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March 2010
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Science and Values

I give an annual talk on ethics and nearly always come away having learned something from the participants. 

The most heated discussions often revolve around the difficulty of setting standards that are universal and free of exceptions. It's not hard, for example, to imagine circumstances in which lying or killing might be acceptable. 

"Torturing children" was a candidate for behavior that we all agreed could be universally condemned as unethical. But recently I learned that corporal punishment is legal in 21 states and practiced quite frequently in 13.  

That's too close to "torturing children" for my taste. But like many people, I find it difficult to argue that questions of morality should be as easy to resolve as questions of scientific fact.  

Sam Harris, author of Letter To A Christian Nation, bravely made the leap from "values" to "facts" in a recent Ted conference presentation. I'm not convinced the bridge he built can carry the full weight of his argument, but if you have any interest in the issue, it's worth watching the video above.