Bridging The Is-Ought Gap
Synonyms such as “tradition”, “cultural norms”, “orthodoxy”, “time tested”, “appropriate”, “iconic”, “natural”, etc will always fundamentally appeal to the same underlying justification: the community has already accepted the idea as valid so it is factual. [… When this idea of “civility”] is not questioned [it becomes] practical reality, and reality needs no defense. The moment it is questioned, it stops being reality and enters the realm of subjectivity.Legacy Analysis – Social Consent – Civil Consent
The Is-Ought Problem
David Hume is a powerhouse in philosophy: an enlightenment philosopher that helped shape the discourse of empiricism, human nature, and ethics. What most people know him for is his argument for the “is-ought gap” which will be the main focus of this article.
Also known as Hume’s law or Hume’s Guillotine, the commonly accepted and well reasoned thesis asserts that there is an unavoidable chasm between what “is” (reality) and what “ought” be (moral prescriptions). Logically, it follows. What we think “ought” to matter has very little impact or relevance on what “is” the case. The claim helps to show that – regardless of what everyone believes is right – that people can hold equally valid views on the way the world “ought” be. It helps to increase acceptance of other people and general discourse. Generally, a good philosophy (unless you are delusional, but we’ll get to that).
To use a simple and reasonable example: Life exists and seeks to continue living. Does this lead to a “right to life”? Well… no. Germs are alive, they desire to perpetuate, but our willingness to wash our hands prioritizes our own survival over theirs. So they have no such “right”. What gives the “right” is the claim that “our group ‘ought’ to survive”. WIthout this “ought” the “right” is invalid, and we see this when people talk exclusively about what “our group” is. Supremacists – for example – will reject that others have any such “rights” because they aren’t in “their group” so they ought not need to survive.
But “oughts” are powerful, they prescribe how one “ought” to act. What is moral to do. For example, if someone thought unicorns “ought” exist… they would likely engage in any and all forms of bringing that “ought” to reality. It could be as rational as scientifically trying to alter a horse’s genetics to grow a horn on its head. It could also be as childish as dressing a dog up in a unicorn outfit or possibly more tortuous things. But all of that – within the “ought” that was prescribed – are “correct” actions.
So according to Hume, “oughts” are fundamentally subjective and – unless there is agreement – there is no reason to logically hold one more valid than any other. Luckily statements that are factual can be trusted and those are things that will never fail us. The sky is blue. The ground is solid. An “ought” is subjective. An “is” is always true. The Earth is flat. Pi is 22/7. Purple is real. 2+2 is 11. I hope I’ve made my facetious point: these aren’t objective claims either, but dogmatic ones. The claim of “is” sets the framework of reality that we are expected to exist within. It’s authoritative.
Hume knew this but seemed to accept it. He submitted that – among other things – empiricism was something every rational person will agree to. So it is a sufficient framework of reality to depend on our senses for data collection and testing those observations in a way others can replicate. And honestly I agree…. that is until you start seeing pink elephants.
Ought we appeal to Emperics?
I buried the lead a bit on this section, but the claim that empiricism can be trusted is an ought. In addition to the empirical knowledge that not everyone can embrace it (due to delusional mindsets… not to mention the more common cognitive dissonance and perception bias), not everyone agrees. Religions reject empiricism in favor of mysticism and that leads them to a completely different understanding of reality.
Regardless, if we look at the topic existentially (meaning that – at best – our experiences manifest a best guess at reality) empiricism has some great values. Practically, we have to assume – on some level – that there is a common source for our collective observations. So it follows that using our only way of gaining information from that common source – our senses – is a reasonable axiom to value. Even within skepticism it has the least amount of assumptions (assuming we value consistency which is a prerequisite for logic).
But the issue will remain: this is still an “ought”. No matter how we phrase it, no matter how it’s dressed up or justified, the claim will ultimately boil down to “we ought value empiricism”.
No “is” has yet been established.
Short answer: universally? There is no “is”. Any claim of an “is” will lead you to depend on things that will fail. The sky is not blue at night. The ground is not solid when you slip. The earth is not flat if you look at it from a large enough view. Pi is not rational. Purple is not real but a manifestation of perception. 2+2 is not 11 if you are using something other than base 3.
The models that we create are just that: constructs. Practically no one should be blamed for using them, we have to use something after all. But to think that they are objective or complete is faulty. Like Newtonian physics, “Scientific Laws” will always be incomplete – eventually being replaced by better hypotheses. If too robust it will internally conflict, as national laws tend to do.
And we can start to see what really matters with “is”. It’s not that it is timelessly true, but temporally agreed on. “Is” is only meaningful within the framework we are currently considering, and it only becomes an “is” if everyone within the framework agrees to it.
This is dangerous for the same reason mentioned above – it is authoritative. Once a declaration of “is” happens, people are expected to abide by it. In reality, any “is” statement can be demoted to an “ought” statement simply by disagreeing with it. I’ll state this again because it will be important for the rest of the article:
Any “is” statement can be demoted to an “ought” statement simply by disagreeing with it.
