Nietzsche’s Revenge: PZ Myers v. Sam Harris on whether science can assist a person in deriving an “ought” from an “is”

PZ Myers, backing the physicist Sean Carroll in the argument, says no:

Sam Harris recently and infamously proposed that, contra Hume, you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and that science can therefore provide reasonable guidance towards a moral life. Sean Carroll disagrees at length.

I’m afraid that so far I’m in the Carroll camp. I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it. Harris is smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.

To which Sam Harris retorts:

To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.

Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous. And science’s failure to address the most important questions in human life has made it seem like little more than an incubator for technology. It has also given faith-based religion — that great engine of ignorance and bigotry — a nearly uncontested claim to being the only source of moral wisdom. This has been bad for everyone. What is more, it has been unnecessary — because we can speak about the well-being of conscious creatures rationally, and in the context of science. I think it is time we tried.

And I think that Harris is right about trying, and is getting the better of this argument. My bet is that PZ Myers, sometime over the next year, and before all of this is done playing out, will flip on the issue. I’m less certain about Carroll.

But what is lurking here, of course, is Nietzsche. And Hitler. Deriving ethics from the sciences—especially from biology—has, to put it mildly, gone badly in the past. It is best to keep them separate. At least that’s the argument. But I think that Nietzsche was on to something when he expressed a desire to derive ethics from a foundation other than religion, and this led him to science as a logical atheist substitute. Here’s Alistair Kee, of the University of Edinburgh, from his book Nietzsche against the Crucified  (SCM Press, 1999, 53-54):

[Nietzsche] reckons that ‘Christianity is Platonism for the people,’ and judges that Plato ‘is still Europe’s greatest misfortune’. . . . If Nietzsche rejects the supernatural origin of values, what then might be their natural basis? Kaufmann suggests a starting point. ‘Nietzsche was aroused from his dogmatic slumber by Darwin, as Kant had been by Hume a century earlier.’ As Nietzsche asks in his earliest book, ‘what kind of figure does ethics cut once we decide to view it in the biological perspective?’ If moral values arise from the earth rather than descend from the heavens, then what are their physiological and social origins and functions? If we reject the idealist account of moral values, what are their materialist origins? At what level must the question begin? Nietzsche tells us that we require ‘a chemistry of the moral, religious and aesthetic conceptions and sensations’. What is going on here? What has morality to do with chemistry? In 1882 he wrote to Erwin Rohde of his plan to become a full-time student again, studying science at the University of Vienna. He wished to ‘consecrate’ the rest of his life to this study. Science of course was not his fundamental interest: it was the path to a deeper interest. This plan was not to be carried out, and we can only speculate on the prospect of a young instructor faced with a tutorial group which included F. Nietzsche.

I would say the same thing of Sam Harris: he’s the grad student in the room who is disrupting the parameters of a too easy discourse, questioning what has long been regarded a settled issue: we don’t derive “ought” from “is”. What Harris is doing is pushing secularism—and atheism, in particular—out of its comfort zone (as Nietzsche also did). Harris is saying, in effect, that if we, as atheists, are not Platonists, then what are we? Darwinists? And if we are, how serious are we about it? How might biology and anthropology inform our moral thinking?

The danger is that Harris might well find himself staring into an abyss that ill-fits liberalism. Nietzsche, for example, thought that grounding morality in biology taught either ego-centered or community-centered vitalism—life for life’s sake—and brought us to the hyper-masculinist culture of pre-Socratic Greece as a model. And Nietzsche didn’t blink at the implications (from his Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, 1881):

Decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: eras in which suffering counted as virtue, cruelty counted as virtue, dissembling counted as virtue, revenge counted as virtue, denial of reason counted as virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster.

It will be interesting to see whether contemporary atheists, engaging in this morality-science dialogue, find themselves—alas!—driven into rereading Nietzsche, and blushing there, retreat yet again to the comfy and fuzzy realms of relativism and the “is-ought” division.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Nietzsche’s Revenge: PZ Myers v. Sam Harris on whether science can assist a person in deriving an “ought” from an “is”

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Hmmm, but as evolutionary processes have endowed us with hardwired desires, isn’t it a simple leap to assert that survival dictates certain actions not be taken. After all, if one has no desire to survive then they shall not be around that long to disagree. Existence necessitates the desire for continued existence in some form.

    It is true that there are a variety of strategies and ways for creatures to act and / or adapt and even to exist, however there are patently bad methods that almost certainly result in an evolutionary (I mean this both biologically and in terms of evolutionary psychology) dead end.

