Monday, 22 January 2007

Is-ought? Not a problem.

Those trained in university philosophy departments will frequently wheel out something called the 'Is-Ought' argument as 'proof' that facts are inherently value-free, or (to put it another way), that reality provides no basis from which to formulate a reliable ethics.

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.

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.
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.

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...

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.
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.

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


  1. Hey PC,

    Way-back-when I did an 'intro to ethics' paper taken by the excellent Dr Vanya Kovach who managed to, at the least, allowed us to form our own opinions uncoloured by her own thinking.

    She also seemed to be a fan of 'flourishing', but I always found it a little unsettling as a basis for morality. While (in true libertarian fashion :D) it places the onus on the individual to improve their own lot, it seems to disregard to some extent the intention and the target of your actions.

    For (an over simplified) example, if in the process of 'flourishing' you become an leading expert in the design of military equipment, it would seem that you've 'flourished', but perhaps not in a way that is strictly 'moral'. Meanwhile someone who has chosen not to educate or further themselves in any way but is a saint towards others on a day-to-day basis would seem to be considered inferior.

    Still, one would thing that 'Is-Ought'ists would have to declare their profession defunct and become burger flippers if that's what they really believed! :D

  2. (read 'thing' as 'think' in that last para!)

  3. a drinker called David Hume

    Immanual Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table
    David Hume could out consume
    Schopenhauer and Hegel
    nd Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel
    There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya
    'Bout the raising of the wrist
    Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed
    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill
    Plato they say, could stick it away
    Half a crate of whiskey every day
    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle
    Hobbes was fond of his dram
    And Rene' Descartes was a drunken fart
    "I drink, therefore I am"
    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed
    A lovely little thinker
    But a bugger when he's pissed

    For those of you that don't know, that is Monty Python.

    Anyway, seriously, it that was a good post, Peter. As usual, you are quite correct.

    On a side note: I have brought and am now half-way through Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It (the book). Also my best friend was kind enough to lend me Atlas Shrugged and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, both of which I will soon read (after finishing Philosophy: Who Needs It). He also offered to lend me Anthem.

    Hamish, the context of the military equipment is important. If it is used to defend against invaders or destroy aggressors (for both of those read: as retaliatory use of force) it is moral. To not do so is immoral.

  4. Those not trained in university philosophy departments are frequently an embarassment to those who are. In this post, for example, you misrepresent the "is-ought" problem twice in your first paragraph.

    The "is-ought" problem isn't supposed to be proof that "facts are inherently value-free" or that "reality provides no basis from which to formulate a reliable ethics". Hume was making a logical point, not a metaphysical one. He said that you can't derive moral conclusions from non-moral premises. To attempt to do so is egregious folly.

    Here's a classic example.

    That glass of brown liquid in front of you is dangerously toxic. (Premise)
    Therefore, One ought not drink it. (Conclusion)

    As the argument stands, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. Of course, if you make self-preservation and flourishing the basis of your morality (and add a premise to that effect), then the conclusion does follow. But that's the problem. You can make whatever you like the basis of "your" morality. I, for example, could make martyrdom and the will of Allah the basis of mine, and we'd come to radically different moral conclusions. But that's relativism (and relativism's bad, m'kay).

    To avoid relativism, we must dispense with "your" morality and "my" morality and seek the basis of objective morality. But when it comes to objective morality, you can't make self-preservation and flourishing the basis of morality, any more than you can make the atom the fundamental constituent of matter. The nature of matter isn't up to you. Neither is the nature of morality.

    If you think that self-preservation and flourishing are the basis of morality, you need to wheel in some evidence. Or just acknowledge that your moral beliefs are a matter of faith.

  5. But when it comes to objective morality, you can't make self-preservation and flourishing the basis of morality

    Then what are we left with as the basis? Nothing, that's what. The moral is based on what is a necessity to continue your life without violating the rights of others. That is self-preservation.

  6. The moral is based on what is a necessity to continue your life without violating the rights of others.

    In the words of one philosopher - "Sez who?"

  7. Richard, you demonstrate perfectly what happens when you divorce logic from reality and just use it to play semantic games: you end up talking nonsense, as Hume did (and as most of the denizens of university philosophy departments will persist in doing), and as a consequence (and just as your colleagues do) you bring to the discussion of ethics very much less than your full range of knowledge.

    "[Hume] said that you can't derive moral conclusions from non-moral premises."

    Well, yes you can. That is, you can IF you haven't divorced logic and reason from reality, as Hume did so egregiously, disintegrating as he did any possibility of thinking in principles, or of allowing morality to reflect causality.

