This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← How can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'?

How can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'? - Comments

The Plc's Avatar Comment 1 by The Plc

Taking on David Hume, ambitious and radical! Certainly in modern freethinking spirit!

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:30:00 UTC | #456239

Dean Buchanan's Avatar Comment 2 by Dean Buchanan


Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain).

Am I right in thinking that, overall, this statement is Sam's most important contribution to the philosophical argument about morality? Is this new?

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:34:00 UTC | #456240

hiraethog's Avatar Comment 3 by hiraethog

David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:37:00 UTC | #456241

RickG's Avatar Comment 4 by RickG

Wishful thinking, Sam! See, for example, this review of “The Is-Ought Problem: An Investigation in Philosophical Logic” by Gerhard Schurz, which vindicates Hume’s theisis albeit in an amended form:-

http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/Staff/CharlesPigden/shurtz.pdf

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:37:00 UTC | #456242

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 6 by Bernard Hurley

One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?”


This is the question that G. E. More claimed you could always ask in his "Principia Ethica". In other words he claimed that if you answer was "Because XYZ is good/bad" Then you could re-ask the question leading to an infinite regress.

The interesting thing about the circle question is that it seems to be open to the same objection. However it should be noted that that the proposition "a perfect circle is round" is a tautology is a tautology, at least as it would be ordinarily understood. Now you caqn always play this game with tautologies:

Why is "A=A" true?
Because ""A=A" is a tautology"
But why is ""A=A" is a tautology" true?
Because """A=A" is a tautology" is a tautology"
etc...

The reason why we don't worry about this infinite regress is because we don't feel we need to justify the proposition "A=A", if we didn't accept such things we couldn't reason at all. So we don't feel we need an answer to the question "Why is "A=A" true". If you like a tautology like "A=A" is true by definition and the questioning stops there.

Similarly although a perfect circle is round by definition but it is by no means clear that the proposition "the worst possible misery for everyone bad" is true by definition so it is by no means clear that Moore's questions do not lead to a vicious infinite regress

Now I am not saying that Moore is right that such questions can always be asked. Nor am I sure that Hume was correct, but I don't think Sam Harris's argument does the trick of deriving an "ought" from an "is".

Incidentally at one time John Searle (the Chinese room man) thought you could derive an "ought" from an "is" using his concept of "institutional facts". I can only vaguely remember the argument and I don't know if that is still his position.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:38:00 UTC | #456244

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 5 by Steve Zara

I'm quite impressed. I think Sam has begun to fight back against the critics, and to justify his position, with a clever use of the fact that "ought" is not really a morally neutral term: it means far more than "how we should plan to act".

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:38:00 UTC | #456243

Fuller's Avatar Comment 7 by Fuller

Very much looking forward to Sams new book, he has impressed me greatly in recent discussions.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:52:00 UTC | #456247

David Blackwell's Avatar Comment 8 by David Blackwell

So well-being, whatever it means, and to whomsoever and whatsoever it applies, is a given. That evidence-based thinking and practice can help hugely and indispensably in achieving desired ends is of course true, but surely not very original to point out or continue to harp on. Or is Sam’s fervour here because he sees a lack of recognition of the value of clear thinking and science in relation to achieving desired ends? And yes, science may well help give insight into what could constitute well-being and clarify notions about it. But again, are people tending to deny this? O.K., maybe they are, and if so, Sam may indeed be justified in his fervour.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 21:53:00 UTC | #456249

sto's Avatar Comment 9 by sto

So the "worst misery" is bad by definition of the word 'worst'. Wonderful. So let us rephrase it as largest misery, and then "reasonably ask": how can it be logically derived that largest misery is bad?

Basically the confusion in #8 is the definition of the word "bad". Option 1, we can define "bad=that which has to be avoided". Option 2, we can define "bad=suffering". But we should not use both definitions and claim that this logically proves that suffering should be avoided.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 22:22:00 UTC | #456254

pbarreto's Avatar Comment 10 by pbarreto

What I find most troubling in this argument is the repeated reference to "the worst possible misery for everyone" which, thinking of it, is too imprecise to mean that much.

To see what I mean, compare e.g. to "the smallest number which cannot be described with less than twenty words in English." I've just described it with fourteen words. That's not a paradox -- it's just imprecision in the terms I used, yet it leads to nonsense.

Harris's argument is an interesting first step, but it's still incomplete.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 22:41:00 UTC | #456259

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 11 by Bonzai

People are not using "is" in the same sense.

When people say "is" doesn't imply "ought", "is" means the state of things, the way things happen to be. It doesn't say "is" "What"?

In Harris' usage, it is not just "is", but there is an implicit adjective, like "is life enhancing", "is life destroying" etc.

