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Hume is not… er… humerous

One can not get an “ought” from an “is” said Mr David Hume, and he also said “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”.

So Mr Hume denies what we, in fact, do every day – for example when we say to ourselves or others “this is wrong, so I ought not to do it” (an “ought” from an “is” – it is IS wrong so I OUGHT not to do it), and then he does this himself “reason IS, and OUGHT to be, the slave of the passions”.

“Ah but Paul – Mr Hume puts the word “and” in there so that makes it O.K.”

Fine so I should use my reason to bring Mr Hume back to life, as I have a “passion” to torture him. Perhaps Mr Hume led a sheltered life and did not understand what sort of Hell-on-Earth people create if they let their moral reason became the slave of their passions, rather than have their moral reason control their passions. David Hume inverted the moral tradition for amusement (“look how clever I am – I am going to reverse the traditional answer that moral reason should control the passions” is what he is really saying), but the results are not good.

“But he does not mean this – he really means that you can not get the first “is”.

Please no one play that game – Davy Hume knew what he was doing (behind the gentle language and the endless pages of “philosophical argument”), he was playing the “shock the suffered shirts” game, but it is not funny when it is now treated as “great philosophy”.

39 comments to Hume is not… er… humerous

  • “Should” is a most dangerous word, and “ought” is no better.

  • lemon jellyfish

    Philosophical comments with a funny title! But he’s not wrong.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The very concept of “ought” implies the existence of a reason for the “ought.” Even if the reason given is “because god wants us to.” Generally it boils down to the necessity that X be done or that Y be the case if Z is to happen. There’s always a reason for the “ought,” regardless of whether we think we know the reason, and regardless of whether the reason given is the actual reason. (You ought to buy my Elevating Elixir, because it will make everyone unanimously agree to chip in and buy you a Dogue de Bordeaux like Hooch.)

    The reason for the “ought” is always a matter of fact, or at least of alleged fact.

    So in truth, you can only get an “ought” from one or more of the “is-es” of the real world.

    In another meaning, “ought” refers to expectation. But again: “If my arithmetic is right, 2 pins + 2 pins ought to give me 4 pins.” “They ought to get there before we do.” Yes, that’s the expectation, because they don’t have as far to drive as we do, and they’re famous for allowing twice the driving that we do. They ALWAYS get there before we do. “If the wings don’t fall off, we ought to arrive at Heathrow in fine shape.” And, of course, “If I played my cards right, no one should ever suspect me of murdering the butler with Col. Mustard’s hat.”

    “You can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” only to the extent that you think there is some “ought” that came with the whole entire Universe (in the broadest sense), unmoored entirely from Reality including the Reality that “God made it so,” if you believe in a god with that sort of power. Epistemologically, you have cut off any possibility of getting back from Ought to What Is by your very definition.

    This is just as true of propositions in purely abstract systems (math, the most esoteric of theoretical physics, etc.) as in applications in the Real World.

    I beg indulgence while I repeat myself: Just because X doesn’t believe that the reason given for the particular Ought is correct (either a true fact or actually causal), doesn’t mean there is no reason for the alleged Ought. But the reasons for the Oughts that really are Oughts to a given person in a given situation do exist, whether they’re true facts in Reality or not.

  • Fishplate

    Yes, but he got a leg up on Schopenhauer and Hegel….

  • William O. B'Livion

    I’m not much up on Hume, but I’ve noticed that often when Philosophers do things like this they have a different meaning for the word than would a normal person.

    Could he have a different definition of “passions” than we would normally ascribe to that collection of glyphs?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Sigh … always something …. :>(

    I wrote,

    “… [Y]ou can only get an “ought” from one or more of the “is-es” of the real world.”

    But I should have (ought to have!) written,

    “…[Y]ou can only get an “ought” from one or more of what you believe to be the “is-es” of the real world.”


    Also, one of those “is-es” is what you want to achieve. “I ought to leave now, because I’m due there in 1/2 hour, and it takes 20 minutes to get there [real-world ‘is-es’ external to you]; and I want to be on time [what you want to accomplish].”

  • Gong Cult

    An ought must necessarily come from an is. If there is no way an ought can come from what is(i.e. there’s no way it could actually happen…) then what we have is not moral philosophy based on human experience, but mere parlour games disconnected from reality… you is what you is and if you ain’t , you ‘re nuthin!

