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.
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:
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.