Sam Harris cuts through the fog of Nietzsche’s fact-value distinction

In a powerful attack on Nietzsche’s fact-value distinction and the oft-repeated canard that it is dangerous to derive an “ought” from an “is,” in the video below Sam Harris argues that, in fact, we know perfectly well what things make for human flourishing, and there are objective moral consequences that follow from this knowledge. Indeed, we know what makes for human flourishing as certainly as we know what makes for human physical health. And so, as with physical health, science can also inform what we should value for human flourishing. Postmoderns, Nietzscheans, anti-essentialists, and religionists worried to see science encroaching on the territory of values, will absolutely hate this Sam Harris talk. But it has got me thinking.

I think that this also goes well with Harris’s talk:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Sam Harris cuts through the fog of Nietzsche’s fact-value distinction

  1. I haven’t watched the video yet, but isn’t he assuming that “human flourishing” is a moral good?

    So yes, if science can tell us how humans flourish best that’s fine. But proving that “human flourishing is a good” is still problematic, which to me means the Nietzschean view is still strong.

    Or maybe I’ve missed something?

    Jonathan from spritzophrenia

  2. santitafarella says:


    Your distinction is important. Ultimately, all theist or atheist justification of values chases the “why” question in the way that a dog chases its own tail. If birds flourish in flight and humans flourish in freedom—but we question the value of flourishing qua flourishing—then we’re stuck. But most birds debating bird ethics would probably make flight important, and most humans debating human ethics would probably make freedom important. You’ve got to start somewhere, and that somewhere can be informed by science and observation. As Harris rightly points out, we generally have no elaborate ethical guidance for the way we treat rocks because of our collective observation that rocks do not appear to have independent conscious existences, and so are in need of no special ethical handling.


  3. Heuristics says:

    Oh, it would be nice if the world was so simple.

    I had a discussion with a Sam Harris following internet-forum-atheist about this a few months ago. It did not take long at all in the discussion for it to turn from “science can tell us what is objectively morally good” to “values come from the non-objective subjective experience of pain”. This conflict in combination with his declaration of “pain is non-measurable and subjective yet can cause human actions” is something I find to be completely incoherent, worse yet, I suspect that it was the best possible answers to the questions, that it is not possible to make this idea of science as THE explanation for what aughts should be followed.

    These two paradoxes, “it is empirical, no wait it’s foundation is non-empirical!” and “it cannot cause changes in measuring instruments but wait, it can cause changes in humans!” makes me somewhat sad.

    The view itself is grand, simple and by all initial suspicions should work. Of course science should be able to tell us what is morally good, science kicks ass doesn’t it? But, well, apparently it doesn’t whenever subjectivity comes into play, apparently it cannot. Also, there is a sizable portion of the human population that has different values about freedom from us in the west so all of a sudden relativism rears its darn head around again (interestingly enough this large portion of the population is atheistic).

  4. santitafarella says:


    Do you think it is a reasonable inference to look at the human animal, see that it must use its mind and powers of reason to survive (as a bird must exercise its wings) and conclude that respect for intellectual freedom is therefore central to ethical relations?

    What is a living alternative in the 21st century? If you are not going to arbitrarily ground ethics in holy book commands, then where else do you start, but in Yeats’s old “rag and bone shop of the heart” and mind, and in observations (scientific and pragmatic) of the human organism in a healthy state of existence?

    I understand that the universe does not speak. We speak. But based on what we actually observe of the human animal, what is it reasonable to speak?

    In the realm of values aren’t we stuck with the same critical thinking tools that we apply elsewhere (dialogue, good reasons, logic, and evidence)? And when applied, don’t these tools lead us to some ways of being in the world—and some answers about ethics—that are, to any reasonable person, obviously better and truer than others?

    Or do you take the politics of humanity to be a contingent historical construct no more grounded in reason and reality than, say, fundamentalist Islam or Pope Benedict’s Catholicism?


    • Heuristics says:

      Santi, during the conversation I was asked a similar question, it was something like this:

      “Is it not obvious that we have a mind and that we know full well that we want to avoid pain and we should then do what avoids pain for us?”.

      I do think this is obvious and it is also a large reason for the way people act. People may claim that their actions come from ethical commands in books or some sort of scientistic utilitarianism but in the end the human life is all about experiences (and most people wouldn’t give a shit about deriving what ethics rightly follows from what experience, people are at best heuristically rational).

      That was the easy part…

      The hard part: Natualism leading to eliminative materialism.
      Materialism and reductionism, in our western freedom-loving viewpoint is even more obvious. Objectively it’s all a game of billiard balls, or with quantum mechanics, a slightly random game of billiard balls.

      The problem then becomes, do we want the truth? Do we really want the truth? Because it does not come for free. Something must give, a price appears to be in need of being payed in this, our western view to avoid the world-view friction.