  • Christian Moon

    What you are calling a “reason” for doing something would be a “passion” in Hume’s language, I think. It’s an ethical sentiment or a preference or objective, a sort of feeling.

    For Hume, the reasoning bit means just the logic that links ideas together, so that the passions are like postulates in mathematics and the reasoning is everything you can trace out from them.

    Without the initial passions in this sense there’s nothing for reason to work with.

    And I’m sure he wasn’t saying we shouldn’t be using reason to trace out the implications of our sense of the moral, our passions: he just wanted us to acknowledge that there was passion or feeling at the root of our (moral) reasoning and it couldn’t be “reason” all the way down.

  • Jacob

    “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”
    Leaving the “ought” aside – it is true that most people act by their passions most of the time. In this Hume was right.

  • but I’ve noticed that often when Philosophers do things like this they have a different meaning for the word than would a normal person.

    Such as Rand and “altruism”? 😆

  • Paul Marks

    We have turned from the claim that everything a person (or rather flesh robot) does or says is predetermined by a series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe, and the contradictory claim that this in no way destroys moral responsibility (of course it utterly destroys it – making such things as the Criminal Law a meaningless farce).

    Now there is the claim that we can not get an ought from an is (which, as Julie, shows is a false claim) and the related claim that as our passions make our reason a slave (this “is” so) this “ought” to be so – and Mr Hume actually stresses the word “ought” and his argument rests on the “is” that our passions make our reason their slave.

    Other than hopelessly contradicting himself whatis Mr Hume dong here? He is saying (if he saying anything – not just playing games) that our passions should control our conduct – make our reason their “slave”.

    Clearly this DOES sometimes happen – I freely admit that. For example under my Jewish family name I am half Irish with a streak of violent rage in me that is very wide and very deep (not that some Jews are not violent and not that some Irish are very pacific – one must not fall too deep into the ethnic stereotypes) and it does (YES) sometimes overthrow my reason (make my reason its “slave”). Now what Mr Hume is saying (again if he saying anything at all) is that I should not RESIST that rage (my passions) – that I should “embrace the Dark Side” as it were, and allow my moral reason to be “enslaved” into merely a practical servant of my rage.

    For example, that I should use my reason simply as a practical tool to enable me to capture someone who has offended me (or even not offended me) – so that they are tied up and helpless, to enable me to torture them to death. With any question of moral reason (“but is this not morally WRONG?”) being ruled as out-of-bounds for my reason.

    I do not agree with the late Mr David Hume.

    Of course Mr Hume also says that there (really) is no “I” – that the human person (as traditionally understood – the moral agent, the soul) does not exist, that what we call a human is just a bundle-of-sensations with no soul (in either the religious or the Aristotelian, at least Alexander of Aphrodisias, sense).

    In short there is no moral reason, no “I”, to resist the Darkness – just an endless tide of horror that we (as bundles of sensations) must embrace.

    It is an astonishing achievement(and I am not being sarcastic – I actually mean it is an astonishing achievement) that a man, Mr David Hume, can make such utterly false-and-evil doctrines seem respectable – he does this by very gentle use of language (presenting himself as the mildest and most gentle of men) and lots of pages of very clever double-talk.

  • Paul Marks

    Now there were and are thinkers who prefer the term “moral sense” to “moral reason” – and Mr David Hume is often put in their number.

    However, he is not really one of the “moral sense” writers – as both the term “moral reason” AND the term “moral sense” rest on the very thing that Mr Hume is denying – the soul, if not in the religious then in the Aristotelian (or Alexander of Aphrodisias – or Ayn Rand) sense.

  • Paul Marks

    Jacob if most people acted according to their passions most of the time, the world would look like Syria – indeed it would be vastly worse than Syria. A nightmare of rape, murder and so on.

    However, the position of Mr Hume goes way beyond this – as he argues that all (not most) “people” act according to the passions all (not most) the time – in short that people (as a person is traditionally understood) do-not-exist.

    This is what Mr John Stuart Mill calls the “light of Hume” – Mr David Hume’s effort to “explain” a person, or (in truth) EXPLAIN AWAY a person. Deny the existence of the “I” the soul – even in the non religious sense.

