The Is/Ought Dichotomy
The “is-ought” problem tells us that we can’t derive what should be just from a description of what is. If we look at what Harris is saying, he’s really not deriving a view of what ought to be by understanding what is, although he wants us to think he is. He thinks it’s possible to do this just by being real accurate with the “is.” But he’s already reduced reality so it wont include transcendent ought. So he’s already hedged his bets against the argument. In reality there is no reason why we should accept that the “ought” is already in place and that it’s already a given that pleasant physical circumstances as outcome are the only valid good available. This has not been established by anything. It’s just an assertion that is put in the position to be a default given that alternatives are ruled out ideologically. There’s nothing about biological facts that establish an “ought.” We might show that religious belief has harmed more people than Polio (perhaps) but if true that still would not tell us why it’s wrong to do so. Harris’s basic answer to this argument is that people who make such criticisms have too narrow a concept of science. “Science simply represents our best effort to understand what’s going on in the universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.” That is his answer to the issue of is-ought, basically no answer at all. What difference does it make if it is our best efforts (which I doubt)? Best efforts don’t change is to ought. What difference does it make if we broaden our scope of understanding for science? What he’s really saying is that science is the only true ethics. In saying that, he’s clearing the way to replace real ethical thinking with the reductionist ideology that makes up his understanding of science. All the scientific precision there is can’t turn “is” into “ought”—there is simply no reason why facts by themselves represent what should be. As Philosopher Robert Nozick tells us:
Ethical truths find no place within the contemporary scientific picture of the world. No such truths are established in any scientific theory or tested by any scientific procedure—microscopes and telescopes reveal no ethical facts. In the guise of a complete picture of the world, science seems to leave no room for any ethical facts. What kind of facts are these, what makes them hold true?
Brain Earp, again tells us:
Example: It’s a fact that rape occurs in nature — among chimpanzees, for instance; and there are some evolutionary arguments to explain its existence in humans and non-humans alike. But this fact tells us exactly nothing about whether it’s OK to rape people. This is because “natural” doesn’t entail “right” (just as “unnatural” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong”) — indeed, the correct answer is that it’s not OK, and this is a judgment we make at the interface of moral philosophy and common sense: it’s not an output of science.
The domain of science is to describe nature, and then to explain its descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell us how to live. It cannot tell us right and wrong. If a system of thought claims to be doing those things, it cannot be science. If a scientist tells you she has some statements about how you ought to behave, they cannot be scientific statements, and the lab-coat is no longer speaking as a scientist. Questions about “How should we live?” — for better or worse — fall outside the purview of “objective” science. We have to sort them out, messily, by ourselves.
If the current state of affairs (what is) is the basis of what should be than political repression and backward understanding of the environment and focus on short term needs only, as well as greed and even cruelty must be what should be. That certainly sums up what is as far as life on earth goes.
Rachels defends ethical naturalism against the “is-ought” argument and his defense is a bit more involved than Harris’s. He argues that evaluative conclusions can sometimes be drawn from factual premises. His example is if the only difference between doing A and not doing A is a child will suffer intense prolonged pain, then it’s better not to do A. Wait, this in principle is no different than Harris’s answer and it’s based upon the same “trick.” I use the term advisedly because they may not intend to trick, but they are tricking themselves because there is clearly a value that’s being inserted into the process that is kept unspoken and asserted as though the it’s the only valid conclusion that comes form the nature of the case but it’s clearly loaded at the front before the example is made. The idea that doing is wrong because all other things being equal it would result in the pain of a child assumes form the outset that our values are such that paining children is wrong. This is fraught with a host of assumptions: that there is a right and wrong, that children are more innocent than adults, that it’s wrong to harm the innocent, that’s more wrong to harm the innocent than the not so innocent, and so on. Yes, these are values with which we all agree. There is, however, no evidence that they are arrived at logically as a result of some magic transmutation of “is” into “ought.” Rather the “ought” is assumed form the beginning, it is loaded into the example, otherwise why use a child? The basis of those values is proved by this example to be logically derived from the nature of the case but could well be derived from fine feelings or a sense of right intuited from the Spirit or any number of things. Its use as an emotional ploy suggests the flaw in using it, because it suggests a value already built in. He also argues that beliefs are tied to motivations, those stem from behavior and that is based upon “is,” upon the factual nature of the human psyche and other situations that are derived from the nature of the case. Yes it is undeniable that an evocation of ethical duty or obligation must revolve around actual facts rather than mere abstractions or there is no actual ethical concern. That in no way means that the “ought” is derived form the mere facts of the nature of the case apart form the value systems employed to evaluate them.
