Is-ought problem

Is-ought problem

Overview
The is–ought problem in meta-ethics
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 as articulated by Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 philosopher and historian
Historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

, David Hume
David Hume
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment...

 (1711–1776), is that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. However, Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive
Linguistic prescription
In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. It includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct...

 or normative
Normative
Normative has specialized contextual meanings in several academic disciplines. Generically, it means relating to an ideal standard or model. In practice, it has strong connotations of relating to a typical standard or model ....

 statements (about what ought to be), and it is not obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive.
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Encyclopedia
The is–ought problem in meta-ethics
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 as articulated by Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 philosopher and historian
Historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

, David Hume
David Hume
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment...

 (1711–1776), is that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. However, Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive
Linguistic prescription
In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. It includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct...

 or normative
Normative
Normative has specialized contextual meanings in several academic disciplines. Generically, it means relating to an ideal standard or model. In practice, it has strong connotations of relating to a typical standard or model ....

 statements (about what ought to be), and it is not obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive. The is–ought problem is also known as Hume's Law and Hume's Guillotine.

A similar though distinct view is defended by G. E. Moore's open question argument
Open Question Argument
The Open Question Argument is a philosophical argument put forward by British philosopher G. E. Moore in , to refute the equating of the property good with some non-moral property, whether naturalistic or meta-physical...

, intended to refute any identification of moral
Moral
A moral is a message conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim...

 properties with natural properties. This so-called naturalistic fallacy
Naturalistic fallacy
The naturalistic fallacy is often claimed to be a formal fallacy. It was described and named by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica...

 is contrasted by the views of ethical naturalists
Ethical naturalism
Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true....

.

Overview


Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his work, A Treatise of Human Nature
A Treatise of Human Nature
A Treatise of Human Nature is a book by Scottish philosopher David Hume, first published in 1739–1740.The full title of the Treatise is 'A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects'. It contains the following sections:* Book 1:...

(1739):
Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an "ought" be derived from an "is"? The question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine.

Implications


The apparent gap between "is" statements and "ought" statements, when combined with Hume's fork
Hume's fork
In philosophy, Hume's fork may be used to refer to one of several distinctions and dilemmas drawn by David Hume .They are:...

, renders "ought" statements of dubious validity. Hume's fork is the idea that all items of knowledge are either based on logic and definitions, or else on observation. If the is–ought problem holds, then "ought" statements do not seem to be known in either of these two ways, and it would seem that there can be no moral knowledge. Moral skepticism
Moral skepticism
"Moral skepticism" denotes a class of metaethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal, claim that moral knowledge is impossible...

 and non-cognitivism
Non-cognitivism
Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false...

 work with such conclusions.

The is–ought problem has been recognised as an important issue for the validity of secular ethics
Secular ethics
Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from purported supernatural revelation or guidance...

 and their defense from criticism—often religiously
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 inspired.

Oughts and goals



Ethical naturalists contend that moral truths exist, and that their truth value relates to facts about physical reality. Many modern naturalistic philosophers see no impenetrable barrier in deriving "ought" from "is", believing it can be done whenever we analyze goal-directed behavior. They suggest that a statement of the form "In order for agent A to achieve goal B, A reasonably ought to do C" exhibits no category error and may be factually verified or refuted. "Ought"s exist, then, in light of the existence of goals.

This is similar to work done by moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a British philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology...

, who attempts to show that because ethical language developed in the West in the context of a belief in a human telos
Telos (philosophy)
A telos is an end or purpose, in a fairly constrained sense used by philosophers such as Aristotle. It is the root of the term "teleology," roughly the study of purposiveness, or the study of objects with a view to their aims, purposes, or intentions. Teleology figures centrally in Aristotle's...

—an end or goal—our inherited moral language, including terms such as "good" and "bad," have functioned, and function, to evaluate the way in which certain behaviors facilitate the achievement of that telos. In an evaluative capacity, therefore, "good" and "bad" carry moral weight without committing a category error. For instance, a pair of scissors that cannot easily cut through paper can legitimately be called "bad" since it cannot fulfill its purpose effectively. Likewise, if a person is understood as having a particular purpose, then behaviour can be evaluated as good or bad in reference to that purpose. In plainer words, a person is acting "good" when they fulfill their purpose.

Even if the concept of an "ought" is meaningful, this need not involve morality. This is because some goals may be morally neutral, or (if it exists) against what is moral. A poisoner might realize their victim has not died and say, for example, "I ought to have used more poison," since his goal is to murder. The next challenge of a moral realist is thus to explain what is meant by a "moral ought".

Discourse ethics



Proponents of discourse ethics argue that the very act of discourse implies certain "oughts", that is, certain presuppositions that are necessarily accepted by the participants in discourse, and can be used to further derive prescriptive statements. They therefore argue that it is incoherent to argumentatively advance an ethical position on the basis of the is–ought problem, which contradicts these implied assumptions.

