The good ol’ ought-is problem.

I do love me a good philosophical discussion.

Over at Lacrimae Rerum (ooh, Latin!), Skatje Myers has posted a delightfully scathing review of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. Initially I was impressed by Harris’ arguments, and I still agree with much of what he said, but I have an admittedly slim education in philosophy and wasn’t aware of many of the kinds of objections people would raise to what he said. Skatje did a much better job of critically analyzing the book, in my opinion.

The comments over on her blog have raised a lot of interesting philosophical questions, so if you’re into that sort of thing, I’d suggest hopping over to join the discussion. If not… well, don’t. Anyway, I just wanted to copy a couple of comments from there that I thought really distilled the is-ought problem, as originally outlined by Scottish philosophical genius David Hume.


Pictured above being a badass motherfucker, even in drag.

Essentially, Hume’s argument can be boiled down to the phrase “You can’t get an ought from an is.” In other words, facts about reality are not enough to determine norms; values must enter into the discussion at some point.

We’ll skip over the misogynist, patronizing comment someone left attacking Skatje for perceived “daddy issues.” PZ’s covered that well enough, and he’ll get no disagreement from me there.

Commenter Kurt Horner said:

The problem I have with Sean Carroll’s argument about is-ought is that it’s not really an argument. Carroll just asserts that the is-ought dichotomy is real and unbridgeable.

The primary problem with the is-ought distinction is that the opposite of “is” is not “ought.” The opposite of “is” is “isn’t.” By which I conclude that all supposed “ought” statements are either disguised “is” statements or they are statements of the “isn’t” variety.

Oughts either are true descriptions of the world, or they aren’t — meaning they MUST reduce to IS statements. Otherwise you have to introduce some kind of dualism where the magical realm of the oughts is distinct from the facts of reality yet somehow interacts with it. And if that sounds like supernaturalist woo bullshit that’s because it IS and thus we OUGHT to stop making this daft argument.

Sensing danger, my Philosophy Sense started tingling:

Kurt Horner:

re: “The primary problem with the is-ought distinction is that the opposite of “is” is not “ought.” The opposite of “is” is “isn’t.” By which I conclude that all supposed “ought” statements are either disguised “is” statements or they are statements of the “isn’t” variety.”

An ‘ought’ statement could be expressed logically thusly: “If X and Y, then Z.” The related ‘is’ statement would simply be “X is true.” The only way to determine if Z is true is to determine if Y is true, and in the case of ‘ought’ statements, Y is always about some value or another. “If the sun is out and we value being protected from the sun, then we ought to protect ourselves from the sun.” No matter what the ‘ought’ statement is, it can be stated in this format.

In other words, the is-ought distinction can only be bridged if we begin with an assumed value. In Harris’ case, it’s the value of well-being. As some reviewers have pointed out, the problem with his entire approach is the possibility that some people simply don’t value the well-being of others. So no matter how much Harris says “If you are sick and I value well-being, then I ought to treat your illness,” the Y variable in that ought statement could well differ between you and me. It essentially boils down to the assertion: “We ought to value well-being.” But since value judgments are *necessarily* part of the ought statement (as I outlined above), you can never find an ultimate ‘ought’ that won’t lead to you needing to justify it without assuming some sort of value. It’s like applying the “who created God” question to ought statements; either you begin with an assumption of an axiomatic brute fact, or you get an infinite regress (we ought to treat sick people; we ought to value health; we ought to think health is good; we ought to value goodness; etc).

With that, I dropped the microphone on the stage and walked off. (In my head. I did that in my head.)

I like Skatje. She’s got moxie. And she’s not afraid to call people out for stupid misunderstandings of philosophy, either. She seems to more properly apply critical thinking than lots of folks I know.


4 thoughts on “The good ol’ ought-is problem.

  1. qapla

    Which reminded me of how I've had debates with theists/christians about atheists not having "morals" and I've often pointed to the Bill of Rights and the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as examples of atheist/secular morals.

    "A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context." Ayn Rand – Man's Rights

    Sam Harris correctly characterizes the folly of moral relativism as follows: “No one is ever really right about what he believes; he can only point to a community of peers who believe likewise. Suicide bombing isn’t really wrong, in any absolute sense; it just seems so from the parochial perspective of Western culture.” Harris also condemns pragmatism for lacking a moral standard, noting that, from its point of view, “the notion that our beliefs might ‘correspond with reality’ is absurd. Beliefs are simply tools for making one’s way in the world.” And Harris speaks frankly to the futility of holding either of these views:

    "To lose the conviction that you can actually be right—about anything—seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I believe that relativism and pragmatism have already done much to muddle our thinking on a variety of subjects, many of which have more than a passing relevance to the survival of civilization."

    Eschewing relativism and pragmatism, Harris subscribes to “ethical realism,” the view that

    "our statements about the world will be “true” or “false” not merely in virtue of how they function amid the welter of our other beliefs, or with reference to any culture-bound criteria, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts. . . . To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them."


    Ayn Rand's Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society


    full text of article in The Objective Standard magazine

    Ayn Rand's Theory of Rights:
    The Moral Foundation of a Free Society

    some like myself may not like the libertarian slant at the end of the article but the main points are relevant to any discussion of rights/values and moral principles

  2. qapla

    Well I thought I posted a comment here before, I came back to see if there was any follow up.

    Either it was removed or I made a mistake in posting it.

    I think Skatje was off and Sam Harris is in fact on solid philosophical and scientific ground.

    The problem with Hume's "is" "ought" problem is that you can't get to any "is" with out a whole series of "oughts".

    And all staements of "facts" are first and foremost "value" statements.

    check out:

    Rationally Speaking podcast

    RS32 – Value-free Science?

    RS37 – The Science and Philosophy of Happiness


    Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights:
    The Moral Foundation of a Free Society

    much respect

    1. MikeTheInfidel Post author

      Whoops… sorry about that. It looks like WordPress was automatically withholding all new comments until I approved them… I had about 15 to go through. Eek.


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