Is/Ought

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

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While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.

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20 Comments.

  1. Surely between an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ is a value judgement, of necessity.

    Which is only valid in the limit if (and only if) there is an absolute standard of ‘betterness’.

    I have never found one.

  2. While I’m on the side that thinks that these errors are explained to exhaustion by their appeals to belief and common practice. I think that I would be amenable to another possible argument.

    This argument might run that the logical fallacies have a similar inferential form as the is/ought fallacy. Given that they share this similar form, knowing that the other two are illogical inferences gives credence to the fallacious nature of the is/ought inference. In a sense, one is not grounding the is/ought in the fallacies, nor does it explain them, but they all instantiate a similar invalid form of inference. And it is the form that produces the commonalities and the content provides the differences that we see above.

  3. As far as demonstrative reason is concerned, if there is no mention of ‘ought’ in the premises there can be no ‘ought’ in the deductive conclusion. The same is true of ‘fish’. Whats the problem?

  4. It is written in the book of Matthew chapter 18, verse 19 and 20;
    “I tell you whatever you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.”
    Surely if what you believe is allowed in what you perceive to be heaven, then everything that contradicts your beliefs ought not to be acceptable?
    To the pure, everything is pure while to the impure, everything is impure.
    Just a thought.

  5. I don’t see “appeal to belief” and “appeal to practice” as fallacies. They are practical maxims that, within limits, help us make moment to moment decisions. No logic and no derivation of ‘ourght’ from ‘is’ is involved. The whole of the ‘is’/’ought’ question was settled more than twenty-four centuries ago when Socrates separated investigating en tois logois from investigating en tois ergois.

  6. smith states the obvious.claims almost meant something.curious is correct.but the problem is how do we apply morality when we cannot intellectually justify it.maritz clearly does not understand the point and also reads a strange bible.khashara almost grasps what hume was saying but because he does not goes awry.hume posed a question which nobody since has adequately dealt with.how is it that an abstract notion can emanate from a physical state of affairs?

  7. I think the whole is/ought conundrum can be solved by two tautologies of evolutionism.

    1. What desires to exist will try to persist.
    2. What cares about what becomes of it might become something.

    It seems to me these two ideas should apply to all levels of encapsulation (i.e. cooperative parts that behave as a whole), from single celled eukaryotes to societies, to species. When a company changes its policies, it usually changes it policies under the threat of bankruptcy. A nation usually writes a new constitution under the risk of collapse. A person finally goes to the doctor for admonishment when their health fails. People seek spiritual counseling when the burden of our human condition becomes unbearable. The desire to be is the bed rock of everything.

    Getting from the is to the ought only seems tricky if the universe is seen as being on a strictly predetermined course. If the universe (in its original state), is a tabula rasa where things might or might not happen, then the desire to be something at some future point can take hold. The is simply represents that which has been, the ought represents that which might be. The ought must take into account the is because undeniably time settled into a unidirectional flow at the very moment of first possibilities, the initial singularity.

    With near infinite amount of spacetime, all that is needed to overcome the bulwark of the is is the faintest possibility of the ought.

  8. ‘curious is correct.but the problem is how do we apply morality when we cannot intellectually justify it’

    Intellectual justification need not come in the form of demonstrative reasoning of course… assuming morality needs intellectual justification.

  9. …assuming morality needs intellectual justification
          CURIOUS

    Interesting. What other justification might morality have? Love, perhaps? But that begs the question what love is and what justifies it as a justification. Turtles all the way down again, I suppose. But emotionally choked up turtles. Not the principle of sufficient reason, but the Principle of Sufficient Tears! How many tears before the cup runneth over? And who’s tears filleth the cup? Very Curious….

  10. Ah but perhaps, my little Scandinavian chum, morality needs no ‘justification’ at all? There can’t be justification – or turtles – all the way down. Eventually we must reach bedrock…

    I wonder what a justification of the claim that we should not torture children would look like and what role it could serve?

  11. Morality without any justification. I think that you have just defined the very meaning of brutality, my dear little clansman. I hope you carry a sharp dirk under that tartan!

    And keep the glaives at hand for the vikings ride the foaming crests just beyond the firth.

  12. Oh köttbullar! You’ve got me there…

    Really though,what could possibly ‘justify’ the claim that ‘we should not torture children’? What could we point to – what type of thing could we possibly point to – and say ‘that’ is what makes it true that ‘torturing children is wrong’?

    I do carry a bullock dagger yes – rationalists are very dangerous indeed.

  13. to curious.i am ignoring your spat with olsson who is clearly several sandwiches short of a picnic.i am interested in how you feel morality can be established other than intellectually.

  14. I wasn’t familiar with the expression “one sandwich short of a picnic“. Supposedly it means stupid, but there is some evidence that it can mean crazy as a box of weasels. So either you’re saying that I’m stupid or that I’m insane. Actually, the words you used were “several sandwiches”. So more accurately you said very stupid (or extremely crazy). It’s clearly an insult whichever meaning was intended. Even if you used a jocular idiomatic expression, Kerkham, it still potentially counts as an ad hominem.

    You didn’t say “Mr.Olsson is stupid so his claims – (a) emotions, like love, are insufficient and ungrounding justifications for morality, (b)morality without any justification implies brutality – is nonsense”. What you said was more along the lines of “Mr. Olsson speaks such (stupid) nonsense that I will ignore him”. So it does not appear to be an ad hominem in the end. You are just expressing to everyone your inner decision to ignore my comments because they are so obviously idiotic (or nonsensical) . But it begs the question why? Why state that you will ignore what I said? If it is so self-evident that they are of no import, why not simply ignore them? Certainly this forum seems filled with quite bright minds that will recognize the most obvious (stupid) nonsense, and hence ignore it.

