1 of 6
1
The is/ought “problem”
Posted: 03 January 2015 11:05 PM   [ Ignore ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18

Greetings all:

I don’t get why the is/ought “problem” is considered a serious philosophical concern.  It’s not that I disagree with it.  I understand that, strictly speaking, you can’t get an “ought” from just an “is”.  You must also have an objective.  If things are a certain way (is), and we have a certain goal in mind (objective), then science or logic can be used to empirically determine what we should do (ought) to achieve that goal.

Without an objective, I agree that you can’t determine an “ought” from just an “is”.

That being said; so what?  Why does this make the concept of objective morality problematic?  Objective morality is only problematic if we’re not allowed to define what we mean by “morality”.  Yet, whenever someone does define it in a philosophical context, they are accused of making a fallacious presupposition about morality—violating the is/ought principal.  Why?  Why aren’t we allowed to define what we mean by “morality” in a philosophical argument?  The fact is, words have definitions.  The is/ought problem goes away as soon as we define “morality”.

Let me borrow an example from Sam Harris:  Not everyone is in complete agreement about what constitutes health.  Yet nobody denies that medicine is a scientific (i.e. objective) endeavor.  Why shouldn’t morality be the same?  Why can’t we simply define what we mean when we talk about morality?  Not everyone will agree on all the details, but I think most of us can agree that an action that knowingly leads to “the worst possible misery for everyone” (Harris’ words) would be morally wrong (i.e. bad).  From there, by endeavoring to get as far away as possible from “the worst possible misery for everyone” we can, in principle, use science/logic to empirically and objectively determine which actions are moral and which are immoral—hence, objective morality.

But, oops!  I defined what I meant by “moral”, so…FAIL!(???)  I’ve violated the is/ought principle?  Nonsense!  Why have philosophers deemed morality “that which shall not be defined”?  Are there any other words that philosophers have deemed worthy of this very exclusive club?

Critics of Harris say that although he talks about using science to reduce suffering and increase happiness in his book The Moral Landscape (basically ethical utilitarianism), he nonetheless fails to explain why doing so is morally right in the first place, and so he’s failed to solve the is/ought “problem”.  That’s like criticizing someone for endorsing science-based medicine because they’ve failed to explain why having brain cancer is unhealthy in the first place.  Or course, that’s only a problem if one is not allowed to define the word “healthy”.

Why do philosophers think that defining the concept of morality is some kind of fallacy?

Any thoughts anyone?
.
.
.

p.s. Philosophers do actually sort of have a definition of “moral”—“that which is good” (or, perhaps, “that which is intended to do good”).  But that’s obviously a meaningless definition since “good” in this situation is simply a synonym for “moral”.  So, they’re basically defining “moral” as “that which is moral” or “that which is intended to be moral”.  It’s like saying the definition of “long” is “lengthy”.
.
.
.

Edited for clarity.

[ Edited: 03 January 2015 11:53 PM by BugRib ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 04 January 2015 03:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6851
Joined  2006-12-20

Hi Bug.

The problem is with the moral objective. How do we get to an objective truth about what the moral objective should be?

It’s not a problem with defining it, the problem is people will disagree and how there can be an objective truth about who is right.

So the problem is more like a disagreement over the age of the earth. Some think it’s 4.5 billion years old and others think it’s 6,500 years old. But there is a fact of the matter because there is an age that the earth *is*.

So there is a factual age of the earth but unless we can get from is to ought somehow, no factual best moral objective.

[ Edited: 04 January 2015 03:11 AM by StephenLawrence ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 04:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18
StephenLawrence - 04 January 2015 03:08 AM

Hi Bug.

The problem is with the moral objective. How do we get to an objective truth about what the moral objective should be?

It’s not a problem with defining it, the problem is people will disagree and how there can be an objective truth about who is right.

So the problem is more like a disagreement over the age of the earth. Some think it’s 4.5 billion years old and others think it’s 6,500 years old. But there is a fact of the matter because there is an age that the earth *is*.

So there is a factual age of the earth but unless we can get from is to ought somehow, no factual best moral objective.

