Friday, November 02, 2012

You can't derive an "ought" from an "is."


That you can't derive an ought from an is has always been my standard answer to atheists who try to impose a genetically based ethics by equating genetically based behavior with moral choices. Now it seems the atheists have heard that one so much they decided to do something about it. It seems a new truism for them to recite the mantra "the is-ought thing is BS, that's not a problem." I hear that chant all over the place. Guess what guys, it's still a problem. You haven't solved it and you are not likely to.

I don't know if Sam Harris started the fad but he is certainly one who pretends to solve the problem. He does this merely by using a teleological (outcome) based ethics. That way since what is good is based upon the consequence then he can say the ought comes through the positive consequences.

Sam Harris says:
"I am arguing that science can, in  principle, help us understand what we should do and should want [his emphasis]--and,therefor , what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible."[1]
He sets this up by inaugurating teleological ethics (morality by outcome) as the basis for ethics. That is the notion that it is the outcome that makes something moral. He says "once we see that concern for well-being (defined as deeply and inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a scinece of values."[2]

He lists the tools he uses to construct his ethics: cause and effect, respect for evidence, logical coherence "a dash of curiosity" and intellectual honesty. He's baking a cake, a dash of this, a smidgeon of that. He defines objective and subjective, objective = free of obvious bias. subjective biased merely personal, (p29-30)  "I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscoius beings--like the Platonic form of the good--or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. I am merely saying that given that there are facts--real facts--to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions..." [3]

He tries his hand at Euthephro dilemma of sorts, by asserting that believers in God only think in terms of divine command theory then asking what if a more powerful God demanded we violate J's law, would that then be right?  He can only conceive of following God's laws out of fear of retribution.[4]  All the "shoulds" or "oughts" he builds into his argument are dervied from the premise of teleology, outcome is what makes it moral--the outcome must be positive and promote pelasure over pain, memize suffering. That's how he ties into the "ought." Scinece puts us onto the shoulds in three ways:

explains why we do what we do (appeal to evolutionary psychology), then determines which we should follow, that's based upon outcome, enabling change through awareness.[5]

he is aware f the moralistic fallacy--what is found in nature is good,[6]

What all of this means is it's standard consequential  ethics and a claim that ought is derived through the positive outcome. This is what we ought to do because the consequences are desirable and that makes it moral. Yet consequential ethics has been abandoned by most modern epithets. John Rawls book A Theory of Justice proved to be the final  nail in the coffin of consequential. It proved that outcome oriented ethics reduces the individual to the bottom line of a ledger sheet. [7]

The move is a classic blunder since it's highly debatable that teleological ethics actually establishes an ought. This is far from being a done deal. The atheist need to stop reciting their Mantra as although it's so obvious because it's not a bit obvious. Atheists have tended to think like utilitarians all along anyway. Utilitarian thinking can be  attack on the grounds that it forces the individual to do immoral things. Any individual moral qualms one would have would have to be ignored on the basis of the greatest good for the great test number. Duty and obligation would be ignored on the basis that it cuases some pain and that's a negative consequence.

Jim Walker in his review of the Moral landscape says:

Sean Carroll, a distinguished scientist attacked Harris on this very point. In an article in Discover, You Can't derive Ought from Is, Carroll insisted that it "is simply not possible. I'm not saying it would be difficult --- I'm saying it's impossible in principle. Morality is not part of science, however much we would like it to be." So there!
Carroll goes on to advance three arguments that he thinks supports his reasoning. "1. There's no single definition of well-being," "2. It's not self-evident that maximizing well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality," and "3. There's no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals." Harris' book answers all three of Carroll's arguments (and much more).[8]
Another move around the is-ought problem is to just assert that naturalistic ethics can be normative based upon feelings or some other supposedly "obvious" sense that some behavior is "right." Agaisnst this Bedke offers an article, this is the abstract.

