Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: What Is and What Ought

There's no exclusive break between what 'is' and what 'ought'

There's only a gap between 'is' and 'is not'

So if there's no room for 'what ought' in 'what is'

Then 'ought' is a fiction, a myth, an 'is not'

Okay, now we know I am no poet.

I consider the claim that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is' to be a very remarkable claim. It suggests that there something . . . 'oughtness' . . . that is totally distinct and separate from things that exist in the real world . . . 'isness' . . . yet is supposed to have relevance in the real world. It is referred to as a part of the real-world explanations for the movement of real matter through space-time. Yet, we are told, this 'ought' or 'should' that we are making a reference to and that has these owers is something distinct and separate from anything in the world of 'is'.

By the way, if we are going to separate 'ought' from 'is', it is not enough to simply separate it from empirical science. If there is anything that 'is' that is independent of science, 'ought' must be distinct from that as well. And yet it is said to be relevant in the real world of 'is'.

How is that possible?

My position is that 'ought' is relevant in the real world because 'ought' is a species of 'is', and there is no mystery as to how 'is' can be relevant in the real world.

So, when I put you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is up against 'ought' can interact with 'is' because it is a species of 'is', and I realize that one of them must be mistaken, it seems far more likely that we will find the error in the first proposition rather than the second. I would be far less surprised by a discovery thta 'ought' is relevant to 'is' because 'ought' is a subset of 'is' than that there is a realm of 'ought' separate and distinct from 'is' but still relevant in the world of 'is'.

Sean Carroll sought to prove that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is', and wrote the following:

When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It does not mean that the conversation is impossible, just that it is not science.

Carroll wrote: You Can't Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'

To be honest, I have no difficulty at all imagining these arguments. I have discussed them in this blog. However, no doubt some would want to dispute the success of that project. In this post I want to show how problematic Carroll's claims are, even if somebody like Carroll deriving 'ought' from 'is' is unimaginable. It is still more likely that there is a bridge somewhere that we have not yet discovered, then that there is a permanent and uncrossable gap separating 'ought' from 'is'.

First, I would like Carroll to prove that there is no experiment that we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. Specifically, what method is Carroll using to determine the limits of our possible imagination. His premise that we cannot imagine such an experiment is desperately in need of an argument to defend it. However, Carroll only asserts it. In asserting it, he is actually merely asserting his conclusion. This makes his argument entirely and viciously circular.

Furthermore, his argument is actually nothing more than an argument from ignorance. What Carroll is really saying is, "I do not know of an experiment that can prove one of them right and the other wrong." He is using this as the first premise in an argument that claims to demonstrate that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'. However, ignorance is only a limit on what we do know, not a limit on what we can know. Reaching that further conclusion requires a bit more work.

Second, how is it the case that the limits of our imagination provide the boundaries to what is real and what is not? I have difficulty imagining a black hole - an infinitely small . . . thing . . . that nonetheless has so much mass that light itself cannot escape it. Or subatomic particles where not only is it the case that we do not know whether they are in state A or state B, but which are both until we look at them at which point they acquire state A and state B, or how particles can travel back in time.

I can imagine a school teacher 1000 years from now telling one of his students, "Those ideas were rejected 1000 years ago. What is real is limited by what people who lived 1000 years ago in substantial ignorance of a lot of what we know today could imagine. We have personal testimony that they could not imagine an experiment that will prove a moral truth. You are attempting to do something that Sean Carroll, 1000 years ago, testified that people living in his time could not imagine. So, you must be wrong. I am giving you an F on your paper."

I am not saying here that Carroll's conclusion is mistaken. I am saying that he is providing us with a poor argument if all he can tell us about in the defense of his conclusion are what Carroll claims to be the limits of what we can imagine.

Third, these types of subjectivists claims usually leave one of their essential propositions unstated. This is probably due to the fact that when it is brought out into the light, it reveals a significant problem with the whole project.

We can shine some light on this unstated proposition by asking the following question:

If there is no argument that can be offered to show that one of them is wrong, then why adopt a position on the subject?

As I see it, if I am faced with the option of A or not-A, and I there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong, then the only legitimate position to take on the subject is to withhold judgment.

However, the subjectivist does not see it this way.

The subjectivist tells us that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong, and yet that it is at the same time permissible to adopt either A or not-A.

In Carroll's case, our feelings justify our adopting particular conclusions.

In the real world we have moral feelings, and we try to make sense of them. They might not be "true" or "false" in the sense that scientific theories are true or false, but we have them.

Let me remind the reader that we are talking about "feelings" about who is allowed to live and who is killed, who goes free and who is thrown in prison or enslaved, who is made comfortable and who is made to suffer.

What Carroll is telling us is that the feeling that certain people should die is all we need to justify the conclusion that they actually deserve to die. Our feeling might not be "true' or "false", but we do have them - and if we do have them, then our claim that those we want to kill deserve to die is sufficiently justified.

There seems to be a lot of people who have a feeling that homosexuals should be put to death. According to Carroll, "morality is still possible". It may not be the case that this feeling that homosexuals deserve to die is "true" or "false". All that matters is that we have the feeling. And, if we have the feeling, then it follows that morality demands the execution of all homosexuals.

Carroll has told us, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove [them to be wrong].

Well, the corrolary to this is that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove them to be right either. And if we cannot prove one statement right and the other wrong, then there is - by definition - no justification in adopting one option and rejecting the other.

In these cases, the only legitimate position to adopt is to withhold judgment.

Let me repeat . . . if Carroll's premise that there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove [them to be wrong].is true, then the only reasonable implication is not to go ahead and adopt one or another proposition that cannot be proved. The only sensible outcome is to say that right, let us then adopt no attitude on slavery, on the holocaust, on the rape and tortue of children, and the like. If no 'ought' statement can be justified - if no 'ought' statement can be derived from 'is' - then let no ought statement be made. Let us abandon 'ought' entirely and live in the real world - the world of 'is' - instead.

Desirism is perfectly comfortable with this option.

There is not mutually exclusive distinction between 'is' and 'ought'. There is only a distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. If 'ought cannot find a home in what 'is', then 'ought' is something that 'is not'

Under this option, the desirist would simply make descriptive claims about the relationship between states of affairs and desires - and dismiss all 'not-is' statements as 'is-not' statements. That would be sufficient.


dbonfitto said...

It seems to me that this post is almost a "Zeroth Law of D.U." It really sets up a solid foundation for the rest of your work. (I think the poison/water metaphor does some of this work, but not as explicitly.)

Once you know that you've got to work with the "is" data, D.U. becomes the tool you use to match the "ought" curve to the "is" data points. In fact, the more "is" points we uncover, the better we evaluate the predictive ability of such tools.

Also, I think one of your "is" ought to be an "in" in the italicized poem.

SS400 said...

There's no break between the is and the ought / There's only one in what is and what's not / So if the ought is not reality / Then into fiction goes morality.

I thought I'd try my hand at that. I'm clearly no Shakespeare either, but that's what I came up with. I think it was a creative idea to make a poem out of it, though, Mr. Fyfe.