Value systems make up the basis of ethical thinking. Intrinsic value is what supplies the reason for action in ethics. Ethics is about what we do, how we live, as a result of examining our actions in relation to our values. We all agree that pleasant outcome; absence of pain is a good thing. Yet we believe for different reasons. The reductionists try to justify it as an outgrowth of survival instinct, the Christian as an expression of God’s love. It matters which way we do it because the decision is ultimately the expression of a value system, that decision will determine how we decide our actions. If we write off human values as merely the opinions of a different set of mammals, if we say “o well marmoset actions are marmoset ethics,” that’s all it is just the way a different set of organisms spins the survival mode, then we might wind up justifying a whole set of dehumanizing actions. If we are led down the garden path by the priests of knowledge and taught to think of these dehumanizing actions as merely a means to an end, we may lose the human values that would enable us to regret such actions. Behind what might seem like split hairs lurk the justifications and rationalizations for destructive and dehumanizing decisions. One could see, for example, rationalizing loss of freedom by an appeal to concrete nature of the outcome and there fleeting transitory nature of the “merely human” value of freedom. The space between is and “ought” must be kept in order not to sanctify what “is.” The danger is too great that deriving “ought” from “is” will produce a way of thinking about “is” that forever links it with “ought.”
One of the things that make ethical philosophy and moral philosophy seem so aloof, transitory and “unscientific” is the relative nature of their value systems. Value systems are relative and arbitrary to the extent that we either hold them or we don’t. We can’t prove what values we should hold. In order to be able to prove what value system we should hold to we would have to have a prior value system to put in place to say it with, if we could have that it would solve the issue there be no need to say it. That’s what the scientific ethics reductionists think they are doing; they think they are giving us a stable grounding in “is.” It’s really an appeal to the fortress of facts idea. The problem with that is that it begs the question about which value system we should assume. We can’t be confused by the humanitarian nature of the outcome oriented ethics. Just because it values things we deem “good” doesn’t mean it’s the only access to the good. Deontologists value happiness, peace, absence of carnage, too. The problem is, values come into conflict. Take Harris’s example, do we use our billion to cure malaria or help feed people? I assume he would base that upon which is killing the most. The problem there’s more to consider in the equation. What do we have to do to provide those particular goods? If we have to take food out of the mouths of people being sustained by that funding in order to save other lives with malaria have we produced a net good? We only shift around evils if we create starving masses to cure disease. By the same token a deontological approach could see feeding the hungry and curing disease both as values that must be met. This leads to the argument about replacing all other forms of ethics with consequentialist ethics. This is clearly something that Harris seeks to do. He defines ethics in such a way that ethics is about producing certain kinds of consequences, as we have seen.
I stated above that intrinsic values are what motivate action in ethics. There are other kinds of values; there are values that derived from the things they accrue, for example in consequentialist ethics various states or attitudes are moral values because the outcome of holding them is the desired outcome. For example the outcome of holding non racist attitudes is seen as clearing the way for freedom and human potential that leads to more happiness and less pain for people of color and even for those who would hold the prejudiced attitudes. Yet there’s also an intrinsic value there. The intrinsic value is one that is the object of the outcome; we might term it “pleasure,” more like “fulfillment,” “human potential.” What is the point of keeping people alive? Why should we care if more people die of Malaria or are harmed by religion, why care about either? We care because we value human life both in the sense of protecting it, and enhancing the quality of it. That is an end in itself. We can’t say why we value human life, except in terms of either expressing feelings or expressing ideas about the nature of the universe. We have no scientific data that tells us why we should value it. We can’t prove logically that we should. The fact that we do feel that we should may well be grounds of notion of the “self evident” nature of moral motions, but is not a scientifically provable or even logically provable proposition. The whole of ethical theory is about figuring out what to do with and how best to make use of these values we hold. We organize our thinking into schools of thought and design ethical systems for this purpose.
