“Oughts” Are Derived From “Is”

I tire of hearing folks repeat “you cannot derive `ought’ from `is’,” because there is an important sense in which most attempts to derive “ought” are built on “is.”  Let me explain.

An argument for an “ought” is typically built on some set of more basic “obvious” claims that the speaker assumes their audience will accept without argument. Many of those claims have their own supporting arguments somewhere else, but those arguments are also be built on further obvious claims.

Eventually we end up with with a set of basic supporting claims that seem obvious, but which don’t have much in the way of explicit arguments supporting them.  Yes, almost always one of these obvious but not explicitly argued claims is of the “ought” type. So in this sense every “ought” is derived from other “oughts.”

However, a key implicit argument sits behind these obvious unargued supporting claims, namely that those claims seem right. That is, we typically assume that we should believe an “obvious” claim because our subconscious/intuition recommends that we believe such a claim.

Now in order for it to make sense to believe an “ought” claim that seems right to our intuition, we have to at least believe that our intuition tends on average to be right about similar sorts of claims. There is no point in believing our intuition on some topic if it has no consistent relation to the truth there.

But the claim that one’s intuition about a particular “ought” claim correlates with truth on that “ought” claim is itself an “is” claim.  Yes that claim about the reliability of our intuition is itself also mainly supported by noting that this reliability claim seems right to our intuition, but I’m not complaining about that.

I’m instead pointing out that most every attempt to derive an “ought” is based ultimately on “is” claims about the reliability of our intuitions about such more basic “ought” claims.  If we can’t find a coherent way to integrate these “is” claims with the rest of our network of reasonable “is” claims, then we can’t argue coherently for such “ought” claims at all.

(This same argument applies to “wow” claims on beauty; yes every “wow” claim appears derived from other unargued “wows” but the support for those “wows” are key “is” claims on the reliability of our “wow” intuitions.)

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  • Joe

    It may help if you post an example complete with the “obvious” supporting claims that the “ought” is resting on.

    The is-ought problem has always been, to me, a lot of philosophical hand-waving. Cute word games, but ultimately only that.

    • Johnicholas

      Robin hit Pat — This is an “is”.
      Robin caused Pat to experience pain — This is a supporting “is”.
      (Hume’s is-ought gap goes here)
      In general, people ought not to cause other people to experience pain — This is an “ought”.
      Robin is arguing that the chain continues with:
      I have an intuition that people ought not to cause other people to experience pain, and my intuitions about these oughts are right more frequently than not — This is a new supporting “is”.

  • “we can’t argue coherently for such “ought” claims at all.”

    I think this is more where we are, if we take an honest assessment.

    Our model of reality is in many ways incoherent. Not shocking when comparing our computational power with the apparent complexity of our reality. To move beyond this I think is to dishonestly frame our epistemological narrative in mythic, heroic ways.

  • Steven Schreiber

    You missed the part where all the “is”s add up to “we should believe things that tend to be confirmed by reality”.

    No set of non-normative facts about the world is ever sufficient to derive a rule of moral behavior because without a normative standard you can’t create the prescription for action. Nothing about the truth values of sentences, the truth-trackingness of a methodology or the like can ever yield the result “hence we ought believe its results”. Even then, we also need an extra normative standard that states that we should act as we believe in order to get a full moral rule as opposed to merely an epistemic one.

  • Grant

    Is this argument rigorous enough? What about our beliefs on what is ‘right’ which have nothing to do with correctness, reliability or any sort of falsifiable statement? Couldn’t you deal with more arguments if you said all ‘ought’ beliefs exist for positive and not normative reasons?

    It seems to me that beliefs and arguments about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are moot once you take the outside view and start asking why we hold those beliefs and make those arguments in the first place.

  • Buck Farmer

    Do I understand you correctly?

    Paraphrase: Every ‘ought’ statement even if presented without explicit justification carries with it implicit justification of the form ‘our intuition says this and our intuition is accurate about these things’?

    I’d agree that the ‘implicit justification’ above is a positive statement, but honestly, I wouldn’t agree that it counts as justification and I think that is why some philosophers still say no ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’ and why frequently this ‘justification’ isn’t mentioned. It isn’t justification it’s just the de facto reason why we expended our limited resources on exploring this one normative statement. If pressed, I don’t think having our intuition recommend it provides very strong or reliable moral force.

    • Buck Farmer

      In summary, using ‘my intuition recommended it’ as a justification is breaking the rules of the game. This has become more respectable in many circles, but I still categorize it with other extra-ludic arguments like ‘believe this because it will make me personally feel happier’ or ‘believe this because I have power.’

