Skip to content

Skipping intuitively over the is-ought gap

By Charles Foster

I spent a lot of the weekend at a very good conference entitled Moral Evil in Practical Ethics.
There was, I think, a complete or almost complete consensus about many things. Here are two: (1) Evil exists, and is of a different quality from merely sub-optimal moral behaviour. (2) To recognise evil implied a duty to do something to combat it. Everyone in the room seemed to see (2) as a corollary of (1).
This second proposition is a classic ‘ought’ claim. But how did we get there? The audience included many distinguished philosophers. Were we all plunging naively but disastrously into the is-ought gap? Was the conclusion sloppily reached, and untenable?
Eve Garrard gave an example from the Rwandan genocide. A soldier, having killed a woman’s husband, disembowelled and dismembered him. He then made the wife collect the limbs and entrails into a heap, and raped her on the top of the heap.
There was no one who thought that this was right. I doubt that there was anyone who thought that it was not in a supreme category of wrongness which it is convenient to label ‘evil’. We can argue (and did, very stimulatingly) about its exact properties. The details don’t matter for these purposes.
Can this consensus be described as a ‘fact’ sufficient to make it legitimate to draw, without committing the naturalistic fallacy, the conclusion that one should condemn the act? The answer, I suggest, is yes. But before I indicate why, it’s worth observing that if the answer is no, the possibilities would be either:
(a) The conclusion is illegitimate because it seeks to derive ought from is. There is no basis for any duty, and anyone who ran to the aid of the Rwandan woman would be contemptibly illogical. The whole enterprise of ethics is undermined; or
(b) Ethical conclusions are still valid: the violation of the is-ought principle inherent in ethical reasoning doesn’t taint them. If this is the case then, since the is-ought issue is a quintessentially ethical one, one would have to conclude that the issue is a trivial, pointless piece of sophistry that does no real work.
Surely we don’t have to analyse too hard to agree that, whether our starting point in the evil example is a fact (an ‘is-thing’) or not, the is-ought gap is a pretty unimpressive feature of the philosophical landscape. It’s not the Grand Canyon that it’s cracked up to be in the basic textbooks. If analysis (a) is right, we’re all dismally unrigorous: we all step merrily, and usually unconsciously, over the gap just about every minute of every day. Our personal rule-making and our national and international law-making are examples of its irrelevance.
These questions have been examined recently on this blog by both Simon Rippon  and Brian Earp. In response to Brian’s criticism of Sam Harris’ reasoning in ‘The Moral Landscape’ (where Harris argued that the right action is whichever action maximises well-being), Matt Sharp came to the defence of ethical naturalism, suggesting, as a starting, factual premise: ‘If all other things are equal, then an increase in suffering is bad.’ He went on: ‘It seems to me that if the experience of suffering wasn’t bad, then it wouldn’t be suffering….If we accept that, then the rest of Harris’ argument follows. Suffering can (or may one day) be measurable by neural imaging…..’
Brian responded as follows:
‘Harris at no point spells out how fMRI scans (etc) can give us information about well-being that’s any more useful than just asking people, using common sense, and so on….’; and
‘….sure, “all else equal, try to reduce suffering” – that’s pretty basic, and most would agree with you. But it’s nothing new. It hardly gets us past common sense….’
It’s not clear to me why something being pretty basic, agreed to by most, and concordant with common sense should be reasons for dismissing its importance. It seems particularly strange to dismiss its importance relative to something of such doubtful utility, if not existence, as the is-ought gap.
Everyone in the world who is not mad feels nauseated at the Rwandan story. This is a fact, not a philosophical observation. It is a statement of the way that the world is. If you want to describe that fact in more scientific language, it’s not hard to do so: identical things were no doubt going on in the neurones and the biochemistry of everyone in the room last weekend as the story was told.
Our intuitions are immeasurably ancient, astonishingly consistent across cultures, no doubt deeply rooted in evolutionary imperative, and far and away the most important determinants of our moral action. If they can’t be accommodated comfortably within existing philosophical structures, then those relatively new and untested structures need to be rebuilt. That rebuilding would be far more rational than to pretend that the intuitions aren’t there, that they don’t signify anything sufficiently consistently to be given much weight, or that they should otherwise be deemed either not to qualify themselves as facts, or to be sufficiently definite markers of facts.
I’m not convinced that radical rebuilding is necessary. We just need to stop gawping in paralysed reverence at the is-ought gap. It’s really a little furrow: nothing vertiginous at all. Your intuitions get you easily and respectably over it. It’s fine to keep on doing ethics, and to do it because some things in the world make us feel sick.

