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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 1. Hume’s Problems with Induction

Chapter 7. The is-ought dichotomy

David Hume’s views and opinions on many philosophical topics seem (to me) to be driven by the desire to exempt himself from ‘morality’. That often seems to be the underlying driving force or motive of all his skeptical philosophy, what it all manifestly tends towards. By denying induction, causation, the self and an effective power of freewill, he is justifying the idea that “anything goes” in knowledge and in personal behavior. This overall trend is again confirmed when we consider some of his positions regarding ethical reasoning.

Hume questions the possibility of deriving prescriptive statements, which tell us what we ought to do or not do, from descriptive statements, which tell us the way things are or are not. The distinction between these two sorts of statement is in his opinion so radical that one cannot be reduced to the other. This means effectively that moral or ethical propositions have no formal basis in fact, i.e. they cannot be claimed as true in an absolute sense. There is no logical way, in his view, to deduce or induce an “ought” from an “is”.

Prescriptive statements are then, according to Hume, at best just practical advice on how to pursue our self-interest and the interests of the people we value (or more broadly, sympathize or empathize with). This is a kind of pragmatism or utilitarianism, in lieu of heavier moral notions of duty or obligation. In this way, ethics is made essentially amoral – an issue of convenience, a mere description of the ways we might best pursue our arbitrary values. The implication is one of relativism and convention.

It should be added that Hume’s conclusion with a non-ethics or relativistic ethic is consistent with his position on freewill. For if we do not really have freewill, but are inevitably driven by our passions, and moreover can rely on them rather than reason for guidance, then we have no need for ethics. Ethics is only meaningful if we have a real power of choice and must therefore take decisions.

Hume’s view of ethical logic is an interesting mix of truth and falsehood, which is why many have agreed with him and many have found it difficult to refute him. Ethics is of course a vast and complex subject, and I do not propose here to treat the topic in detail[1]. I would just like to show briefly how and why Hume’s approach, for all its seeming skeptical mastery, is here again superficial and narrow.

The issue raised is primarily formal. What are prescriptive propositions and how do they relate to descriptive ones? The obvious answer to the question would be that prescriptions relate ends to means. I ought to do (or not-do) this if I want to (or not-to) obtain or attain that. The ‘ought’ (or ‘should’ or ‘must’) modality is essentially the bond in a specific kind of if-then proposition, with a desire or ‘value’ as antecedent and an action or ‘virtue’ as consequent.

Such if-then propositions are not themselves descriptive, but are deductively derived from descriptive forms. When we say “if we want so and so, then thus and thus is the way to get it”, we are affirming that “thus and thus” is/are cause(s) of “so and so”[2]. The latter is a factual claim, which may be true or false. It follows that the prescriptive statement can also be judged true or false, at least in respect of the correctness of the connection implied between its antecedent and consequent.

Be it mentioned in passing, prescriptive statements may be positive (imperatives) or negative (prohibitions). As well, note, the negations of prescriptive statements, viz. not imperative (exempt) and not prohibited (permitted) are also significant ethical modalities. But for brevity’s sake we will here only concentrate on imperatives, for the rest logically follows.

We see from our above definition of an imperative that it is conditional. Good or bad mean good or bad for something or someone. The imperative is only true as such if we grant that the value pursued is indeed of value. But how can we ever know whether any of our values are valuable in an absolute sense? This is Hume’s query, and it is quite valid. But his conclusion that values are formally bound to be arbitrary (i.e. cannot be deduced from plain facts) is open to challenge.

Our task is to show that we can arrive somehow at categorical imperatives[3], i.e. ethical standards that can ground and justify all subsequent conditional imperatives. One conceivable way to do so is to use a dilemmatic argument: ‘Whether you want this or that or anything else, the pursuit of so and so would in any case be a precondition’.

Something is an absolute value if it is necessary to the pursuit of any and all arbitrary values one personally opts for. A relative value can be by-passed in the pursuit of other relative values, but an absolute value is one presupposed in every pursuit and must therefore be respected unconditionally.

Are there any such absolute values? Clearly, yes. An obvious such value is life itself: if one lacks life, one cannot pursue anything else; therefore life must be protected and enhanced. Another absolute value is the self – if the soul is the source of all our actions, good or bad, then the soul’s welfare is an absolute value. Whatever one wants, one needs the physiological and psychological means that make such pursuit at all possible – viz. one’s bodily and mental faculties. And most of all, one needs to be present oneself!

