The Facts of Moral Values

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Andrew Sullivan writes:

Sam Harris sees science as a way to determine what is right and wrong. He is basically attacking the post-Nietzsche fact-value distinction:

As a beginning way of looking at what Sam has to say, this analysis is quite wrong.

The fact-value distinction precedes Nietzsche.  The fact-value distinction is the heart of the modern secular project, which interestingly (though I'm not sure he realizes this) Sam Harris is attacking in some key respects live in toleration with one another. The fact-value distinction in short form is that facts are facts and values values.  Facts are objective and come from science, whereas values are personal and private and are not amenable to discussions about right/wrong but rather consist of description of your values and my values and how (if they are different/opposed) we can learn to 

The fact-value distinction means that the modern world turns values into private subjective experience.  It essentially turns values into an aesthetics or style-debate.  You have your values, I have mine.  I like the Rolling Stones, you like Beethoven.

Max Weber, the father of sociology and one of the greatest theorists of the modern age said that Is is not Ought.  Is (Fact) is not Ought (Values), at least not necessarily.

Unfortunately as later postmodern thinkers would realize--following from Nietzsche--this fact/value distinction is itself just a cover for a certain value set.  A rather potentially self-interested value system.  By acting as if there are some things are the case for all people, the modern world ended up assuming (unconsciously) that those realities were the best, the only, and the truest values.

What Nietzsche did was explode this distinction and reveal how in many ways it was a cover for a naked power aggression, a value of dominance.  Nietzsche's argument in the end was to stop the bullshit and fess up to the fact that naked aggression ("might makes right") was the reality of life and dive into that world, becoming as he called an overman, a bird of prey, "beyond good and evil" (in the conventional sense of those words).

Postmodernism or rather postmodernisms (in all its forms) are all the grandchildren of Nietzsche.  Foucault's classic studies of the way diseases are categorized as a form of power, Derrida's understanding of the way in which we are slaves to grammar as it writes us (in the process that we think we are writing/speaking it), Richard Rorty arguing that the only way to avoid the inevitable Nietzschean conflict of all against all is through the inculcation of ironic self-detachment, Heidegger's realization that we all exist in cultural spheres of action, Wittgenstein's realization that we humans live in language games.  On and on.

The modern project fails asunder on precisely this pivot of the supposed (and revealed to be illusory) fact/value distinction.

All forms of postmodernism are (de)constructed on the realization that there is no fact/value distinction.  There are no facts that are not laden with value.

Jurgen Habermas, himself one of the last great defenders of elements of the modern project, wrote his magisterial text The Theory of Communicative Actionas a criticism/response to Max Weber's theory of modernization.

Habermas argued that postmodernism (the descendants of Nietzsche) was correct to point to the illusory nature of the modernist fact-value distinction.  Postmodernism, according to Habermas, floundered on its inability to live with responsibly with a world past the obliteration of the fact-value distinction.  That all theories, all facts are value-laden is not to say that all are equal or that we they are so complicated (in all respects) as to still not be able to make any reasonable choices going forward.  To not live with the consequences of our actions, to not still in some meaningful senses understand the world and live better in it as a result.

This is where Sam Harris comes in.  Science is value-laden.  Philosophically most scientific discourse (especially in the popular media) is still dominated by the fact/value distinction.  The fact/value distinction has prevented science programs from requiring budding scientists to take multiple courses in philosophy, political science, and ethics as these are all intrinsic to science.  The result of not doing so has too often been an alliance of science with technological, corporatist, or militarized interests.

Sam (honorably) is willing to face that reality and challenge pro-science advocates to realize this value-laden fact.  Sam, at his better moments (and he has a few of them) is pushing a post-postmodernism.

In his worse moments (and he has more than a few of those as well in this talk) he is making a number of very elementary mistakes and showing himself to be rather foolish in all kinds of ways.

On the plus side:

1. When Harris discusses morality as facts about the well-being of conscious beings this is very good.

2. When Harris mentions (at minute 8:45) that there can be diverse and multiple ways of achieving an objectively good life, this is also very good.  In that move he is combining the best of postmodernism (diversity, plurality) with the best of the modern world (better and worse life criteria), thereby pushing a post-postmodernism.

3. When he notes that there is a spectrum of facts concerning moral well being particularly in studies of international development, this is also very good. Integral theory shows how this is the case by the notion of envelopment or holarchical (natural hierarchical) development.