      >”In the realm of values aren’t we stuck with the same critical thinking tools that we apply elsewhere (dialogue, good reasons, logic, and evidence)? And when applied, don’t these tools lead us to some ways of being in the world—and some answers about ethics—that are, to any reasonable person, obviously better and truer than others?”.

      This I see as largest problem. It’s common to think that “any reasonable person” would come to the same conclusion as they themselves would. The problem is that reason really is a slave to our experiences, it bends to our will. Logic, at best, can guarantee that given the same set of starting points we always come to the same conclusion, never that we come to the right conclusion. The price to be payed with naturalism includes the abandonment of the concept of a right conclusion.

      There really are people that by all accounts are reasonable that do not think that about freedom the way I like to think is the right way. Among them are professors at major western universities. There are those that believe there is no such thing as freedom and there are those that think that we only ever have an illusion of freedom etc.
      Sam Harris for example, a perfectly reasonable person as far as I know, thinks that freedom should be restricted in a way I as a pacifist find very disturbing. He thinks that some ideas our so dangerous that people should be killed for holding them (the old “when do we go to war?” problem).

      So do I think that “politics of humanity to be a contingent historical construct no more grounded in reason and reality”?
      As we understand reason, it surely, often, is grounded in reason, I also believe it has a ground in reality, but my point is that on science, on naturalism we should not think it grounded in reality or reason. On naturalism there is no reason or reality to pain or subjectivity. On naturalism, politics is as good as anything else, goodness does not apply. And when we are talking science we are talking naturalism. Thus the point of world-view conflict.

      However. I am not a naturalist, even if I was a naturalist the sheer hope of naturalism being wrong would be enough for me to act in a different way then the conclusion: “human life is as worthless as a rock”.
      I see rather politics as the way we on a large scale try to work out a solution that the different experiences we have lead us to act. But that is the key, it seams incorrigibly true to me that experiences exist, that value exist but that we have different experiences and these lead us to different conclusions. Personally I vote for the Piracy Party in the Swedish elections precisely because I find freedoms are so important and that is their only election issue (since we already have healthcare, the rest of the issues are not very important imo). But I recognize that I find them to be important because I am human and I reason from the human condition and that this view is not something that can be derived from science as a starting point. The starting point is as always with humans: faith. Faith that humanity is more then a billiard ball collision and that we are right in that some things actually are right and good.

  5. andrewclunn says:


    Was the emphasis in the conversation so strongly put on pain avoidance? It doesn’t appear that way from the video (It almost seemed like pleasure or ‘positive emotion’ pursuit was given more emphasis than ‘negative motion’ avoidance. Though I don’t agree with everything he’s saying, that was one of the aspects that struck me as poignant and I’d actually be a bit disappointed if Harris really felt that avoidance of the ‘bad’ were more important than the acquisition of the ‘good.’

    • Heuristics says:

      No, that was the point that the person I was discussing with recently put forth (over at a swedish discussion forum). He seamed to want to create some kind of pain avoidance utilitarianism.

      There are a couple of different morals that can be created with these kind of systems, they all fall into the group of cognitivistic realist moral philosophies. Their proponents tend to want to create value through a supervenience relation of emotion on the physical and are in need of avoiding epiphenomenalism (though they more or less always shun the interesting epistemic questions like it’s a plague, quite understandably so). The person I was discussing with had only a basic grasp of this (typically swedish, no one learns philosophy here) so he got caught in the epiphenomena trap and I couldn’t quite get him to see the world-view conflict of measuarability vs subjectivity.

  6. Pingback: Agnostic and Atheist Values: How I Ground Morality Absent Religion « Prometheus Unbound

  7. Twatology says:

    It isn’t Nietzsche’s fact-value distinction, it’s David Hume’s. You’re probably thinking of perspectivism but this is different. Nietzsche advocated the reassessment of moral values, not the abandonment of them.

  8. santitafarella says:


    You’re right: Hume was the first to posit the is-ought distinction, but I think it is also fair to say that Nietzsche absorbed its implications, and that his philosophy exploits and amplifies the distinction.


  9. Morgenrothe says:

    Isn’t Nietzsche’s advocacy of the study of physiology to guide human behavior a predecessor instead of an adversary position to what Harris proposes here?. Isn’t his definition of good as increasing power and bad as the opposite compatible with a scientific definition of values? Isn’t his tranvaloration of values also compatible with neuroscience? It seems pretty obvious to me that it is. In fact Nietzsche sponsored the scientific-medical approach to criminals. I am not denying a fact-value distinction of sorts in Nietzschen phylosophy, I am saying that Nietzsche promoted for every great man to be his own legislator, and that he promoted scientific legislation coming from great men
    In any case this challenge seems to target relativism, and it is at least bland in audacity.

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