    Hume was an enemy of both integration and of causality, and no rational ethics is possible without either.

    When logic and reason are not divorced from reality, logic provides a non-contradictory means of integrating what we know about existence.

    Indeed, this is the very point of logic, and the starting point of reason: a non-contradictory identification of existence.

    It is the use of reason to integrate our knowledge that allows us to formulate principles, and in the field of ethics it is ethical principles that integrate our knowledge to determine how best we should act.

    Action, if you recall, is the very point of ethics: "I should do this IF I desire this outcome" is a statement at the very heart of ethics, one that recognises that actions logically have consequences -- that despite Hume's denial, this is indeed a causal universe in which our actions have an effect on our lives.

    In the case of the brown liquid before us, for example, reason integrates in a non-contradictory fashion what we know about the liquid before us, about human biochemistry, about the nature of toxins, about how much we've already had to drink and so on, -- if life is our standard -- it integrates these facts into a guide to action in this instance. The consequence of drinking poison is either death or damage. By contrast, the consequence of drinking Limburg Czechmate is (if I haven't already consumed a truck-load of the stuff) pleasure.

    To deny this would be egregious folly.

    It is the sum of ethical principles derived from such instances in such a manner and integrated into non-contradictory whole that comprises a rational ethics.

    This is what it means to use reason to derive morality.

    An objective ethics, one that seeks to determine and guide good actions as against bad actions, should integrate all that we know about the nature of existence (including the importance of causality, and the non-contradictory nature of existence), all that we know about our means of acquiring knowledge about existence, and all that we know about human nature.

    Non-contradictory integration of all that we know is essential to such an enterprise.

    By contrast, an ethics that refuses to recognise all that we know is not one that could be considered rational; and not to integrate all that we know could only be described politely as "egregious folly."

    A rational morality that is ends-based (which is what a rational morality in a causal universe must be) seeks a standard by which to integrate all our relevant knowledge into principles for ethical action.

    As Aristotle identified, such principles would take the form "I ought to do such and such for the sake of this or that goal." In a causal universe, our goals are determined by our values. Actions, rational actions, have a purpose.

    And since the most fundamental choice for any living being is life or death, the only standard by which to formulate a rational ethics is the standard of life. Life is the rational standard, and is necessarily our highest value, and also our highest purpose. It is this standard that integrates a rational ethics.

    There is only one other alternative on which to base your morality: that of death. Strangely, non-contradictory identification of many ethical systems shows this to be the case, that instead of life, death is at their heart: the two examples you provide --martyrdom, and acting on the 'will of Allah' -- are just two instances of that.

    To identify this is not an act of faith, but a non-contradictory identification of the nature of existence for living beings. Life for living beings is contingent on action being taken to sustain life.

    Life itself is a process of self-sustaining and self-generating action. If you want to kill yourself, then you don't need a guide to action: all that you need to achieve your death is inaction and eventually you'll achieve your wish.

    By contrast, goal-directed action is necessary only if life is the purpose of and the standard for your actions. Ethics -- rational ethics -- recognises this fact.

  8. Actually PC, I think what they're saying is that you're making a circular arguement.

    ...the most fundamental choice for any living being is life or death, the only standard by which to formulate a rational ethics is the standard of life. Life is the rational standard, and is necessarily our highest value, and also our highest purpose...

    Well, no. That's your opinion. While it sounds like a good one, you havn't laid a logical basis for your opinion, but then you've used it to extrapolate a logical arguement. It's not 'rational' until you've provided a basis for the rationality, which you haven't. Just saying that it is, isn't, as it were. :D

    Kane: maybe, you can't say whether his particular contributions would be put to 'good' or 'evil' means though? The point was that 'flourishing' is a slippery concept.

  9. PC said...
    [By contrast, goal-directed action is necessary only if life is the purpose of and the standard for your actions.]

    This thread is too philosophical for me, which is not my area; however I just want to throw in this comment to see if it makes any sense to the discussion.

    Since the birth of computers over a half a century ago, mathematicians, physicists & computer scientists had been fascinated with the idea of designing machines (computer programs) to mimic human thought processes. Some of those pioneers were Alan Turing, John McCarthy, John von Neumann and others. The efforts of those pioneers led to the development of a branch known today as artificial intelligence (AI) which have many sub-branches and one of those sub-branch that deals with how human learns is called 'Machine Learning'. Of course Machine Learning integrates ideas from other disciplines such as Philosophy & Psychology, Physics, etc.

