It's called the 'Is-Ought' argument because the bloke who invented this remarkable piece of sophism -- a drinker called David Hume -- suggested the fact that the world is this way or that way provides no means of suggesting whether one ought or ought not do something, and thus there is no way -- no way at all -- to put together any sort of rational morality. This is the sort of thing that in university philosophy departments passes for a sophisticated argument.
What's remarkable is that such a fatuous proposition should still have sufficient legs to persuade graduates of philosophy departments over two-hundred years after it was formulated. (You'll probably see some of these types appearing here soon in the comments section.) The 'is-out problem' is a problem only if your mind has been crippled by such a department.
Think, for example, about what the basis for any rational standard of morality would be. The crucial fact about human life that provides such a basis is the conditional nature of life, the fact that living beings daily confront the ever-present alternative of life or death. Act in this way and our life is sustained. Act in that way and it isn't. Life is not automatic; it requires effort to sustain it, and reason to ascertain what leads towards death (which is bad), and what leads towards life (which is good). What standard then provides the basis by which a rational morality judges what one ought to do, or ought not to do? Life itself. Life is the standard. As Ayn Rand observed,
It is only the concept of "Life" that makes the concept of "Value" possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.If, for example, that glass of brown liquid in front of you is dangerously toxic, then one ought not drink it. That would be bad. If, however, it is a glass of Limburg Czechmate, then all things being equal one ought to consume it -- and with enthusiasm. That would be good.
So much for the 'is-ought problem.' The fact that reality is constituted in a certain way, and that every living being confronts the fundamental existential alternative of life or death is what provides the basic level of guidance as to what one ought or ought not do. To a living being, facts are not inherently value-free, they are value-laden -- and the reality of a Limburg Czechmate demonstrates that some facts can be very desirable indeed. Leonard Peikoff makes the point:
Sunlight, tidal waves, the law of gravity, et al. are not good or bad; they simply are; such facts constitute reality and are thus the basis of all value-judgments. This does not, however, alter the principle that every "is" implies an "ought." The reason is that every fact of reality which we discover has, directly or indirectly, an implication for man's self-preservation and thus for his proper course of action. In relation to the goal of staying alive, the fact demands specific kinds of actions and prohibits others; i.e., it entails a definite set of evaluations.But this is (or should be) basic stuff. Unless you're a university philosophy professor (or David Hume) you don't simply sit there looking wide-eyed at the world, acting only on the basis of what appears in front of you on the bar. As Aristotle pointed out, our actions should be goal-directed; if we want the good -- that is, if we want to sustain our lives -- then we need to act with that end firmly in mind. A rational man acts with purpose. We should act in this way or in that way in order to bring into reality certain facts that our (rationally-derived) values tell us are good. Acting in this way is itself good.
For instance, sunlight is a fact of metaphysical reality; but once its effects are discovered by man and integrated to his goals, a long series of evaluations follows: the sun is a good thing (an essential of life as we know it); i.e., within the appropriate limits, its light and heat are good, good for us; other things being equal, therefore, we ought to plant our crops in certain locations, build our homes in a certain way (with windows), and so forth; beyond the appropriate limits, however, sunlight is not good (it causes burns or skin cancer); etc. All these evaluations are demanded by the cognitions involved -- if one pursues knowledge in order to guide one's actions. Similarly, tidal waves are bad, even though natural; they are bad for us if we get caught in one, and we ought to do whatever we can to avoid such a fate. Even the knowledge of the law of gravity, which represents a somewhat different kind of example, entails a host of evaluations --among the most obvious of which are: using a parachute in midair is good, and jumping out of a plane without one is bad, bad for a man's life.
And further: we should act not just in order to stay alive. As Aristotle and Rand both point out, the proper human state of life is not just bare survival, it is a state of flourishing. Rand again:
In psychological terms, the issue of man's survival deos not confront his consciousness as an issue of "life or death," but as an issue of "happiness or suffering." Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the signal of failure, of death...Such is the nature of a rational morality. That the world is constituted as it is, means that we ought to recognise the value of a rational morality, and if we wish to achieve happiness we ought to act upon values derived from a rational morality.
Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death. Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values...
But neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims. Just as man is free to attempt to survive in any random manner, but will perish unless he lives as his nature requires, so he is free to seek his happiness in in any mindless fraud, but the torture of frustration is all he will find, unless he seeks the happiness proper to man. The purpose of morality is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.
What the hell else could be as important?
FURTHER READING: 'The Objectivist Ethics,' by Ayn Rand, in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.
LINK: Audiobook excerpt from the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness.
RELATED: Ethics, Objectivism, Philosophy, Nonsense