Morality and the Is/Ought Problem


A long time ago, philosopher David Hume recognized that there was a fundamental difference between writers who argued about what ought to be instead of what actually is.  He found that there was a significant problem with trying to make descriptive statements (what is) out of prescriptive statements (what ought to be).  This problem became known as Hume’s Guillotine and it remains a significant problem today.

It’s funny, whenever I post something about morality, particular secular morality, and point out that there’s just no such thing as objective morals, I get complaints.  It seems that there are a lot of atheists who are just not comfortable with the realization that all of their much vaunted moral beliefs are not, in and of themselves, actually true, in the sense that they exist outside of their own heads.

That, I think, is a problem.  I’ve always been of the mind that an important part of the maturation process is coming to grips with what actually is, regardless of how it makes you feel.  In other words, being able to tell the difference between what is and what you really think ought to be and not only telling the difference, but accepting what actually is without regard to your personal emotional feelings about the subject.

We can see this most clearly in the classical case of slavery.  There are lots of, perhaps even a majority of atheists who will tell you that slavery is wrong.  Why is it wrong?  It just is.  In fact, this is an “ought”, they are operating on their own personal feelings to decide that because slavery is personally reprehensible, therefore it’s universally wrong.  The reality is, there have been and continue to be many societies where slavery is perfectly legal and acceptable.  This is the “is”.

When that “is” and that “ought” come into conflict, we see what I can only term as “faith” on the part of the “ought”-adherents.  It’s virtually identical to what we see among theists all the time.  Their own emotional comfort comes before a rational evaluation of the argument and brings them to declare that their beliefs are equivalent, no, not even equivalent… superior to what’s actually demonstrably true in reality.

This is still a major problem, especially for those who purport to be rational, critical and logical individuals, but whom cannot step back from their own emotional comfort zone and discover that their feelings of what they wish were true is not a reflection on what is actually true.  Morals, whether anyone likes it or not, are not objective.  They are not handed down from the mouths of gods, nor are they inherent in the laws of nature. They are things that we came up with because they personally benefit us.  As our societies and cultures continue to evolve and improve, so do our morals, but they don’t approach any form of idealized perfection, they just change to reflect our current needs and desires and where they will go next, for good or ill, is unknown and unknowable.  In another 100 years, if, say, we create self-aware robotic servants, we could all be slave-owners again and see nothing whatsoever wrong with it.  If we were to discover an alien species, we could very easily become racist or speciest against them.  Society changes.  Culture changes.  People change.  Reality does not.

I think it’s about time that atheists stop trying to compete with theists on their own terms.  Lots of atheists are seemingly uncomfortable giving the moral high ground to theists, who have no real proof that they have it, it’s all a bunch of empty claims without evidence.   I have no interest in competing against the delusional beliefs of a delusional group of people, only in embracing the demonstrable reality that we all share.  I don’t care how the facts make me feel, it’s irrelevant, I care only that the facts are actually true.  We need to stop pretending that just because the theists have a bunch of feel-good drivel, we need to do the same, we need to stop pretending that just because the theist beliefs make people feel good, we need to be emotionally comforting too.  We owe nothing to anyone, this isn’t a competition, this is an attempt to better understand, accept and deal with what “is”.  What “ought” to be is pointless.

9 thoughts on “Morality and the Is/Ought Problem”

  1. While I agree that there is no objective morality, the reality on the ground is that people must share a common denominator of acceptable behavior (i.e. I agree not to kill my neighbor or steal his possessions), or society would be impossible. We owe it to each other, believers and non believers, without trying to resort to moral absolutes, to find that common acceptable behavior.

    1. Sure, but society makes that decision and different societies make different decisions based on the wants and needs of that individual society. Lots of things are relatively common because human desires are generally similar, but not always. The thing is that, no matter what is claimed by believers, they really get their morality the same place as everyone else, they just refuse to acknowledge it.

  2. morals are nothing more than a behavior pattern, so they are not "true" or "real" in any objective sense, if you men that by that they exist outside ourselves as a phenomenon. I don't recall any atheist saying they think there are objective morals, only theists. atheists know that we determine what is moral based on our society and environment. So I think you have it backwards. Theists claim there is an objective morality that comes from an ultimate creator being, atheists recognize that morality is based on behaviors social animals develop to strengthen bonds between societal members.

