Grappling with Ethical Naturalism (and Positivism)

I agree with Gorski’s argument that the social sciences can help us understand and pursue human wellbeing because I think that we can, at least to some degree, operationalize wellbeing. Certainly, not all social science endeavors to improve human life, and that is fine, but I think that we can glean a lot of information from social science about what makes humans happy, healthy, wealthy or anything else that can be characterized as better-off. Social science can also tell us about wellbeing tradeoffs; for example, we can examine whether there is a negative correlation between personal wealth and mental health, and whether such a link is causal. I also agree with Gorski’s point that values affect social science and vice versa, and if we keep values for the purpose of improving life, then social science must at least have an indirect connection to our knowledge of wellbeing.[1]

While Harris and Comte also believe that values should affect social science, they do not care to leave room for doubt over those values. They believe that values should be absolute, that some values are correct and others are incorrect, and that we do not need to worry about how values affect social science (because we should have no reason to change that influence, anyway).[2] Gorski disagrees with their brand of positivism, arguing instead that we should be aware of how our values change our science. He also thinks that there is no way for humans to be completely certain that their values are true.

I think my own research could lend itself to normative discovery in the sense that I might learn how states can deter coercive engineered migration, and then I could make an argument that because states can deter CEM, they should work to deter CEM. It may also affect the value I place on state security and on human rights, perhaps tipping the balance one way or another and away from what I currently believe.


[1] Philip S. Gorski, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences,” Society 50, no. 6 (2013),

[2] Gertrud Lenzer, ed., Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (New York: Harper, 1975). pp. 71-86.

Sam Harris, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions,” recorded February 2010, 2010, on TED2010, TED Conferences, New York, Video,


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