Yes, but just as the age of the earth is a matter of objective fact, there are also objective factual answers about how to get as far away from “the worst possible misery for everyone” as possible.  We may not know those factual answers, but they exist.  And a “science of morality” would be the best way to get those answers to move us away from “the worst possible misery for everyone”.  How can anyone find this idea controversial?  Because not everyone agrees that moving us away from TWPMFE would be morally right?  Or they think that’s just an arbitrary framework for morality?  Well, those people are just being stubbornly obtuse.

There are also people who think drilling holes in their head is healthy.  So since not everyone agrees with what is healthy, there can be no objective science of health (i.e. medicine)?  That would violate the is/ought principle because not everyone agrees about what constitutes health?  Ridiculous, right?  Well that’s exactly the argument philosophers are making against the idea of objective morality.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 06:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6851
Joined  2006-12-20
BugRib - 05 January 2015 04:24 AM

Yes, but just as the age of the earth is a matter of objective fact, there are also objective factual answers about how to get as far away from “the worst possible misery for everyone” as possible.  We may not know those factual answers, but they exist.  And a “science of morality” would be the best way to get those answers to move us away from “the worst possible misery for everyone”.  How can anyone find this idea controversial?  Because not everyone agrees that moving us away from TWPMFE would be morally right?  Or they think that’s just an arbitrary framework for morality?  Well, those people are just being stubbornly obtuse.

Starting with TWPMFE and then imagining there is a gradient of possible scenarios all that can be ordered as in fact getting better, may well not fit with the reality of the situation. If it does perhaps what you are saying is we can bridge the Is ought gap?

There are also people who think drilling holes in their head is healthy.  So since not everyone agrees with what is healthy, there can be no objective science of health (i.e. medicine)?  That would violate the is/ought principle because not everyone agrees about what constitutes health?  Ridiculous, right?  Well that’s exactly the argument philosophers are making against the idea of objective morality.

I don’t think it is the same argument. Is there a fact of the matter over what is healthy? If so it would relate to functioning properly and that in turn would relate to natural selection, so we could talk about what the brain was naturally selected for and then see how a hole in it doesn’t help with it’s function grin

But we can’t do that when it comes to morality.

I think this is a very difficult subject, I know I’m way out of my depth B.T.W .

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 11:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4329
Joined  2009-10-21

I agree with you BugRib. If you want to switch to a world of pure philosophy, fine, there is an is/ought problem, but when you come back to the real world, it is not a reason for say, NOT having a law against throwing battery acid in people’s faces. We ought not to do that. Maybe, technically, we should use a word like “worldview”. So, instead of “my philosophy is ‘do no harm’ “, say, “my worldview is ‘do no harm’ “. There is no basis for my worldview other than I know what pain is from personal experience, and I don’t need one. I would be suspicious of anyone who has a problem with that.

People who say you can’t apply science to the notion of morality have a problem with what science is and what morality is. Science is a loosely defined set of rules and premises, so if we want to have a science of morality, nothing is stopping us. Science already starts with a premise that everything has a natural explanation, which is one of the things that separates it from philosophy, so it already has declared itself free from problems like is/ought. Morality is a set of standards, beyond which you won’t go, won’t question. You shouldn’t set such standards without applying some scientific scrutiny to them, and you should re-assess them if new evidence arises.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 02:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18
StephenLawrence - 05 January 2015 06:13 AM

Starting with TWPMFE and then imagining there is a gradient of possible scenarios all that can be ordered as in fact getting better, may well not fit with the reality of the situation. If it does perhaps what you are saying is we can bridge the Is ought gap?

No.  I’m saying there is no is/ought gap.  It’s not a real philosophical problem.  It’s an artifact of the way language works.  Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to say “There’s a switch on the wall (is), therefore I should flip it (ought).”  Something’s missing.  But if you said “There’s a switch on the wall (is) that turns on the light so I can see (objective), therefore I should flip it (ought)”, that would make sense.  It has to do with the way language works.  It’s not a deep philosophical problem.

And it is “the reality of the situation” that there are facts about how to move further away from TWPMFE, whether we can know all of those facts or not.  Just like there are facts about how many stars there are in the universe, though we will probably never know the exact number.

StephenLawrence - 05 January 2015 06:13 AM

There are also people who think drilling holes in their head is healthy.  So since not everyone agrees with what is healthy, there can be no objective science of health (i.e. medicine)?  That would violate the is/ought principle because not everyone agrees about what constitutes health?  Ridiculous, right?  Well that’s exactly the argument philosophers are making against the idea of objective morality.