Share on

53 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the post, but it would help if it was specified what exactly the is-ought entailment you endorsed is supposed to be. Is it: "Many people are nauseated by x. Therefore, x is wrong"?

    As far as I'm concerned, the is-ought gap is a _logical_ chasm (if there's any "little furrow" here it must be in a hayfield, since there are so many straw men strewn around). No philosopher has claimed that the is-ought gap stops us "doing ethics". What philosophers have claimed is that it stops us doing ethics on a purely empirical basis, since all evaluative conclusions require at least one evaluative premise. Many philosphers have also doubted, for good reason, the reliability of various claimed sources of evaluative premises, such as intuitions and disgust reactions. To find out why, you might ask homosexuals in Iran.

    A good authoritative source, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, tells us what he is-ought argument is actually about (forgive me for quoting at length):
    "Despite its advantages, naturalism has difficulty capturing well what people take to be the true nature of morality. In saying something is good or right or virtuous we seem to be saying something more than, or at least different from, what we would be saying in describing it as having certain natural features. Correspondingly, no amount of empirical investigation seems by itself, without some moral assumption(s) in play, sufficient to settle a moral question.

    David Hume seemed to have these points in mind when he observed that an ‘ought’ cannot be derived from an ‘is.’[5] There is substantial debate about just what Hume meant, and similarly substantial debate as well about whether he was right. But at least part of Hume's concern seems to have been that no set of claims about plain matters of fact (‘is’ claims) entail any evaluative claims (‘ought’ claims). That is, he seems to have thought, that one can infer the latter from the former only if, in addition to premises concerning plain matters of fact, one has on hand as well at least one evaluative premise. If, for instance, one infers from the fact that someone is feeling pain that something bad is happening, one is at least presupposing that pain is bad. And that presupposition, in turn, is not entailed by any claims concerned solely with plain matters of fact. If Hume is right, every valid argument for an evaluative conclusion either includes or presupposes some evaluative premise. And, as a result, there is no value neutral argument for an evaluative conclusion."


  2. Simon,
    Many thanks for this.
    The is-ought entailment can be put in many ways without altering my argument. How about: 'Unless you are mad your stomach will writhe when you see a woman being raped on a pile of her husband's body parts'?
    I'm familiar with the Stanford entry, and agree that it's a good summary.
    No: no one has ever suggested that the gap stops us doing ethics: and that, I suggest, is because the gap is of only the most rarified academic interest. You do ethics, unbothered for almost all purposes by the niggle (inserted by your philsophical education, not by any solid concern), that there may be a defect not in the actual empirical justification for your ethics, but in the ability to show that there is. Your intutions, in some extreme cases, get you happily over the gap – as in my body parts case. In other cases they won't, as you point out.

    1. Thanks Charles,

      "The is-ought entailment can be put in many ways without altering my argument. How about: ‘Unless you are mad your stomach will writhe when you see a woman being raped on a pile of her husband’s body parts’?"

      Sorry, I can't find a moral ought in that sentence (so I can't find an is-ought entailment either).

      Presumably you think, in any case, that the logical is-ought gap is "of only the most rarefied academic interest" because you think logic in general is "of only the most rarefied academic interest"? But logic is a wonderful thing because it is reliably truth-preserving: we can use it to get from things we know are true to other things we don't yet know are true. I'm having difficulty seeing how moral "intuitions", even if only "in some extreme cases" can be any kind of substitute for logic here – let alone how they are supposed to provide for any kind of "empirical" justification of moral conclusions.


    2. Charles wrote: "No: no one has ever suggested that the gap stops us doing ethics: and that, I suggest, is because the gap is of only the most rarified academic interest. "

      I think it depends a lot on the context. No one outside of a philosophy classroom would have a problem with describing much of what happened in the Rwandan genocide as evil. There is huge value consensus among people in the way we evaluate that. But in other settings, such as where there is little value consensus, the is-ought thing can be significant – it provides an important tool to unpack what claims are really based on. Consider climate change – there are ways of deploying evidence that make it look as though it is some sort of grand issue of "climate justice". There are other ways of cutting the same evidence that make this a much less obvious reading. Scientists frequently attempt to justify their own preferred policies through appeals to "the science says we mustdo X", which in my view is a toxic misreading of the role of science in policy. And the error right at the heart of it is that you cannot go from facts about the world to conclusions about how to behave, which is what people do, too rrequently, without explaining all their auxiliary normative hypotheses.

