Sam Harris, the fact-value distinction, and the problem with a science of morality

TheMoralLandscapeCoverA few years ago, Sam Harris published a book, ‘The Moral Landscape‘, which argued that science could determine moral values.  To say that it received substantial criticism, from scientists, philosophers, and others, would be an understatement.

Late last year, Harris issued a challenge for people to submit 1000 word essays challenging the thesis of his book.  He promised the author of the best essay $1000, and $10,000 should the essay actually change his mind.

(I did not submit an entry for this, although a few friends urged me to.  I felt that in order to do it right, I would have to go back and reread Harris’s book, and I didn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to do that.  (I was lazy.)  I also strongly suspected that the chances of anyone winning who was not a professional philosopher, psychologist, or neuroscientist were fairly low.)

Recently, an essay by Ryan Born, a teacher of philosophy, was announced as the winner.  I found Born’s essay to pretty good, pointing out the main problems with Harris’s thesis, that he hadn’t sufficiently addressed the fact / value distinction.  Harris has now responded with his own essay that ranged over a number of topics but largely re-asserted the key idea of his book, that values are a type of fact and that the only reason we regard them as separate is confusion.

Harris starts out with a discussion on the definition of science.  I actually agree with much of what he says in this section.  Science is more than what scientists in lab coats do, it’s also what plumbers do when they’re diagnosing a problem.  You could argue that what professional scientists do is much more epistemologically skillful and careful than what most people do when learning from observation and experience, but it’s a matter of degree, not a sharp distinction.

Attempts to imply a sharp break have always seemed like elitist posturing to me.  Posturing that can be dangerous.  Creating an unwarranted and unjustified mystique around science might give it a short term allure of credibility, but that can backfire when scientist inevitably make mistakes or show their human limitations in other ways.  When people understand that science is basically what they do themselves, just with a higher degree of skill, it heightens their understanding of its capabilities and limitations.

Anyway, Harris implies that moral determinations fall into this broad scope of science.  He justifies this by asserting that moral truths are real.  If so, he argues, then discovering and learning about them would be a type of science.  Again, I have to agree with Harris here that if you are a moral realist, which many moral philosophers actually are, then you should believe that scientific investigation, broadly construed, could unearth these truths.*

The problem is that there’s nothing in the actual science of moral psychology to really support an assertion of moral realism.  Incidentally, there also isn’t anything to prove an assertion of straight moral relativism either.  It only supports the idea that specific moral precepts are objective in a descriptive sense, and then only within the scope of a culture.  The precepts arise from the mix of foundational instinctive dispositions that exist at the biological scope of our species, although in varying degrees among individuals.  More broadly, there is nothing in the laws of nature that imply any moral truths.

Undaunted, Harris asserts that all moral reasoning boils down to the well-being of conscious creatures, that although we have moral intuitions, they are aimed at and driven by our concern for well-being.  Ignoring the fact that getting people to agree on the definition of “well-being” is itself an issue, he’s also ignoring the actual science here, which reveals that we have several moral intuitions.  In addition to well-being or care, we are driven by senses of fairness, loyalty, duty, purity, freedom, and probably others.

We can argue about the evolutionary causes of these intuitions, but saying we ourselves personally feel them for any one reason, such as the nebulous term “well-being”, is wrong.  We feel them because evolution has programmed it into us.  We just feel them.  And the original evolutionary reasons may or may not be goals we would now agree with.  For example, what does the morality of euthanasia have to do with evolutionary survivability?

Harris seems to have some understanding of this, shown by this snippet in his closing remarks.

We have certain logical and moral intuitions that we cannot help but rely upon to understand and judge the desirability of various states of the world. The limitations of some of these intuitions can be transcended by recourse to others that seem more fundamental. In the end, however, we must work with intuitions that strike us as non-negotiable.

Perhaps the part that Harris is missing, is that we don’t all have the exact same mix of moral intuitions.  Most of us have the same types (psychopaths being obvious exceptions), but we feel them in different combinations of intensities, and so certain positions that feel self evidently right to me might feel self evidently wrong to you.

Society works because, as social animals, there is a large enough overlap between most of us for us to live together.  But despite that, we will often have strongly felt differences on values.  For instance, some of us will always value freedom more than safety, while others will be the opposite.  Two people can agree on the relevant facts, but due to different innate natures, hold different positions within these types of tensions.

