Sam Harris Derives Ought from Is

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Via, Sam Harris seems to think he has come across oughts in the wild. We just needed a big enough microscope to see them.

As physicist Sean Carroll notes, there once was a man named Hume:

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it.

Sam Harris is one of these popularizers of science — specifically, of its implications for such subjects as faith and morals — who (like, for example, Richard Dawkins) displays little deep curiosity about the philosophical problems he thinks he’s addressing, and no awareness of the vast amount that has been written about them. He makes the very newbie assumption, for instance, that the only alternative to grounding morality in empirical science is moral relativism — moral realism does not require this, and one can think there are moral facts about the world without trying to derive ought from is; there are philosophers who try to overcome the ought-is barrier — but these are highly problematic and much debated.


  1. Avatar of Mark Linsenmayer

    Mark Linsenmayer

    March 27, 2010

    So I’ve watched the first 2 minutes of the video posted at Open Culture on this and must post right now.

    Harris is not in that setting addressing a philosophical audience, so while he doesn’t go into any details about why philosophers make the is/ought distinction, the jump he’s making is one that can be explicitly defended in not many more words than he uses, i.e. per Aristotle/Nietzsche/Mill/Bentham, people have a built in teleology, i.e. every instinct within us strives towards something like health/life/freedom from pain. Now, you can quibble about how those three balance out exactly (N. thinks the life-desire is not equivalent to freedom from pain, and goes beyond even “health” in that overexerting yourself in pursuit of power can realize our urge). Now, that’s an urge we find in ourselves… human nature. We can accept it, try to make it rational in some way (which is complicated, assuming it’s possible, i.e. our urges may just conflict with each other such that we’ll always be miserable no matter what, but in practice, this can usually be worked out), and let it guide our actions, or we can deny it and embrace some other value. The “ought” is not right there in the “is,” but the “is” in the form of our own urges, suggests to us a course of action, which to my mind is all the guidance we’re going to get: there are purposes that purposeful beings adopt, and any other notion of ought written into nature is suspicious at best.

    Saying “values are a certain kind of fact” is to say that it is a fact that someone has adopted some values or finds something valuable. This talk is kind of sloppy (i.e. it’s hard to see how you can give this as a definition of “value” when “value” is right there in the definition, which seems like it then has to be hashed out in behavioral terms, i.e. it’s posited as valuable according to me if I seek it or would seek it all else being equal… and you could argue that this kind of reduction isn’t going to do justice to our intuitions about value). Still, his meaning is obvious, and if you’re not speaking to a room full of picky philosophers, you may not see the point in working out the details and putting your audience to sleep.

  2. Avatar of Mark Linsenmayer

    Mark Linsenmayer

    March 27, 2010

    …and now 4 minutes in:

    He’s saying that science can answer moral questions not by supplying the basic normative premises, which per the above he thinks are obvious (and are you going to take the side of someone that says cholera is great and putting it in the water supply is morally admirable?), but in supplying the additional inductive factual premises that then help us get from the abstract and admittedly indefensible-by-science-itself basics (suffering is bad) to specific concrete rules (Does this extend to animals? How much suffering would X cause?). There’s nothing new here beyond our utilitarians.

  3. Avatar of Mark Linsenmayer

    Mark Linsenmayer

    March 27, 2010

    OK, I restrained myself until the video was nearly finished to post:

    His treatment of the “spanking in school” issue is both obvious and true: causing physical pain in schools does not support human flourishing, i.e. pursuit of educational goals and creating a well-adjusted kid. Does this even require philosophical justification? Is it informative to say “science has given us this answer?”

    Putting aside the “scientism” and the claims to objectivity, where that term has too many philosophical arguments embroiled in it to be useful: let’s say “intersubjective agreement” like good phenomenologists instead. Still, if we admit that life is a good thing and get a start on agreeing what this means, which we can surely do (e.g. cholera is bad, living cramped in a box is bad), then we can use that shared understanding to found clear arguments against the specific practices that Harris is objecting to, meaning we’ve used philosophy, such as it is (not all the significant historical philosophical disputes, surely not) to achieve political progress.

    I’ll admit that a lot of this is just self-reinforcing political talk, i.e. no progess is made if he’s just preaching to the choir, but it sounds pretty good and could have some effect in liberalizing certain audiences and/or getting rid of muddy-headed relativism. I’m honestly not sure, but just shouting the whole thing down based on lack of due philosophical deference to the subtleties of traditional arguments sounds like pedantry to me.

    This lecture as a whole jibes with my past impressions of Harris: someone who states, in a simple way, what mostly seems obvious. (I’m not sure I noticed in the past him being all pretentious about it by calling it science, but just ignore that part.) It shouldn’t be necessary to state the obvious, but we live in a fucked up world where so many people say such obvious total bullshit that this counter is, I think, necessary, and should be shouted at an equal volume to the bullshit so as to at least cancel it out. If philosophy can save itself from utter irrelevance in the lives of the many by playing a part in this, then all the better. Harris is not about to eclipse Hume in any sense.