    As with the attack of Thomas Hobbes upon what he calls “the Kingdom of Darkness” (natural law offering MORAL judgement on both personal conduct and a limit upon the JUST powers-of-the-state) this “light” of Mr Hume is really the light of the fires of Hell. And that would still be true if there is no Heaven and Hell and the soul dies with the body – as the Scholastics often pointed out, the moral law is the law of God but if God did not exist the moral law would be exactly the same.

  • Paul Marks

    Turning to psychology

    The term was invented by Ralph Cudworth (the arch enemy of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century – who was shoved down the “Memory Hole” by certain people in the 19th century) and was based upon the principle of human personhood (Free Will – although Cudworth attacked the distinction often made over the centuries between “will” and “reason” as cutting up the human person, the mind).

    This remained the central principle of psychology in the 18th century with the work of Thomas Reid (who was also a physical scientist – unlike David Hume who did no work in the physical sciences – but understood that not everything was a psysical science)and in the 19th century with the work of Noah Porter (Yale) and James McCosh (Princeton – or what is now Princeton).

    However, in the 1890s there was a change – with William James (Harvard) stating that psychology must be based upon the “assumption of determinism”.

    William James in his 1890 work “Psychology” does NOT refute Noah Porter and James McCosh (both of whom were still alive and had dominated the field in the United States for decades) – he does not even mention them on human personhood (the “Memory Hole” method that J.S. Mill used on his opponents some decades before – if the young students never get to hear what my opponents say then it does not matter what they say).

    This is very odd of William James – as he was not a determinist (and understood that “compatibilism” is a distinction without a difference – a “quagmire of evasion”).

    So what William James is saying is that psychology (a human, non physical, science in the OLD sense of BODY OF KNOWLEDGE) that was invented by people who passionately supported human personhood (Free Will) and made it the basis of all their work (the works he does not mention in his own book “Psychology” but which had dominated the field for decades, indeed centuries) “must” be based on a principle, determinism, which he (William James) does NOT believe to be true.

    Very odd.

    Although Karl Popper or Ayn Rand would have used (in their different ways) harsher words than “very odd”.

    For a while Britain resisted this decline – due to the influence of such philosophers as Sir William David Ross (Major Ross) and Harold Prichard at Oxford. As well as the work of such general Oxford writers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis of the “Abolition of Man”.

    But, over time, British academia joined the collectivist (ant heap) parade.

  • bobby b

    “Such as Rand and “altruism”?”

    I always thought she ascribed the common meaning to the word, but she just said it with a sneer.

  • Cal Ford

    “So Mr Hume denies what we, in fact, do every day – for example when we say to ourselves or others “this is wrong, so I ought not to do it” (an “ought” from an “is” – it is IS wrong so I OUGHT not to do it)”

    Sorry Paul, but this is an undergraduate mistake. ‘This is wrong’ is a moral statement. Of course you can derive an ‘ought’ statement, itself a moral statement, from another moral statement. What Hume was claiming was that you can’t get a moral statement from a non-moral statement, ie. from a statement (or set of statements) describing a state of affairs in the realm of the empirical (eg. ‘This ia brick’, ‘Fire burns paper’, or ‘Germany has invaded Poland’).

  • Paul Marks

    Bobby b – I think Perry is saying that when Rand uses the word “benevolence” Ayn Rand was using it to mean what many other people (perhaps wrongly) think the word “altruism” means.

    “Sorry Paul” – the mistake is yours Cal Ford, although David Hume DELIBERALTY misleads you.

    He does indeed present himself as just saying that one can not get a moral statement from a non moral statement – but he is no Harold Prichard.

    David Hume knows perfectly well that “advanced” readers will get his implication that there is no such thing as (what was traditionally understood as) a “moral statement” because, in the philosophy of David Hume, there is NO SUCH THING AS A PERSON (as the concept of a “person” was traditionally understood) to make a “moral statement”. Just a “bundle of sensations”.

    Cal Ford what you doing is what I did as an “undergraduate” (and long after) – try and make moral sense of David Hume. In this case by taking him as saying by “one can not get an ought from an is” as him really saying “morality is self evident” – but that is NOT what he saying, as he does not believe in the self – the “I”.

    I should also mention that it was Edmund Burke (although he was just repeating what had been known for thousands of years) who pointed out that if moral reason does not “chain the passions” then the STATE will have to do so.

