Thoughts on is/ought
I have been engaged in a lengthy discussion with long time visitor and commentator Andrew Finden regarding the definition of “human”, what it means to be happy, and the morality (or otherwise) of abortion – the ultimate aim of the conservation. In the latest round of comments Andrew raises a point which I think deserves a blog post of its own.
In response to my comment:
“Actions have consequences, and we can make judgement calls on those consequences.” – askegg
To which he replies:
“Is-ought problem, anyone? You have to sneak a whole stack of presuppositions in for this to work. why is it is morally wrong to cause pain, for example? Why is it ok to kill someone just because they can’t ‘feel’ it?” – findo
For those who may not be familiar, the “is/ought problem” was proposed by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Essentially Hume argued that making statement about the way things are does not inform us how things ought to be. This is a serious philosophical issue which has the potential to neuter all motivation and covert us to nihilism. However, I do not wish to directly address the is/ought problem in this post, but if you are interested in a reasonable argument against the proposition I recommend you read Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”.
Instead, I think it is sufficient to point out the mutually assured destruction when deploying the is/ought argument in conversation – if valid, it can be applied in all circumstances.
Why is it better to want happiness for all conscious creatures, rather than absolute misery? Why is it wrong to cause pain rather than seek pleasure? Why should we consider the results of our actions on others, rather than not? Is every action ultimately equally valid in the grand scheme of thing? Is the a universe in which there is suffering and pain really worse than one in which there is pleasure and ecstasy?
Surely Andrew is not arguing this point, but then what does he mean by “why is it is morally wrong to cause pain, for example?” Is he seriously proposing it is morally acceptable to inflict pain? To make such an argument mocks the very meaning of words like good, wrong, evil, moral, and immoral. Surely even he accepts pleasure is “better” than pain, which makes the entire question a distraction to the central topic. Perhaps this post will spur a discussion centred on the is/ought problem in isolation?
We all seem to recognise that a universe in which all conscious beings experience maximal pleasure is “better” that one in which they suffer. However, the deeply rooted underlying question of why we think it’s “better” remains; and it not easily answered.
“Once again we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” – Sam Harris
Perhaps a divine authority is require to grant us an escape hatch from this issue; things look bleak for the skeptic at this stage. But let’s consider this hypothesis for just a moment.
Let’s assume an intelligent creative force did cause the universe. Let’s also assume this force is conscious and cares about its creations. Let’s further assume this force has the power to intervene in the workings of its creation to inflict pleasure or pain.
You will notice that these are all “is” statements – they describe reality as it would be if these things were true, not how things should be. So why should this force create the universe rather than not? Why should this creative force care rather than not? Why should it intervene rather than not? Aren’t these also is/ought problems as well?
Believers will probably be screaming at the screen at this point:
“Of course god cares and intervenes to cause pleasure within the universe – that’s the very nature of god!”
Alright, let’s also assume that it the case. Why should we follow these instructions rather than not? What makes what “god” “better” rather than not? Why should we follow god’s instructions rather than not? Why is Heaven “better” than Hell?
Believers, please post a response that does not resort to special pleading – it’s better because god said so.
PS. Further reading.