These are obvious examples. What do they teach us? If we wish to understand, use and validate ethical propositions, we have to realize what makes all such discourse possible and necessary. A simple illustration and proof of that is that if I tell you ‘don’t follow any ethical doctrine’, I am uttering an ethical doctrine, and therefore committing a self-contradiction.

Ethical propositions do not apply to inanimate objects. They apply only to living beings, because only such entities have anything to win or lose. But to apply them to all living beings is not correct, for though plants, insects and lower animals can objectively be said by us to have values, their functioning is either automatic or instinctive, and they cannot understand or voluntarily apply ethics.

Only humans, and maybe higher animals like chimps or dolphins, can have ethical thoughts and the power of will to carry them out. These thoughts are verbal or non-verbal in the case of humans, and necessarily non-verbal in the case of higher animals. Thus, in the last analysis, explicit ethical discourse concerns only human beings.

And we can say at the outset that to engage at all in ethical discourse, humans have to study and take into consideration their nature, their true identity. They have to realize their biological and spiritual nature, the nature of their physical-mental organism and the nature of their soul. Moreover, since biology and spirituality relate not just to the individual in isolation, but to larger groups and to society as a whole – ethics has to be equally broad in its concerns.

If this large factual background is ignored in the formulation of ethical propositions, one is bound to be arbitrary and sooner or later fall into error. In conclusion, we can develop an ethic that involves absolute values and is based on factual truths. Ethics is clearly seen not to be arbitrary, if we consider the conditions that give rise to it in the first place – viz. that we are fragile living beings, with natural needs and limits, and that we are persons, with powers of cognition, volition and valuation.

If all the relevant facts are taken into consideration, then, an “ought” encapsulates a mass of “is” information, and can therefore be regarded as a special sort of “is”. That is, if properly developed, an ethical statement can be declared true, like any other factual claim. It is ethical fact, as against ‘alethic’ fact. Of course, if not properly induced and deduced, an ethical can be declared false – but not all ethical propositions are false.

Hume failed to realize the said logical preconditions of any ethics, and therefore got stuck in the shallow idea that ethics cannot be deeply grounded in fact. Since the scope of his considerations was partial, he could at least see that an “ought” is to start with conditional, but he could not see further how it could eventually be made unconditional. He therefore wrongly concluded that inferring an “ought” from an “is” is fallacious reasoning. This was later pompously called “the naturalistic fallacy”[4].

[1] Note that I do not believe it is the task of the ethical philosopher to foresee every situation in life, and prescribe optimum behavior for them. Certainly, the philosopher is called upon to consider difficult general cases and propose wise responses. But each situation is unique in some respects, so the main task in this field is to teach people to think for themselves – in sensitive, intelligent and logical ways – about ethical issues. Ethical philosophy is primarily ethical logic, and only secondarily deals with certain contents. It is not a totalitarian doctrine. Each person has to live his or her own life.

[2] I won’t here go into the different determinations of causation. Suffices to say that obviously if A is the only way to X, then I can say: “I must do A to get to X”. But if there are alternative ways to X – say. A, B and C, then I can only say: “I must do A or B or C to get X” – i.e. my prescription is disjunctive.

[3] It should be clear that, although I use this expression intentionally, I do not mean by it the same as Kant did. It is form, not content. I am here discussing formal ethical logic, not advocating a general or particular categorical imperative. Kant considers an imperative categorical if it is universal, i.e. applicable to everyone, all agents. Whereas in my view, a categorical imperative can be quite singular. What makes an imperative categorical, instead of hypothetical, is its necessity to all goals open to that agent. Logically, this is more symmetrical. What means are universal in this sense, i.e. universal to all goals (not necessarily all people)? Life, bodily wholeness and health, soul, cognition, volition, valuation, mental wholeness and health – these are means we always need to succeed, whatever our particular goals.

[4] By George Edward Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903). I say ‘pompously’ to stress that no logical fallacy is involved, in my view. The issue is a logical problem – but one open to solution. My rejecting this so-called fallacy is not intended to reject offhand Moore’s central thesis, viz. that of the intellectual primacy of the concept of ‘good’, i.e. that we tacitly understand the term in some way before any theory attempting to define it.

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