    The “chain” is internal – or it is external. The “freedom” offered by the Revolutionaries (the Philosophical Radicals) is the “freedom” of slavery – of the “freedom not to be free” (not to have the terrible burden of moral choice – and the terrible guilt of one’s own evil doing). Instead the power of the STATE and I-was-only-obeying-orders, I-could-not-have-done-other-than-I-did.

    What David Hume is actually doing is laying the foundations for totalitarianism (by undermining the only valid alternative to statism) – although he is doing so as a GAME (a clever intellectual game) NOT because he actually wants totalitarianism.

    Cal Ford – why do you think all those distinguished academics the “Logical Positivists” loved David Hume above all other old philosophers. Do you think they were making an “undergraduate mistake”?

    On the contrary – the Logical Positivists understood how the work of David Hume could be used for their own evil purposes (and I use the word “evil” after full deliberation).

    David Hume was playing games – but the Logical Positivists, at least A.J. Ayer and the other socialists, were playing for keeps. They wanted the totalitarianism – it was their objective and they understood how the philosophy of David Hume could be used for the “euthanasia of the constitution” by the “euthanasia” of the very concept of a moral agent. Thus laying the foundations of tyranny.

  • Christian Moon

    Deleted – Cal puts things much better

  • Paul Marks

    In short – when F.A. Hayek thinks that the Logical Positivists (at least the collectivists among them) have misinterpreted the implications of David Hume – they have NOT.

    It is Hayek who has made the “undergraduate mistake” – not all the collectivists. They understood the logical implications of the philosophy if David Hume much better than Hayek did.

    This is why Hayek wasted all those years tying to convince the collectivist intellectuals that their philosophy (determinism and so on) did not lead to their politics – tyranny.

    Hayek was wasting his time – because that is the natural end of this philosophy. The philosophy he himself had been taught – and could never fully free himself from.

    For example the early pages of “The Constitution of Liberty” (before it goes on to address specific subjects of economic and social policy, such as Social Security, in later chapters) destroys its own case.

    I can see the smiling faces of the collectivists as they read those early pages of the Constitution of Liberty (1960) – and come upon Hayek’s (Hume influenced) treatment of certain vital questions. They are smiling (the smile of devils) because they can see that Hayek has not freed himself – and that their central position (that humans are not moral agents, beings with the terrible burden of real choice between good and evil, with basic rights on this basis) has been left untouched. Indeed, that without even fully knowing what he is doing, Hayek has accepted their position. Has fallen into their trap.

    Hayek, like Hume, at least by implication denies the “I” – and without the “I” (the being – the agent) there can be no such thing as a “moral statement”.

  • Paul Marks

    Christian Moon – for many years I did what you suggest (at least in the sense of pretending that David Hume “really meant…”). And I was wrong to do so.

    David Hume knew exactly what he was doing and it is as I describe.

    And he was doing it as a GAME. It is all a game to him – the “euthanasia of the constitution”, all of it.

    Rather than trying to “interpret” Hume to make him consistent with human freedom and morality, let us see his doctrines for the evil they actually are.

    Why do you think that he has been so fashionable for almost century and a half? But not before the collectivists started to get a real grip.

    In the late 19th century Hume went from someone who had been refuted by Thomas Reid to someone who was a great philosopher upon whose work a great Dark Tower should be built.

    Why was that?

    Some men (for example F.A. Hayek) never really understood the reason – after all David Hume was a limited government pro private property person (a great economist) and so on.

    The reason was that the philosophy of David Hume could be used to destroy the very things that, as an 18th century respectable gentleman, David Hume stood for (at least in his everyday life) such as the “Rule of Law”.

    The correct (not mistaken – correct) use of the philosophy of David Hume exterminates the moral content of such things as the “Rule of the Law”, indeed some of the French Revolutionaries understood that only a few years after Mr Hume died (Rousseau may well have understood it, in his own mad way, while Hume was still alive).

    And it was all a game to David Hume – just a game. Let us destroy the foundations of moral liberty (indeed of the human person) for FUN.

    Just to show how clever I, David Hume, am. I can deceive the unwary. I, David Hume, can weave such a web of words that even the learned are baffled as to how to respond – as the acid of my words undermines the foundations of civilisation leaving the gates open for both savage chaos and tyranny (savage chaos and tyranny are actually close kin).

