find that they do not tend to claim to be in possession of an alternative morality or to be living deeply fulfilling lives.

These people are generally ruled by compulsions that they don't understand and cannot resist. It's absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of well-being (excitement, ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it. We can say that a psychopath like Ted Bundy takes satisfaction in the wrong things, because living a life purposed toward raping and killing women does not allow for deeper and more generalizable forms of human flourishing. Compare Bundy's deficits to those of a delusional physicist who finds meaningful patterns and mathematical significance in the wrong places (John Nash might have been a good example, while suffering the positive symptoms of his schizophrenia). His "Eureka!" detectors are poorly coupled to reality; he sees meaningful patterns where most people would not--and these patterns will be a very poor guide to the proper goals of physics (i.e. understanding the physical world). Is there any doubt that Ted Bundy's "Yes! I love this!" detectors were poorly coupled to the possibilities of finding deep fulfillment in this life, or that his overriding obsession with raping and killing young women was a poor guide to the proper goals of morality (i.e. living a fulfilling life with others)?

And while people like Bundy may want some very weird things out of life, no one wants utter, interminable misery. And if someone claims to want this, we are free to treat them like someone who claims to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 or that all events are self-caused. On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.

The moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that there are facts to be known about how the experience of conscious creatures can change--and these facts can be studied, in principle, with the tools of science. Do pigs suffer more than cows do when being led to slaughter? Would humanity suffer more or less, on balance, if the U.S. unilaterally gave up all its nuclear weapons? Questions like these are very difficult to answer. But this does not mean that they don't have answers. Carroll writes:

But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale -- but that's presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It's ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

Again, we see the confusion between no answers in practice and no answers in principle. The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human well-being does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this--nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad. The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan -- not just personally, but from the point of view of science. As I said at TED, the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human well-being, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, "Who decides what is a successful life?" Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, "we do." And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.

And the philosophical skepticism that brought us the division between facts and values can be used in many other ways that smart people like Carroll would never countenance. In fact, I could use another of Hume's arguments, the case against induction, to torpedo Carroll's entire field, or science generally. The scientific assumption that the future will lawfully relate to the past is just that -- an assumption. Other people are free to assume that it won't. In fact, I'm free to assume that the apparent laws of nature will expire on the first Tuesday of the year 3459. Is this assumption just as good as any other? If so, we can say goodbye to physics.

There are also very practical, moral concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything -- the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative "morality" found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume's is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual "tolerance" of moral difference amounts to. While much of this debate must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are women and girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of getting raped. Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own. And if you actually believe this, I would like to publish your views on my website.

The amazing thing is that some people won't even blink before plunging into this intellectual and moral crevasse -- and most of these enlightened souls are highly educated. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those I discussed at TED -- my basic claim being that once we have a more complete understanding of human well-being, ranging from its underlying neurophysiology to the political systems and economic policies that best safeguard it, we will be able to make strong claims about which cultural practices are good for humanity and which aren't. I then made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: we already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy (after all, "Who decides what is a successful life?") At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke. This scholar is now a recognized authority on the intersection between criminal law, genetics, neuroscience and philosophy. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being--and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being.

She: But that's only your opinion.

Me: Okay... Let's make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let's say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, "Every third must walk in darkness."

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

Such opinions are not uncommon in the Ivory Tower. I was talking to a woman (it's hard not to feel that her gender makes her views all the more disconcerting) who had just delivered an entirely lucid lecture on the moral implications of neuroscience for the law. She was concerned that our intelligence services might one day use neuroimaging technology for the purposes of lie detection, which she considered a likely violation of cognitive liberty. She was especially exercised over rumors that our government might have exposed captured terrorists to aerosols containing the hormone oxytocin in an effort to make them more cooperative. Though she did not say it, I suspect that she would even have opposed subjecting these prisoners to the smell of freshly baked bread, which has been shown to have a similar effect. While listening to her talk, as yet unaware of her liberal views on compulsory veiling and ritual enucleation, I thought her slightly over-cautious, but a basically sane and eloquent authority on the premature use of neuroscience in our courts. I confess that once we did speak, and I peered into the terrible gulf that separated us on these issues, I found that I could not utter another word to her. In fact, our conversation ended with my blindly enacting two, neurological clichés: my jaw quite literally dropped open, and I spun on my heels before walking away.

Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. Needless to say, it was not my purpose at TED to defend the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I was arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts which are truly a matter of cultural construction -- if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience -- well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.

I must say, the vehemence and condescension with which the is/ought objection has been thrown in my face astounds me. And it confirms my sense that this bit of bad philosophy has done tremendous harm to the thinking of smart (and not so smart) people. The categorical distinction between facts and values helped open a sinkhole beneath liberalism long ago -- leading to moral relativism and to masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of "tolerance" who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their "controversy," and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God's existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.

Of course, there is more to be said on the relationship between facts and values -- more details to consider and objections to counter -- and I will do my best to tackle these issues in my forthcoming book. As always, if you feel that you have found flaws in my argument, I sincerely encourage you to point them out to me, and to everyone else, in the comment thread following this article.

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  • Perhaps Carroll will want to say that scientists agree about science more than ordinary people agree about morality (I'm not even sure this is true). But this is an empty claim, for at least two reasons: 1) it is circular, because anyone who insufficiently agrees with the principles of science as Carroll knows them, won't count as a scientist in his book (so the definition of "scientist" is question begging). 2) Scientists are an elite group, by definition. "Moral experts" would also constitute an elite group, and the existence of such experts is completely in line with my argument.