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The Is/Ought Problem

 
astauber
 
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astauber
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29 November 2015 11:18
 

I just finished reading “The Moral Landscape” and had the below thoughts about the Is/Ought argument that several writers used to criticize the Author’s argument.  I am new to this forum and I apologize if my point has already been made:

The Is/Ought Illusion
1) The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is based upon an illusion. It assumes that only when we are making “Is” judgements, are we involved in observing and explaining existing facts/conditions. But when we are asking “ought” questions, of what we ought to do, this is inductive reasoning and therefore can’t be answered by existing conditions (this is the David Hume argument).
2) The reality is that we are never really doing anything but “is” type activity and we can only acquire “is” type knowledge. The fact that we sit back and think “what should I be doing” and then go through a series of choices, fools us into thinking that what we’re doing is trying to induce from the past something new. But the truth is that’s impossible for us to do. All we can do and all the knowledge we can have is based upon the existing knowledge we already have and/or our new observations. What we’re really doing when we think we’re involved in an “ought” question, is playing out in our heads different existing conditions and then simply “feeling” (or observing) how we react to them and that simply provides us with updated “is” type knowledge and then we act accordingly.
3)  If I am correct in Item #2, then the Is/Ought argument against making moral rules falls away. 
4)  Another related observation.  In reality, there is no such thing as a “moral action”. The only thing we can say exists are “moral states”.  So moral rules like, “do kindness, give charity, don’t steal” are misleading.  When we say that it’s “good to give charity”, it implies that simply trying to do charity is the “good” we are saying we should do.  But really what mean is that the state of existence that comes about through people giving charity is “good” (ie, poor people having funds to get what they need is a good state of existence).  So the value here is the “state of existence”.  That is an “is” judgement.  The truth is that we can leave out the word “good” and just say, that’s the state of the world we want – ie poor people having funds to get what they need.  Once we establish that this is the state of the world, then it makes sense to say “it’s good to give charity”.  This statement simply expresses our belief that the way to get to that state of existence is by getting people to give charity.
5) The above idea is also contained in the expression “it’s the thought that counts”.  What do people mean by this?  On the one hand it seems to mean that even if the intended outcome is bad or doesn’t end up occurring we will still consider the person’s actions or intent “good”.  But really what we mean is that since we like to get outcomes of “x”, and to do so we need people to have intent of “y” to get to outcome “x”, so even if we don’t get the outcome “x”, we still are happy with intents of “y”.  But it’s really the outcome “x” that is really the good. So in truth, it’s not really the “thought” that counts.
6) We can extend the idea in Item #2 to argue that the whole notion that we can think about the “future” is an illusion.  All we are really doing is taking what we’ve observed in the past and running it over again. I don’t think there really is any way we can do otherwise. All we can know is either the past or the present (technically, we can’t even know the present).  So all we’re doing when we are thinking about the future is bringing up an image in our consciousness from the past and then putting a label on it in our minds that this is going to be happening in the future.
7) Even in science, when we think we’re doing an experiment to see what will “happen”, all we’re really doing is seeing if we understand the past properly.

 
Twissel
 
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30 November 2015 00:39
 

the Is/ought divide has always been a mostly rhetoric trick for promoting moral relativism.

And indeed we can not even make an ‘is’ statement without injecting a degree of value judgement, at the very least ‘do we want to stay in this state or not?`.

concerning 5):
Personally, I hate the expression ‘it’s the thought that counts’, though it’s a common sentiment, it seem to let us off the hook we tried to do good and failed, but denies credit for accidental acts of benefit. As someone with strong consequentialist tendencies, I agree that it should not be the intentions, but the results that should count.

 
 
franz kiekeben
 
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franz kiekeben
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06 December 2015 09:39
 
astauber - 29 November 2015 11:18 AM

The Is/Ought Illusion
1) The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is based upon an illusion. It assumes that only when we are making “Is” judgements, are we involved in observing and explaining existing facts/conditions. But when we are asking “ought” questions, of what we ought to do, this is inductive reasoning and therefore can’t be answered by existing conditions (this is the David Hume argument).

But this isn’t Hume’s argument at all. The is/ought gap is really very simple in principle (though it gets thornier if we pursue its deeper basis - more on that below). All it says, at least on the surface, is that if you have a deductive argument whose premises contain only “is” statements - statements that say nothing about what should be, ought to be, must be, etc -  then you can’t validly conclude anything containing an “ought” statement.

So for example, suppose I say, “Constitutional democracy is the system of government that leads to the greatest amount of freedom; therefore, we should have a constitutional democracy.” We may agree with the sentiment, but the conclusion does not follow from the single premise in this argument. There is a hidden (implied) premise at work here which says “we should have a government that leads to the greatest amount of freedom.” IF you combine this second premise with the first, THEN the conclusion follows. But note that this second premise has an “ought” in it. So we haven’t derived an ought from an is: we’ve started with an ought. And anyone who disagrees that we should promote freedom isn’t going to agree with the conclusion.

