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.