    And he did it for fun. As an intellectual game.

    The ultimate expression of his own “I” was to deny the “I” of everyone else.

  • Cal Ford

    Yes, Hume can be difficult to interpret. But the claim that ‘You can’t get an ought from an is’ is one of the easier parts of his philosophy. And your refutation… well, even the most vehement anti-Humean would despair of any undergrad who put it forward.

    >In this case by taking him as saying by “one can not get an ought from an is” as him really saying “morality is self evident”

    That’s not what he’s saying. At all.

  • Paul Marks

    Cal Ford – I used to write as you do.

    But I was wrong. And I never said that Hume says that “morality is self evident” I said that is NOT what is saying. David Hume DENIES THE SELF – so he can not say anything is self evident.

    Indeed David Hume denies the existence of human persons (the “I”) and so there can, properly speaking, be no such thing as “moral statements”.

    Because there is no one to make moral statements.

    Actually I typed – “but that is NOT what he is saying as he does not believe in the self – the “I”.

    I could not have made any more clear that the position was NOT that of David Hume.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course if one rejects the first “is” (one’s own existence – the existence of the “I”, the moral agent) no “ought” can follow from it – I have never denied that.

    My point is that it is wrong to reject the first “is”.

  • Cal Ford

    I like a lot of what you write, Paul. Even some of your views on Hume. But what you are saying here is very confused. The claim that you cannot derive an ought from an is has nothing much to do with Hume’s views on the self, or whether or not morality is self-evident. And the original claim you made in your post — that a ‘ought’ statement can be derived from a moral statement — is still just irrelevant to anything Hume said.

  • Paul Marks

    Cal Ford – I think it does.

    Indeed I think what used to be called “the nature of man” is the starting point for everything in Hume and he (in effect) denies the existence of the human agent.

    As for “David Hume is just saying that a moral statement can not be derived from a non moral statement”.

    That is what I (yes – me) used to say – and said for decades. And one can be critical of that (as Julie is) as, for example, our nature as human beings (an “is”) has moral implications (an “ought”).

    But I now believe that what David Hume is saying is much more radical than that. That he is, without openly admitting it, saying that no objective moral statements can be made at all.

    “That is not a new point Paul – it just means that Hume believed that morality was subjective”.

    No – not if there are no subjects (no “I”s).

    And David Hume reduces the subject to just a bundle-of-sensations. He, in effect, destroys the subject.

    It is less obvious than with Thomas Hobbes (who takes the view that humans are flesh robots – NOT beings), but it is just as morally lethal.

    There can, properly speaking, b no moral statements in the universe of David Hume – because there are no beings (no real “I”) to make the moral statements.

  • Snorri Godhi

    About Hume, i can only repeat what i said about Kant:
    Given the choice of 2 interpretations of a thinker, if one of them does not make any sense, i’ll take the other.

    For TWO interpretation of Hume on free will that do make sense, you can look here. Thomas Reid is mentioned with approval at the link, and no doubt his interpretation also makes sense, given that Hume himself found it worthy of study and counter-argument.

    Paul Marks’ interpretation otoh does not make sense, which leads me to believe that the way he understands Reid does not make sense, either.

    Normally, i would also argue that, if one rejects the is/ought dichotomy, then one must accept the conclusion (which Paul denies) that we are indeed flesh robots. I have learned, however, that it is a fool’s errand to try to get Paul to face the logical consequences of his own claims.
    But it seems that there are a few people who get it, here.

  • Snorri Godhi

    William O. B’Livion:

    I’ve noticed that often when Philosophers do things like this they have a different meaning for the word than would a normal person.

    This is especially true of philosophers writing in xviii century English.


    Such as Rand and “altruism”?

    Perhaps Bobby B is right: it is “egoism” that has a special meaning in Rand’s vocabulary.

  • William O. B'Livion

    Paul Marks

    Jacob if most people acted according to their passions most of the time, the world would look like Syria – indeed it would be vastly worse than Syria. A nightmare of rape, murder and so on.

    Very large parts of the world DO look like Syria, and most people’s “passions” (whatever that means) are held in check not by logic and reason but by force or the fear of force.