    So perhaps we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ but we most certainly can derive and “out not” or two. I think that’s what Harris meant to get at, even if it was a bit muddled by his buddhist apologist tendencies.

  2. andrewclunn says:

    My statement wasn’t clear here, in saying that the limitation is whether we are to self-design / evolve (biologically or socially) toward one form or another of being.

    In an age with mass media propaganda and genetic manipulation, the question of collectivism vs individualism (and this is by no means a 2 answer multiple choice question) is completely up in the air. Science cannot answer that question (at least not in its current form), but it can tell us plenty of ‘bad’ choices that we should avoid.

    In case it isn’t obvious, I took the jump to morality = life for life’s sake a while ago.

  3. santitafarella says:


    Even if you take the “life for life’s sake” position, it is not obvious what that entails for social policy. The human psyche is perverse: if we obtain “better living through chemistry”, and other technologies make pleasures too readily available, there are people who will feel dead inside—and alienated—for the lack of struggle in their lives. I think this is where Nietzsche enters the room like an elephant by saying, “peace was accounted a danger” and “suffering counted as virtue.” In other words, the life affirming will might want things difficult, might prefer war against barriers. In helping such a dominating will we might be hurting it. It is the full-frontal encounter with one’s contingencies, and making a beautiful response to them in accordance with your self-chosen values and desires, that Nietzsche argues is the life-bearing (and life dominating) will.

    I also think of Dostoevsky’s underground man: the desire not to fit in—or to be content with your outwardly optimal flourishing state—is itself a life desire. In this sense, Harris’s scientifically derived optimal flourishing calculus becomes a golden prison for the dominating life will to rage its way out of.


  4. andrewclunn says:

    Well you seem to be jumping back and forth between the individual and the societal responses to this sort of “continued existence” based morality. I don’t know whether to respond by questioning your assertions about our choosing our own values and going into discussion of free will, or discussing whether all ideologies are (at their base) an implementation (or at least an attempt at) Plato’s noble lie.

  5. santitafarella says:


    Maybe life is like a video game: you’ve got to find new levels to rise to, but within a range of difficulty that keeps your interest (but isn’t too hard).

    You don’t want to take the stairs to a ceiling.

    But this is also Kafka: God is so opaque—or perhaps nonexistent—that it’s not clear why you’re trying to move from room to room in the first place.

    After Howard Roark builds his building just the way he wants it, then what? What can science tell him about what to do next—or why?


  6. andrewclunn says:

    I’m actually going to make a weird recommendation here and give you a link to a video play through of a fan made video game. (If you’re not fammiliar with Chrono Trigger, then parts of it may be confusing unfortunately.)

    I’m sending you this link because the entire plot is really one large discussion about the role of individual will in shaping the world outside one’s self.


    That said, I’ve grown more and more disdainful of Christian apologetics as I’ve learned more about how our subconscious is shaped. How does the saying go? “Give me a child for for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.” One doesn’t have to actually believe in Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) to live by its ethics and morals if they’ve internalized them.

    It’s quite the double edged sword, the more I question my own assumptions, the more I overcome the programming that others have instilled in me. But when it’s all stripped away will there be anything left? The more I become aware of the flaws of human consciousness and the way we form false heuristics, the better I can compensate and overcome them. But as I do so I find myself further and further from my fellow man in the way my mind both perceives and thinks. Tabula rasa in reverse. Sometimes one most simply assert one’s will and damn its cause, otherwise no ego shall remain.

  7. andrewclunn says:

    I accidentally cut off the last paragraph there at the end. Here it is:

    If I am an illusion, then I’d better not let myself know that. I don’t think I could deal with that. If there is a lie I choose to believe in it is my own existence. Perhaps it is a lie and all my ambitions and goals are chemical reactions and so on and so forth. This issue is, when two people are faced with Nihilism, and are building their own walls to protect themselves, those walls can easily crumble if they look too hard. We need other people to agree that our walls are real so that we don’t have to question them, and confront reality. I know that the Objectivism I choose to follow is simply a lie. consciousness is not a volitional process, as there is no higher ‘me’ involved. I simply assert that it’s a much more useful lie than than the ones society uses now. Perhaps that’s the elephant in the room among secular thinkers. We’re all madly trying to replace religion with a new, better lie, but we can’t agree on what it should be, so the lie doesn’t work. Nihilism sounds, Nietzsche calls, but none of us can really handle the truth and we know it.