    Machine Learning deals mainly with 3 types of learning that mimics the way human learns and those are:

    #1) "Supervised Learning”:

    (The learner learns by being taught by a teacher or by an expert in that specific domain or in short, it is learning from examples or past experience). Eg: High School students learn how to solve calculus problems from the teacher who had given calculus examples during lessons. Most email programs today contain this type of learning algorithms. The program cannot foresee what is SPAM and what is NOT SPAM. You (user) need to give examples to the program of what you(user) regarded as SPAM and what is regarded as GENUINE. The more examples given the better chance the program will capture wide varieties of spam-email. There is no such anti-spam program that you install and run without giving it examples to learn.

    #2) "Un-supervised Learning"
    (The learner learns by self-taught or by self-discovery where there was no teacher or an expert involved at all in teaching the learner). Eg, New born babies do this sort of learning during their development stage. A baby crawls towards a candle and tries to put his/her finger in the flame. His reflexes makes him pulls this finger back. This piece of knowledge hasn't been stored or recorded in his memory database to make a good judgment as it is bad to touch the flame, it might lead to death. Again after this incident, the baby hasn't figured out yet that the hot object (flame) is something to avoid in the future. For the second time, if the baby hasn't learnt the danger of his past action, the baby crawls towards the candle the next time he sees it and tries to put his finger into the flame. Again, his reflex saves him by pulling his finger away from the flame immediately. If the baby does not understand the danger yet, he will do it again and again, until he discovers that it is something to avoid in the future. This discovery was not taught by an adult (teacher) who had spoken to the baby because the baby hasn't grasped the notion of languages yet. The baby just purely discovered that flames are something to keep away from purely on his own.

    #3) "Re-inforcement learning"

    This type learning in brief is described as when the learner, learns to take actions which maximizes the rewards for each of those actions in order to reach the specified goal. This type of learning is called goal seeking. At each step (path) that the learner chooses to take, in order to reach the goal, he/she will choose the most rewarded step from many possibilities which will reinforce the good rewards that had been accumulated in the previous steps (paths). Eg: Playing chess games are an example of re-inforcement learning. Each player are both staring down the board thinking in their minds the scenario of if I move in that way, the opponent might move in that way. Only the moves that maximize the reward are the ones that both players are concentrating on making, since the goal is to win and not to lose. Any move (action) that is taken by either player that is likely to be penalized heavily (less optimal or not maximizing the benefits or rewards in order to reach the goal) are played in their minds that those fatal moves are not to be taken at all. In fact this is the type of algorithms that is developed in to computer chess games of today.

    My whole point in this post is that “Agents (human, computer, animal, etc) try to take actions that will lead to successful goals, BUT only the actions that maximize the rewards in each step are the preferred ones. Agents that are being ignorant of adopting paths that have higher rewards by choosing to follow the least rewarded paths to the goal will lose and die”.

    Machine Learning is widely adopted in modern technology of today, from computers, cell phone, flight navigation, to running power stations, etc.

    Some useful links from Wikipedia:

    “Re-inforcement Learning”

    “Machine Learning”

  10. The Drunken Watchman23 Jan 2007, 08:14:00

    I drink Waikato, therefore I AM.

  11. This is a brilliant post Peter! Thank you very much - there is so much interesting stuff here - I have learned heaps from it.
    For one of those not trained in philosophy at university (hell, I have never even been ON to a universities GROUNDS!) it has been a little hard to follow, but after reading it a few times it eventually makes sense
    This thread was actually started from a letter I received from a gentleman disputing a post I made stating:

    A more principled or moral concept is that we have the right to sustain and pursue happiness - not by permission from god, society or government, but by virtue of our nature as thinking, human beings.

    To advocate the elimination of compulsion from human affairs and promote the belief that all adult interaction should be voluntary.

    The only act that may be properly banned in a free society is the initiation of force or fraud by one party against another, and that the only laws that may be properly imposed are those which ban the use of force or fraud, eg murder, assault rape and theft, and that the SOLE function of government is to define and enforce such laws.

    Your post and these comments have helped me get a grasp on this concept and formulate a reasoned reply

    Thanks to you all

  12. The Drunken Watchman said...
    [I drink Waikato, therefore I AM.]

    I had tried a few Waikato bottles during the Christmas holidays and it was a good taste. I know a very generous person who likes Waikato and I had some good general discussions during some drinking sessions with this person over the Christmas period. Always a good laugh and a big , HA!, HA!, HA!, HA!, HA!, HA! with a baritone voice.

    Cheers, to all the Waikato consumers out there.