    You seem to have felt a need to denounce my stupidity (or madness), potentially indicating it is not so obviously idiotic (or crazy). It doesn’t mean I’m not stupid (or crazy). But it would imply it isn’t so clear prima facie. I do also see the possibility that you were just, how shall I say, bonding with what you perceive to be a peer. In this scenario it’s not so much a denouncement as it is a social overture. “You and me, Curious, ha ha, we who recognize the (mad) stupidity of Mr. Olsson, let’s engage in a conversation. You and I. We’ll ignore that other, stupid (crazy) guy.” Essentially, you define yourself through humorous ridicule of someone else and hope that it will establish your rightful position in the society.

    In the end though, I suspect you simply did not understand what I said (since I believe that I’m neither crazy nor stupid). Granted, I was being a bit jocular myself. And perhaps my comments were peppered with not so obvious references, making it harder to parse. That said, my comment was directed at Curious who, because of my past conversations with him, I thought would understand my more jocular way of expressing myself. Given his response it does seem that he understood my comments. And that he seems aware of that there might be reasonable arguments for why morality without any justification would imply a world of brutality. He hinted that one needs strong defenses, even potentially physical arms, against rationalists. This indicates to me that Curious is indeed proposing a more intuitionist (counterposed to rationalist) approach to morality. Is this a fair and accurate conclusion, Curious?

    P.S. I’ve been working on a response to your question about children and torture, Curious. But your comment is so interesting that I suddenly found myself in deep reflection on intuitionism versus rationalism. An answer is forthcoming but it will take some more time.

  15. AS the mutual shocks, in SOCIETY, and the oppositions of interest and self-love have constrained mankind to establish the laws of JUSTICE, in order to preserve the advantages of mutual assistance and protection: in like manner, the eternal contrarieties, in COMPANY, of men’s pride and self-conceit, have introduced the rules of Good Manners or Politeness, in order to facilitate the intercourse of minds, and an undisturbed commerce and conversation. Among well-bred people, a mutual deference is affected; contempt of others disguised; authority concealed; attention given to each in his turn; and an easy stream of conversation maintained, without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness for victory, and without any airs of superiority. These attentions and regards are immediately AGREEABLE to others, abstracted from any consideration of utility or beneficial tendencies: they conciliate affection, promote esteem, and extremely enhance the merit of the person who regulates his behaviour by them.

    ‘An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals’ Section VIII: ‘Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Others’ by David Hume.

  16. Andreas

    Apologies for the delay in my reply.

    It occurs to me that you have provided enough Surströmming and Tunnbröd for everybody who wants to eat at the picnic, if they only know how to make a sandwich.

    To have prompted reflection on ethical intuitionism versus ethical rationalism seems quite apt, given Hume’s attack on ethical rationalism and claim that moral discrimination is derived from sentiment and not the processes of reasoning alone. And there are, as the wiki entry you point to notes, non-empiricist forms of moral intuitionism too.

    Assuming arguendo, that there are such things as moral facts then I would contend that (1) “it is morally wrong to torture children just for fun” is amongst them. (Let us ‘tighten up’ the ‘torturing children’ claim). I do not propose that to hold this belief is unjustified, but that this claim is neither justified nor – ever – discovered by inference. (Nor is it given warrant by divine fiat or some such). The claim is that belief in (1) is justified because you have directly intuited the truth of (1) by rational intuition or moral sense.

    We are far more certain of (1) than we could ever be of any necessarily indefensible first principle – be it the happiness principle or the categorical imperative – indeed if we treat (1) as true (in a non-trivial way) then I suggest there is probably nothing at all you are more certain of. The aforementioned first principles are judged by what follows from them, they are proposed as an instrument – as a hypothesised means to identify the harder-to-discern moral truths – and the test each such hypothesis must pass in order that they might convince anybody at all that they might be useful tools is that they correctly identify the basic moral facts as we know them – and this includes (1). This, I contend, is where the bedrock really is, in moral facts like (1) if there are such things as moral facts.

    As for the bollock knife, yes, well, the position is not one many would choose to defend. Moral facts seem such a queer sort of thing, and there is so very much disagreement… It is enough to drive a man to an error-theory really.

  17. Dennis Sceviour

    “Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.””

    It is possibly true, but then it may open the possibility of a complete rejection of all morality, or complete moral skepticism.

    “After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of simple relevance.”

    I would say relevance is no less important than contentious ethics. There is perceptive and empirical knowledge (although some philosophies hold there is only empirical perception):

    http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/phil/phil_05.html

    Ethics is simply altered perceptive data. Assuming ethics is rational and learned (from Aristotle) then an indifference to substantial matters would mean ethics would be incorrectly derived from rationalizing rationality. It other words, I am saying no ought without is, else we enter circularity.

    “…there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light…”

    Yes. It should stand as a unique fallacy is critical thinking.

  18. Dennis,

    Hume does seem to toy with skepticism across the board. However, he seems to think that ethics is “real” at least to the degree that we possess a passion for justice and natural sympathy. Interestingly, what Hume said about sympathy being a natural trait seems to match what those folks studying primates have found.

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