The Strength of moral philosophy is it’s diversity of value systems. Diversity is strength and not a weakness. The assertion all three make, Harris, Churchland and Wilson is that consequntialist ethics is the only real basis for ethics. That’s clearly not the case if we go by the field of ethics itself. There’s no scientific proof for the assertion that teleological ethics is the only true basis for ethics without dragging a surreptitious value system into the equation, and thus if we look at moral philosophy and ethics as an academic field its loaded with other view points, with other values systems and other ways of implanting values. Consequence is only one of many. For example deontolgocal ethics asserts that there is intrinsic value in the acts themselves. For example there may be value in truth telling even though the result of telling the truth may be harmful. Lying may be wrong even if no harm results. There are two main types of deontological theories, intuitionism which holds that moral principles are self evident upon reflection, and the second types is rationalism, which uses a second order principle is used to generate a set of first order principles.” They both seem to ground ethics in duty. This is just scratching the surface; there are many other views of ethics, including Virtue ethics where one focuses upon the kind of person one should be rather than means to act ethically, and even aesthetic ethics which does not seek the good but the beautiful or the aesthetically fulfilling. Dorothy Emmett shows that aesthetic ethics can be as consistent and logical as any other kind. To just assert that ethics is about one thing, pleasure over pain, stopping pain, outcomes that result in fewer deaths, is absurd. If we impose a hidden value system while pretending to ground values in a scientific fact we ignore the basis of all ethical thinking, not to mention the diversity of the field. Trying to shift from deontological or other form of decision making to outcome oriented ethics on the grounds that “this is obviously what ethics is about” is absurd.
Values motivate ethical thinking and actions; we choose the ethical system that best serves our values. The flexibility to change form one system to another is strength because it allows for new approaches. It would be stifling to assert one system over the others and to close off alternatives by terming it “fact.” There are good arguments against consequentialism as an ethical theory. It’s been hinted at already that consequentialism ignores the basis of intrinsic value and thus can at times force the individual to violate intrinsic values in order to meet the demands of gaining certain out come. Various life boat scenarios often depict this kind of thinking. The life boat analogy was first proposed by Garrett Hardin (in 1974) its application was closely related to environmental ethics. The life boat idea imaged 50 people in a life boat with room for 10 more, but they are surrounded by 100 swimmers. Who will be let on to row? Garrett’s intention was to criticize the spaceship earth idea. Life boat examples are often used in high school and perhaps middle school to introduce students to ethical thinking. Teachers are advised that students often go for the outcome oriented solution, so they have to be advised to think about other options: “Discussions about the lifeboat are influenced strongly by how the question is posed. Be sure to allow room for solutions that maximize fairness (i.e. drawing straws) by asking students to focus on how they are making their decision. Students often default to solutions that are outcome-based. It is useful to be able to show that there are other approaches that can be applied. ” One might be led to let the old woman drawn because she can’t row and well as the middle aged man swimming more strongly than she, unless of course one realizes that a higher value might be protecting the weak and taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Certainly the life boat idea does cast a spot light on the tendency of values to collide. It points up the potential for outcome oriented thinking to force upon the individual acts considered immoral by conscience. It’s then that we realize we need a system that recognizes the intrinsic nature of values and a flexibility that allows us to re-consider our options. We have no factual basis in science that would tell us, “yes it’s better to save this one and let the other drawn.” Now it’s true we don’t have a clear cut means of understanding the right choice in any other system either, but that’s not a reason to close off the option with the pretense that science give us the factual basis form which to act.
Why should we laud one set of values over others? To use an example already given, we can choose human values over Marmoset values because we are human. We have no actual reason to suspect that marmoset’s think ethically, science might actually help us there. I’m not arguing that science is of no use. Yet since we are human and we know that we can think ethically, that in itself is reason enough to accept human values. We can also identify the intrinsic values. Values intrinsic to other species probably would not always be intrinsic to us, it makes no since therefore that we don’t use human values.
 Harris, Ibid., 29.
 Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, Mass.: Bellknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1981, 399.
 Earp, Ibid.
 Rachels, Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 6.
 Robin Attfield, Value, Obligation and Meta-Ethics, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Georgia: Editions Rodopi B.V. Value Inquiry Book Series,1995, 29
MA (Oxon), PhD (Wales) has been Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University since 1992. Robin Attfield read Greats (Literae Humaniores) at Christ Church and theology at Regent's Park College, Oxford.
 Nozick, Ibid., 399.
 Attfield, Ibid. 29-30.
 Lois P. Pojman, (editor), Moral Philosophy: A Reader. Indianapolis, In.: Hackett Publishing Company inc., Third edition. 2003, Originally 1993, 193.
 Ibid., 193
 Ibid., 193.
 Find, virtue ethics
 Find moral Prisim
 Garrett Hardin, “Life Boat Ethics, The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today, September (1974) 38-40, continued 123-124.