Is-ought problem

Is-ought problem

In meta-ethics, the is-ought problem was raised by David Hume (Scottish philosopher and historian, 1711–1776), who noted that many writers make claims about what "ought" to be on the basis of statements about what "is". However, there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive statements (about what ought to be).

Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his "A Treatise of Human Nature":

Hume then calls for writers to be on their guard against such inferences, if they cannot give an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly "can" you derive an "ought" from an "is"? In other words, given our knowledge of the way the world is, how can we know the way the world ought to be? That 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".see Max Black, "The Gap Between 'Is' and 'Should"', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 73, No. 2. (Apr., 1964), pp. 165-181.]

A similar (though distinct) view is defended by G. E. Moore's 'open question argument', intended to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties—the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy'.

Consequences of is-ought problem

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. Two responses to this are moral skepticism and non-cognitivism.

The answer of those who believe in actual moral knowledge depends upon a few presuppositions. One has to do with the definition of reality to which descriptive truths are said to correspond. Another has to do with the existence of indefinables.

An effective moral cognitivist response 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.

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)see Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" 6.2]

To some, this may immediately suggest the question: “How can we know what is 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. As an example of philosophical argumentation that identifies particular indefinables, we take "being" and then "good". Aristotle stated that although being is not a genus ("Posterior Analytics" 2.7), yet of everything that is, being is predicated ("Topics" 4.1), and that the Genus-differentia definitions, of which he was the first recorded proponent, requires that its subject be defined through its genus and a differentia. But since nothing lies outside of what is predicated of being, there is nothing which can serve as a differentia. So being is postulated to be indefinable. Later, Aquinas made an argument that stated, "Good and being are the really the same, and differ only according to reason.... [G] ood presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present." ("Summa Theologica", Part I, Q. 5, Art. 1) So good is postulated to be indefinable.]

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 claims) 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.See for example Ruggiero, "Thinking Critically about Ethical Issues", 5th ed., Ch. 6.]


A handful of arguments have been proposed which claim to show that an "ought" "can" actually be derived from an "is". John Searle devised one such argument. [Searle, John R. "How to Derive 'Ought' From 'Is'", "Philosophical Review" 73, 1964, pp. 43-58.] It 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 would seem to depend upon general recognition of those institutions and their value. [Searle, John R. (1995). "The construction of social reality", New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029280451]

Many modern naturalistic philosophers see no impenetrable barrier in deriving "ought" from "is" believing an "ought" can derive from an "is" whenever we analyze goal-directed behavior, and a statement of the form "In order for A to achieve goal B, A ought to do C" exhibits no category error and may be factually verified or refuted.

For some naturalists, simple ethical ought-beliefs such as monogamy and 'thou shalt not kill' follow naturally from human biological drives such as pair-bonding and avoiding unnecessary violence. The more complex ethical rules of society are derived for mutual benefit, and are perhaps amenable to an ethical methodology such as utilitarianism. The wider investigation of how social rules arise during group evolution belongs to the scientific field of sociobiology. In contrast, those who propose supernaturalist origins of morality (maintaining is/ought incommensurability) assert these similarities between ethical rules and natural biological behavior are just coincidental. By itself supernaturalism fails to elucidate morality since the supernaturalist must additionally show how we are to choose between competing supernatural ethical systems without appealing to naturalistic principles such as minimizing suffering. Consequently naturalists claim a supernaturalist approach to ethics appears arbitrary and has no explanatory advantage.

Ayn Rand claimed to have solved the 'is-ought problem' posed by David Hume,cite journal |last=O'Neil |first=Patrick M. |year=1983 |month=April |title=Ayn Rand and the Is-Ought Problem |journal=The Journal of Libertarian Studies |volume=VII |issue=1 |pages=pp. 81–99 |url= |accessdate= 2007-08-26 |quote= ] writing, "The fact that a living entity "is", determines what it "ought" to do. So much for the relation between 'is' and 'ought'." [Rand, Ayn "The Virtue of Selfishness", 1964, p. 18. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-451-16393-1. ] Ayn Rand maintained that "an "ultimate" value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means — and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are "evaluated". An organism's life is its "standard of value": that which furthers its life is the "good", that which threatens it is the "evil"." [Rand, Ayn "The Virtue of Selfishness", 1964, p. 17. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-451-16393-1.] She argued that an objective system of morality is both possible and necessary (see Objectivism).

Daniel Dennett gives another perspective on the is-ought problem, arguing that although one cannot 'rush from facts to values', nevertheless it is necessary to consider is-statements when attempting to derive an ought.

Ethics must somehow be based on an appreciation of human nature—on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be. If that is naturalism, then naturalism is no fallacy. No one could seriously deny that ethics is responsive to such facts about human nature. We may just disagree about where to look for the most telling facts about human nature—in novels, in religious texts, in psychological experiments, in biological or anthropological innovations. The fallacy is not naturalism, but rather, any simple-minded attempt to rush from facts to values. [Daniel Dennett "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"]

See also

*Fact-value distinction
*Naturalistic fallacy
*Best of all possible worlds
*Normative economics / Positive economics


Further reading

*Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: " [ Hume's Moral Philosophy: Is and Ought] "

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