  3. Thanks for the interesting and challenging post. I'd like to comment on what you write in examining alternative a):
    «The conclusion is illegitimate because it seeks to derive ought from is. There is no basis for any duty, and anyone who ran to the aid of the Rwandan woman would be contemptibly illogical. The whole enterprise of ethics is undermined.»
    Let us remove the word «contemptible» and see what we're left with : the expression that there is no «logical» basis for coming to the aid of the victim. I do not see how this undermines the whole enterprise of ethics, unless you use (as you do) the hidden premise that only what is strictly logical can be deemed to be worthy of philosophy. I think that a large part of ethics consists precisely of examining this premise : in other words what, other than logic, can used to justify our actions?

  4. "What philosophers have claimed is that it stops us doing ethics on a purely empirical basis, since all evaluative conclusions require at least one evaluative premise."

    Sam would say, we simply cannot speak of facts without resorting to values. Consider the simplest statement of scientific fact: water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. You may believe that this is a value free description of water, but what do we do when someone doubts the truth of this proposition? All we can do is appeal to scientific values: the value of understanding the world, the value of evidence, the value of logical consistency. What if someone says, "That's not how I choose to think about water". All we can do with such a person is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

    1. I think you've got things backwards Kevin. The claim philosophers make about the is-ought gap is that evaluative conclusions always require evaluative premises. The claim that factual conclusions also require evaluative premises would, even if true, be irrelevant.

      1. Whoops, without live-updating of the comments, I fear I've double-posted. anyways, I'm going to paste in the relevant response:

        As far as your criticism that there is no substantive moral reasoning for the man pulling his hand from a fire, it seems you believe morality exists independent of the brain and the physical universe. How could such a description of morality be useful if it isn’t, at bottom, related to how conscious beings can improve what they experience as happiness and reduce what they experience as sadness & suffering? Is there really something other than this world of factual conclusions?

        1. I don't recognize the claims you attribute (I think) to me, Kevin. I agree with you that morality is related to the brain and the physical universe, and that it is related to what people experience as happiness and sadness. What I don't think is that saying that an action would be and saying that it would make many people happy amounts to saying the same thing, or that the latter logically entails the former (though the latter would be pretty good evidence for the former!)

      2. Simon Wrote: "The claim that factual conclusions also require evaluative premises would, even if true, be irrelevant."

        As I see it there is a bit of an ambiguity in Is/Ought that we really should be careful about. Let's separate a strong claim from a weak claim and see if that helps. The strong claim in Is/Ought tells us that the difference between factual and ethical claims is so great that they cannot be reconciled at all. The conclusion which this invites us to is a hard dualism that includes the claim that science can <i>in principle</i> not tell us anything about ethics. This means that even when I go about doing the the more everyday common sense work of science of checking some of my claims against the world, I'm committing some kind of category error that should be avoided. The weak claim accepts some kind of distinction between the sorts of subjects we traditionally see as scientific, say physics or chemistry, and ethics but rather than thinking this represents some hard metaphysical law, takes a more, and this is tipping my hand a little here, <i>pragmatic</i> approach, talking about the appropriateness of my epistemic practice to the question at hand.

        So, would you accept that Sam Harris' argument is in fact very relevant to the strong claim? Where would you stand on someone suggesting the weak interpretation of Is/Ought?

        1. Thanks Kallan. You say the "strong" interpretation of is/ought is that "science can in principle not tell us anything about ethics". There's a broad interpretation of this claim on which I'd reject it, and moreover I don't know of anyone (except, perhaps, people in Sam Harris's imagination) who would accept it. An example: If you want to know whether it's wrong to use DDT to spray the crops, you'd better find out what effects it has. That's science's purview. So of course, science can in this sense tell us something about ethics.
          On the other hand, if the "strong" intrepretation of is/ought is just the claim that we can never deduce ethical conclusions from scientific claims *alone*, without also using ethical assumptions, then I'd accept it. I don't think Sam Haris challenges this view successfully, for reasons outlined in my earlier blog.

          1. Thanks Simon.

            Now I agree with you that it's safe to say that any ethical dilemma can be informed by a more general science in just the way your DDT example highlights but that's slightly irrelevant. The point I wanted to make is that you need to endorse something like the strong view in order to treat ethics and science as distinct realms of human inquiry *in a way that biology and physics aren't.* This is precisely why Sam's argument is in fact relevant. In fact, my own view is that people tend to equivocate between the two senses, being seduced by the weak interpretation where ethics is just another form of scientific inquiry with a different subject matter, right actions instead of cosmology say, and then coming to argue for the strong view. How and whether that's justified I'm just not sure yet.

          2. Hi Kallan, I'm afraid I don't follow you. If you could be more specific about what you call the "strong" is/ought claim is supposed to entail, that might be helpful. I've given two possible interpretations of it, which perhaps you don't think are relevant. All I can say is that the second interpretation I offered is what philosophers generally actually mean when they say there's an is/ought gap, and the first one I offered is what Sam Harris and others seem sometimes to mistake them to mean. If you have a third interpretation in mind, then I don't know what it is, but I doubt it's what philosophers are talking about, because I already identified that.