I don’t think it is the same argument. Is there a fact of the matter over what is healthy? If so it would relate to functioning properly and that in turn would relate to natural selection, so we could talk about what the brain was naturally selected for and then see how a hole in it doesn’t help with it’s function grin

But we can’t do that when it comes to morality.

It’s exactly the same argument.

You’ve given one definition of “health”.  Not everyone would agree with that definition, just like not everyone would agree that knowingly causing the “worst possible misery for everyone” would be immoral.  Sorry, there’s no difference between “health” and “morality” in this respect.  Both words have somewhat fuzzy definitions, in both cases people often disagree about the details, and yet the concept of “objective health” poses no philosophical problem so why does “objective morality”?

The fact that not everyone agrees on what is good doesn’t mean there can’t be an objective science of the good.  Not everyone agrees on what is stinky either, and yet there is a science of getting rid of various stinks (deodorants, air fresheners).

I just think many philosophers are extremely confused on this topic, but I think a lot of them agree with me.  Maybe this passage from Wikipedia will make it clearer than I have:

Ethical naturalists contend that moral truths exist, and that their truth value relates to facts about physical reality. Many modern naturalistic philosophers see no impenetrable barrier in deriving “ought” from “is”, believing it can be done whenever we analyze goal-directed behavior. They suggest that a statement of the form “In order for agent A to achieve goal B, A reasonably ought to do C” exhibits no category error and may be factually verified or refuted. “Ought"s exist, then, in light of the existence of goals.

“‘Ought’s exist, then, in light of the existence of goals.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  The problem is, once one lays out the goals of moral behavior (i.e. define morality), philosophers say those goals are arbitrary and therefore you’ve failed to bridge the is/ought gap.

Well, aren’t all definitions of all words arbitrary?  Why are words like “moral” or “good” held to a different standard than every other word?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 03:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4329
Joined  2009-10-21
BugRib - 05 January 2015 02:39 PM

“‘Ought’s exist, then, in light of the existence of goals.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  The problem is, once one lays out the goals of moral behavior (i.e. define morality), philosophers say those goals are arbitrary and therefore you’ve failed to bridge the is/ought gap.

And it is a theory that some philosophers discuss, although I couldn’t find a definitive web page for it under “goal theory ethics” or “goal theory of morality”. Richard Carrier covers it quite in “Sense and Goodness Without God”

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18
Lausten - 05 January 2015 03:24 PM

And it is a theory that some philosophers discuss, although I couldn’t find a definitive web page for it under “goal theory ethics” or “goal theory of morality”. Richard Carrier covers it quite in “Sense and Goodness Without God”

I think “goal theory ethics” generally goes by the name of consequentialism and/or utilitarianism.  These ethical frameworks are based on the idea that ethics/morals relate to the suffering/pleasure ratio of sentient beings—beings who are capable of suffering/pleasure.

If that’s not an excellent framework for morality, what is?  Whatever the Bible says?  Promoting institutional slavery and stoning people to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath?  Gross!

The Golden Rule is pretty kick-ass, though…

The is/ought problem is only a “problem” if moral actions are defined as those actions which are intrinsically good (i.e. they’re good in and of themselves, i.e. their goodness is a brute fact, i.e. they’re good FOR NO REASON!), because then you couldn’t possibly get your “ought” from an “is” (or anything else) because doing so is preemptively ruled out by the definition.  Of course something being good FOR NO REASON is very nearly an incoherent idea.

So why the hell do philosophers give any credence to the is/ought problem?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 07:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18

Just wanted to add:

StephenLawrence - 04 January 2015 03:08 AM

The problem is with the moral objective. How do we get to an objective truth about what the moral objective should be?

The problem is with the scientific objective.  How do we get to an objective truth about what the methods of science should be?

See what I did there? wink

So how come philosophers don’t scoff when science is described as being objective?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 05 January 2015 11:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6851
Joined  2006-12-20
BugRib - 05 January 2015 02:39 PM

“‘Ought’s exist, then, in light of the existence of goals.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  The problem is, once one lays out the goals of moral behavior (i.e. define morality), philosophers say those goals are arbitrary and therefore you’ve failed to bridge the is/ought gap.

Well, aren’t all definitions of all words arbitrary?  Why are words like “moral” or “good” held to a different standard than every other word?