    Look at what is happening in the US with the black block dickheads. For about 15 years they were able to destroy with relative impunity because they were on the side of the real power structure (or rather they were the tool of said powerstructure) then on Trumps inauguration day things changed.

    Now they’re whining that their previous support structure didn’t bail them out, they’re up on moderately serious federal charges (10 years in prison) and how this is horribly unfair.

    Look at how the cartels in Mexico operate, and the gruesome violence there. FARC, ISIS, half the Moslem world, etc.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – Kant rejected (and rejected with total contempt) your “compatiblism”, so it is unwise for you to bring him into the discussion.

    Either all choices are “really” predetermined by a series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe or they are NOT.

    And if they are so predetermined (as both open determinists and “compatiblists” really maintain) then “morality” and “ethics” are words without meaning, and human BEINGS do not exist (indeed no beings, human or otherwise, exist).

    However, you hold that you are predetermined by a series of causes and events going back to the start of the universe to write the things you do – that you have no real choice NOT to write the things you do.

    Thus the difference between a “compatibilist” and a beast such as Johnathan Edwards (who tormented small children by telling them they were predestined to the torments of Hell [torments he described – in great detail], and nothing they could do would change this, and when asked to stop by the parents of the young children – replied that all his words were also predestined to be said by him, he having no way to stop himself) is exposed as no real difference at all.

    Do not reply – remember, according to you, what I write and believe is also predetermined by a series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe (I have no real choice over what I write – according to you – I can not write other than I do) so any dialogue between us is utterly and completely pointless.

    Cal Ford.

    Like you for many years I held that the Logical Positivists had misinterpreted David Hume.

    In spite of the “moral talk” of David Hume I now believe the Logical Positivists were essentially correct in their interpretation of the IMPLICATIONS of his work.

    To them, the Logical Positivists, the work of David Hume destroys any real value to terms such as “good” and “evil” – “morally right” and “morally wrong”.

    The difference between my own position and that of the Logical Positivists such as A.J. Ayer is that I think that David Hume was wrong – and I do not REJOYCE in morality being reduced to “nonsense” (to the Logical Positivists everything is either “science” or “nonsense”) with moral terms being just “emotive” terms.

    Why did the Logical Positivists, such as A.J. Ayer, rejoice in what they are argued were the IMPLICATIONS of “you can not get a ought from an is”?

    A truthful answer may shock people, but it should be clearly stated.

    Philosophers such as A.J. Ayer rejoiced in this because they were evil men. They wanted morality (ethics) to be discredited – in order to open the gates to evil.

    It really is that brutally simple.

  • Paul Marks

    William – I do not deny that many parts of the world are deeply evil and that evil exists everywhere (including in all of us).

    But, I hope you will agree, that is no reason to GIVE IN to evil.

    Which is the implication of the philosophy of David Hume.

  • Plurbo

    “This is wrong” is still an “ought” statement, not an “is” statement, given that “wrong” in this sense is merely an adjective meaning “something that ought not be done”. “This is wrong, therefore I ought not do it” is a tautology, and the sentiment that it expresses tautologically remains a normative evaluation, not an empirical observation, which is the distinction that “no is implies an ought” pertains to.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “Is” = “exists,” or else “is” means that the subject of the sentence has some characteristic or attribute.

    This discussion centers upon “is” in the meaning of “exists.”

    One of the facts of reality that exists is the “state of mind” regarding the putative “ought” in question.

    There are always facts of reality upon which an “ought” is based (even if only one person in the nearly-seven-billion of us believes that the particular “ought” ought to be done, or to be so).

    A person knows or thinks he knows some alleged or putative “fact of reality” (which may be true or false, or both at once in different respects).

    He sees flashings in the night sky, though no sound reaches him. “Boy,” he thinks, “big thunderstorm coming! Better get those kids to climb down from the tree and come inside before it hits!”

    (No doubt readers understand that this is merely another way of phrasing the “ought” in question.)

    Now, on what “is-es” does the “ought” (“I’d better ….”) rest?


    The observation of what is taken to be lightning;
    The fact that the person takes that to be a sign that a thunderstorm is on the way;
    The fact that lightning in thunderstorms sometimes strikes trees;
    The fact that the tree and any object, living or not, is usually damaged if a lightning bolt strikes the tree;
    The fact that the kids are in the tree;
    The fact that the person wishes his kids to avoid this outcome;
    The fact that if they are indoors, they are almost certainly safe;
    The fact that the foregoing facts of reality (any of which might or might not be correct, at least in the given particular case) cause in him a strong feeling that can be expressed in words by saying that he OUGHT to call the kids in.

