There’s a notion held by many intellectuals—or at least those who are educated beyond some minimum level—that one cannot derive any moral “ought” in life from any “is” about nature. This notion is attributed to David Hume, the famous and by all accounts extremely intelligent 18th century philosopher, though I haven’t read the original source material (and if I’m doing his ideas a disservice, I apologize profusely to his memory). In general, the “Humeans” seem to accept the apparently dogmatic notion that the realm of morals and ethics is divorced from the realm of our understanding of the natural world, and that nothing that we could learn about the objective facts of reality could ever give us the answers to what we ought to do—ethically, morally—in our lives.
I don’t understand how so many otherwise intelligent people, Hume among them, could ever have accepted such a patently idiotic idea.
Perhaps the original source of the declared division arises from the conflict—most noteworthy perhaps during the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment—between the burgeoning fruits of science and the declining hegemony of organized religion. “The Church,” recognizing and unable to deny the power, utility, and productivity of natural science, grudgingly ceded to it the role of investigating the facts of physical reality, but lay unequivocal claim to the realm of how one ought to behave. It then defended that realm with thumbscrews and fire when it felt compelled to do so.
Even so luminous a figure as Galileo, pre-stating Hume’s dictum in reverse order, declared that the bible tells us how to go to Heaven, while science tells us how the heavens go. He seemed convinced of the fundamental separation of objective fact from moral reasoning. Then again, he had been personally brought on a tour of the Inquisition’s instruments of torture, which waited to persuade him if he disagreed with the Church’s point on such matters, and he lived his latter years under a “merciful” sentence of house arrest for some of his declarations about the cosmos. If he was less than candid about his insights, he can be excused.
We have no such excuses in the modern, non-theocratic, world, and the argument has never had the slightest shred of logical consistency. All our “oughts”—our decision-making processes in all areas of reality—depend completely upon the nature of that reality. How can one decide what move to make in chess if one doesn’t understand the rules and is unaware of one’s opponent’s pieces, or one’s own? How can one proceed in a video game if one doesn’t know how to control the characters, how to use their abilities, or what choices in the game will be good or bad for achieving the game’s stated goals?
To be sure, reality is much more complex than any game we’ve yet designed, but that’s just a difference of degree, not of type. We come into the world, we find through inductive reasoning that things around us behave in some ways and not in others, that there are consistencies but also complexities throughout our universe. We find within ourselves that our bodies and minds have some characteristics and not others, and this corrals our reactions and behaviors into certain limited paths. We recognize by empiricism, logic, and intuition, that our fellow humans are creatures with a great deal in common with ourselves. By reasonable induction, we decide that they must experience love, hate, pain, pleasure, fear, joy, and all other positive and negative phenomena in ways at least similar to those in which we experience them. With that in mind, we decide that we should treat our fellow humans according to one of the many historical variants of the “golden rule,” doing unto others as we would wish to have done unto ourselves.* We find, however, that we cannot follow this rule in a simplistic fashion—just because I happen to love riding roller-coasters, reading books on science, and watching anime, doesn’t mean that everyone else likes exactly the same things. If I’m getting someone else a gift, I need to think about what they might want to receive, not what I would want in their place. This makes choices more difficult, as it does in ethics and morality, but such is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves, and we ought to base our choices on as full an understanding of reality as we are able to apply. At least we ought to do this if we want to have the best possible chance of achieving our goals.
We are not simply logical tabula rasas, floating in some non-specified moral space where we invent our rules of morality out of the ether. Even our most fundamental moral intuitions and instincts, good and bad—familial loyalty versus xenophobia, love and attachment versus jealousy and paranoia—are the products of our nature as pack-dwelling mammals. Our nature determines our crudest ethical impulses, and it also determines our deepest and most profound moral insights.
Even if you think morals are the product of religion—if you are a true believer who claims that all of ethics and morality was by fiat delivered to us by some omnipotent and omniscient deity—you are still basing your moral choices on the nature of reality as you understand it. Your insight into and awareness of reality may be imperfect (and whose is not?), but it is only because you perceive or believe reality to be a certain way that your moral thoughts and your moral choices follow particular arcs. How could it be otherwise? Morality and ethics do not exist in a vacuum. In truly empty space, there is no right or wrong.
We can only decide what we ought to do—whether it relate to morals and ethics or to business, driving, education, entertainment, or any other subject in life—based on what is. To the degree that we fail to understand what is, or are limited in that understanding, our choices will tend to be worse than they would be if we knew more. Similarly, to the degree we are limited in our ability to understand, to project, and to imagine the potential outcomes of decisions based on the facts of reality, we will tend to make poorer choices than we would if we were not so limited.
Hume’s statement of the is/ought dichotomy is quoted by some as though it were a definitive law of reality, handed down from on high on stone tablets. It is not. It is, in fact, fundamentally in error, as far as I can see. Yet even if that were not so, even if it were a brute fact of reality that had been divinely decreed or delivered to Hume as unassailable fact, this in itself would constitute a fact of reality, the one from which was derived the dictate about “is” versus “ought.” And thus, by definition, it would be self-refuting.
*I actually prefer the version put forward by Hillel the Elder (who died 10 years before the birth of the rather more famous Yeshua ben Yosef, the widely reputed source of the more common version of the rule), who said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”