Matthew S. Bedke "Against Normative Naturalism"

This paper considers normative naturalism, understood as the view that (i) normative sentences are descriptive of the way things are, and (ii) their truth/falsity does not require ontology beyond the ontology of the natural world. Assuming (i) for the sake of argument, I here show that (ii) is false not only as applied to ethics, but more generally as applied to practical and epistemic normativity across the board. The argument is a descendant of Moore's Open Question Argument and Hume's Is-Ought Gap. It goes roughly as follows: to ensure that natural ontology suffices for normative truth, there must be semantically grounded entailments from the natural truths to the normative truths. There are none. So natural ontology does not suffice for normative truth[9]
I think that says that to establish a naturalistic normative ethic requires a basic means of establishing natural truth that unambiguous contains within it a built in sort of "ought" that we know form outside the problem is a normative imperative. In other words it's an arbitrary assumption that the facts estabish ought in an of themselves.

Atheist Blogger Alonzo Fyfe (Atheist Ethicist) reduces the problem to "ought = desire" therefore no problem.  A desires X, A should obtain X what's the problem? Then he analyzes the religoius objective as "a second kind of ought" (he's discovered that "moral" means more than just "I want this.")

This derivation of a hypothetical 'ought' from 'is' is not considered a problem. The problem comes from the fact that there seems to be another type of 'ought' - the moral 'ought' - that is not hypothetical. For this type if 'ought', there is no derivation from 'is'.

To illustrate this second type of 'ought', if I were to say 'You ought to tell the truth when you are under oath,' this is not generally understood to be a hypothetical imperative. I am not saying, 'If the things that you want can be gained by telling the truth under oath, then you ought to tell the truth under oath.' I am saying that it does not matter what you want, you ought to tell the truth under oath. This 'ought' is unconditional.[10]

He can solve the problem simply, just make it go away:

Desirism states that the reason this type of 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is' rests on the fact that it does not exist. It is not real. It is a fictitious or mythical 'ought'.

Ultimately, desirism does not recognize a distinction between 'is' and 'ought'. It only recognizes a distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. Any 'ought' that cannot be derived from 'is' is an 'ought' that 'is not'.

If we are going to claim that 'moral ought' has any type of influence in the real world - that real-world atoms changed their velocity as a result of the influence of some 'moral ought' - that at some time or some place a moral ought reached out and changed a person's behavior, then we need to fix that 'ought' in the real world. It has to be something capable of producing real-world effects.
If 'moral ought' has no influence in the real world - if everything that happens in the world is entirely unaffected by 'moral oughts' - then we have no real-world reason to refer to them. They are not real-world reasons to adopt a law or an institution, to perform an action, or to engage in real-world praise and condemnation.[11]
The problem here is he's fallaciously assuming that to make something true an ethical axiom has to be a concrete aspect of world. He's assuming to have the force of "ought" an axiom must be a tangible consequences that moves things around in the world. He's also assuming that there is nothing else but a naturalistic framework to work from. These are just matters of question begging and ideological assumptions in the vain of naturalism. Moral ought has an influence in "the real world" if God is real and then sin is real and sinning separates us form God. He's not willing to assume that's "real" unless its tangible. That's just tantamount to saying "looked up in the sky and I didn't see God so I guess there isn't one."

This is what all of these attempts have in common. The leave the analytical part of moral thinking out. They ground morality in one of the three groundings that atheists use (not to say that these are all atheist positions). They ground their assumptions in feelings or outcome. They leave out the moral decision making process and don't even care about the metaphsyical assumptions necessary to provide for an ought. They want to reduce morality to a simple of process of empirically documenting opinions and feelings and counting it as moral.

[1] Sam Harris, The Moral landscape: How Science can Determine Human Landscape. New York: Free Press, division of Simon and Schuster, 2010 28 online copy  preview URL:    visited 10/30/12

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, 30

[4] ibid, 30-33

[5] ibid, 49

[6] ibid, 101

[7] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Cambrige: Belnap of Harvard University Press, 2005

[8] Jim Walker, "Review of moral Landscape" no date given

[9] Matthew Bedke "Against Normative Naturalism"Australian Journal of Philosophy 90 (1):111 - 129 (2011) summary on PhilPapers online research in philosophy,

[10] Atheist Blogger Alonzo Fyfe  "deriving ought form is moral Hypothetical imperatives" (Atheist Ethicist) Thursday, August 2, 2012


Thesauros said...

Whatever the naturalist's argument, it will always be tripped up because s/he willfully ignores the fact that the ledger's bottom line has MY name on it. Any well being that I seek for another will always be viewed through the lens of MY immediate well being.

My experience has been that only the indwelling Spirit of Jesus is able to change the bottom line.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

that is a crucial insight.