    Given the initial observation of the flashes, his interpretation, and his understanding that danger to these kids may well be on the way; and given the way he values them (which is another fact of reality); he concludes he OUGHT to call them in instanter.


    A man’s daughter has been seen out in public without the escort of a male relative. This is already against one of the “oughts” which he believes is incumbent upon her to obey. Worse, she was wearing lipstick!

    The “ought” in this case is clear. He OUGHT to kill her. This “ought” arises because of a bunch of “facts” that he “knows,” regardless of how he came to “know” them, and that “knowledge” means, he believes, that it is his duty — that he OUGHT to commit what almost all of us (at Samizdata, anyway, although let me tell you sometime about the effect Raccoon Lady, a.k.a. the Neighborhood Narc, has on me — well, never mind) know is a dreadful crime. Note that the existence in his mind of those “facts” and of the belief about what he should do, is itself a fact of reality.

    . . .

    People generally have have some idea, however vague or muddle-headed, of the foundation in what they think are facts of reality as to why an act is “wrong.” That they may not quite be able to articulate it, even to themselves, or may be disinclined to consider the validity of their conclusion of its “wrongness,” is beside the point. In the end, there are reasons.

    Real, existing physical reasons.

  • Paul Marks

    If David Hume had said “one can not get a moral statement from a non moral statement” one could leave him to Julie to spank and send to bed without his supper.

    But he went a lot further than that – by denying moral personhood (the “I”), replacing the moral self with a “bundle of sensations” (whose actions are predetermined), David Hume really destroyed the basis for any objective moral statements (and by destroying the self, the subject, he did not do subjective moral statements any good – by denying that there were any real subjects who could make them).

    There are good reasons why the Logical Positivists (swine such as A.J. Ayer) loved the “work” of David Hume.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The thing is, it’s important to be clear about getting to the root meaning of our concepts, when we think about these horny topics. People often start from the premise that the fundamental moral “oughts,” at least, don’t come from anywhere: they’re just there, telling us what we’re to do (or not-do). But if we start from that premise, Mr. Hume’s conclusion is based on begging the question: It’s a circular argument. The conclusion is part of the starting premise, and starting from that premise, one forecloses any possibility of linking “ought” to “is.”

    I wrote in terms of “oughts” above (1o:52 pm), but I was trying to address Plurbo’s comment above, and to deal with the idea of “wrongness” as something that one ought not to do, to put it quickly and in shorthand. His remark that

    ‘”This is wrong, therefore I ought not do it’ is a tautology,”

    is essentially correct, in our rather narrow context here. “One ought not to do X” just amounts to a different way of putting “It’s wrong to do X,” if we’re speaking of moral wrongs — or indeed any wrongs of action, as opposed to wrongs in thinking or judgment or dress or whatever. When serving soup, one ought not to have one’s thumb in the bowl. Whyever not? Why is it wrong? — In the last analysis, because it’s not sanitary!

    . . .

    I certainly agree that we have a moral faculty, in the same way as we have the faculty of reason. It begins as mere potential, but as we grow and develop it becomes operative: That is, it influences the way we behave, the choices we make.

    But just as two intelligent and knowledgeable physicists can look at a problem in physics and given the same starting data come up with differing conclusions (like Drs. Penrose and Hawking), two people, each having a well-developed moral faculty, can arrive at different conclusions about what one “ought” to do in a given situation. (Then there is the difficulty of getting oneself up for doing what, in one’s own judgment, one “ought.”)

    The “moral sense” as I mean it is like the rational faculty: It’s there, but it does not come with healthy and appropriate ideas of right-and-wrong included, just as the rational faculty does not come pre-loaded with rational answers to your algebra homework. The person develops his ideas of what’s moral through observation and life-experience and reading and thinking and dealing with himself and with other people.

    Sigh…and after all that, Jiminy Cricket is always after him to do the laundry or some damn thing.

  • Paul Marks

    “This is wrong – is still an ought statement not an “is” statement” – Plurbo.

    To a supporter of objective morality (moral right and wrong) it is BOTH.

