Tuesday, May 5, 2015
The Is Is the Ought
There are two versions of the “is/ought fallacy,” one of which is a genuine fallacy and relatively rare and the other of which is not a fallacy at all and ubiquitous. The first goes like this: that fact that things are a certain way provides no evidence that they should be that way. For example, evolutionary theory holds that males in most species are more aggressive than females. It might occur to someone that this excuses male aggression in human beings. I note that this thought is entertained almost exclusively by persons who wish to discredit Darwinian Theory but rarely if ever by persons who subscribe to that theory.
The most frequent form of this fallacy involves the equation of the natural with the good, a sin committed by nearly every firm whose wares are sold in health food stores. If “natural” simply means “naturally occurring”, the equation is obviously false. Cancer occurs naturally and so do earthquakes and typhoons. Rape may be natural in this sense, since it happens among a range of animals; however, it is very, very terrible, at least when it happens among human beings.
The more famous and basic of the two versions belongs to David Hume. Here is a famous quote from his Treatise on Human Nature:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
This is frequently interpreted to imply that moral conclusions can only be derived from moral premises and never from matters of fact. From the fact that a terrorist planted a bomb that killed innocent people one can derive no moral conclusion. From the premise that killing the innocent is bad one can derive the conclusion that the terrorist did a bad thing.
I don’t doubt that Hume believed that, as is suggested by the title of Book 3, Part 3, Section 1 where it occurs: “Moral Premises Not Derived From Reason”. It is not, however, what he says here. He only says that many authors fail to derive moral premises from observations and reasoning but instead jump from one to the other.
The claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is always struck me as manifestly false. From the fact that household electrical currents are dangerous one can easily derive the conclusion that one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket. If you wish to object that my use of the word ought here is not a moral ought but an amoral ought, implying only that it is not in my interest to do this stupid thing, I will agree. However, I do not thereby agree to the premise that self-interest and moral weight are mutually exclusive.
That premise was accepted by Hume, who smuggled it into this moral theory. Its origins lie in Christian thought; specifically in the idea that all genuinely moral action involves self-sacrifice. If you add to this the egoistic premise that the only rational reason for doing anything is a self-interested reason, as I think Hume did, then you get the conclusion that moral premises cannot be derived from reason. If, finally, you are not a Christian, as Hume was not, morality is reduced to an irrational if socially useful emotion.
I think that biosocial philosophy reveals this to be altogether wrong. It also shows the way to a much more useful approach to moral analysis. Human passions, as opposed to mere appetites, always involve judgments. An itch has merely a location. Fear has an object: the thing that is dangerous. Fear is thus a judgment that I am or we are in peril. Anger is anger at someone about something. Such judgments can be correct or incorrect depending on what is true. The thing that I fear may or may not be a real threat. The anger I feel may or may not be based on an accurate interpretation of what another person said or did.
Moral emotions always involve a distinction between what I ought to do and what I want to do. “Don’t stick your tongue in a light socket” is not a moral ought because I am not the least bit tempted to do that. On the other hand, I might be tempted to take another drink when I know that I ought not because I have to drive home. That is a moral ought. It is moral not just because it involves other people on the road. It also involves me. A man looking at an alarming X-Ray of his lungs may well feel guilty and ashamed because he has smoked cigarettes for thirty years, despite knowing all the while that he ought not to. Guilt and shame are emphatically moral emotions.
Whenever we are tempted to do what we know we ought not to do, the ought involves an element of fear. We fear that we will be sorry. That judgement is part of our evolutionary heritage. To be sure, our moral emotions are finely tuned to our concerns for and fears of other people. I suspect that Christopher Boehm is right. Our moral emotions evolved under the pressure of selection for social cooperation. Small bands of hunters could be effective only if meat was shared and the lazy and the bully were brought under social control. As human beings began to internalize the rules of the tribe, we became moral creatures. Only much later did human beings begin to apply moral rules to themselves, asking what kind of person do I want to be? Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the most perfect example of that kind of reflection. It’s not far from there to the fellow who feels guilty because he ate a piece of cheese cake and missed a trip to the gym.
Because moral emotions are judgements, they depend on accurate assessments of matters of fact. If exercise and a good diet are good for me, then I ought to keep going to the gym and eating right. If keeping my promises and offering help to the needy is good for the community that I care about, then I ought to be a good fellow. It is the fact that honesty in exchange makes me a good partner and makes me the kind of person I want to be. From that fact I may derive the proposition that I ought to be honest in exchanges. The ought is derived from the is. Meanwhile, I still shouldn’t stick my tongue in a light socket.