          3. Right, I'll admit I'm ambivalent about my own attempt at a distinction but here's the problem for me: I have no qualms accepting that Is/Ought lets us say for instance that ethics isn't physics, but that's a claim that we can say about a lot of other disciplines like say biology or medicine or psychology or neuroscience and on and on. In order to claim that ethics is not a science then, we need an argument that shows that there is something unique about it well beyond the fact that it's concerned with a subject matter that other sciences are not. What that something extra is I don't know because that's precisely the argument that I think is needed to bridge the gap between the definition of Is/Ought you give, and the argument it's meant too establish.

  5. Simon,
    Many thanks. One 'ought' might be: 'And so one should discourage the rape of women on piles made of their husband's body parts.
    I'm all for logic. Use it if you can. All other things being equal, an answer that can be shown to be derived by following steps the logicality of which can be identified is to be preferred to an answer that cannot.

  6. Anthony: many thanks for your comment.
    The piece you cite doesn't represent my position. It represents what Simon might describe, I think, as a mess that you get from dismembering a straw man.
    I agree entirely with you that a large part of ethics consists, or should consist, of examining that hidden premise.
    What worries me about the position of Simon (and he's in the majority amongst philosophers), is that he comes perilously close to saying that there is no good reason for snatching your hand out of a flame. I think that pain and the sight of charred tendons (associated with knowledge of what you won't be able to do witwh the damaged hand) are good reasons, tainted with the empirical though they may be, for withdrawing ones hand. If it pleases you, say that you should withdraw it because it is a fact that unnecessary pain and dysfunction are absolutely worse things than absence of pain and dysfunction. But however you justify it, I suggest that you pull it out.

    1. "Simon … comes perilously close to saying that there is no good reason for snatching your hand out of a flame. I think that pain and the sight of charred tendons …are good reasons, tainted with the empirical though they may be…"

      Sorry Charles, but you appear to still not understand what philosophers mean when they talk about the is-ought gap. They mean that you can't logically draw an evaluative conclusion from purely empirical premises. They do *not* mean that emprical premises play no role at all in evaluative arguments, nor that there are no reasons.

      Your attribution to me is a complete straw man: I fully agree that the facts you cite give you reasons to withdraw your hand. You can't draw any substantive conclusions about practical or moral reasons (or lack thereof) from the claim that a certain kind of argument for them is logically invalid, and needs some other basis.

      1. I think he appears to disagree with what philosophers mean when they talk about the is-ought gap. Anyways Simon, I'm really curious about your response to this,

        "while it is possible to say that one can't move from "is" to "ought," we should be honest about how we get to "is" in the first place. Scientific "is" statements rest on implicit "oughts" all the way down. When I say, "Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen," I have uttered a quintessential statement of scientific fact. But what if someone doubts this statement? I can appeal to data from chemistry, describing the outcome of simple experiments. But in so doing, I implicitly appeal to the values of empiricism and logic. What if my interlocutor doesn't share these values? What can I say then? What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?"

        As far as your criticism that there is no substantive moral reasoning for the man pulling his hand from a fire, it seems you believe morality exists independent of the brain and the physical universe. How could such a description of morality be useful if it isn't, at bottom, related to how conscious beings can improve what they experience as happiness and reduce what they experience as sadness & suffering? Is there really something other than this?

  7. I'm scared to death to wade into this, but here it goes.
    Getting an ought from an is is counter intuitive. But because it's so doesn't mean it's wrong. I think Sam Harris would say that traditionally there are areas of science that can ONLY be furthered by disregarding what makes sense to us. (such as a particle existing in two places at once)
    I get the feeling he simply saying stop thinking there even is an is/ought distinction.
    Because that's why.

  8. I certainly don't want to judge between two eminent Ruhiroians.
    My point is simply that (with Simon) I believe that you can't deduce an "ought" from an "is", and with you (I think) that who cares? : it doesn't stop us doing moral philosophy.

  9. Thanks, Simon. I understand perfectly well that the 'is-ought' gap does not mean that 'empirical premises play no role at all in evaluative arguments, nor that there are no reasons.' I couched my original post very carefully in the hope that that straw man would be safe. My main argument is, for the avoidance of doubt, that many things that are reflexively tarred with the empirical brush by philosophers are, when you look at them properly, premises that fall perfectly happily within your 'accountancy' example.
    Thanks also to Colin and Anthony: I hope this responds to your comments too.

    1. "My main argument is, for the avoidance of doubt, that many things that are reflexively tarred with the empirical brush by philosophers are, when you look at them properly, premises that fall perfectly happily within your ‘accountancy’ example."