  13. I don't like beer. Does that mean your philosophy disappears in a puff of logic/reality?


  14. P.C is right when he decries philosopher’s divorcing the rest of their brain from the issues at hand, and try to make sense of things in a sterile “un associated manner”
    I find this trait to be the most frustrating thing!
    I Have not been taught this bad habit, I always have my fact’s value loaded!
    To me so much is self-evident.
    That I may suffer the problem that I assume others are also doing this, and so I have no need to go into million word explanations means often there is a gap between myself and others who are not making the same assumptions.
    I carry on my conversations like I am talking to a friend about the weather!
    I don’t have the training, nor the patience to talk like a philosopher!

    R.G is right when he say's "seez who" regarding the absolute validity of Objectivist ethics.
    But He leaves us with no valid foundation for ethics
    P.C is right that "one can create a system of ethics from the idea of 'Man flourishing' that might be acceptable to some eg P.C, but never will this amount to a moral obligation on anyone but the one holding this belief!
    And this is the highest point morality can reach that is founded in man himself.

    I believe there exists an absolute morality that is binding on us all wether we believe it or not!
    seez who?....God!
    (Here we are where RG say's morality "hang's or falls with religion").
    Problem!.....Nobody here want's anything to do with God!
    Nobody here wants to consider that..."It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this..the judgement!
    I.e They don’t want an absolute morality!
    Herein lies The sinful human factor!
    It equates to the desire to avoid moral responsibilities that might restrict our lusts and our vanity. (which equates to sanction of their lusts and actions)
    It equates to the self delusion that one wishes to pretentiously claim to be moral before his peers, but have no higher court to have to answer for their dirty little/big secrets etc. They also hope their peers will accept them on their terms, and not confront them about "Sin".
    They hate the Idea of having to answer to a higher power for their life.

    That a higher power gave them their life does not seem to matter!
    They act as if they are self-created.
    I.e they delude themselves.

    In retort they will say...well who is god?
    Good question!
    This really is a far more valid quest, than the Idea of inventing morality for our selves!

    In retort some will say "Religion is the source of such things as 911"...and then attempt to draw the non-sequitur..."All religion is false and evil".....which is false.

    True Religion is the only true font of Absolute morality.

    Which religion?
    Which God?

    "Seek and ye shall find".

    I AM!

    Atheism is the destruction of absolute morality.
    This is why our conversation on morality cannot progress any further than it has, because those involved refuse to consider God and have a twisted notion as to science, and think their life just popped into existence spontaneously.
    You have by your own prejudices eliminated the only base possible for absolute morality and until you all take your blinders off, this conversation is just hot air!
    Tim Wikiriwhi
    Waikato is the thinking man's beer!
    No doubt about it!

  15. Insider, you asked, "I don't like beer. Does that mean your philosophy disappears in a puff of logic/reality?"

    No. It means you're clearly evil. ;^)

    Tim, have you ever considered a career in stand-up?

    Now, a couple of you have asked why "life" should be the standard on which morality is based -- why the fundamental alternative of life or death should be considered in any way fundamental -- and why the life of the actor should be the standard on which all actions should be judged as being good or bad for the actor.

    Perhaps the simplest answer is to say that it is not me or Ayn Rand who is asserting the fundamentality of life or death, it is reality itself that asserts it.

    If you choose not to recognise that fundamental alternative, then that's your choice, but you still can't escape it. If you don't recognise life as the standard by which to judge your actions, even implicitly (which is how most people do recognise it in their actions -- even philosophy professors often act like human beings in their spare time ), then if you don't do it enough you won't be around long enough to argue the point.

  16. Anonymouse / Insider said...
    "I don't like beer."

    That is like saying I don't like vegetables, or I don't like clothes, or I don't like summer. Or I don't like liberterians.

    I find these blanket statements very odd, unless you are a 4 year old.

    Not all beer is Waikato Draught or Limburg Czechmate Pilsner. Try a Liefman's Kriek (which most people would not class as beer), or a Galbraith's Grafton Porter (which is just so delicious), or a Cantillon Geuze (which nine out of ten people in a blind tasting would not think is beer at all).

    I drink everything, that's why I AM.

  17. Stu said...
    [I drink everything, that's why I AM.]

    Stu, I am exactly the same. Any liquid that contains alcohol in it (excluding lethal alcohol as meths), I drink it.

  18. "That is like saying I don't like vegetables, or I don't like clothes, or I don't like summer. Or I don't like liberterians.

    I find these blanket statements very odd..."

    Well, I can certainly understand the last one. And, sometimes, even sympathise. :-)


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