It’s not about definitions of words.

Some believe in honour killing. They would say it’s moral because it’s the right course of action given their moral goal.

So who’s right? Now what you say is there are facts of the matter about which possible worlds are better, like there is a fact of the matter over the age of the earth. So there is a correct answer even if we don’t always know what it is.

If so there is the solution but are you right about that? I’m a little skeptical but really don’t know.

[ Edited: 05 January 2015 11:54 PM by StephenLawrence ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 12:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5252
Joined  2007-08-31

Well, in the first place it is the task of philosophers to ask fundamental questions, without thinking about the immediate usability of their intellectual activities. One could simply say: they are doing their job when thinking about the ‘is/ought problem’.

However, many philosophers would not say it is a problem (I belong to them), but a logical border: it is true that one cannot logically derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Where people think they do, they already have implied an ‘ought’, without explicitly mentioning it. Now there are many situations where such ‘oughts’ are absolutely unproblematic in daily life. One comes pretty far with general values like ‘the greatest good for the maximum number of people’.

But ‘far’ is not ‘to the end’. If 10 people experience ‘10 points good’ per person, where one person has 91 and the others 1 point each, is that better than have 10 persons with 9 points each? It is less good, but fairer. Then you can take fairness as point in itself, but how doe you measure that? How do you measure ‘good’ anyway? How does the suffering of a an old mother with dementia compare to the heavy task of her daughter who has to look for her own family and for her mother? At such moments, people look for objective answers, that they can act without hesitation and regret, without the feeling that they might do something wrong.

In the praxis, when science is supposed to deliver moral standards, some simple ‘ought’ is hidden in this support: an ‘ought’ that definitely does not help in many moral dilemmas. To define ‘morality’, as you propose, will not help. You will always see that a general moral principle will clash with some moral intuitions we have in concrete situations: these clashing moral principles can be in ourselves, but also between people.

So in my opinion, the only thing ethics can do, is clarify ethical discourse, e.g. following certain ways of thinking to extreme consequences, showing in what situation somes principle does not work, or by fleshing out the moral principles (‘oughts’) that are hidden in so called objective, scientific based morality (‘is’).

Just as a last example: in the idea about the greatest good for the maximum of people, are we allowed to leave out animals? Science surely can clarify a few relevant questions (Are animals self-aware? Well, at least we know it from dolphins, elephants, some apes. But dogs and cats? But what is the relevance? Is able to suffer not enough? Cats and dogs surely can suffer, as can pigs, cows, chickens… etc etc.) So science helps, but it cannot say which principle we have to follow.

BugRib - 05 January 2015 07:10 PM

The problem is with the scientific objective.  How do we get to an objective truth about what the methods of science should be?

See what I did there? wink

So how come philosophers don’t scoff when science is described as being objective?

Well, often they do. Maybe not so in hard sciences, but surely they do in humanities. But even in the hard sciences it took a few ages to get there, and there was much reflection on the scientific method (which is called ‘philosophy’), and some questions are still asked in modern times, about the foundations of quantum mechanics, string theory, multiverse etc. So even there the questions about the methods of science are not definitely solved.

[ Edited: 06 January 2015 02:27 AM by GdB ]
 Signature 

GdB

The light is on, but there is nobody at home.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 12:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6851
Joined  2006-12-20
BugRib - 05 January 2015 07:10 PM

Just wanted to add:

StephenLawrence - 04 January 2015 03:08 AM

The problem is with the moral objective. How do we get to an objective truth about what the moral objective should be?

The problem is with the scientific objective.  How do we get to an objective truth about what the methods of science should be?

See what I did there? wink

So how come philosophers don’t scoff when science is described as being objective?

There is a purpose of science. So usually we don’t have the same problem as we do with morality.

Now I accept the purpose of morality is to reduce suffering but it’s back to whether there are facts about what is less or more suffering in various scenarios.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4329
Joined  2009-10-21

Gdb;
You seem to be arguing against utilitarianism rather than goal driven morality. A simple system of adding up “good” is riddled with problems, as you so well explained. But if you choose a goal, like some degree of human comfort for everyone, then you can consistently refer back to the goal and refine it as needed.