      That's all Greek to me, I'm afraid.

      At any rate, you have accused me personally of "[coming] perilously close to saying that there is no good reason for snatching your hand out of a flame."

      Perhaps if you could explain your grounds for that scurrilous accusation, I'd be able to better comprehend your main argument!

      1. You take yourself a bit too seriously Simon.; you're [coming] perilously close to sounding like a stiff. Perhaps if you relaxed the condescending rhetoric like, "Sorry Charles, but you appear to still not understand" and instead noticed when Charles is being polite, you could have a decent conversation.

  10. Thank you all. It would be helpful if the extreme modesty of the claim in my original post were appreciated. Here's what I said:
    (a) Of course it is true that, as a general rule, one cannot infer 'oughts' from facts about the world. The hardness of a stone, for instance, implies no duty. Most intuitions, similarly, give a wholly inadequate basis for the promulgation of (eg) ethical rules.
    (b) One should reason as rigorously as possible. That means that, all other things being equal, an argument that does not involve inferences from facts about the world will be preferable to one that does.
    (c) There are, however, some exceptions to the general rule in (a): I gave some examples in the post. I suggested, for instance, following Matt Sharp, that, all other things being equal, an increase in suffering is bad. Simon has not responded specifically to these examples.
    (d) We're all agreed, then, that there are two basic types of argument, for present purposes. One is made of the stuff with which philosophers are happiest, and involves no breach of the is-ought principle. The other does involve a breach.
    (e) If I'm right, then some ethical reasoning does not offend the 'is-ought' principle. If Simon's right, all ethical reasoning does.
    (f) We all agree that, notwithstanding its breach of the 'is-ought' principle, ethical reasoning is worthwhile, and empirical premises are relevant.
    (g) If ethical reasoning is worthwhile, then let's not worship the 'is-ought' principle as devoutly as we do. It's useful to keep it in mind: comply with it if possible. But the overwhelming majority of important thinking is done without its imprimatur.

    1. Thank you again Charles.
      I am confounded by your suggestion that on my view, all ethical reasoning offends the is-ought principle, and also by your example:
      "All other things being equal, an increase in suffering is bad"
      How does this offend the is-ought principle? I've been pressing the point that the is-ought principle is a principle concerning valid deductions. Since the above is not a deduction (it is an evaluative premise, and one which I too would accept) it cannot possibly offend the is-ought principle.

      I can try to reconstruct a second example from your earlier comments:
      Most people's stomachs will writhe when they see a woman being raped on a pile of her husband’s body parts.
      Therefore, the rape of women on piles made of their husband’s body parts is wrong.

      The validity of that argument as a piece of deductive logic would be challenged by the is-ought principle. We need not deny, though, that it's a reasonably safe inference in the sense that its conclusion is likely to be true. Similarly:

      Almost all ravens are black.
      Therefore, this raven is black.

      … is a reasonably safe inference, though not a deductively valid argument by the principles of logic.

      I wish you would respond to Dave Frame's comment up the thread, which imho nailed the point with an excellent example: It's important to understand which arguments are deductively valid and which aren't if we want to resolve disputes about controversial cases. And that's why the is-ought principle is important.

  11. Simon: thanks again. Sorry that you're confounded.
    Re an increase of suffering: my point was precisely that it did not offend.
    Re body parts: we disagree about the nature of the premise, but agree that our disagreement, on the facts of the case, doesn't matter much.
    Re Dave Frame: you're right, I should have replied explicitly to him (sorry, Dave: I appreciated your comment). But my answer is in the comment I made immediately before this one. I agree entirely with everything Dave said. To repeat: of course the 'is-ought' gap needs to be watched. Of course it has some utility, and if one can do ones thinking without offending it, then of course that's best. But there are some contexts where that's not possible, and it is still vital to carry on arguing in those contexts without getting too wound up at the thought that the great 'is-ought' god will be outraged. Let's have a bit of scholarly irreverence here. It's not incompatible with being as rigorous as you rightly urge us to be.