Harris’s must first convince everyone of his consequentialist-like philosophical argument, and only then would his empirical science have any traction.  Harris insists that accepting this consequentialist argument is no different than the axioms that other sciences must accept.  He and Born argue over whether a commitment to health in medical science is the same as the necessary commitment to well-being he is asking for.

Certainly, values drive science.  They drive what is studied and how the results are interpreted and used.  Arguments over those values can be fierce.  An example in the medical field was the US Center for Disease Control’s desire to study the results of gun violence.  Evoking a very different set of values, Congress forbid them from conducting such studies.  So values definitely are in the mix.

Harris is advocating for a science to determine those values.  But if someone conducts a study to determine values, based on starting values we don’t agree with, what moral authority will the results of that study have for us?  Without the philosophical agreement, the empirical results will be morally meaningless to us.  It will be little more than a sociological or psychological study.  Of course, these have scientific value, and that’s why we already do them.

So, the main point of contention here is whether fundamental values can be derived from facts, the famous is-ought distinction.  There are two possibilities.  The first is that Harris simply doesn’t understand this distinction.  The second is that he has an insight that most of the rest of the intellectual world has missed since the time of David Hume.  We should take the second possibility seriously, but not so seriously that we don’t put the burden of proof on Harris.

Still, despite Harris’s penchant for aggressive language, there is a little room to reconcile his view of a multi-peaked moral landscape with the results of social psychology.  Some of the peaks, Harris states, would be stranger than we imagine, or could imagine.  In other words, he makes some room that values are not universal.  If he had adopted the far less aggressive stance that, although science cannot determine values, it can provide crucial information in meeting those values, he would have had a much stronger case.

Harris isn’t alone in advocating for a science of morality.  There are others.  It’s worth noting that the social sciences of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and others weren’t started by people writing books saying that there should be a science of such and such.  They were started by people going out and proving it with empirical work.  If a science of morality is feasible, the best way to make the case is by demonstrating it.  So far, that hasn’t happened.

* UPDATE: ausomeawestin pointed out to me in the comments that non-naturalistic moral realists wouldn’t be compelled to believe that science could uncover moral truths.  I’m grateful for the correction.

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25 Responses to Sam Harris, the fact-value distinction, and the problem with a science of morality

  1. SamL says:

    Nice post, I agree with what you’re saying here. One of the things I noticed about Harris’ reply to Born was that he cast his normal moral landscape claim in semantic garb – he seemed to be saying that consequences to well-being is just all that people can mean when they’re talking about moral action (even when they think they’re talking about intention or virtue or something else). So I think there’s a sense in which he is aiming directly at the ought-is distinction (by trying to provide a semantic account of normative statements as descriptive statements – not that he does a very good job of this). The odd thing is that would put him much closer to a kind of moral pragmatism than he seems to think he is.



    • Thanks, and excellent points. In truth, I suspect Harris purposely used controversial principled rhetoric to get our attention, but left himself wiggle room, like the multiple peaks metaphor, to later say, “You see, that’s what I meant,” when people point out the issues. I agree that he is close to moral pragmatism. That’s something along the lines of what I meant when I said his case would be stronger if he had used pragmatic language from the beginning.


  2. guymax says:

    Oh hell. Yet again I see your point here and find it reasonable and well-argued, but don’t agree with it and want to comment. If you posted poor arguments I wouldn’t feel the need to do so.

    You say confidently , “More broadly, there is nothing in the laws of nature that imply any moral truths.” I think this needs a proof if you’re going to convince me or win the Harris essay prize. You’re trying to argue against Lao-tsu, Meister Eckhart, Schopenhauer and many others here, and I don’t think the argument is strong enough to succeed.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Harris. I’ll go see what he is actually suggesting. .


    • Thanks guymax. As always, your thoughts are very welcome, particularly when you disagree with me.

      On providing proof of my statement, I’ll fully admit that I can’t, since it’s based on an observed lack of evidence. However, you can disprove it by providing any scientifically established laws that do in fact support one or more commonly accepted moral precepts. If you do so, to sway me, you’ll have to be specific.