  8. santitafarella says:


    You said a number of profound and interesting things in your last two posts, and I wish I could respond to them in detail, but I have to teach tonight. I will say this, however: you sound a lot like Nietzsche in the way you are justifying the will and talking about it.

    You might want to think about reading him if you haven’t. Perhaps start with one of his interpreters books: “Nietzsche against the Crucified.” It’s very good and not a difficult read. Here’s the link:


  9. Gunlord says:

    Hmm…well, I hope this won’t sound too offensive, but quite frankly Dr. Harris’ essay struck me as…less than convincing for a few reasons. I don’t want to be too overbearing, but if I may might I examine a few choice quotes?

    As for there being many people who “aren’t interested in universal well-being,” I would say that more or less everyone, myself included, is insufficiently interested in it.

    Really? It might be nice to see some evidence for that. I myself can’t provide much more than anecdotal evidence, but from what I’ve seen in my little-more-than-twenty years of existence, most people are comparatively unconcerned with “universal” well-being. They care mostly for their own, though of course I’ve seen some exceptions as well.

    but the fear that we will radically diverge in our judgments about what constitutes well-being seems pretty far-fetched. The possibility that my hell will be someone else’s heaven, and vice versa, seems hardly worth considering.

    Harris seems to be absolutely in love with this form of argument–“Oh, I don’t need to deal with my opponent’s arguments! They’re just not worth considering!” Protip: Simply saying something’s “not worth considering” doesn’t make it so. In this case, while you could fairly say that positing someone’s hell as someone else’s heaven is implausible, it’s also somewhat implausible to assume people won’t diverge significantly, if not radically, in what their ‘ideal states’ are. Richard Dawkins’ “heaven” might plausibly be an eternity spent in the science lab, while an astrologer’s idea of heaven might be an eternity spent looking at horoscopes. Perhaps these folks wouldn’t consider the other’s version of heaven to be “hell,” yes, maybe their visions don’t diverge so “radically,” but given how unhappy the good Professor would be fiddling with horoscopes for an eternity (and given how unhappy the astrologer would be at having to deal with the killjoy of science for an eternity), I don’t think Harris’ statement that “our ideal states will probably converge to a remarkable degree” holds much water.

    Even if there were ten thousand different ways for groups of human beings to maximally thrive (all trade-offs and personal idiosyncrasies considered), there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the difference between luxuriating on a peak of the moral landscape and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.

    Okay. So what are those facts? Don’t leave us hanging, Dr. Harris (and no, pointing out our instinctive revulsion to genital mutilation or whatever doesn’t count).

    I think that Kant’s Categorical Imperative only qualifies as a rational standard of morality given the assumption that it will be generally beneficial (as J.S. Mill pointed out at the beginning of Utilitarianism). Ditto for religious morality.

    Ironically enough, then, one could argue we should all be moral relativists on the basis that moral relativism is “generally beneficial.” Moral relativists don’t fly planes into buildings, after all–the only difference between Dr. Harris and the Muslim suicide bombers is that the good professor is a secular moral absolutist rather than an Islamic one.

    We need our conscious states to be well synched to their material context, otherwise we forget to eat, ramble incoherently, and step in front of speeding cars.

    From the perspective of the atheist, what’s wrong with that? Everybody dies eventually anyways. Is it better to spend 30 years in drug-addled euphoria ended by starvation or a speeding car or 90 years of a comparatively mundane, joyless existence? I would look much more highly on Dr. Harris’ moral thinking if he could convincingly argue why we ought to prefer the latter over the former (and I won’t accept “well, we don’t have to listen to anyone who disagrees with me!” as an answer).

    This comment’s already growing a bit long, and I don’t really have the time ATM to make a bona-fide, coherent essay detailing my issues with Dr. Harris’ moral philosophy, but I hope these quick bites sufficiently demonstrate why I have severe reservations about it.

  10. jpfitsch says:

    All of this is very interesting but let’s first just settle the fact that there is a relationship between ought and is. For example, if I have a certain role (job) in the community, does not this fact imply quite a few oughts? If I ought to help my neighbor and then I do help her. Didn’t this ought imply an is. Many people seem to think that the existence of a God (that would be an is) implies a certain morality (Admittedly this assumes many other things such as good communication with said deity.) Others think that God does not exist (another possible is) and think that makes for a different type of morality (another ought). If we live for our genes as some scientists believe then this is seems to imply lots of oughts. What is a jury deciding when they decide the facts of the case? I think they are weighing the relationship between is and ought.

  11. Pingback: The Is-Ought Distinction: What Would Nietzsche Say to Sam Harris? « Prometheus Unbound

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