The Is-Ought Distinction: What Would Nietzsche Say to Sam Harris?

Sam Harris has of late generated a lot of public discussion by reopening this can of worms: In the realm of values, is Hume right that no “is” should be governing our “oughts”?

Put another way: Can science ever really arbitrate a human moral question? If science, for instance, is asking Nature a question and attending carefully to her answer, then what is the scientific answer that Nature returns to a question like this: Should I be egalitarian and pro-social?

I think that it is actually quite well established by science what Nature’s response to this question is, and I’ll put it in anthropmorphic terms, speaking as Nature:

I reward life’s various strategems with survival. I care for nothing else. And since I, Nature, am in constant and contingent flux, the range of behavioral strategies that I might reward with survival runs the gamut: strategies belong on a continuum. If your goal is survival, sometimes your model should be the lonely shark on a hunt; sometimes the nurturing cow to its calf. Beyond matters of survival, I am a sphinx. But on keeping life’s generations going, I have spoken loud and clear: whatever works.

Via Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche perceived the implications of Nature’s response and concluded (I think rightly) that Nature’s contingency clears the ground of, not just Christian values, but all values. Nature warrants life, and so one can choose his or her life strategems from a full menu of options—including the strategems that include deceit, cruelty, suffering, and domination—and not just imitate the behavior of passive and compliant sheep sauntering toward easy, shared, or ready-made pleasures. Nietzsche interpreter Alistair Kee, in his book Nietzsche against the Crucified (63), directs us, for example, to a passage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Zarathustra hears the Voluntary Beggar preach a crude parody on the Sermon on the Mount. ‘If we do not alter and become cows, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. For there is one thing we should learn from them: rumination.’

Nietzsche, were he entering this debate that Sam Harris has reopened, might well say this to Harris: Learn from the error of the Voluntary Beggar. What you think is an imitation of Nature is hiding a voluntary choice. What Nature teaches is that she is contingent. The “is” yields just one all-encompassing “ought” or command to those seeking greater life: anything goes. Contingency may reward your strategem, or it may not. Now, how will you live? How will you display your spirit? Choose.

In short, I think that Nietzsche would suggest that Nature, via the discoveries of science, can assist—and even affirm—a choice of your being, but not discover it for you. Aesthetics, not science, is the proper realm of values. As the scavenger follows the predator, so science follows aesthetics (your own choice of what to create). As Nietzsche put it (as quoted again in Kee p. 70):

Art exists so that the bow shall not break. The individual must be consecrated to something higher than himself.

By this, Nietzsche is not affirming metaphysics, religion, or science as the “something higher,” but the overgoing of life itself–a person choosing something, and becoming, by vision, strategem, and effort, more than he or she already is. William Blake was not far from Nietzsche here. Blake once wrote that the eagle (a predator) should not take advice from the crow (a scavenger).

The crow is metaphysics, religion, science–and Sam Harris. The eagle is you.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to The Is-Ought Distinction: What Would Nietzsche Say to Sam Harris?

  1. Arius says:

    Most human beings do not possess the ability to be courageously abhorrent to mainstream consciousness-yet, finagle w/ transcendental values that may seem to flirt w/ a metaphysical empyrean.

    Sam is stuck in a materialistic perspective that stagnates the bigger picture-what transcends humanity can in fact be all to natural-as you put it-nature.

    Great post man.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I think that you hit on the key: how the natural can (paradoxically) be the transcendent.

    As for how the natural can be the transcendent, my thought is that Nietzsche sees life as a contingent hippie—Dionysian—happening. He looks at Darwin’s branching tree of life like an artist and says to himself: “I’m a little contingent twig or leaf out here that has been thrust into the vastness of open space. Looking at my existential situation, which move is most beautiful to ME now? What color or form or style of existence do I want to go into this ‘painting’ next?” To look back at the contingent tree and make that somehow the arbiter of where one is definitely required to go next is to “break the bow”—lose the ownership of your own aim. It is also to “break the bough”—stop the growth of the new. Art before metaphysical, religious, economic, or scientific proscription.