      • amanimal says:

        That caught my eye too ‘SAP’ – several years ago Clay Farris Naff wrote a piece at HuffPost titled ‘Can Evolution Tell Us What God Wants?’ in which he concluded:

        “But I do know this: evolving life embodies the one and only one value to be found in the world outside ourselves. Every single species, whether predator or prey, single-celled or complex, exhibits that value. Here’s what it says: life is good.”

        … although, were the Horta to pay Earth a visit they might well conclude it was suffering from a massive infestation of carbon-based lifeforms 🙂


        • Thanks amanimal. I think Clay Farris Naff was perhaps engaging in a bit of poetic spin. As far as I can see, evolution says: the competitive battle for life is productive over the very long haul. Fortunately, we’re under no particular obligation to take our normative values from evolution.

          The Devil in the Dark was one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. The change in perspective the episode goes through is awesome!

          Liked by 1 person

          • amanimal says:

            I should have emphasized the “one and only” part. As you note “Fortunately, we’re under no particular obligation …”

            I’m pretty thankful I didn’t have to help my mother and siblings peck the youngest of us to death at a tender young age just because she was a bit recalcitrant in learning to feed herself!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ick! I’m scared to ask which species does that, or if it’s all bird species.


          • amanimal says:

            A specific species of duck if memory serves – I don’t know if it’s true of other duck species(wouldn’t surprise me) or waterfowl in general(less likely but don’t know), but definitely not all birds.

            Liked by 1 person

      • guymax says:

        Ah, but that’s an unfair move. If you cannot prove your assertion about Nature and morality then I have no need to prove you wrong. I was complaining about rigour, not your view. You made a claim to knowledge you do not posses. I always respond badly to these.

        I could take up your challenge but it would be difficult here. I’d probably begin by discussing altruism and then move on to metaphysics. But I’d rather just stick with pointing out that your assumption about morality is just that, It would be important to acknowledge this because if it is true it would render the whole of metaphysics and mysticism a lot of nonsense.

        That is to say, if you hold on to this assumption then the ethical scheme of mysticism will seems ridiculous to you, even though you will have nothing to put in its place. Such assumptions are therefore very dangerous. .


        • My statement is not verifiable, but it is falsifiable, and that’s all that should be required. (Unless you’re a logical positivist.) You can falsify it by supplying a scientifically established law of nature that supports a moral precept. I’d be grateful to you if you did falsify it, as I’d learn something new.

          Sadly, altruism isn’t a law of nature, at least not a scientifically established one. Unfortunately, it’s not even a law of behavior, only an occasionally observed type of act in some mammals. I know there are metaphysical assertions, like heaven, hell, karma, and all the rest that address this, but none of them are scientifically established.


          • guymax says:

            Your statement is falsifiable empirically. Altruism is the consequence of a fundamental truth about reality. For me these two statements would be true.

            I think you’d agree that It just isn’t enough for us to make opposing statements like this. Your view in no more ‘scientifically-established’ than mine, and it never will be. I wouldn’t make such statements as the above without evidence and argument and yet you feel able to do so. This isn’t fair on folk who reach a different conclusion. I’ve written many thousands of words on this to support my view, and so to simply state that I’m wrong is not going to seem like an objection. Rather, it seems like a casual dismissal of my view, as if everybody knows it is nonsense. But where’s the evidence? I do at least have a vast body of explanatory literature on my side.

            For my view there is no need for heaven, hell or karma. All that would be required is that reality is a unity. all in all. Then altruism becomes self-interested behaviour. It seem quite easy to show that conscious beings generally act out of self-interest. Altruism is a widespread phenomenon and a serious problem in biology, and regardless of what is actually true I know of no simpler or more elegant explanation for it.

            I’m trying to avoid getting too far into the actual morality argument. I don’t think it is up to me to show that you are wrong, I think it is up to you, first off, to admit that you might be. You’re claiming that reality is not a unity, which on your view (not mine) is a metaphysical claim that is untestable in the sciences. What is scientific about it?


          • guymax, I think we’re at the stage where it might be best of us to just agree to disagree. I haven’t found your arguments persuasive, and I strongly suspect you won’t find any of mine persuasive. This may simply be the divide between a mystic and a skeptic.