Now I do want to defend this because I think it’s a fun logic trap that ensures that we can depend on it as a universal “is” (one of a few that I will be using). If anyone doubts this, please consider that – by temporarily appealing to dogma – this is classified as an “is” statement. By disagreeing, it will demote the classification causing it to be “any ‘is’ statement ought to be demoted to an ‘ought’ statement simply by disagreeing with it”. So you’ve just demoted an “is” to an “ought” by disagreeing with it… think about what just happened… you proved me right.
So if we can universally agree to this “ought-become-an-is”, then we’ve found a crack in the wedge between “is-ought”. We’ve begun to bridge the gap: an “ought” becomes an “is” if it is universally accepted. So let’s follow this up.
The reason for “ought” statements is to prescribe to others what is “good” to do. Fundamentally then, “oughts” are a declaration of how to make the world “more good” or – in other words – a prescription of “bad reduction”.
Asking the impossible
What are the repercussions of an “ought” system that prescribes an impossible task? Simply by defining it, the amount of bad in the world has increased because the “ought” (which cannot be completed) was introduced. For example: if we prescribe that “people ought fly safely at length without technology,” then every person in existence (arguably) would be a failure, and therefore “bad would be increased” purely by the prescription.
So the prescription itself would be a promotion of “bad”. And we just saw in the last section, the only purpose for prescribing a system of oughts is to minimize bad, so this system is counter to its own purpose.
Hopefully I didn’t lose anyone with this, because if I’ve convinced you that “oughts ought not be prescribed if they are impossible to follow”, then this statement – between us – has become an “is”. And frankly I see no logical way to escape this conclusion. So either it IS the case that “oughts” must be individually achievable, or the ought is invalid.
But this begs the question: how do we know what is impossible for someone else to accomplish? I assert we cannot. Being that no one is clairvoyant, that determination is exclusively for the individual. So any “ought” that disregards the “is” of others will potentially promote “bad” and therefore cannot be considered valid. Which leads to one additional (hopefully) universal “is” regarding “oughts”: every valid system of “oughts” will include the need to understand others to ensure that it is not making impossible requests.
Is current society moral?
So there you have it: at least four points that bridge the “is-ought” gap:
- any “is” can be demoted to an “ought” by questioning it.
- any “ought” can be promoted to an “is” within a group by agreement.
- an “ought” is possible to enact
- it is the case we ought to understand others
These are broad statements and easily achievable within a variety of systems, but why then does it seem to rarely happen? The answer comes from how most people find common agreement which manifests “is” statements. There are social norms that have organically generated out of the collective consciousness. We shouldn’t discount the inertia of the past, or the influence of those with means to construct a narrative; both of these are heavy hitters in the creation of these norms. Regardless, the superstructure of society declares what “is” reality… and it necessarily is justified by and gives endorsement to people in positions to change it.
For many, the fabric of reality itself depends on those “is” statements. So you can see that if those “is” statements make impossible prescriptions, then – for all practical purposes – reality itself is immoral. But unfortunately that doesn’t matter to those that agree with it, which brings us to an important point: people that depend on the acceptance of “is” statements for security and identity – regardless of the validity or consistency – will respond to any questioning as if it is an attack on reality… because – for them – it is.
But even with that push back, it is vital – as a society – to question the systems and convert the “is” descriptions to “ought” prescriptions. Only by doing so can we apply the evaluation above to determine whether or not they are valid.
While you cannot question reality, we have restrictions on what can be moral.
As an incredibly obvious example: in a society which prescribes “members either work or starve“, the acceptance of this “is” cannot be challenged. An “is” cannot be wrong and the people that benefit from this “is” will be hostile to those attempting to challenge reality. Obviously though, there will be people which will object to their own genocide. For example, disabled people that cannot work will question the reality, changing the “is” to “members ought work or members ought die”. And – from the above – we see that the moral necessity of understanding the disabled community will determine that (within this hypothetical) it is impossible for them to work. So for the claim to be valid, it is a moral prescription to starve. I don’t think anyone would practically think that promotes “good”.
But what would lead to a society proclaiming “members either work or starve”? The historic context is likely that at some point, the food was only enough to feed those that worked, which would make the claim sound (albeit tragic due to the people that couldn’t work). But this just shows that social declarations of “is” cannot be reinforced by institutions. Any internal questioning of an “is” must push it to an ought unless society is to become broken.
And many may see the problem with this already. The protectionism which is being defined above as a means of breaking society is necessary for many for survival. Thus a paradox is created: protectionism is both immoral and necessary. So the final thought that I will end on is this:
Removing the need for protectionism IS required for a workable society. This and this alone is the singular purpose of governance: to render itself unnecessary by ensuring all of its populace is ensured self agency over their own security.
All said, it is an moral obligation to believe that
Every action, every decision, every choice is a vote to make reality what you want it to be. Please help promote each other.