    1. Hi Charles, Simon,

      Thanks for the kind thoughts about my previous post. I think the thing we're arguing about is more a philosophical practice thing, rather than something philosophical in itself. It reminds me a lot of the conversations we have about the role of science in policy making, which are not about how to do science, but about the practices that surround science. These are conversations that occur in any field. My dad is a builder. I used to help him and some of his colleagues out as a labourer. Occasionally they'd have (fairly contructive) conversations about the relative usefulness of different tools. That, I think, is the conversation we are having here. Charles, if I'm reading him right, is arguing that the is-ought kit is over-rated in a lot of contexts, and that there are times when it's just not where the action is. Simon, I think, disputes this, and wouldn't want to turn up to a jobsite without the is-ought tool in his van/ute/pickup truck. But this isn't an argument about the nature of the tool, or about how to use it, or about how to build in general. It's an argument about how a tool fits into the job. Charles' Rwandan genocide example was an instance of that tool not being all that interesting for the problem at hand. I offered an instance (climate change) in which I've found it to be an absolutely essential tool. But that's because there are complex strings of inference and facts that interact with values, and the is-ought tool is unbelievably good at unpicking that stuff.
      My guess is that high levels of values consensus (on the normative side) and a relatively obvious demarcation of what constitutes the relevant facts (on the empirical side) for a moral question both act to fill in the is-ought "chasm" to the extent that – as in the case Charles cited – this can be nothing more that "really a little furrow". But if we lack consenus about value, if we lack agreement about the evidential framing, we don't get to fill in the chasm.

  12. Hi Charles — thank you very much for such a thoughtful post. I want to clarify one small point in reference to your quotations from my earlier blog post (from the comments section specifically). I wasn't saying that common sense is not a useful starting point in sussing out how we should behave in a given situation. I was specifically critiquing Harris for claiming to do something much, much more interesting than rely on common sense to build his case. Harris is selling books and tickets to talks on the premise that he's revolutionizing moral philosophy; that he's doing work in meta-ethics that has stymied philosophers for hundreds of years before him, etc. It's the obscene audacity of what he's claiming to do qua philosopher that inspired my post, not the 'common sense' claims in themselves. Of course it's true that GIVEN some common sense premise, such as 'all else equal, try not to cause harm' that various ethical consequences FLOW from this premise, and that certain scientific facts are relevant to the deduction. But that's not what Harris ever admits to doing. He says that "science can determine human values." But science most emphatically cannot determine human values. Unless, that is, what is meant by the word “science” is something akin to “the process of engaging in careful reasoning while paying attention to relevant facts.” Of course, this is what we would normally refer to as “philosophy.” Yet as it turns out, when pressed to show his cards, this peculiar definition is precisely what Harris has in mind when he says “science” in his writings and lectures. It's this misleading broadcast of what he's doing META-ethically that gets under my skin — not specific ethical claims, granted certain 'common sense' premises. Thank you once again for this stimulating discussion!

  13. Brian: very many thanks for this and for your original post, which was fascinating.
    We broadly agree. Yes, Sam Harris seems to purport to do something which (a) he plainly doesn't do and (b) almost certainly can't be done. I'd insert a few gentle caveats to my agreement, but they've all emerged already in the course of the discussion. C

  14. Charles, I am a little bit confused by the argument you make. For me, the "is" of my stomach writhing at seeing something would only entail the "ought" of doing something to stop the feeling in my stomach, if there is an intermediate step along the lines of "believing it is better for my stomach not to writhe". Similarly the "is" of seeing someone being raped entails the ought of doing something to stop the rape, if I also believe rape is wrong. But you seem to me to be arguing that those beliefs are so commonsensical that for a philosopher to point this out is ludicrous (at least while the stomach writhes and a rape is taking place). I might agree with that, but saying that alone appears to me to reduce morality to conventional opinions of right and wrong, and moral philosophising to constructing justifications for conventional opinions, or arbitrating between conflicting conventions.

    You argue, though, that this is a matter of human nature, and that our moral intuitions (and therefore conventions?) are near enough identical, so, if I follow you correctly, any philosophy that considers it important to find a way to justify those intuitions and conventions, rather than taking them as self-evident, has lost its way.

    While such an approach wouldn't surprise me in the context of a battlefield, in the context of a philosophy conference, I find such it very surprising, and so I am probably getting the wrong end of the stick. I do not see why it would be so difficult for philosophers (and I admit I am not one) to accept they have beliefs that hurting other people is wrong, for example, and that this is why a particular act should be discouraged. And similarly that they believe that, say, consciously acting in order to hurt someone as much as possible is evil, that it is evil either due to the motives ascribed, or to the consequences expected or some other formula, and that therefore there is a duty on someone who becomes aware of it to actively stop it.

    Would such formulations still fall into the naturalistic fallacy? Or is there an empirical point you wish to make about moral psychology – that we all, including philosophers, skip such steps in moral reasoning when discussing evil, and that we don't feel guilty about it as we would if discussing less extreme issues of right and wrong?

    Justifying our moral beliefs may be hard, and eventually you may just end up relying on an axiom or on "faith" in a proposition or something, but that is no worse than your relying on your belief that your own feelings reflect universally-held intuitions and those who do not share them are "mad" or self-evidently wrong. Is it really universally believed that slavery, fgm, pre-emptive warfare etc. are evil and those who in the past or present did not immediately see this are either lying or mad? Or is it the people who label such things evil mistaken in their experience of or their interpretation of their emotions?