On the Negative Side:

1. He creates a strawman out of the shadow sides of postmodernism (of which admittedly they are many).  His illustration that there are some pomo liberals who act as if women being burqa-ized is somehow just someone else's culture and not ours is to judge is pretty stupid.  His comparison of the Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy and then saying the majority of the Western academy sees no difference between the two is just an immoral act.  In a talk supposedly about morality.  He's just lying there.  That's just naked power, aggressive rhetoric that just shows (in my mind) he isn't yet ready for the big time.

Yes of course you can find some woman who claims she's a feminist and says that female genital mutilation is an act of cultural resistance to Westoxificatory imperialism, but this is the dominant view.  Good grief man, get a grip.

2. He doesn't know history and religion.  When he saws that no one would study The Taliban's views on physics, so why should we on morality, he's got a point.  Except that he refers to such a form of life (the burqa) as part of an ancient venerable tradition.  The Taliban are a purely modern phenomenon.  They are not ancient.  The classic form of Islam is not to put women in burqas.

3. He doesn't know politics.

Back to our Taliban example.  Let's say we agree with him that The Taliban are objectively less developed morally than others.  A point I would agree on.  What is to be done then?  Should the US/NATO pursue a counterinsurgency strategy and attempt to build a national government and army that will prevent their return from power?  Can the West win at such an effort?  Can NATO countries, especially the United States, afford the massive amounts of monetary investment and the loss of human life and horrific injuries to their military in an effort to achieve that end?

Even if we admit with Harris that there are objective measures of values, he's eliding the question of politics.  The question that drove the initial reason the fact/value distinction was brought up in the first place through secularism---it's damn hard to decide to what is the right course of action even if we can agree on the good life.

The Taliban example is a perfect one.  Since he doesn't know history, religion, politics, how is his science of values going to give anything more than general principles of right and wrong values?

4.  Worst of all, while he begins very beautifully in the notion value as reducing the harm of conscious beings, he ends up in a form of philosophical materialism, arguing that values are in the brain.

Integral theory suggests, in contrast, that consciousness and materiality are two sides of the same emerging four-part architecture of existence (called the quadrants--including cultural and society with the individual's consciousness and materiality/behavior).  None of the four are reducible to any of the others.  All are constitutive elements of existence.  Consciousness does not arise separate from the brain (it is not disembodied) but it is not reducible to the brain either.

How will the brain tell us whether we should continue with a war in Afghanistan against The Taliban insurgency?

5. Since Harris is a materialist, he is left to answer politically for some serious charges of being illiberal and imperialistic.  And not simply in some faux postmodernism cultural sense, but actually politically and governmentally.  If morality is located in the brain--as opposed to being located as the intersection of conscious empathy, brain correlates and chemistry that materially reflect such empathic states, the intersubjective discourse of justice and care, and the social regulation of laws--then why doesn't the government just intervene in our brains and force us to be moral?

Why don't we have "morality vaccinations" if someone could design such a thing?

This is a legitimate moral question that Harris needs to think about.  Let's imagine (for simplification purposes) a "child molester gene" was discovered in the brain. Expression/"having" this gene would let's say increase the likelihood of one being a child molester by 500%.  The gene could be turned off by a fairly simple, non life-threatening genetic intervention.

Should it be done?

If so, should it be voluntary only?

Should it be legally mandatory?  If so, under what circumstances?  Every case, only cases in which the person is going to work with children?

And see then for all the talk of value objectivity, there is always intersubjectivity and (in Habermas') language the need for communicative reason.  We need to reason together in mutuality, in discourse and dialog about, if nothing else, the implications of our facts about values.  About the implication, the meaning, the embodiment of those facts. Which facts are given the most weight, which less, which the least.

Sam's more totally self-assured and debate oriented mode of speaking, while understandable given the moral turpitude and intellectually (and emotionally) retarded form of human relation and discourse on these subjects, prevents us from moving into that more intersubjective and truly post-postmodern future.  

Nietzsche was right there are in the end only values in all things, even facts.  There is no religious myth that can be invoked, no completely disinterested, value-less, and utterly objective science of values (which as you can see is inherently self-contradictory).  The implication however is the values we must we must own and come to reason with one another as to which are the best to bring the flourishing of life, for all sentient/conscious beings going forward, as best we can.

A basic moral intuition, a calculus of torment.  A realization that we are all intricately, intrinsically involved in a universe of tragic beauty.  

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  • Comment Link Brian McConnell Monday, 05 March 2012 16:25 posted by Brian McConnell

    Your article's content proves especially relevant to my current study of Ken Wilber's, "The Marriage of Sense and Soul" (see: In this same context though, I think it prudent to challenge your underlying premise that Harris "is pushing a post-postmodernism" in contending that, "Science is value-laden".