"Moral" oughts


As MacIntyre explained, someone may be called a "good person" if people have an inherent purpose. Many ethical systems appeal to such a purpose. This is true of some forms of Moral realism
Moral realism
Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true.# Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion....

, which states that something can be wrong, even if every thinking person believes otherwise (the idea of brute fact
Brute fact
Brute facts are facts which are facts in and of themselves, while institutional facts are considered conventional. Institutional facts require the support of an institution. The term was coined by G. E. M...

 about morality). The ethical realist might suggest that humans were created for a purpose (e.g. to serve God), especially if they are an ethical non-naturalist. If the ethical realist is instead an Ethical naturalist, they may start with the fact that humans have evolved and pursue some sort of evolutionary ethics
Evolutionary ethics
Evolutionary ethics could be either a form of descriptive ethics or normative ethics.Descriptive evolutionary ethics consists of biological approaches to ethics based on the role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior...

 (which risks 'committing' the moralistic fallacy
Moralistic fallacy
The moralistic fallacy is in essence the reverse of the naturalistic fallacy.Naturalistic fallacy presumes that what is—or what occurs—forms what ought to be. Thus the observed natural is reasoned a priori as moral....

).
Not all moral systems appeal to a human telos or purpose. This is because it is not obvious that people even have any sort of natural purpose, or what that purpose
Teleology
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...

 would be. Although many scientists do recognize teleonomy
Teleonomy
Teleonomy is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program....

 (a tendency in nature), few philosophers appeal to it (this time, to avoid the Moralistic fallacy
Moralistic fallacy
The moralistic fallacy is in essence the reverse of the naturalistic fallacy.Naturalistic fallacy presumes that what is—or what occurs—forms what ought to be. Thus the observed natural is reasoned a priori as moral....

).
Goal-dependent oughts run into problems even without an appeal to an innate human purpose. Consider cases where one has no desire to be "good"—whatever it is. If, for instance, a person wants to be good, and 'good' means washing one's hands, then it seems one morally ought to wash their hands. The bigger problem in moral philosophy is what happens if someone does not want to be 'good', whatever its origins? Put simply, in what sense ought we to hold the goal of being good? It seems one can ask "how am I rationally required to hold 'good' as a value, or to pursue it?"

The issue above mentioned is a result of an important ethical relativist critique. Even if "oughts" depend on goals, any moral ought would vary with the person's goal. This is the conclusion of the ethical subjectivist, who says a person can only be called "good" according to whether they fulfill their own, self-assigned goal. Alasdair MacIntyre himself suggests that a person's purpose comes from their culture, making him a sort of Ethical relativist. Ethical relativists acknowledge local, institutional facts about what is right, but these are facts that can still vary by society. Thus, without an objective "moral goal", a moral ought is difficult to establish.
If moral goals depend on private assumptions or public agreement, so may morality as a whole. For example, Canada might call it "good" to maximize global welfare, where a citizen, Alice, calls it "good" to focus on herself, and then her family, and finally her friends (with little empathy for strangers). It does not seem that Alice can be objectively or rationally bound—without regard to her personal values nor those of groups of other people - to act a certain way. In other words, we may not be able to say "You just should do this". Moreover, persuading her to help strangers would necessarily mean appealing to values she already possesses (or else we would never even have a hope of persuading her).

There may be some possible responses to this relativistic critique. As mentioned above, Ethical realists that are non-natural can appeal to God's purpose for man. On the other hand, naturalistic
Ethical naturalism
Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true....

 thinkers may posit that valuing people's well-being is somehow 'obviously' the purpose of ethics, or else the only relevant purpose. This is the move made by Natural law
Natural law
Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

, Scientific moralists and some utilitarians.

Institutional facts


John Searle
John Searle
John Rogers Searle is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.-Biography:...

 also attempts to derive "ought" from "is". He tries to show that the act of making a promise places one under an obligation by definition, and that such an obligation amounts to an "ought". This view is still widely debated, and to answer criticisms, Searle has further developed the concept of institutional facts, for example, that a certain building is in fact a bank and that certain paper is in fact money, which would seem to depend upon general recognition of those institutions and their value.

Indefinables


Indefinables are concepts so global that they cannot be defined; rather, in a sense, they themselves, and the objects to which they refer, define our reality and our ideas. Their meanings cannot be stated in a true definition, but their meanings can be referred to instead by being placed with their incomplete definitions in self-evident statements, the truth of which can be tested by whether or not it is impossible to think the opposite without a contradiction. Thus, the truth of indefinable concepts and propositions using them is entirely a matter of logic.

An example of the above is that of the concepts "finite parts" and "wholes"; they cannot be defined without reference to each other and thus with some amount of circularity, but we can make the self-evident statement that "the whole is greater than any of its parts", and thus establish a meaning particular to the two concepts.

