Can an ‘ought’ be derived from an ‘is’?


Philippa Foot says it’s super easy, barely an inconvenience... (background: Hume on Is & Ought)

EXCERPT: . . . There is no difficulty about this. Think of things that human beings should do, like taking special care of children. There is something wrong with someone if he or she does not do this: if they are cruel to children or careless of their welfare they are not acting as they should act, or ought to act.

This is on account of facts about humans – of what is the case in human life. Children are not able to look after themselves. Without adult care they would not even survive. And unless they are both cherished and taught by adults they are incapable themselves of such things as love and friendship – perhaps even of satisfying work. They may survive but cannot flourish in the way that is possible for human beings.

So we can say ‘adult human beings ought to protect and cherish and instruct children.’ This is a straightforward fact about what it is to be a good or bad human being, about what a person ought to do. And it is derived from other facts of a certain kind about what is necessary for flourishing in living things in a particular (i.e. here the human) species.

There are such facts only about living things, but not only about humans. For we can say of species of plants that they need say roots of a certain kind, etc, etc, and that an individual is not as it should be unless it has certain characteristics and does certain things. (Things that have a function in the lives of things of this species) It is the same with animals. An owl is not as it should be if it cannot see in the dark. And a lioness does not do something that she ought to do, if failing to teach her cubs to hunt.

These are parallels that I am drawing on in relating the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ that we can predicate of human beings to flourishing in our case – in the case of our species.

‘But this has nothing to do with the moral ought’ I hear you cry. To which I reply that there is no more a change of meaning in the word ‘ought’ or ‘should’ when we move from animals to humans than there was when we moved from plant to animal life. The idea of a special meaning for such words when we apply them to human life, and more specifically to human action is a complete illusion. A whole range of concepts apply univocally to all living things – concepts such as e.g. function, health, and flourishing. It is within this logical space of concepts that what I have called ‘natural goodness’ belongs, and there is no change of meaning when we speak of the way humans should be and the way they ought to act.


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Charles Pigden considers Hume’s famous claim that you can’t deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’...

EXCERPT: . . . Hume’s idea seems to be that you cannot deduce moral conclusions, featuring moral words such as ‘ought’, from non-moral premises, that is premises from which the moral words are absent. The passage is summed up in the slogan ‘No-Ought-From-Is’ (or NOFI for short) and for many people it represents the take-home message of Hume’s moral philosophy. It is sometimes rather grandly referred to as Hume’s Law. But what exactly did he mean by it? Why did he think that his observation would ‘subvert all the vulgar systems of morality’? Is NOFI (or something like it) true? And what are the philosophical consequences?

This last question is particularly important since many philosophers think that NOFI supports non-cognitivism. This is the view that moral judgments are not genuinely or full-bloodedly true or false but that they serve to express emotions (emotivism) or to convey commands (prescriptivism). To say that promise-keeping is right is to say something like “Hurrah for promise-keeping!” or “Keep your promises!”

Thus some philosophers think that once you accept NOFI, it is a few short steps to the view that there is no objective basis for ethics and that although we may disagree with the advocates of female circumcision or ethnic cleansing we cannot convict them of intellectual error. They are simply cheering for (or commanding) something that we are disposed to boo (or forbid). Other philosophers think that although NOFI does not support non-cognitivism, it is incompatible with naturalism, the view that moral judgments can be true or false as a result of natural facts about the world, such as facts about human flourishing or facts about what a sensible person would approve of under certain circumstances.

So in the mid-Twentieth Century, No-Ought-From-Is became the focus for a furious debate. Some argued for No-Ought-From-Is in order to vindicate non-cognitivism, some tried to attack non-cognitivism by way of No-Ought-From-Is and some tried to refute No-Ought-From-Is in order to vindicate naturalism.

In my opinion all the parties to this dispute were making the same mistake. For in so far as it is true and provable, NOFI provides no support for non-cognitivism and no argument against naturalism. But to see why we have to go back to Hume....


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