    1. No, they're not, that's been my point. Morals are determined by individual societies based on the needs and desires of it's members. These morals can and do change over time. However, you will find plenty of atheists who do believe in objective morality, they want to believe that a thing is immoral now, has always been immoral and will always be immoral. Matt Dillahunty, at least on the subject of slavery, although probably on other things as well, is quite adamant that slavery is universally and temporally immoral and no possible argument can be made which shows otherwise. I've done a couple of posts on why I think his views fail, for the same reason that the theist views fail. I find it likely that he, like the theists, do it for the same reason, because it's easier to just arbitrarily assign an emotionally-comforting moral state that never changes so that you never have to revisit your moral views again and again.

  3. Maybe I'm not reading this right, but it sounds like you're saying "ought"s don't matter at all. Of course, as you say, it is very important to learn to understand and accept what "is", but surely we should want what "is" to resemble what "ought". And of course I don't mean just wishing, but actually working to change what "is" into what "ought". It sounds to me like you're saying to forget everything about what "ought" because it's not real, and simply to deal with what "is". But does that mean simply accepting and living with the gap between "is" and "ought", without caring to change anything?

    "Ought"s may not be real to the universe, but they are real to us. We are working to better both our "is"s and "ought"s as a species, and we can indeed say some are better than others (to us).

    1. "Oughts" are really just opinion. It's what you would like to be true. It isn't necessarily what's actually true. Now certainly, you can work toward an "is" from an "ought" but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to achieve it. You might think your car ought to be able to fly but you can sit in your car all day long and it's not going to take flight. Then again, you might be able to build a flying car. In moral situations, if you can convince the majority of your society that your moral view is correct, they might change their minds and agree with you, thus you've changed an "ought" into an "is", but wishing didn't bring it about, action did. I'm talking about people who want their personal moral decision to magically be the law of the land and that doesn't tend to work out too well.

  4. David Hume Treatise of Human Nature section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’:
    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”

    He said morals do not come from God and they are not arrived at be the reason of the rationalists (which is they are not subjective in the Cartesian cogito/ego or made up in a persons head) they are instinctual or in born or as he put it “natural” and can be got at through empiricism “founded on fact and observation.”

    He went on to write a lot about morals. He thought morals were natural and based in reason and sentiments and empiricism could describe and formulate them based on empirical observations of objective facts and actions of how they play out in real life interactions of people.

    Hume proposed a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably Descartes.

    “The science of man (or the science of human nature) is a topic in David Hume’s 18th century experimental philosophy A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). The science of man expanded the understanding of facets of human nature, including senses, impressions, ideas, imagination, passions, morality, justice, and society.”
    Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals
    Section I ‘The Principles of Morals’:

    “Those who have denied the reality of moral distinctions, may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants; nor is it conceivable, that any human creature could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone.”
    133 my page 169

    “…that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions.”
    137 my page 172

    “As this is a question of fact, not of abstract science, we can only expect success, by following the experimental method, and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances. ”
    138 my page 174

    “In full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions; and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation.”
    138 my page 175
    Religious people often argue that the is–ought distinction threatens the validity of secular ethics. But I don’t think most people understand what Hume is saying or that he is arguing against Christianity.

    Hume argues that he can defeat all ‘vulgar’ systems of morality ( Christianity and the subjectivists that just make up ethics/morals in their heads) by noting that the person begins with all sorts of propositions that describe “is” relationships (e.g. God created man), and then suddenly and inexplicably shifts to “ought” relationships (e.g., man ought to obey God).

    “… reject every system of ethics, … which is not founded on fact and observation.”

    The whole “is-ought” “problem” is based on a misunderstanding and misreading of David Hume.

  5. While I agree that there is no objective morality, the reality on the ground is that people must share a common denominator of acceptable behavior (i.e. I agree not to kill my neighbor or steal his possessions), or society would be impossible. We owe it to each other, believers and non believers, without trying to resort to moral absolutes, to find that common acceptable behavior.

    1. That kind of common acceptable behavior varies across time and space though, there isn't a single "this is the way it ought to be for everyone" definition, which is what a lot of people seem to want. I really get tired of people saying "this is the standard for everyone, everywhere, that everyone has to go by, so there" when it just doesn't work that way.

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