In meta-ethics, the is/ought problem, as formulated by David Hume, asserts that prescriptive statements (about what ought to be) can not be derived from descriptive statements (about what is). Hume himself thought deriving an ought from an is to be impossible. His reason being the apparent gap between “is” statements and “ought” statements, when combined with Hume’s fork—the idea that all items of knowledge are either based on logic and definitions or on observation—renders “ought” statements of dubious validity. Since “ought” statements do not seem to be known in either of the two ways mentioned, it would seem that there can be no moral knowledge.

In An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (EPM), Hume says that he will “follow a very simple method” that will nonetheless bring about “a reformation in moral disquisitions” similar to that recently achieved in natural philosophy, where we have been cured of “a common source of illusion and mistake” — our “passion for hypotheses and systems.” To make parallel progress in the moral sciences, we should “reject every system…however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation,” and “hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience” (EPM, 173-175).

I will try to proceed by following this very principle when proposing two ways how to deal with the is/ought problem.

a priori pragmatic:

A debate over the question ‘non-existence is preferable over existence’ can never leave the theoretical plane. For as soon as the one arguing the affirmative moves ahead and acts on his position, it would always leave the remaining existing opponent uncontested.

Moral philosophy will at some point have to move from the theoretical to the practical in order to be adopted. Real world consequences thus need to be considered and incorporated into the moral philosophical framework. As soon as real life consequences of a particular moral position prevent the adoption of the moral position it becomes nonsensical to adopt it. Kant to the rescue:

“Always act according to that maxim through which you at the same time want it to become a universal law.”

If your moral position does not allow you to be, you can not want it to be a universal law, ergo you can not want it to be your moral position.

a posteriori ontological:

Hume’s position that it is impossible to control volition with reason – that is to originate motives – is self contradicting. Consider Descartes:

Cogito, ergo sum

Usually translated in English as: “I think, therefore I am”, but can be less ambiguously translated as “I am thinking, therefore I exist” or “I am thinking, on the account of being”. Descartes felt that this phrase, which he had used in his earlier Discourse, had been misleading in its implication that he was appealing to an inference, so he avoided the word ergo and wrote “that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” (Meditation II.)

The statement ‘I exist’ is the only claim of absolute certainty, even when assuming an ultimate level of doubt in regards to reality in the form of a deceiving god or being inside an ancestral simulation. In addition, me reasoning intrinsically imposes a desire to avoid being self contradictory i.e. imposes the desire to be rational. In conclusion, since my existence is undisputed and I want to avoid contradicting myself, nothing would be more self contradicting than to negate the only claim that I can make with certainty: my existence. Therefore existence is preferable over non existence.

Now Hume could jump up and say “But you still have not derived an ought from an is! You merely derived an ought from an ‘if’. Only if you subscribe to the notion that existence is preferable over non existence, then yes – certain oughts follow logically. Only if you want to be rational as opposed to random and erratic, yes: certain oughts follow. But what compels you to accept either?”

Well – true. If you neither want to exist nor have a desire to be rational, rational morality indeed has little advice for you. Is that really to much to ask though? In conclusion I want to make explicitly clear that I do not think that I have bridged the is/ought gap in any way. However, I do believe that I have provided two ultimately compelling ‘if’s that serve as foundation for rational morality: the supremacy of existence and the imperative or rationality.

One comment on “How to ignore the is/ought problem and get away with it

  1. Pingback: Rational Morality » What do (can) we want?

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