Monday, October 05, 2015

Two Interpretations of Hume's Is-Ought Dictum, and a Reply to Each

Stuart K. Hayashi

In moral debate, participants frequently bring up David Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum. It can be summarized as follows:
Truths or facts cannot be where proper prescriptive rules of human conduct come from. That a truth or fact Is (meaning, is a truth or fact already validated) cannot tell you what you Ought or Ought Not to do. The simpler statement of this is: “You cannot get Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do from that which Is.”

There are two possible interpretations for this:
  1. The Contextualist Interpretation: Truths or facts, by themselves and out-of-context, are not sufficient to indicate what you ought or ought not to do. Yet, that an out-of-context datum, by itself, is not sufficient to tell you what you ought or ought not to do, does not properly preclude you from taking facts into consideration of what you ought to do upon already having chosen the proper standard of value.
  2. The Nihilist Interpretation: Truths and facts do not properly tell you what you ought or ought not to do; period. It is indeed possible for you to take pertinent truths and facts into consideration for the purpose of accomplishing some goal, but there is still no objective reason why you ought or ought not to strive for that particular goal. Since truths and facts do not tell you what your goals ought or ought not to be, it follows that truths and facts have zero bearing on what you ought or ought not to do. In sum, truths and facts are ultimately irrelevant in judging, in the grand scheme of everything, whether your past actions were were objectively moral or not.

The first interpretation is partially true, and, even in conceding its partial truthfulness, it must be qualified. Insofar as the first interpretation is true, it is as much indubitably because it gives us some wiggle room whereby we can still get Ought from that which Is. By contrast, the second interpretation is wholly false and nihilistic. More than that, any time someone invokes Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum in an effort to get your to accept the second interpretation and thereby influence your thinking, it is implicitly self-refuting.

Interpretation 1 Meets Objectivist Metaethics

Again, Interpretation 1 (the Contextualist Interpretation) is correct inasmuch as it gives us room to get Ought from that which Is, provided that it is in the proper context. My standard of value is my life, meaning that my main goal -- and thus the source of every subsequent goal -- is to live life to the fullest. Note that this must be distinguished from mere physical survival. If I die at 121 years of age and was in consistent misery before then, that was physical survival but it was not living to the fullest. The to the fullest refers to quality of existing being the utmost within that duration, maximizing life not merely in terms of time span but also in terms of comfort and enjoyment.
 Truths and facts, by themselves -- outside of the context of how they affect my life -- are not enough to tell me what I ought or ought not to do. When the fact of gravity, the fact that [momentum] = [mass] x [velocity], and the fact that [final velocity] = [initial velocity] + [ (acceleration) x (time)], are isolated from any context pertaining to living my life to the fullest, such facts remain irrelevant.

Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766.

Once we introduce the context of my goal to live my life to the fullest, though, such facts become pertinent. As my main goal is to live my life to the fullest, it follows that it would be contrary to this main goal for me, as a young man, to die painfully, violently, and quickly, based on some accident or misjudgment. In line with my goal, the facts about gravity and momentum and mass and human physiology do tell me that I ought not to jump out of a skyscraper’s fifth-story window; that would kill me.

Once I have chosen living life to the fullest as my primary goal, I can assess truths and facts to ascertain what my other goals ought or ought not to be, in direct contradiction to the nihilism of the second interpretation of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum. With my primary goal of life maximization in mind, I assess facts to determine what priorities I select as my secondary goals -- the secondary goals being intended to serve the first goal.
  1. Primary goal: Live life to the fullest, which requires that I not die in the next few weeks.
  2. Truth or fact: I will die if I do not eat anything within the next few weeks.
  3. Conclusion: I ought to eat within the next few weeks. As a corollary to that, my secondary goal is to find suitable food to eat.
Thus, we can form some agreement with Interpretation 1 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum though, as I shall explain in the section directly below, there is one primary Is that is sufficient to validate the subsequent Ought’s. Truths and facts, out of context, remain insufficient to guide me on what I ought or ought not to do. However, when we introduce the primary goal of maximizing life, truths and facts are precisely what we evaluate to instruct us on what we ought or ought not to do.

What the Most Important ‘IS’ Is
Yes, Interpretation 1 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is true, insofar as truths and facts -- separated from the context of maximizing your life -- are not enough to convey to you what your secondary goals ought to be or ought not to be. In one important respect, though, there is one singular fact or truth -- one singular Is -- that provides the basis for every Ought-to-Do and Ought-not-to-Do in your life. That truth and fact -- that most important Is -- is the fact that you live, the fact of your very existence. Once you accept that fact and accordingly opt to push for life to the fullest, at least in practice if not in conscious and explicit philosophizing, you end up considering the truths and the facts -- everything that Is, pertinent to you -- in ascertaining what you Ought and Ought Not to do in reaching the secondary goals that maintain and improve your life. That one Is -- your life -- is the foundation for everything you Ought and Ought Not to do. In that respect, even Interpretation 1 is misleading. One grand truth and fact -- your existence -- ultimately justifies every ethical prescriptive. You are the Is that justifies Ought.