I have a recent blog post on this that explains it in a bit more detail here: http://www.franzkiekeben.com/blog/-can-one-derive-an-ought-from-an-is

Now to where it gets thornier (which I didn’t get into on my blog post):

There is a deeper intuition at work here that leads to this is/ought gap being significant. After all, if it were exclusively about the fact that in deduction you can’t get anything in the conclusion that isn’t already in the premises, so what? My point in insisting on this fact of logic is merely to answer the obviously flawed arguments made by the likes of Harris and Richard Carrier. But the is/ought gap wouldn’t really matter if that’s all it was about. After all, one can’t derive any conclusions about beets from premises that do not mention beets, but nobody cares about that!

The deeper intuition is that there is something different going on when we make a normative statement than when we make a descriptive statement. When you say “constitutional democracy is the system of government that leads to the greatest amount of freedom,” you are reporting on the way the world is (your statement is either true or false, and there are objective ways of determining if your statement is correct, at least in principle). But when you say “we should have the greatest amount of freedom,” you aren’t reporting the way things are; you are making a judgement about how you’d like to see things be. And even if we put this in “is” form, e.g., “having the greatest amount of freedom is good,” there is the intuition many of us have that this isn’t a fact about reality, but rather an expression of one’s desires.

An easy way to understand the gap here is to think about the fact that two people can agree completely on every scientifically discoverable (even in principle) fact about the universe and yet disagree as to what should be done. And that’s the real is/ought gap!

 

 

 

 
Twissel
 
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07 December 2015 04:50
 

@franz
I agree that conceptually, Hume’s argument is correct. Your illustration of the two people agreeing on the facts but disagreeing on the the appropriate action is a very good one.

But what Sam does (and Hume’s doesn’t) is take the obvious next step: if they observe the same facts, why do they disagree on the action?
The answer is that we all arrive at a situation with the baggage of our past experiences: we are never in that exalted state Hume’s talks about when he considers the ‘IS’ state. In practice, there is never a case where we can just impassionedly collect facts: just by the way we select and collect the information introduces biases, never mind the way the brain is absorbing facts with various efficiency, depending on the way it was wired.

This is why we can mostly ignore the is/ought gap and must instead focus on the ‘oughts’.

 

 
 
franz kiekeben
 
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07 December 2015 10:07
 
Ubik - 07 December 2015 04:50 AM

But what Sam does (and Hume’s doesn’t) is take the obvious next step: if they observe the same facts, why do they disagree on the action?
The answer is that we all arrive at a situation with the baggage of our past experiences: we are never in that exalted state Hume’s talks about when he considers the ‘IS’ state. In practice, there is never a case where we can just impassionedly collect facts: just by the way we select and collect the information introduces biases…

So in your view, we can never arrive at an objective understanding of the facts, and that is the reason why we disagree on what to do in a given situation. Is that right? If that’s it, then first, I’m surprised that you see this as Harris’s view. At least I don’t remember him ever saying such a thing, and the notion that we cannot be objective goes against much that he does seem to believe (e.g., what about science?).

Second, even though it is true that we humans are usually biased, so that what you’re referring to does happen a lot, I don’t think it’s unavoidable. Again, there’s science: yes, it contains some bias, but overall, due to its self-correcting nature, in science bias tends to be weeded out.

Third, I think it’s obvious that not all disagreements over what to do are disagreements over what we think the facts are. Consider Harris’s claim that it would be good if the human species were annihilated by aliens provided those aliens’ gain in well-being was greater than our loss. I completely disagree with Harris. How is my disagreement over any matter of non-moral fact? How could bias on how to understand the facts of such a scenario be the reason why we disagree over whether or not to resist the alien onslaught? And why not accept our disagreement for what it is: a disagreement not over what the facts of the scenario are, but over its desirability?

 
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07 December 2015 23:42
 
franz kiekeben - 07 December 2015 10:07 AM

So in your view, we can never arrive at an objective understanding of the facts, and that is the reason why we disagree on what to do in a given situation. Is that right? If that’s it, then first, I’m surprised that you see this as Harris’s view. At least I don’t remember him ever saying such a thing, and the notion that we cannot be objective goes against much that he does seem to believe (e.g., what about science?).

It’s my version (or continuation) of Harris’s statements, not his original view. I believe his view (like yours) is that we could agree on the facts, but we would always bring
our judgement of the situation into this set of facts, at the very least a sense whether we are satisfied with the current state or whether we can imagine a better one. That is the core of the ‘Moral Landscape’: that we think we can improve a situation by changing one or more parameters - some should be obvious (i.e. moving away from physical harm) while other might not be.

franz kiekeben - 07 December 2015 10:07 AM

Second, even though it is true that we humans are usually biased, so that what you’re referring to does happen a lot, I don’t think it’s unavoidable. Again, there’s science: yes, it contains some bias, but overall, due to its self-correcting nature, in science bias tends to be weeded out.