          • guymax says:

            That’s fine SAP. I enjoy our chats and wouldn’t want to become an annoying guest (if it’s not already too late). But I don’t think we need to disagree about this. You claim to know something you don’t, and it’s right there on the page. Nothing ambiguous about the situation. I will never believe that this is the way to do philosophy, albeit that it is a common approach, and I feel that the evidence overwhelmingly proves that it leads nowhere.

            In my defence, and please excuse the rather hard-nosed approach to rigour, I find it more or less impossible not to make an objection when someone claims to know the truth about morality when they do not, and states that the truth is that the ethical scheme of the perennial philosophy is based on a lie and a profound misunderstanding of Nature. Nobody knows this.

            Right. Got the last word in. I’ll leave you in peace. 🙂


  3. Excellent, I’m always really excited to see you have a post up about morality because your insight is always keen and your commenters always thoughtful. Todays entry is no exception!

    You make a very interesting claim in noting that moral realists should consider morality a science insofar as the procedure of discovery is the scientific investigation. But I’m not sure that this claim is true. Certainly the methodologies are similar, in that there is a coherentist equilibrium to be aimed for, with axiomatic beliefs that are self-evident as starting points, at least for setting out in investigation, but just because this methodology resembles the scientific method does not make morality a science. I think most philosophers would focus on the thing studied in order to determine whether the subject is a science, and moral properties and concepts, (and this is a matter of debate of course) are not part of the natural world in the important sense that they are not causally efficacious. The naturalism/non-naturalism divide is difficult to navigate, but it seems agreed upon that the naturalist thinks moral properties just are non-moral/natural properties after reduction (analytic realists of the utilitarian tradition, the most recent proponents being the Australian realists, Jackson, Petit and Smith) or moral properties are non-reducible, but are natural in that they are in the natural world in their being causally efficacious (the “Cornell realists” Boyd, Sturgeon, and Brink, advocated this view and were guided by Boyd’s important contributions to scientific realism). I take it that Harris is of this naturalist camp, but my point is that a moral realist can reject this naturalist notion of moral properties being in the natural world through causality, but still maintain that a coherentist equilibrium justifies moral facts, in the same justificatory structure as posited in sciences. But such a view would not be scientific, so I think there is a reasonable place for the moral realist to stand without being committed to the notion that morality is a science.

    On a related note, I think it’s worth clarifying what the “is/ought” thesis is at its base, as most persons speak about the off-shoots of the argument as if they were the take home point. The “is/ought” thesis as posited by Hume is only that from a set of non-moral premises no moral conclusion follows. The point is that if we have any derivative conclusions about morality, thus constituting moral knowledge, we must have some foundational moral knowledge, which can be used as premises in moral arguments. So the real drive of the is/ought gap is that either we have no justified moral knowledge at all, or we have foundational moral knowledge provided by a priori reflection, that can feature in the premises of our moral argument, such that we can derive moral conclusions. Hume of course thought there could be no a priori moral knowledge, so he concluded that we could not have objective moral knowledge. The “is/ought” thesis is thus just an epistemological thesis about the structure of moral knowledge, and by itself does not commit one who accepts the call of foundational moral knowledge to naturalism or non-naturalism, if one correctly understands this distinction as being a metaphysical thesis about the causality of moral properties, not an epistemological one. One could be a naturalist and accept a priori foundational moral knowledge, and surely such a position is rare due to those philosophers who favor empiricism favoring metaphysically economical views, but those two views are not incompatible. The important point, is that many people misunderstand the “is/ought” thesis as solely being an argument that if moral realism is true then moral properties are reducible to natural properties, but this is just not true, as the “is/ought” thesis only forces this point if one accepts that there is no foundational a priori moral knowledge and there is derivative moral knowledge.

    All this goes to say that I really enjoyed your well-reasoned entry here, and I disagree with Harris, as you do, but I think that the failure of his arguments doesn’t show that moral realism fails, only that his naturalistic empiricism fails, and that nothing said here causes any trouble for the moral realist who thinks that moral properties are non-natural, and that there is foundational a priori moral knowledge.


    • I’m grateful for your kind words!

      As always, your comment expands my philosophical horizons, notably that some of my definitions are sometimes imprecise, like moral realism. My comment did have an unstated (and unconscious at the time of writing) assumption of naturalistic moral realism, and I stand corrected that not all moral realists would be compelled to believe that science could pursue moral truths. I’m grateful for the correction.