    On this Wilber says:

    “There is a strange and curious thing about scientific truth. As its own proponents constantly explain, science is basically value-free. It tells us what 'is', not what 'should be or ought to be'. An electron isn't good or bad, it just is; the cell's nucleus is not good or bad, it just is; a solar system isn't good or bad, it just is." from pg. x in a ‘Note to the Reader’ of "The Marriage of Sense and Soul" (punctuation substituted for italics).

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 14 July 2012 05:48 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the comment. My apologies I missed it when it first came out.

    I said that Sam (in his best moments) pushed along towards post-postmodernism. Not simply because he was admitting facts are value-laden which is a postmodern position (as I mentioned in the piece). I felt the post-postmodern was the movement to see the value of well-being in conscious beings and to see there were multiple modes of good. That strikes me as a potentially very powerful position: we can make discrimatinations around the well being of sentient beings (integral), we can make things better (modern), we can do so in diverse ways (postmodernism).

    I do however also say there are a number of ways in which Harris falls into prejudicial, ignorant patterns.

  • Comment Link Brian McConnell Monday, 16 July 2012 17:06 posted by Brian McConnell

    Thanks for responding to my comment Chris. Your posting of Sam Harris' TED Talk and his subsequent claim that, "Science can answer moral questions" (see: is so trammeled in Harris' neo-modern rhetoric however, it nearly defies rational critique. Nevertheless . . .

    Thanks for responding to my comment Chris. Your posting of Sam Harris' TED Talk and his subsequent claim that, "Science can answer moral questions" (see: however, is so trammeled in Harris' neo-modern rhetoric, it nearly defies rational critique. Nevertheless . . .

    From my vantage point, the only way in which Harris' perspective could even remotely be deemed post-postmodern is that he musters sufficient postmodern audacity himself (read that 'balls') to challenge modern Science's own conceded limitations. That is, science has traditionally relegated itself to those realms of knowledge ‘experienced’ or otherwise engaged as an external manifestation. Of course, it goes almost without saying that the respective data derived from those ‘objective’ encounters are universally considered a . . . FACT.

    “There is a strange and curious thing about scientific truth. As its own proponents constantly explain, science is basically value-free. It tells us what 'is', not what 'should be or ought to be'. An electron isn't good or bad, it just is; the cell's nucleus is not good or bad, it just is; a solar system isn't good or bad, it just is." from pg. x in a ‘Note to the Reader’ of "The Marriage of Sense and Soul" (punctuation substituted for italics).

    Human or moral VALUE on the other hand is experienced as subjective, interior experience. Consequently, and by nature, this experience is ‘interpretative’, and constitutes the realm of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. Yet, and quite unfortunately, in his disregard for this distinction between FACT and VALUE, Harris’ contentions remain tethered by subtle reference to a dominant, but nonetheless subjective, WE:

    “But the demagogues are right about one thing: We need a universal conception of human values.”

    As Harris rightly acknowledges though:

    “-- if culture changes us, as indeed it does, it changes us by changing our brains. And so therefore whatever cultural variation there is in how human beings flourish can, at least in principle, be understood in the context of a maturing science of the mind -- neuroscience, psychology, etc.”

    Perhaps, but as Dr. Harris has presented prospects for further developing this ‘science’, there are aspects of his dissertation (to this point anyway), that sound eerily reminiscent of earlier campaigns to advance OUR/THEIR knowledge (

    Hope this helps . . .

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 17 July 2012 05:19 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I recommend Mark Edwards' piece on The Integral Cycle of Knowledge on this one.

    Edwards looks at Wilber's notion of the three strands to all good knowledge (injunction, experience, and confirmation/disconfirmation). Edwards analyzes various schools of philosophy of science (Kuhn, empiricism, Popperian falsifiability). Edwards sees these corresponding to the quadrants (or at least 3 of them): UR injunction, UL empiricism, LR confirmation.

    He thinks there is a missing 4th element (LL): namely interpretation. He discusses Feyeraband as a representative example of this (the cultural sphere of science). And this comes from the postmodern turn (realizing that the fact/value distinction is blurry at best).

    So I don't see science separate from interior reality (individual or intersubjective). This is what I was describing in relation to Harris. I appreciate that he describes that science does have values. That's a postmodern turn. He doesn't see the values as arbitrary.

    I think science, particularly social science, always includes interpretation and questions of meaning. It's not simply only value (or only narrative).

    But I think it's problematic to see science as simply a realm of fact and values as interior. Especially in light of the collusion between science and the potentially dangerous (and surely fascinating) realm of bio-engineering.

    So again while I definitely have some problems with Harris' talk, I think there are some elements worth examining.

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