I’ve made this point several times in the past with varying degrees of success, but I like Matt Yglesias’ way of putting it:
For my part, I’m continually baffled by the degree to which thought-leaders and politicians on the center-left think it’s credible and/or political useful to present our agenda as wholly un-ideological and “pragmatic,” somehow emerging magically through empirical study. Quine’s Word & Object isn’t about politics at all but it’s full of valuable insights. All efforts to understand the world meld empirical and theoretical efforts, and all efforts to understand the world in a way that’s politically relevant are thus necessarily ideological.
I highlight Matt’s take because it seems tangentially related to the ongoing debate I’ve been having in the comments of a couple posts over whether or not moral principles can be derived through pure empirical observation. Both the political “non-ideological pragmatist” and Sam Harris the moral naturalist make the same category error: they take their own highly subjective value judgments as a given, so that any empirical observations they make can be neatly plugged into a preexisting conceptual framework.
So for example, in The Moral Landscape, Harris just sort of blithely asserts that anyone who uses the phrase, “You ought to do that” in any sort of moral context is really saying, “You doing that would contribute to overall human flourishing.” There’s no real reason to think that everyone everywhere considers overall human flourishing as the ultimate end of their various moral systems, but Harris clearly believes that they should. But he also distrusts non-empirical intuitions, so the only way to justify his own moral intuitions is to construct a book-length, profoundly wobbly line of reasoning that will obscure the fact that his moral convictions don’t spring fully-formed from rigorous scientific investigation.
What I’m saying is that Sam Harris is essentially the No Labels of moral philosophy. The way those guys roll is basically the same: they start from some first principles that they don’t feel like defending on philosophical grounds (like say the notion that a large federal deficit is worse for voters than the fact that many of them live in areas so impoverished they resemble third-world countries) and duck the issue entirely but just declaring their claims non-ideological and highly scientific.
I used to occasionally call this impulse “scientism,” but that sounds too much like a crack at science itself. Really what we’re talking about is an abuse of science. So I’m going to start calling this “reductive empiricism” instead — i.e. the overweening belief that any conceivable problem can be reduced to an empirical matter.