According to Harris, "X is life enhancing" or "X is life destroying" are empirical statements whose validity can be ascertained by science. (Though "well being", "life enhancing", "life destroying" etc are not entirely objective (values do creep in) and often real ethical dilemmas occur as a result of disagreements over how to weigh competing options which can all be argued to promote "well being" in some sense, you just can't have them all...But we need not go into it for the purpose of understanding Harris' argument)

The second part of his argument is that our preferences (values) are not arbitrary axioms constrained only by logical possibility. For example, (according to Harris) we do have a preference for "well being" over "ill being". We cannot invent a moral system that values universal ill being anymore than one can pretend that he prefesr eating shit to bread, to put it rather starkly) See the part in parenthesis for fact #4.

From these two considerations, Harris tries to argue that in the sense above, "is" does in a way inform "ought".

While I think there are problems in Sam's argument (alluded above). It is a good try.

Hume is way overrated. His "is doesn't imply ought",--along with his argument against God and other favorite citations of his,-- is actually an utterly trivial and shallow point.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 22:57:00 UTC | #456261

david k's Avatar Comment 12 by david k

I'm glad i'm not the only one troubled by this. I won't go into the many particulars, scenarios, hypotheticals, etc that I have a problem with. It seems ironic Sam's endeaver to solve this age old problem might actually be best adressed with what Sam usually trumpets. That is Discourse, Dialogue, Discussion.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:01:00 UTC | #456265

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 13 by Steve Zara

Comment #476839 by Bonzai

You are approaching his argument from the wrong direction. He has no problem with "is", what is he is cleverly doing is to show the moral direction of "ought", and his use of "worst possible" and directions from that is a very subtle and useful philosophical strategy.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:08:00 UTC | #456267

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 14 by Bonzai

Steve

He may not recognize it, but his usage of "is" is not the same as his critics.

I am commenting on the debate as an observer, I am not obliged to take Harris' own interpretation of the nature of the disagreement.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:11:00 UTC | #456268

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 15 by Steve Zara

Comment #476846 by Bonzai

Yes, it is.

The major controversy is over the use of the term "value", and it's scientific context. I think that is the major remaining problem. But I think he is making progress.

I do wish that Sam had put more work into this argument before he first made it public. I think it is now clear that he messed things up in many ways, and he is now trying to patch up his position. The moral[sic] of this is not to throw out half-baked ideas. There are too many experts who will see the flaws.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:17:00 UTC | #456269

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 16 by Bonzai

Steve

Yes, it is.


Because you say so?

The major controversy is over the use of the term "value", and it's scientific context.


That part is rather easy and obvious. See fact#2. We "value" certain things because we prefer well being (over ill being). The disagreement, according to Harris, is how we should decide what is conducive to "well being". He thinks that is an empirical question.

If the critics understand this, it would be rather odd to object with the Hume quote. (There are reasons to disagree on other grounds, but nothing to do with is/ought)

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:27:00 UTC | #456270

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 17 by SaintStephen

If discussing esoteric philosophy directly with Dr. Sam Harris "IS" your game, you "OUGHT" to visit the link below:

http://www.samharris.org/faq/full_text/how-can-you-derive-an-ought-from-an-is/P0/

Sam is personally replying to many of the commenters. My head exploded after the 6th post by Yan Shen, but I'm sure others will fare better...

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:44:00 UTC | #456273

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 18 by Bernard Hurley

Comment #476847 by Steve Zara

I do wish that Sam had put more work into this argument before he first made it public. I think it is now clear that he messed things up in many ways, and he is now trying to patch up his position. The moral[sic] of this is not to throw out half-baked ideas. There are too many experts who will see the flaws.


I disagree. Sam may be on to something, and it is quite easy to think that one's philosophical arguments are flawless until one puts them in the public domain.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:51:00 UTC | #456274

root2squared's Avatar Comment 19 by root2squared

And the mind numbing stupidity continues. Well-being and values are subjective.

It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values


It is also possible to be right about the universe and have wrong values. For instance, I know that the only "purpose" of life is to spread my genes. So if I sincerely believe that my genes would lead to the well-being of humanity, I would consider it a value to go around eliminating genetic competition.

I don't know who this fat man Hume is, but the facts of the world can alter my values and make me form a subjective opinion of how the world should be. However, this does not mean my idea is objectively correct. If that's what he means, then he is right.

Well, it's good fun bashing the equivalent of creationism in philosophy.

Mon, 05 Apr 2010 23:59:00 UTC | #456275

critica's Avatar Comment 20 by critica

If I may make the presumption of defending the great man (David, not Sam), I will say that Sam has missed what is possibly the most effective point in his positioning certain values above others (one he has more or less articulated before). The question is not one of 'ought'; and indeed this may be a nonsensical term if you walk the determinism path - or even if you don't. Rather than considering some sought of moral imperative, it makes more sense to speak of this on a cause-effect level.

I might phrase it this way. If you wish to belong to a community that considers factors X, Y and Z worthwhile (for whatever reasons), then the actions, values and institutions that best promote X, Y and Z may be argued to be A, B and C. People who support these outcomes make a community of values.