    Only people who deny that ethical statements are matters of fact (not just preference) say they are not “is” statements.

    Nor are necessary truths unimportant – so dismissing them as “tautologies” will not do.

    Try living in a world and assuming that A is NOT A.

    But, I repeat, David Hume is not really a supporter of subjective morality either – as he tried to destroy the subject (the “I”) replacing the moral agent (the “I”) with a “bundle of sensations” whose actions are predetermined (like the flesh robots of Thomas Tyranny Hobbes and Jeremy 13 Departments of State Bentham). Those who declare the darkness of Hume the “light of Hume” (as J.S. Mill did) serve evil.

    If there is no subject (no “I”) if we are just objects (no moral self) there can be no subjective morality.

    Again socialists such as A.J. Ayer, knew what they were about when they supported all this stuff.

    Nor is choice “randomness” (that was exposed as false by Ralph Cudworth three and half centuries ago) – choice (agency) is itself, it can not be reduced to something else.

    Reductionism is mistaken.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Since this debate is still going on, i might add that i have been re-reading Michael Huemer’s essay: Why I Am Not an Objectivist.

    Needless to say, Dr. Huemer (in addition to being huemer-ous) has as much a claim as anybody now living to be an intellectual heir to Thomas Reid; which is why i re-read his essay.

    Read the whole thing: i don’t agree with everything he wrote, but everything he wrote is thought-provoking.

    The bits that seem most relevant to the OP:

    — Huemer gives the most cogent presentation of the is/ought dichotomy (or Hume’s Law, as he and many others call it) that i have ever seen.
    I regard Huemer’s argument as conclusive: i am never again going to argue for the is/ought dichotomy, i am just going to give a link to Huemer’s argument, and if anybody disagrees, they can send an email to him.

    — Huemer gives a definition of “reason” which is broader than just logic: according to Huemer, reason includes not only logic, but also the faculty of intuition of a priori truths, including moral intuitions.
    I have reasons (eh!) to believe that this is not what Hume intended by “reason”, when he said that reason is (let alone: ought to be) the slave of the passions: i claim that when Hume said “reason”, he meant no more than logic — but i see no need to defend Hume: read his work and decide for yourself; and if you disagree with me, i don’t give a ####.

    — At first sight, Huemer seems to agree with Paul Marks on free will:

    We have free will, but free will is incompatible with determinism, and free will is incompatible with indeterminism.

    …but read the whole paragraph:

    And now the paradox is complete: We have free will, but free will is incompatible with determinism, and free will is incompatible with indeterminism. One of these propositions must be false.

    (My emphasis.) Unlike Paul Marks, Huemer values logical consistency.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – if you value “logician consistency” you would opt either for determinism or agency.

    You would not continue to pretend you can have your cake and eat it as well.

    In short.

    Stop lying.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, at least you’re right about one thing, Snorri: Reason, in the broader and I think the traditional philosophical sense, is more indeed than “just logic”; it also includes observation and the promptings of conscience, all put together in our minds so as to match reality.


    Intuition: sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. (One often hears, “It’s counterintuitive.” Perhaps, for instance, it’s counterintuitive to steer into the skid.) Intuitions have to pass the various tests of Reason (in the sense just noted) if they’re to be taken as valid and informative.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Julie – “reason” is the human person themselves. As Ralph Cudworth (and many others) have pointed out – trying to “chop up” the human person into different bits (“will”, “reason” and so on) is rather misleading.

    I used to think that the one virtue of the evil Thomas Hobbes is that he was “up front” with his wickedness – his treatment of humans as non persons (as flesh robots) – but I have been told that although he does not use the word “compatiblism” he plays the “compatiblist” game of “trying to have it both ways”, “having his cake and eating it”.

    I am not sure about that – it is many years since I read the works of Thomas Hobbes, but I do not remember him playing the compatibilist game. I do not remember that level of dishonesty.

    Still if he does then I was WRONG – Thomas Hobbes did not have the one virtue (the virtue of openness – intellectual honesty) that I thought he had.

    Still I am hardly a saint myself – in my youth I was at pains to HIDE how much I hated these people. They deserve to be hated – but I thought that I could work with them for political objectives, as long as I concealed how much I hated them.

    Not exactly honest of me. Indeed radically dishonest of me.