These two notions being granted, it can be said that statements of "ought" are measured by their prescriptive truth, just as statements of "is" are measured by their descriptive truth; and the descriptive truth of an "is" judgment is defined by its correspondence to reality (actual or in the mind), while the prescriptive truth of an "ought" judgment is defined according to a more limited scope—its correspondence to right desire (conceivable in the mind and able to be found in the rational appetite, but not in the more "actual" reality of things independent of the mind or rational appetite)

To some, this may immediately suggest the question: "How can we know what is a right desire if it is already admitted that it is not based on the more actual reality of things independent of the mind?" The beginning of the answer is found when we consider that the concepts "good", "bad", "right" and "wrong" are indefinables. Thus, right desire cannot be defined properly, but a way to refer to its meaning may be found through a self-evident prescriptive truth.

That self-evident truth which the moral cognitivist claims to exist upon which all other prescriptive truths are ultimately based is: One ought to desire what is really good for one and nothing else. The terms "real good" and "right desire" cannot be defined apart from each other, and thus their definitions would contain some degree of circularity, but the stated self-evident truth indicates a meaning particular to the ideas sought to be understood, and it is (the moral cognitivist might claim) impossible to think the opposite without a contradiction. Thus combined with other descriptive truths of what is good (goods in particular considered in terms of whether they suit a particular end and the limits to the possession of such particular goods being compatible with the general end of the possession of the total of all real goods throughout a whole life), a valid body of knowledge of right desire is generated.

Other responses


The broad term moral cognitivist
Cognitivism (ethics)
Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false , which noncognitivists deny...

 is the meta-ethical
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 view that ethical sentence
Sentence (linguistics)
In the field of linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language, and often defined to indicate a grammatical unit consisting of one or more words that generally bear minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it...

s express proposition
Proposition
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...

s and can therefore be true or false (they are truth-apt).

One response of those who believe in actual moral knowledge depends upon a few presuppositions. One type of moral cognitivist, the moral realist
Moral realism
Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true.# Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion....

, asserts that the term "reality" designates (or connotes) those things actually existing independent of the mind, rather than those representations of such things in the mind that we call knowledge, or of wishes entertained that things might be otherwise. An effective moral cognitivist response maintains that the truth of "is" statements is ultimately based on their correspondence to reality (both in the realm of actuality and the ideal), while that of "ought" statements is not.

American philosopher David Alan Johnson attempted to refute the notion of an is-ought gap in his work "Truth Without Paradox" in which he presents three lines of reasoning challenging the idea of a deductive gap between normative and factual propositions.

The Dutch scholar Hendrik Gommer published in 2010 the article 'From the 'is' to the 'ought': a biological theory of law' in which he states that the 'is–ought' problem should be solved in order to make a necessary next step towards thinking about the biological foundations of law.
Biology can for example explain why people sometimes value killing another human being as 'good' (i.e. 'ought') and sometimes as 'bad' (i.e. 'ought not'). Killing the enemy is good because it saves our children, killing my neighbour is bad because it destabilises society. Morals and rules have evolved from biological facts and are the result of interaction between genes and their surroundings. They are a product of our brain as all interpretations of facts are. As a result, 'goodness' can be regarded as a biological phenomenon.

[G. E. M. Anscombe] offers a response in her highly influential paper "Modern Moral Philosophy."

See also


  • Anthropic principle
    Anthropic principle
    In astrophysics and cosmology, the anthropic principle is the philosophical argument that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some proponents of the argument reason that it explains why the Universe has the age and the fundamental...

  • Best of all possible worlds
    Best of all possible worlds
    The phrase "the best of all possible worlds" was coined by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal...

  • Fact-value distinction
    Fact-value distinction
    The fact-value distinction is a concept used to distinguish between arguments which can be claimed through reason alone, and those where rationality is limited to describing a collective opinion. In another formulation, it is the distinction between what is and what ought to be...

  • Naturalistic fallacy
    Naturalistic fallacy
    The naturalistic fallacy is often claimed to be a formal fallacy. It was described and named by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica...

  • Normative economics
    Normative economics
    Normative economics is that part of economics that expresses value judgments about economic fairness or what the economy ought to be like or what goals of public policy ought to be....

  • Positive economics
    Positive economics
    Positive economics is the branch of economics that concerns the description and explanation of economic phenomena. It focuses on facts and cause-and-effect behavioral relationships and includes the development and testing of economics theories...

  • Science of morality
    Science of morality
    Science of morality can refer to a number of ethically naturalistic views. Historically, the term was introduced by Jeremy Bentham . In meta-ethics, ethical naturalism bases morality on rational and empirical consideration of the natural world...

  • Situational ethics


Further reading

  • Gerhard Schurz, The is-ought problem. An investigation in philosophical logic Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1997.