I think it’s almost entirely unavoidable except for maybe in highly theoretical, academic setting in which the entire terminology of the issue has been nailed down in advance.

franz kiekeben - 07 December 2015 10:07 AM

Third, I think it’s obvious that not all disagreements over what to do are disagreements over what we think the facts are. Consider Harris’s claim that it would be good if the human species were annihilated by aliens provided those aliens’ gain in well-being was greater than our loss. I completely disagree with Harris. How is my disagreement over any matter of non-moral fact? How could bias on how to understand the facts of such a scenario be the reason why we disagree over whether or not to resist the alien onslaught? And why not accept our disagreement for what it is: a disagreement not over what the facts of the scenario are, but over its desirability?

We might not disagree about the facts, but we do disagree (explicitly or implicitly) on how significant the various facts are: we might agree that the economic situation of the Palestinians is dire, but for improving their situation, we might think of this as the primary or only a secondary or tertiary issue.

Note: this is my view - I do enjoy hearing another point of view on the matter!

 
 
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08 December 2015 13:33
 
Ubik - 07 December 2015 11:42 PM

We might not disagree about the facts, but we do disagree (explicitly or implicitly) on how significant the various facts are: we might agree that the economic situation of the Palestinians is dire, but for improving their situation, we might think of this as the primary or only a secondary or tertiary issue.

I see. But I don’t disagree with this, and as far as I can tell neither does Hume. When you say people disagree on how significant facts are, it seems to me you are just saying that people have different attitudes (preferences, etc.). So you are agreeing with Hume and me that even though two people can agree on all the facts, they can have different views as to what one should do. The only thing that’s different is that you seem to limit people’s differences to different attitudes about the relative importance of the facts, whereas we would say there are other differences as well.

 

 
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09 December 2015 02:14
 

if you want to interpret Hume as general as possible, it might work.
But there is a difference between saying: there is no ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ to saying: there is an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’ - but no two people can fully agree on what it is.

 
 
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09 December 2015 18:00
 
Ubik - 09 December 2015 02:14 AM

if you want to interpret Hume as general as possible, it might work.
But there is a difference between saying: there is no ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ to saying: there is an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’ - but no two people can fully agree on what it is.

But that’s not what it seems you are saying. Obviously, we can agree that Hume said one cannot derive an ought from an is. But your argument, that even when two people agree on all the facts they can disagree on what to do due to the different importance they assign to different facts, seems to me to be perfectly consistent with Hume’s dictum. For ultimately what are their differences if not differences over what ought to be done (or what is better to do, or what is more important to do)? After all, if they agree on all the facts, then by definition their disagreement cannot be over what IS.

But maybe I misunderstood you? Maybe you’re saying that when two people agree on a set of facts, they nevertheless will always disagree on other facts - facts as to the relative significance of the information in the first set? But if so, then I’m unclear on why it would be impossible for there to be agreement on such a thing.

Anyway, to recap, my position on this, which is Hume’s basic position, is that even if there is complete agreement on all the facts, there can be disagreement over what to do. This is what Harris denies. And notice that even if it were true that there never is complete agreement on all the facts, it wouldn’t matter: it would still be the case that IF there were such agreement, one STILL wouldn’t necessarily have agreement on what should be done. And that’s all I need to demonstrate in order to show that Harris is mistaken on this issue.

 
icehorse
 
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12 December 2015 07:52
 

franz said:

...Anyway, to recap, my position on this, which is Hume’s basic position, is that even if there is complete agreement on all the facts, there can be disagreement over what to do. This is what Harris denies. And notice that even if it were true that there never is complete agreement on all the facts, it wouldn’t matter: it would still be the case that IF there were such agreement, one STILL wouldn’t necessarily have agreement on what should be done. And that’s all I need to demonstrate in order to show that Harris is mistaken on this issue.

I don’t think you’re accurately representing Harris at this point. He’s very clear that there can be many peaks on TML.