    • SrSD says:

      I appreciate your great blog articles on Nietzsche versus Sam Harris on morality/values.
      I think Nietzsche would rightly have said to Sam Harris: “you are a presumptious muddle head and a great actor.” Nietzsche called Thomas Carlyle a muddle head for less. Harris is right from the start confusing “is” with “ought”. He is also committing another philosophical and logical sin in starting his argument from a conclusion. The conclusion, a false one, is that “well-being of other living beings” is what “we” (that is ALL of us) value, is what IS valuable and right – three presumptions in one, three (false) conclusions used as premises … as hypotheses. Worst of all, perhaps: he making an immediate unproven assumption that what is good for you is good for me.

      Allow me to mimic Nietzsche’s style a little hear and anticipate what he would say about Mr Harris [regarding especially in his TED talk]: –

      “Above all, he is a great actor. He plays the crowd. Notice: as he struts up and down watching carefully the crowd’s reaction to everything he says…. his nicely timed little stutters just before he utters one of his “great truths” (which are really his conclusions wearing the mask of “first premises”). Just listen carefully to his presentation and become aware of those stutters… stutters! — as if to suggest he is honestly and sincerely feeling his way towards the truth, the absolute truth that only HIS beloved science can discover. O he is a crowd-pleaser for sure! – repeating all the modern truths, really modern prejudices…better still: modern lies…
      He is asserting his Will-To-Power on the crowd, but if only he would do it consciously and be honest about it ! …Moral value judgments lay the ground to that one last arena that science can definitely never enter, and where, it would try, find the roar of lions too frightening for “brave” gladiator-science. Value-judgments… perhaps the one remaining pearl of great price which science can never steal from philosophy. But what does this man Harris care for philosophy?… he is a neuroscientist, a friend of Richard Dawkins! – he is the defender of Science, or should we say Scientism. O you scholars, I know you so well !”.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        It’s certainly difficult to maintain the distinction between is and ought, even if you accept it. You even fell back into it by using the word sin: “He is also committing another philosophical and logical sin in starting his argument from a conclusion.” I think Nietzsche would say that you can do whatever you want–even be irrational. Just recognize where the actual source of your values are coming from–which is nowhere but yourself. You are your own sanction. That’s the scary leap that few of us would make–and that Nietzsche embraces.

  3. Crista Renouard says:

    Goodness gracious! Science (and Sam Harris) isn’t going to say that everyone needs to be a university professor in order to be perfectly happy. It IS the opinion of Sam Harris to use whatever works. And what works can be measured objectively. The “ought” derived from the “is” follows thusly; I am alive, I ought to stay that way. The manner in which a person best stays alive (eating well, excercising, not starting fights in bars, being kind to your neighbors) is measurable regarding whether certain actions promote or hinder an organism’s ability to stay alive.

    • santitafarella says:


      How does science reliably (let alone universally) proscribe against bar fights and cruelty? There are circumstances under which such things, in a contingent universe, are rewarded and people flourish because of them. In other words, there’s no recipe book that you can appeal to as warrant for what you want to do. I’m not advocating violence or cruelty: I’m suggesting that science can’t give what you do warrant (one way or the other).

      Having said that, it makes a lot of sense to exercise your critical thinking in every circumstance, and pick the route that you think is most likely to lead to your flourishing. But that’s not science providing warrant, that’s you making a bet based on your best judgment of how the world goes and how things will turn out if you do A instead of B.

      Sometimes the best move for an organism is to eat at McDonalds.


  4. A More says:

    I think that Sam Harris’ ideas align well with the highly social avant-garde. This is why TED Talks platforms his values. Nietzsche gives us free will in its most primal form – for many free thinkers that doesn’t work well.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Nietzsche doesn’t work well for contemporary free thinkers in general because most contemporary free thinkers aspire to humanism, a blending of Christian notions of universal brotherhood and mutual concern with atheism. But Nietzsche wasn’t a humanist. He’s the bad conscience of atheism; he looks at things from the perspective of master and slave. If you aren’t creatively choosing and shaping the raw material of your existential situation in each moment, someone or something else is.

  5. colinhutton says:


    Cleverly observed Nietzsche on Harris. Cruel. I enjoyed it.