  4. Eric Atkers

    March 30, 2010

    I haven’t watched the video yet, but I think the only possibly”right” morality is the one guided by science–so an evolutionary neuroscience perspective. Moral philosophy is and has been the contemplation of our evolved moral instincts and intuitions (unless evolution is false). Thinkers don’t need to rely on these intuitions like they used to, because there are fMRI machines and an evolutionary framework with a strong body of evidence supporting it.

  5. Avatar of Wes Alwan

    Wes Alwan

    March 31, 2010

    @Mark — working on a reply. @Eric — thanks for the comment; I don’t happen to agree and hopefully my forthcoming comment on this will explain why!

    • Sean Boyle

      February 8, 2012


      Like Trevor below, I’m curious to read the “forthcoming comment” you’re referring to.

  6. Geoff

    March 31, 2010

    I watched this the other night, except for the questions at the end.

    I have left off commenting for a few days to allow my personal dislike for the ‘new atheists’ to subside – cards are on the table – and to allow a few of the ideas to stumble around in my head knocking things over.

    I wouldn’t claim these to be cogent arguments against Harris, more a miscellany of incomplete trajectories.

    So – “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. Harris wants to make the world a better place, good for him. He seems very passionate and quite earnest in his desire.

    The brain. Neuroscience has thrown some interesting light on the brain. However, let us for a moment consider the complexity of the organ. According to Wikipedia -The cerebral cortex has billions of neurons, each with thousands of synapses which coommunicate with chemical neuro-transmitters. Indeed each cubic centimetere is said to contain roughly a billion synapses. Think of the stunning number of potential states of one of these organs. Then contemplate the myriad influences, experiences, developmental paths etc that an individual will be exposed to. Neuroscience is interesting, but fromulating anything beyond general principles from staistical inference seems a task of proportions so daunting as to boggle… well the mind.

    What can an unguided evolution have to say on issues of right and wrong. For something to be ‘right’ with respect to evolution, or ‘wrong’ with respect to evolution would require that evolution has a purpose. To my limited imagination, only in this way is there something against which rightness or wrongness could be measured. Unless science can explain why evolution ‘cares’ whether or not I beat my child then it has no input on moral issues. Yes, beating my child may have implications for the future trajectory of my DNA but if there is no required end, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

    A list of some of the many questions that come to mind:

    How does science decide what human flourishing requires? Do we want science to decide what human flourishing requires? Do we want a ‘one size fits none’ prescription for how to live our lives? Do we wish to live according to statistical inferences? Wouldn’t most want to understand the science before we submit to its rulings? Are those incapable of understanding be forced to submit to moral injunctions that run counter to there intuitions? Will drinking coffee be morally reprehensible if science determines it to be contrary to human flourishing?

    These are just some of the ideas I have been bashing about with. More a list of questions rather than any recognisable form of refutation. All I can think is that Harris has set himself and science a very big task.

  7. tv

    April 2, 2010


    Harris does assume that human (animal) wellbeing is what ethics is concerned with. Using that premise, science CAN help to tell us how to get there (or how to try to get there).

  8. Geoff

    April 2, 2010

    tv :
    Harris does assume that human (animal) wellbeing is what ethics is concerned with. Using that premise, science CAN help to tell us how to get there (or how to try to get there).

    I was perhaps a bit absolute in my rejection of evolution and science as an aid to guiding our ethical decisions – a product of a failure to review prior to submission. However, I can only refer you back to the title and Mark’s initial post

    Mark Linsenmayer :
    … the “is” in the form of our own urges, suggests to us a course of action, which to my mind is all the guidance we’re going to get: there are purposes that purposeful beings adopt, and any other notion of ought written into nature is suspicious at best.

    Science can inform us about the world we experience but the world does not require anything of us in return – unless we are very wrong about the nature of matter and the universe.

  9. Geoff

    April 6, 2010


    I read Sam’s list of ‘facts’.

    His first ‘fact’ states his desired end – the avoidance of the worst possible misery for everyone. ie we ‘ought’ to avoid creating misery. I don’t think many interested in ethics would dispute this as a reasonable goal.

    Facts 5 and 6 point to the ‘is’ which science is to provide – how to best achieve this and other ‘oughts’ – the means by which to achieve our ends. What we ought to do to achieve our initial ought.

    Harris seem’s to want us to derive ought from ought with ‘moral support’ from is – We ought to do those things which science tells us will help us do those things we ought to do.

  10. Trevor

    December 21, 2010

    This is my first post on this site and I wanted to mention that I recently discovered your podcast and am thoroughly enjoying it! I’ve only listened to a few episode so this conversation may have been completed but I wanted to ask Wes what his response is to Mark.

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