  15. Arif: many thanks.
    If seeing X makes all people throw up painfully, and if, all other things being equal, throwing up painfully is to be best avoided, then X ought to be avoided. I'm not making any grand statements about anything that 'human nature' generally, whatever that is, might be able to tell us about how to act. It's plain that intuitions generally cannot be trusted to generate ethical rules. The notion of the 'is-ought' gap is one useful way of making us cautious about how we generate our ethics. But there are plenty of othe ways of being careful.

  16. "If seeing X makes all people throw up painfully, and if, all other things being equal, throwing up painfully is to be best avoided, then X ought to be avoided."

    The bit between the "if" and the "then" is a normative premise, of course. I took Charles' point to be that in a lot of extreme cases** these normative premises can be pretty uncontroversial. It does not harm to point this out, but in the most extreme cases, it's not the most incisive observation, either. Go back to the Rwandan genocide example. X is something truly hideous, and the thing it triggers – pretty universally in morally sane people, I would guess – is total moral repugnance. I take Charles's point to be that it's neither profound, nor paralysing, nor even very interesting to observe that this is a moral premise.

    This all reminds me a bit of conversations about the status of scientific claims. I'm a pragmatist as far as science goes. I think you can have lots of plausible arguments regarding realism at the fancy end of science, but for most of science I think the status of the turns on usefulness or deployability or similar structures, rather than justified claims of achieving "truth" or its friends. Basically the research frontier is defined by that space over which we can have interesting and fruitful disagreements. When someone manages to persuade everyone that question Z isn't actually very interesting to argue about, because there's only one way of answering Z that "works" in the light of the available evidence and theory, then we stop arguing about Z.

    I feel disagreement plays a similar role in moral philosophy. If there's new evidence, or new arguments, that mean question W is more controversial than we thought, then people tend to make it a topic of debate. If someone comes up with a powerful line of argument – say the perspective that suffering rather then reason determines moral personhood or that the integrated consequences of an action determine moral rightness – then some problems are transformed and some become "solved" (slightly fanciful to compare this to the way relativity solved the Michelson-Morley conundrum, but you get what I mean) in the sense that people stop fighting over them, because there's a bloody good argument for why that isn't interesting to argue over any more. And agreement with that bloody good argument, in the absence of any uncontroversial way of evaluating truth (in either the scientific or moral domains), turns on consensus. Personally, I'm uncomfortable with Charles's choice of the word "fact" to describe the wrongness of the Rwandan thing, because I don't think consensus implies "facts" – calling something a moral fact seems to me to invite exactly the conversation Charles is trying to avoid having here about is-ought – but equally I don't think it's a big deal. I see what he's getting at and I think he's right to say "is-ought isn't such a big deal all the time" but I also think that choosing words that invite people to punch that button isn't a good way to avoid having that button punched.

    **The conference was on "moral evil" rather than "moral dodginess" or "moral marginal calls", after all.

  17. Dave, many thanks. Yes to all of that, save that I've aergued that the bit you cite isn't truly normative or, if it is, its normativity is so intimately entangled with its factual nature that it's impossible to distinguish clearly between the two elements.

  18. Charles wrote: "Dave, many thanks. Yes to all of that, save that I’ve argued that the bit you cite isn’t truly normative or, if it is, its normativity is so intimately entangled with its factual nature that it’s impossible to distinguish clearly between the two elements."

    Is that a claim about human cognition, or about something else? Imagine we have "If seeing X triggers Y, and if Y ought to be avoided, then X ought to be avoided." It seems to me that the claim that Y ought to be avoided is clearly normative**, whatever else it may be. It may be that "Y ought to be avoided" is ubiquitous, and unconscious, such that it hadn't occured to you that it was something you believed until you heard about it. But that doesn't mean it isn't normative. Normativity may be a relatively uninteresting property of Y, but it remains a property. Just as I don't think my scepticism about simple scientific realism paralyses me as a scientist, I don't see why my scepticism about simple moral realism paralyses me as a citizen.

    **What I mean here is that I cannot conceive of how I could evaluate the claim "if Y ought to be avoided" without recourse to normative considerations.

  19. Dave: thank you again. Sure, the 'ought' bit is obviously normative. But the 'all other things being equal, all non-insane people will avoid pain' is not, or not necessarily. Is it a claim about human cognition? Possibly: not sure.