I think rather than derive values through some sort of absolute reasoning process, it makes more sense to ensure those with which you argue are well aware of the logical consequences of their beliefs/actions/ideas. You can then agree to disagree about that, but it is somewhat fallacies to assume there is a 'point at issue' when in many cases there is not.

Really the only basis we have for an absolute common 'good' is a common psychology, but this is such a malleable thing that it gets stretched over too wide an area to be useful on a workable scale.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:00:00 UTC | #456276

bethe123's Avatar Comment 21 by bethe123

Indeed. Sam, can divide by zero too.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:10:00 UTC | #456278

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 22 by SaintStephen

19. Comment #476854 by root2squared on April 6, 2010 at 12:59 am

...the facts of the world can alter my values and make me form a subjective opinion of how the world should be. However, this does not mean my idea is objectively correct. If that's what he means, then he is right.
I believe this has been precisely commenter Yan Shen's rebuttal to Sam on his website. Yan has received at least three replies from Harris thus far on this point, if you are interested.

As I said, my head exploded.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:31:00 UTC | #456283

root2squared's Avatar Comment 23 by root2squared

22. Comment #476862 by SaintStephen on April 6, 2010 at 1:31 am

Thanks. I read his replies and the probable reason your head exploded is because Harris is talking utter drivel. He has not answered Yan's points in any meaningful way.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:37:00 UTC | #456284

david k's Avatar Comment 24 by david k

I'm backin Yan Shen too.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:50:00 UTC | #456285

Chicxulub's Avatar Comment 25 by Chicxulub

I always though morals was about the things has we wish them to be... not about what they are. Is Sam Harris trying to create a moral system based on science... or just using science to inform us about morals (wich is OK). I mean... there are scientists that study love, but as far as i know they are not telling us how to fall in love.
Could someone explain to me what Sam Harris is saying... because i'm confused.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 00:53:00 UTC | #456287

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 26 by SaintStephen

25. Comment #476868 by Chicxulub on April 6, 2010 at 1:53 am

I mean... there are scientists that study love, but as far as i know they are not telling us how to fall in love.
I wish they would. My anti-Humean philosophy is not working:

"Baby, you IS pretty, therefore you OUGHT to love me."

Not a single bite all evening last night at the pub.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 01:01:00 UTC | #456288

david k's Avatar Comment 27 by david k

I think Yan Shen is my lost twin. He says eloquently the arguments I can't. That's why i suggested "discourse" instead of me clumsily making a fool of myself. This guy/gal's on point.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 01:04:00 UTC | #456289

Chicxulub's Avatar Comment 28 by Chicxulub

FACT #4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain).
FACT #5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).



So this means i should rape as many women i can to maximize my future gene pool... because... well the truth is i'm here because of natural selection (a very brutal fact about life)? I think the facts of live will never get us away from the worst possible misery for everyone. So we should go in the other direction. The wrong values could be the right ones... because that's how we could wish them to be (and this depends a lot on the environment we were raise. If some Harris has natural selection in mind... than he has to consider that morals is a game happening in a environment that is also cultural. There's no reason to make the accusation of moral relativism. Any explanation about morals that is scientific must consider enviroment ... and for humans culture, in all it's variety, is an evolutionary enviroment) That, i think refutes FACT 5. Or at least makes it hard to link a fact about a selfish gene and universal wellbeing.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 01:12:00 UTC | #456290

Chicxulub's Avatar Comment 29 by Chicxulub

Rationalism, like vitamins, can hurt you if you take too much.
I think David Hume's Philosophy says this much...

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 01:23:00 UTC | #456291

chrisrkline's Avatar Comment 30 by chrisrkline

Obviously what we value or desire is objective to the extent that it really does exist in our physical brains. Clearly these values and desires are not arbitrary and are shared by many people. We seek our own interests in all we do and want to be happy and avoid pain. We are rational and have a capacity to access how our current actions will or might affect our future happiness. We typically recognize that we have to work together to maximize our happiness (always keeping in mind the effects of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

That is all well and good. But there is one point that I think he is missing. Morality is not primarily about what we do to make ourselves happy, but about conflict. If you and I value X, then there is no real moral question at all. We merely need to assess what to do to reach this state. If we do not agree that X is valuable, then we have a problem. If you and I both agree that doing A, B,and C will get us to X, we both agree on objective facts (including that you value X and I don't) but we are no closer to agreeing about X. You can say "You ought to value X" from now until dooms day and I will not value X. What is Harris going to say? "Sorry, bub, even though you don't actually desire X, you 'ought' to desire it." How is that anything more than Harris just identifying what he personally desires (which may be objectively true, but has no connection with what I desire.)

And this problem is not solved by changing the level of abstraction. Simply finding universal agreement that we all seek happiness doesn't help the minute we get to our first conflict. At some point we have to face the fact that we will desire things that other people want or that other people do not want us to desire. We should use reason and science to clarify the facts about the world. But don't expect this theory to get us to what is objectively right or wrong. It can't.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 01:24:00 UTC | #456292