[Topics: Contractarian Ethics, Is-Ought Problem, Moral Anti-realism]
Dealing in What Is:

How the Is-Ought Problem Factors into Moral Anti-realism


Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay - is-ought problem - David Hume - moral anti-realism

Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay


The towering influence of Enlightenment philosopher David Hume has at least partially informed all of my articles across this past month (and, more indirectly, all of the articles before then as well). And although The Gemsbok’s artist, M.R.P., did a sketch of Hume for the article two weeks ago on infallible foreknowledge, that homage would perhaps have fit better next to today’s article, which will consider a topic often attributed to David Hume—if not as its originator, at least as its first notable, direct, and clear articulator. The topic in question is the is-ought problem (also known as Hume’s Law).

A few of my readers, discussing my article on the exclusively functional objectivity of our socially evolved morality in a forum thread, have raised the is-ought problem as an objection to some of the ideas presented there. While I think that careful readers of that article will already have a fair idea of my response to such objections, I imagine it would be helpful to provide something more explicit. While I would not deny the existence and importance of moral oughts as such, I would seek to offer a moral anti-realist, contractarian account of what oughts ought to be.

The Is-Ought Problem and Moral Anti-Realism:

The matrix of my ideas, now as in all of my other articles, is in varying proportions phenomenological, pragmatist, and skeptical. I am far less concerned with rationalistic hypotheticals than I am with pragmatic, realistic details. That idea which is more consistent with both lived experience and the best evidence available is temporarily the one I find most compelling. This is why I accept the compatibilist definition of free will and the pragmatist response to the rationalism-empiricism debate. And this is also the reason that, in that first article, I used the ideas of James Rachels as a springboard for formulating an account of functionally objective (yet not metaphysically objective) morality.

So, before I get back into those thoughts on morality, some of you may be wondering just what is meant by the phrase ‘is-ought problem.’ The is-ought problem is the controversially posited disconnect between statements about how things are (i.e. a descriptive statement like ‘The grass is green’) and statements about how things should be (a prescriptive statement like ‘The grass should be green’). It seems now, as it seemed to David Hume in his time, that it is unclear how a statement of facts could possibly lead to a normative claim without getting into fallacious territory.

As to the notion that my article did not contend with the is-ought problem, I would agree. But it never intended to do so, and that entire article, and in turn that article’s thesis—even when it was covering our perception of moral obligations—is confined entirely to ises.

Consider the following sentence from that article: “humans must not only behave in that way, but must be genetically and cognitively hard-wired to feel as though they ought to behave that way.” This sentence may seem superficially to be discussing an ought, but as I explained, it is actually a statement about a biological fact resulting from large-scale natural selection in a social species. I am discussing the fact of the phenomenological perception, and not the validity of the ought enforced by that perception.

Immanuel Kant Sketch by M.R.P. - is-ought problem - David Hume - moral anti-realism

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
[High-res prints available here]

Indeed, I think it would be a terrible error to move from that conclusion to a declaration that our evolved morals are necessarily best, or to a declaration that our best aim would be whatever is in accordance with such evolutionary processes. I have been careful to draw a very tight box around the few elements of human morality which possess this functional objectivity. So, where do the oughts come in?

From my perspective, they don’t. At least, they do not come into the picture in the sense desired by moral realists. On this subject, as elsewhere, I find Hume’s acute clarification to be totally apt. My definition of a moral ought is rather like the compatibilist definition of free will, as it concerns human experience moreso than metaphysical possibility.

My sort of moral ought is a tentative thing, venturing a falsifiably effective theory about some notion of best behavior, and in reality merely expressing a rule which a person would put forth and agree to follow, provided others would be compelled to do the same, i.e. expressing a prospective contractarian system of ethics.

Contractarianism as an Anti-Realist, Is-based Ethical System:

I have nodded toward contractarian ethical systems in several articles thus far, and it is possible that I will dedicate a full article to the topic in the future. Nevertheless, it seems that now would be a good time to at least give an example of how such a system would work in practice.

A contractarian ethical system would seek to define what should be right and what should be wrong by a similar method as that employed to define what should be legal and what should be illegal within some democratic paradigms. Namely, a community of individuals gets together and attempts to found a reasoned moral system, based on rational discussion and scientific inquiry. So, for instance, imagine that one person says that it should be right to prohibit a particular group of people from engaging in a given behavior. Now it is up to this person, if they want the community to adopt the norm, to provide the evidence that there exists a relevant difference between that group and any other which would justify the special moral rule. This is as close as I get to an ought (read: not close at all, on the classical definition), and you can tell that it remains squarely in the anti-realist mode, wherein it is coherent to argue moral rightness as a construct. And before you present a response to this paragraph, remember that such discussions are not happening in a vacuum among undefined, unbiased entities; this is where the functional biological objectivity of our basic moral strictures comes in.

Consider the following quote from the S.E.P. entry on ‘rationalism vs. empiricism’: “Our knowledge of moral judgments seems to concern not just how we feel or act but how we ought to behave.” For me, the operative word in that sentence is ‘seems.’ Just as I have previously discussed humanity having an inescapable illusion of free will, so humanity has an inescapable illusion of objective morality, where ‘we ought to . . .’ becomes a shorthand (sometimes overly self-assured) way of saying ‘I feel we ought to . . .’ Unlike the relative ethereality of my formulation concerning free will, however, the necessity and inescapability of the human perception of moral rightness find specific argumentative support in accounts like that of Rachels considered in that same earlier article.


The is-ought problem is just one of Hume’s many brilliant dichotomies, but it is one of such basic logical force that it provides grounds for agreement between thinkers as consistently at odds as myself and, for instance, G.E. Moore (whose writings on morality, as well as those on skepticism, are likely topics for other articles down the line). I would agree with the conclusion of the pairing of Hume’s Law and Hume’s Fork which casts doubt on the validity of oughts as they are commonly conceived, but, in keeping with all of the above, this in no way stops me from saying that you ought to check back next Friday for your new Friday Phil.

[Topics: Contractarian Ethics, Is-Ought Problem, Moral Anti-realism]
Dealing in What Is:

How the Is-Ought Problem Factors into Moral Anti-realism

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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