Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Strangeness of Ought

Yesterday, I stated where I disagreed with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris – that they condemn faith because it causes harm, while I condemn it when it causes harm. As such, I focus my attention on beliefs and attitudes that actually cause harm.

One area of divergence that I wrote about yesterday concerns instances where beliefs built on faith are harmless or even beneficial to others. The other area of divergence exists when atheists adopt beliefs that make them a danger to others.

Today, I am going to use this opportunity to take another swipe at the idea that there exists a sharp distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is a principle that is taken almost as gospel among atheists who study such issues and among many academic philosophers as well. The Scottish philosopher David Hume is thought to have ‘proved’ this about 300 years ago.

But his proof is nothing more than the claim, “I cannot conceive how it is possible.”

And how does this differ from the theist claim that, “I cannot conceive of how it is possible that something as complex as a human eye could have come into existence without a designer?”

At least the theist still puts all of his entities in the ‘is’ universe. The theist claims, “There is a God,” and “There are souls,” and “There is a continuation of consciousness after death.”

Yet, atheists reject this on the grounds that we have no evidence for these entities. These are strange entities that, their defenders claim, we can know nothing about through scientific observation and experiment. If we cannot study it, the atheist says, then we should do with it and stick to those things we can study.

Yet, these same people dismiss the idea of value as an intrinsic property – as something that God or nature has built into certain events or objects themselves – in part because of the same reasons. These are ‘strange entities’ and, as such, we should dismiss claims that they exist unless we absolutely need to postulate such entities to explain and predict what is in the universe.

Yet, these same people fail to contemplate the implications of what it means to say that there is an ‘is’/‘ought’ distinction.

It means going completely outside the whole of the ‘is’ universe and talking about something that is distinct and separate from it. It means, “I am going to say that there is more to reality than ‘is’ and ‘is not’. I am going to say that there is a third category. I will call this category ‘ought’, and I will hold that it is distinct and separate from ‘is’. And I will hold that this ‘ought’ universe describes whole and different types of relationships from ‘is’ relationships so that, even if we reach the very limits of science and come to know everything about the ‘is’ universe there is to know, this tells us nothing about what sits in the ‘ought’ category. Because no set of ‘is’ propositions can imply an ‘ought’ proposition. ‘Ought’ sits beyond science, beyond observation and experiment, beyond – even – all that ‘is’.”

And this is supposed to make the skeptical atheist – the one who denies the existence of Gods, souls, ghosts, intrinsic values, free will, heaven, and hell because they are just too weird - this is supposed to make the skeptic feel better?

I am baffled as to why, for 300 years, nobody has thought to approach Hume’s writings with the thought, “I do not care how inconceivable it is for you that ‘ought’ relationships might fit in the ‘is’ universe – it is far more conceivable than the idea that there is some other sort of relationship – something outside of ‘is’ relationships – that remains outside of our grasp even if we were to have complete and total knowledge of every fact in the real world.

Of the two views – the view that ‘ought’ is somehow linked to ‘is’, versus the view that ‘ought’ will allude even a person who knows every fact about the real world – I seriously hold that the second is the hardest to conceive.

We have one universe – the ‘is’ universe – the universe of fact. Something either ‘is’ or it ‘is not’. That which is not fact is fiction.

Hume said that we can find the wrongness of an object by turning our attention to our own sentiment.

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.

However, what is it when we find when we turn our attention inward and look at our own sentiment. Don’t we find something that exists squarely and firmly in the ‘is’ universe? And if we use that sentiment to derive and ‘ought’ conclusion, are we not, then, deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’?

Hume thinks so.

This is another surprise for me – that so many people who quote the above passage as if it is some form of gospel of moral philosophy fail to read past the period - into the very next sentence - where Hume writes,

Here is a matter of fact . . .

Here, according to Hume himself, we have an instance of inferring ‘value’ from ‘fact’ – an instance of inferring ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Because, Hume is doing nothing less than drawing an inference from a fact about having a sentiment to the value of willful murder.

Hume does not have any trouble deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Hume is not saying that – to use a phrase that showed up in my inbox yesterday – “Ethics questions are not fact questions...”

Ethics questions are fact questions. It is just that those fact questions must include the fact of human sentiments.

Or, as Hume put it:

Here is a matter of fact, but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature).

I dispute Hume’s claim that it is possible to derive a moral ‘ought’ from the ‘is’ of a personal sentiment. Hume actually offered two formulae for deriving a moral ‘ought’ – this ‘personal sentiment’ formula, and a formula that derived ‘ought’ from a combination of four factors that were:

(1) Is pleasing to self (2) Is useful to self (3) Is pleasing to others (4) Is useful to others

From these ‘is’ statements it is possible to derive ‘ought,’ according to Hume, with the ‘ought’ being stronger according to the number and the degree to which these four factors apply.

This is what I turn into the formula, “Is such as to fulfill, directly (pleasing) or indirectly (useful), the desires of self and others,” giving precise definitions to the concepts of ‘desire’ (a mental state whereby the agent is disposed or make or keep true a proposition that is the object of the attitude), and ‘fulfull’ (a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of a desire is true).

However, this dispute is irrelevant to the point that I am making here.

My point here has to do with how odd it is that one should postulate a ‘value’ universe that is completely inaccessible to an individual who is fully aware of every fact there is to know – of an ‘ought’ relationship that is unavailable even to a person who knows absolutely every ‘is’ relationship there is to know.

And, what is even more bizarre, at least to me, is that a group of people who pride themselves on their skepticism and with doing away with false Gods, can look at the claim that there is a realm of ‘ought’ completely distinct from the realm of ‘is’ and say, “Yeah. Sure. What could be more obvious?”

Then, to add to this, to discover that many of these people hold in contempt those who adopt strange beliefs in Gods and ghosts – when, at least Gods are ghosts are still asserted to be a part of the ‘is’ universe. At least such people are not trying to invent a type of relationship separate and distinct from what ‘is’ – even if they are wrong about what those relationships are.


Anonymous said...

You write: "Today, I am going to use this opportunity to take another swipe at the idea that there exists a sharp distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is a principle that is taken almost as gospel among atheists who study such issues and among many academic philosophers as well."

I've just been reading George H. Smith "Atheism: The Case Against God" which is an atheist "gospel" and he certainly doesn't take that view. Surely it goes back to the early 20th century logical positivists whose ideas are long defunct.

Smith writes: "I shal defend the thesis that ethics, while a branch of philosophy, is also a kind of science, specifically, the science of human values."

As an Atheist Ethicist you ought to have read him I should have thought!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

George Jelliss

Yes, I'm afraid that this is another instance of my writing too quickly.

Yes, I am aware of atheists who do not share this view - such as the Ayn Rand Objectivists.

Plus there are the Michael Ruse style evolutionary ethicists who think of morality as an evolved disposition like sex or hunger.

So, you are correct, it is a mistake to claim that all atheists who study this subject fall into this camp.

Many do, but not all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am afraid that I do not understand your point.

In fact, I can't tell if you are agreeing with me, or disagreeing with me.

I am also arguing that the idea that 'ought' is unrelated to 'is' makes 'ought' such a bizarre concept that we have even more reason to be suspicious of it (if this is true) than of Gods, angels, and ghosts.