Here is another manner in which it can be phrased. Your life is the fact which gives meaning to value; your life is the "Is" that gives meaning to Ought and Ought Not.

Hence, it is facts and truths -- the Is -- that properly give rise to Ought-to-Do and Ought-Not-to-Do. On that understanding, Ought-to-Do and Ought-Not-to-Do NECESSARILY come from Is.

Interpretation 2: The Nihilistic Interpretation
In his arguments, the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick implicitly accepts Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum. In direct rebuttal to Objectivism, Nozick proclaims that there is no reason why you ought to choose a full life as your primary goal. And, he adds, if there is no out-of-context Is -- no out-of-context truth or out-of-context fact -- that commands you to choose a full life as your primary goal, then it follows that is no objective reason, in the grand scheme of everything, why you Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do anything.

Thus, what can be inferred from Nozick’s argument is that facts and truths can never provide any input in helping you consider what you ought or ought not to do. That is, Nozick’s argument is that it is not merely the case that out-of-context truths and out-of-context facts -- separated from the goal of a full life -- are unable to provide a guide for ethical prescription. Rather, Nozick goes as far as saying that in any and every context, truths and facts will never have any bearing on what you should or should not do.

This is not to say that Nozick explicitly denies there is any morality, though. Explicitly influenced by Immanuel Kant, Nozick puts forth what he proclaims to be absolute objective moral principles, and then adds that such allegedly absolute objective moral principles did not and cannot come from observation-based reasoning. (That is, though Kant and Nozick would not put it in such explicit terms, this really comes down to their allegedly absolute and objective principles being unsubstantiated and arbitrary.)

My answer to Nozick is the same one that Ronald E. Merrill gave him. I entirely concede that there is nothing I can say or cite to make you choose full living as your primary goal. But unlike Nozick, I do not see this as any sort of dilemma for Objectivism. Anyone who does not want to live fully is free to go somewhere and die. It is for those of us who choose maximal living -- at least, choose it in practice if not by conscious explication -- that secondary goals become pertinent. And to reach those secondary goals, we must consider the facts and act in accordance with them, and that is where Is becomes a guide for what we Ought and Ought Not to do.

Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum Is Truth, So You Ought Not...
Now I want to address the internal contradiction of anyone in an ethical debate, such as Nozick, invoking Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum in order to influence the thinking and debate behavior of his debate interlocutor. Anytime someone in an ethical debate cites Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum to you, there is an implicit imparting to you that there is something you Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do in ethical debates, based on the premise that Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is itself a truthful Is.

The reasoning is as follows.

  • Explicit Statement 1: Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is that you cannot properly learn what you Ought or Ought Not to do, based on truths or facts, based on what Is.
  • Explicit Statement 2: Hume’s Is-Ought-Dictum is the truth. Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is a truthful Is.
  • Implicit Conclusion You Are Supposed to Draw From This: Based on the truthful Is that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, you Ought Not to derive any Ought-Not from any truthful Is.

You see the internal contradiction there? Someone tells me that Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is a fact or, at minimum, an objective truth. Based on acceptance of this objective truth -- this objective Is -- that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I Ought to stop making these ridiculous attempts to argue that Ought-to does come from Is.

“Cannot Do It” Vs. “Ought Not to Try It”?
In response to my pointing out this internal contradiction, one apologist for Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum (who claims to be an Objectivist!), replied along these lines:

No, no, no, no, no! You Ought to [why should I Ought-to, silly?!! --S.H.] pay heed to the distinction between my saying you are forever unable to do something versus my saying you ought not to try to do it. When I cite Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I am not telling you that you Ought or Ought Not to pay heed to it; I am not telling you that you Ought Not to try to get your Ought -Not rules from that which Is. I am merely saying that if you do attempt such an effort, you will always fail, because it is logically impossible.

I do not buy into that rebuttal, because it slyly obfuscates the implicit purpose behind telling anyone that any proposition is impossible to accomplish.

Suppose I know someone named Bob. Bob seriously believes that if he keeps flapping his arms hard enough, there will come day in the years ahead when flapping his arms will enable him to fly. I tell him, “Bob, it is impossible for you to fly, ever, by flapping your arms.” What is the point in my telling Bob this? The implicit message behind telling anyone that a proposition is impossible to accomplish is that that person ought not to act on that proposition.

If it is logically impossible for me to acquire Ought-Not-to from that which Is, then -- because living a full life is my implicit primary goal -- it logically follows I Ought Not to try to acquire an Ought-Not-to from that which Is, does it not? The point in telling someone that he is forever unable to accomplish a specific task is to convey that he ought not to expend any more effort at that specific task. Therefore, the rebuttal from that nihilistic apologist for Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum does not hold up; any citation of Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum in philosophic debate remains implicitly self-contradictory and hypocritical, because it conveys that, in consideration of the allegedly truthful Is that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I Ought Not to do something.