      I’m probably going to have to mull over your is/ought comments for a while. Very interesting. I don’t perceive that they change the outlook for scientific pursuit of values but I may not be understanding the full implications.


      • Well I certainly can’t blame you for assuming a naturalistic moral realism, I think our starting point in all intellectual endeavors should be a naturalistic view, it’s just that that approach fails in the form of moral realism, and thus another approach must be taken.

        And yes, I think understanding the is/ought thesis in this way doesn’t lead to a change in outlook for the pursuit of values, as it is an epistemological thesis about the structure of knowledge and justification, but I do think a correct understanding of the thesis does show that the is/ought thesis doesn’t play a major role in arguments against moral realism. The is/ought thesis is different than the fact/value distinction, as the former is an epistemological thesis, and the latter a metaphysical thesis, and it must be recognized that the is/ought thesis doesn’t support the fact/value distinction. Indeed, I’m not sure what does support the fact/value distinction.


        • Hmmm. I have to admit that I’ve always seen the is/ought and fact/value distinctions as more or less synonymous, and even now I’m not sure if I see the difference.

          How can we feel that X ought to be if we don’t value X? And how can we value X if we don’t feel X ought to be?

          I might could see an argument that the fact/value distinction is a special case of the is/ought distinction, if only because “value” has many specific meanings (financial, moral, etc) and “ought” seems like a consistently more general term. But I’m afraid I can’t see the sharp break you describe.


          • I see what you’re saying, and I think there is a reason why you and others think the two theses are synonymous, but I maintain that the claims are different. I would actually say that the is/ought thesis is a special case of the fact/value distinction, as we need to accept the fact/value distinction that there are descriptive statements and prescriptive statements first, in order to even argue from there that no prescriptive statement follows from a set of only descriptive statements — the is/ought thesis.


          • Just checking my understanding here. Are you making the distinction between the two this way? Is/ought is about the idea that we can’t discover moral truths from empirical observations, and fact/value is the idea that facts and values are ontologically separate things? If so, then I think I see what you meant about is/ought being epistemological and fact/value being metaphysical.

            It never occurred to me that those would be separate propositions. Is/ought is the observed limitation, and fact/value is the interpretation, the theory, and like all theories, even falsifiable ones, it is metaphysical. But for fact/value to be false, wouldn’t we have to find some alternative possible theory to explain is/ought?


          • Hmm I think that’s very close. The is/ought thesis shows that the structure of moral knowledge is foundationalist — think Descartes, in the sense that to have knowledge we have to begin with a priori truths as our foundation and make valid inferences from there. The is/ought thesis shows that because no prescriptive statement follows from a set of just descriptive statements, if there is moral knowledge then our foundational beliefs are not just descriptive statements, but must include at least one prescriptive statement, such as ‘it is morally worse to cause pain at t than not cause pain at t’. Think of the utilitarian as trying to show that ‘the act that maximizes utility is the morally best act’ is a foundational belief in this way. As such, we can see that the is/ought thesis isn’t necessarily rationalist, because the utilitarian does think that we know from experience that the act is morally the worse if it causes more pain on balance than another act, such that there can be empirically known foundational beliefs. You might recall that I suggested earlier that the foundational beliefs are a priori, which would contradict the utilitarian theory I just noted. So I must admit that before I was describing the is/ought thesis with a bias for rationalism; it is possible to argue that there are empirical foundational moral beliefs, I just happen to think such a theory is preposterous.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I just had a debate about some of these topics and was told to read this book. Will have to come back to this post later! (It could be a million years from now.) I get a feeling I’m going to have some criticisms of the book as well, but I’m going in with a moderately open mind. Especially since I made the guy who recommended this book read Plato’s Republic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Ruis says:

    Since most children have a developed moral axis well before they receive moral instruction from schools and religious institutions, then what is the source of their morality? I say “parents” and “playing with other children.” And where did they get their morality? Basically from their parents and by playing with other children and working it out. The only unique thing here is the “playing with other children.” So the source of our morality is “other children.” QED


    • Hmmm, I think I’d say parents, other children, and innate instincts of a social species. But I do think our moral intuitions can change as we age. Many of my moral intuitions are different as a 48 year old than they were as a 20 year old.


  6. Pingback: In search of an objective morality | SelfAwarePatterns

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