 
 
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12 December 2015 09:16
 
astauber - 29 November 2015 11:18 AM

I just finished reading “The Moral Landscape” and had the below thoughts about the Is/Ought argument that several writers used to criticize the Author’s argument.  I am new to this forum and I apologize if my point has already been made:

The Is/Ought Illusion
1) The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is based upon an illusion. It assumes that only when we are making “Is” judgements, are we involved in observing and explaining existing facts/conditions. But when we are asking “ought” questions, of what we ought to do, this is inductive reasoning and therefore can’t be answered by existing conditions (this is the David Hume argument).
2) The reality is that we are never really doing anything but “is” type activity and we can only acquire “is” type knowledge. The fact that we sit back and think “what should I be doing” and then go through a series of choices, fools us into thinking that what we’re doing is trying to induce from the past something new. But the truth is that’s impossible for us to do. All we can do and all the knowledge we can have is based upon the existing knowledge we already have and/or our new observations. What we’re really doing when we think we’re involved in an “ought” question, is playing out in our heads different existing conditions and then simply “feeling” (or observing) how we react to them and that simply provides us with updated “is” type knowledge and then we act accordingly.
3)  If I am correct in Item #2, then the Is/Ought argument against making moral rules falls away. 
4)  Another related observation.  In reality, there is no such thing as a “moral action”. The only thing we can say exists are “moral states”.  So moral rules like, “do kindness, give charity, don’t steal” are misleading.  When we say that it’s “good to give charity”, it implies that simply trying to do charity is the “good” we are saying we should do.  But really what mean is that the state of existence that comes about through people giving charity is “good” (ie, poor people having funds to get what they need is a good state of existence).  So the value here is the “state of existence”.  That is an “is” judgement.  The truth is that we can leave out the word “good” and just say, that’s the state of the world we want – ie poor people having funds to get what they need.  Once we establish that this is the state of the world, then it makes sense to say “it’s good to give charity”.  This statement simply expresses our belief that the way to get to that state of existence is by getting people to give charity.
5) The above idea is also contained in the expression “it’s the thought that counts”.  What do people mean by this?  On the one hand it seems to mean that even if the intended outcome is bad or doesn’t end up occurring we will still consider the person’s actions or intent “good”.  But really what we mean is that since we like to get outcomes of “x”, and to do so we need people to have intent of “y” to get to outcome “x”, so even if we don’t get the outcome “x”, we still are happy with intents of “y”.  But it’s really the outcome “x” that is really the good. So in truth, it’s not really the “thought” that counts.
6) We can extend the idea in Item #2 to argue that the whole notion that we can think about the “future” is an illusion.  All we are really doing is taking what we’ve observed in the past and running it over again. I don’t think there really is any way we can do otherwise. All we can know is either the past or the present (technically, we can’t even know the present).  So all we’re doing when we are thinking about the future is bringing up an image in our consciousness from the past and then putting a label on it in our minds that this is going to be happening in the future.
7) Even in science, when we think we’re doing an experiment to see what will “happen”, all we’re really doing is seeing if we understand the past properly.

um, why did you capitalize the “M” in moral? (1) “The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is. . .
gregory

 
 
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12 December 2015 10:28
 
Gregoryhhh - 12 December 2015 09:16 AM

um, why did you capitalize the “M” in moral? (1) “The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is. . .
gregory

Why didn’t you capitalize the “u” in “um”?

 
 
Twissel
 
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12 December 2015 11:44
 

In almost any situation, we know exactly the ‘ought’ from the ‘is’: it’s a learned or instinctive response:
when a car is rapidly approaching, you ‘ought’ to get out of the way; when you see something great, you ‘ought’ not to steal it; when someone is impolite to you, you ‘ought’ not beat him to a pulp.

there are only a small class of question that can be discussed after background research and personal reflection that can have multiple possible actionable plans with no clear preference. But usually, the goal of research is to reduce the problem to one where the learned ‘ought’ response is known: IF is this a question of civil liberty THEN do this ELSE do this etc.

 
 
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12 December 2015 12:21
 
Ubik - 12 December 2015 11:44 AM

In almost any situation, we know exactly the ‘ought’ from the ‘is’: it’s a learned or instinctive response:
when a car is rapidly approaching, you ‘ought’ to get out of the way

Maybe not if your goal is to commit suicide, or to save your child from being hit.

Ubik - 12 December 2015 11:44 AM

when you see something great, you ‘ought’ not to steal it;

Maybe not if your child is starving and the something great is food.

Ubik - 12 December 2015 11:44 AM

when someone is impolite to you, you ‘ought’ not beat him to a pulp.

Maybe not if you also know that the person just murdered 6 people and the police are trying to find him before he murders 6 more.

Your response to any set of “IS” factors can depend upon any number of things.  We can agree on the IS factors and still disagree on the OUGHT response.

 
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12 December 2015 14:08
 
nonverbal - 12 December 2015 10:28 AM
Gregoryhhh - 12 December 2015 09:16 AM

um, why did you capitalize the “M” in moral? (1) “The Is/Ought argument against trying to use science and the scientific method to determine values and make Moral judgements is. . .
gregory

Why didn’t you capitalize the “u” in “um”?

thanks for askin - i dont capitalize the u in um for the same reason i do not capitalize the i in “I”

 
 
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12 December 2015 14:10
 

besides which, is there not a name of a fallacy that you just did?

 
 
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