  6. excitedpenguin says:

    I really don’t get this. What does it matter that some people don’t value human florishing or happiness? Why should we listen to those people? There is necessarily going to be some kind of moral uniformity in a utopian world – there is no going around that. What better values to instill in such a world then the seeking of human happiness, knowledge and freedom?

    • Anonymous says:

      First of all, happiness and flourishing aren’t the same thing. Happiness and freedom aren’t the same thing. In fact, they’re often apposed, but I’ll get back to that.

      If you say happiness and freedom is what we should value, that’s fine. That’s a value judgment, not science. If you give reasons why we should value those things, that’s fine. But that is a philosophical moral judgment, not science. There is a dishonesty in claiming your subjective judgments are science. They are not, morality is not objective in any way. Morality and value are groundless.

      If, AFTER making a judgment of what is valuable, you decide to use science to help you figure out the best way to get your utopian society to have bundles of it, that’s fine, but that’s not objective science. That’s taking a philosophical value position, and using science to furnish that position. Which is nothing new; people have been doing that for centuries. Peter Singer is doing that now; he took a conception of utilitarian happiness and used empirical evidence to try and find the best course of action to maximize his conception of happiness. Again, there’s nothing objectivly scientific there. It’s starting from an unproven and unprovable premise “happiness is good and we should try and maximize it for as many people as we can.” And then uses science to help it achieve it’s goal. They key phrase is uses science

  7. Anonymous says:

    *The key phrase is uses science, not is science.

    But empirical evidence can only come up with general principals that don’t apply to all situations and all peoples. Further, those general principles will change depending on the society and time period you live in. Literally making them relative. Ilimunating Nietzsche’s idea that what is true for one person and one society is not necessarily true for another. You risk making people into uniform sheep by trying to force them to conform to your value judgments. For who is going to carry out these wide spread systematic changes to how society is run based on your uniform principles? That’s right, the state. What could go wrong there.

    It’s not as simple as “We should value happiness, freedom and human flourishing and use science to make them abundant.”
    For even defining happiness, freedom, and flourishing is a subjective matter. How do you define happiness? Pleasure? Lack of suffering? Having a purpose? A general feeling of joy and positive emotions? One persons conception of happiness is different from the next. The monk’s happiness is relief from suffering brought about by a simple life devoid of stress and attachments that brings about a general sense of content and peace. This is one form of “happiness” but is it a good idea to claim it objective and force it on ALL of society?

    Another’s form of happiness could come from running or working within an non profit. This could include research projects with high expectations from sponsers. Or a wide spread implantation of vaccines or building clean water supplies affordably and sustainably, while balancing a tight budget and making decisions with real, serious consequences. This entails a very stressful life that involves plenty of negative emotions like frustration, disappointment, fear, regret, etc. But it also entails a strong sense of purpose (which is oftem detrimental to happiness) and a feeling of joy and pride at the work you’ve done.

    These two forms of happiness are completely different and you can’t objectivly measure which is more “right.” Likewise, freedom and flourishing have different definitions depending on who you ask.

    Now, what happens when happiness and freedom or happiness and flourishing conflict? There’s no scientific way to resolve that, you must make a personal judgment on which you value more. When would they conflict? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Strife and suffering may not be good for happiness, but they can be very valuable for making someone more resilient, and willful enough to push past resistance to acomplish their goals.

    It’s also easy to imagine a place where people are happy, secure, comfortable, and satisfied, and yet totally unfree and mediocre. It may be that unsatisfaction is what spurs growth, creativity, and striving. And it may be that the state provides it’s people with this satisfaction and security, but also numbs them with it. Turning them into dogs, content to follow the rigid rules and decisions made for them if it also relieves them of any stress or consequence that comes with responsibility. It’s people’s values and identity given to them pre-packaged and safe. The masses will be uniform and everything that makes them human stripped from them. Mass conformity and satisfaction benefiting the current economic system with necessary slight changes following changing economic needs. The dominant culture will be the one that keeps everything safe and uniform. This culture will be ensured by mass media as the one best for the people. Everyone’s a happy pig. I know, hard to imagine.

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