Applying that to animals, we need animals. We don’t attempt to eradicate all mosquitoes, only protect ourselves from their annoying bites. We eat some animals, but most people agree we should treat them humanely even in how we kill them. Both of those are arguable, but if you want to claim something like we should be pure vegans, you’ll have to work through a lot of data.

Applying to cultures, live and let live is the defacto standard. For something like seeing a nativity scene, I don’t get to include that in what makes me uncomfortable. But a depiction of graphic violence should not be somewhere I can just drive by and happen to see. Most of these things are no more complicated than exceptions to free speech like shouting “fire” in a crowded building when there is no fire.

So, when it comes to Stephen’s

Some believe in honour killing. They would say it’s moral because it’s the right course of action given their moral goal.

I grit my teeth and try not to sound like what I’m thinking. You don’t get to claim a moral goal simply by saying it’s a moral goal. The goal is human comfort. You can argue about what human comfort is or you can even argue about whether or not that is the goal, but your argument has to be logical, rational and based on scientific facts. We have enough facts now to demonstrate that honour killings only benefits the killer.

This still leaves moral dilemmas, but I never said I could create a perfect system, only that a goal driven theory is better than any other.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 11:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5252
Joined  2007-08-31

Hi Lausten,

No, I am not specially arguing against utilitarianism, nor against ‘goal driven morality’ (what is the difference anyway?). I only show that they cannot give objective answers to all our moral dilemmas, and that when we use utilitarian arguments to get to a decision, we very often need additional ‘oughts’ because utilitarianism on its own does not provide the final answer. Utilitarianism will give at least approximate answers, but often we will need additional values. ‘Grosso modo’ the idea behind utilitarianism seems ok to me, but it does not suffice.

In the case of animals, I only wanted to show that science cannot give us the standard who we must include in ‘the most good for the most’. To think that science can give us ‘objective standards’ is hopelessly naive. But science can help us where we need factual input. When ‘good health’ is a value of us, then science has of course an awful lot to say about what we should and should not do.

 Signature 

GdB

The light is on, but there is nobody at home.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 02:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4329
Joined  2009-10-21
GdB - 06 January 2015 11:15 AM

Hi Lausten,

No, I am not specially arguing against utilitarianism, nor against ‘goal driven morality’ (what is the difference anyway?). I only show that they cannot give objective answers to all our moral dilemmas, and that when we use utilitarian arguments to get to a decision, we very often need additional ‘oughts’ because utilitarianism on its own does not provide the final answer. Utilitarianism will give at least approximate answers, but often we will need additional values. ‘Grosso modo’ the idea behind utilitarianism seems ok to me, but it does not suffice.

In the case of animals, I only wanted to show that science cannot give us the standard who we must include in ‘the most good for the most’. To think that science can give us ‘objective standards’ is hopelessly naive. But science can help us where we need factual input. When ‘good health’ is a value of us, then science has of course an awful lot to say about what we should and should not do.

The difference to me is utilitarianism doesn’t attempt to define “good”, “goal driven” puts that defining central.

I don’t think science can GIVE us anything either. But I don’t think that invalidates the idea of developing a theory of ethics. It is not a reason to abandon the attempt. We’ve developed arguments against might making right, against invisible masters of our destiny, against eugenics and much more. These are the factual building blocks of the theory.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 06 January 2015 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  201
Joined  2014-03-18
StephenLawrence - 05 January 2015 11:28 PM

It’s not about definitions of words.

Some believe in honour killing. They would say it’s moral because it’s the right course of action given their moral goal.

Yes, because they define “moral” different than you or I do.  So, yes, it’s about definitions of words.

StephenLawrence - 05 January 2015 11:28 PM

So who’s right? Now what you say is there are facts of the matter about which possible worlds are better, like there is a fact of the matter over the age of the earth.

There are facts about which possible worlds are morally better if you very-reasonably define “moral actions” as those actions which move us away from “the worst possible misery for everyone”.  The fact that not everyone agrees with that definition doesn’t make a “science of morality” any less objective than science itself (not everyone agrees on what “science” means either).

The is/ought “problem” only exists because philosophers call foul when one explains what they mean by “morality” because, they’ll say, “that’s just your opinion, so it’s not objective”.  Just because there’s no consensus on what that word means doesn’t mean you can’t objectively talk about it (e.g. “health”, “science”, any sport with variable rules, etc.).

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 6
1