    1. Chrles and Simon,
      I guess you're not going to agree, which provokes the following thought : do philosophers ever change their minds following rational discussion?
      I've been following this blog for some time now, and I don't recall ever seeing someone write "yes, I was mistaken; you are right". Is this because philosophers are innately stubborn? Or that it is just a game, where we continue to fight on even though we're losing 6-0? Or is there some other reason? 
      In the wider world of the history of philosophy, apart (probably) from Wittgenstein, can anyone cite me a philosopher who has admitted that he/she was wrong?

  20. Anthony: very many thanks. I am wrong about almost everything. And it is usually the argument of people much cleverer than I am that persuades me to admit my ignorance to myself and, when I'm feeling strong, to the world.

  21. Charles,
    Thanks for your reply.
    To remove the ambiguity from my previous comment, I meant that you and Simon seem unlikely to agree *with each other* on the is-ought gap.
    Regarding your over-modest soul-bearing, I doubt that cleverness is a remedy for ignorance, or that we should judge the force of an argument by the ratio of the former over the latter.
    But I'll add your name to philosophers who change their minds : so far, there's only you and Ludwig (but that's a question of my ignorance).

  22. Anthony: many thanks. No, I don't think that Simon and I will change our minds on this. I don't think that the differences are terribly profound. Simon, I suspect, believes them to be much deeper and more repercussive than I do. That may well be because he understands the issues better. Anyway, whether we've got anywhere or not, I've enjoyed the debate and learned a lot from it.

  23. Hi Anthony, good question! I think that of course philosophers and others do change our minds in response to rational discussion, but not of course as often as we ought! (How often do your frequent, thoughtful blog comments change people's minds, do you think?) What more often happens in philosophy, probably, is that rational discussion shows that you don't in fact disagree as much as (or, in the way that) you first thought you did – that you were talking past each other because the speaker meant something different than the listener understood the speaker to mean by it. I think that's what's happened in this case. At the beginning of the discussion it looked as though Charles was claiming one of three things:
    (i) to have found a way to logically deduce a moral ought from purely non-evaluative premises, or
    (ii) to have shown that the fact that this can never be done is irrelevant to virtually any practical ethical interest one might have, or
    (iii) to have shown that philosophers in general have been mistaken in supposing that the is-ought gap stopped us doing ethical reasoning/establishing that there are reasons to do things.
    Now, I've been keen to show that the first two claims are false, and that the third rests on a false presupposition about what philosophers have claimed. Charles may correct me if I'm mistaken, but I don't any longer think that he is committed to any of the above three claims. In which case, I find nothing to disagree with!
    By the way, Athony, I thought your first comment on this thread was spot on target, and that your second accepted the false presupposition that the is-ought gap was supposed by someone or other to have stopped us doing moral philosophy, but otherwise was also spot on. (Of course, neither of them changed my mind, because I didn't disagree!)
    I do think philosophers, both contemporary and in the history of philosophy, have very frequently amended their view and admitted that their earlier selves were wrong in response to some consideration or other (I was just working on a paper which refers to Kant saying in a footnote that he was wrong about a point in his most famous book in ethics). What philosophers don't usually do is completely abandon their earlier view and adopt that of their opponents … but even this happens sometimes!


  24. Simon: thank you again. I'm not going to reopen this whole issue. It would just mean a invitation to re-read what I've said at inordinate and tedious length already. But your points (i) to (iii) are, I'm afraid, an unrecognisable parody of what I said.

    1. Sorry Charles, no intention to parody. I was merely reporting my own earlier subjective understanding of what you seemed to be claiming – which as I said, I no longer think you were committed to. I should have been more careful in what I just wrote and said "At the beginning of the discussion it looked *to me* as though" you were claiming one (or maybe more than one) of those three things.


  25. Simon: thanks. No offence taken. Let's talk about something completely different over a drink some time soon.

    1. Now that you're up with the greats, not only LW but also Kant, I think it's proper that you pay for the drinks, Charles!
      Sorry I won't be able to join you…..

  26. My intuition is that the is/ought gap dissolves when we encounter cases of actions that could never be described as good or justifiable by anyone sane. So:

    1) The incident of dismembering and rape would not be described by anyone sane as good or justified.
    2) Actions that in no circumstances can be described as good or justified are likely to be described universally as bad and unjustified.
    3) Actions of this kind cannot be accepted as good or justified in any context.
    4) Therefore there is such a thing as context-free rejection of the goodness and rightness of an action and context-free assignment of wrongness and wickedness to it.
    5) Therefore the wrongness of such an action is a defining quality.
    6) Therefore anyone committing such an action is doing wrong.

    This doesn't get anyone all the way across the is/ought divide but it seems to me to go a long way. If there is such a thing as universal negative ethics in an anthropological sense, then that seems to be a significant factor in this debate.

Comments are closed.