      No matter how effective these arguments are, they’re usually left implicit because they step outside the rules of the game.

  • If I understand your argument (and I am not at all sure I do), you seem to be making the point that moral arguments inevitably involve ‘is’ claims. Well, yes. How the world is matters for moral arguments on any theory of morality.

    The point about the ‘is’ ‘ought’ gap is that you cannot get to an ‘ought’ merely on ‘is’ claims.

    • The point about the ‘is’ ‘ought’ gap is that you cannot get to an ‘ought’ merely on ‘is’ claims.

      Robin Hanson presented a reason why this isn’t true: in a moral argument, the specifically-ought part will be something like, “Torturing a human is wrong.” — but even that “pure ought” statement is actually based on “My intuition says torture is wrong” and “My intuitions are more often correct than incorrect”, both of which are “is” statements.

      • Caio

        I think the problem is that Robin is confusing thought with feeling (or perhaps intuition). I don’t believe torture is wrong because I believe “my intuition says torture is wrong.” I believe torture is wrong because my intuition says torture is wrong!

        If I can even conceive of that intuition being wrong, it’s either because I have a conflicting intuition, or because the relevance of the intuition is based on false premises. In the case of conflicting intuitions, my intuition not to torture is weighed against the fact that, if I don’t, a thousand people might die in a terrorist attack, and my intuition against torture might be wrong as a guide to action in this case, but not generally. In the case of the false premises, maybe it turns out that the victim of torture is not really a person, but a non-sentient automaton, and if I examine my intuitions, I discover that I’m really only against the torture of sentient beings. Yes, there are tons of “is-es” there, but it ultimately comes to an “ought” (or two).

  • Violet

    Do you consider “encouraging cooperation in iterated PD is rational” an “is”-claim?

    Because that leads to many “non-cynic” ought-claims being validated by your model.

  • Constant

    As Webster says:

    used to express obligation , advisability , natural expectation , or logical consequence

    Webster has here provided us with translations of all four meanings of “ought” to “is” equivalents.

    1) One is obligated to pay one’s debts.
    2) It is advisable that you take care of yourself.
    3) It is the natural expectation that they would be here by now.
    4) It is the logical consequence that the result is infinity.

    Presumably everyone agrees that obligation is the meaning that is of interest to us here. Why not, then, name it the “reality/obligation” problem?

    But it’s all because of Hume. Hume is playing a trick on his reader, and people have been falling for his trick ever since. He got everyone to think of the problem in those specific terms. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious? It’s because there really is a purely verbal distinction between the words “is” and “ought” and one that is trivial to see. Hume has got us to confuse a purely verbal distinction with the philosophical problem of the reality of morality. Now maybe Hume was a genius analytical philosopher who truly saw that the question of the reality of morality really reduces to such a trivial verbal distinction. But I propose that he simply tricked the reader. I for one fail to actually find any rigorous boiling down of morality into “ought” statements.

    Notice that despite the verbal is/ought distinction, (4) is unarguably referring to a truth – a logical truth at that. Arguably (3) refers to a truth as well. And (2) is arguably an elliptical statement which refers to a truth once it is completed (e.g. by filling the preferences of the person being advised – in that sense, the advisability of an action reduces to the objective fact that that course of action will lead to the most-preferred result). So the mere fact that a claim has taken the form of an “ought” statement in no way speaks against the proposition that the same claim can take the form of an “is” statement.

    • Buck Farmer

      Suppose that there are agents who are free to make a choice to cause one state of the world or another. Now you’ve got a world with the possibility for ‘ought’ statements. Without that freedom all you’re doing is describing how the system behaves. The idea of that someone ‘ought to choose’ something is meaningless and illogical without choice. Choice is a wholly different beast from the normal positive world.

      This in my mind is why this is more than a mere verbal distinction.

      • Constant


        No, that does not work. Let’s run through the definitions of “ought”.

        1) The obligation “ought”. The person may well not be obligated to to make either choice, so there may not be an “ought” here.

        2) The advisability “ought”. The person has a set of preferences, and (assuming he is not indifferent), then one of his alternative states is preferable to him than the other. This is an objective fact.

        3) The natural expectation “ought”. By your hypothesis, there is no such thing in this scenario, since you are presupposing free-will libertarianism, where choice is outside of nature.

        4) The logical consequence “ought”. His decision is probably not a logical consequence of anything, so no “ought” in this sense either.

        Your thought experiment by the way illustrates a problem with using “ought”, because the sense of “ought” that best applies here is the advisability “ought”, but the advisability “ought” is not the “ought” of the is/ought problem, which is the obligation “ought”, i.e., morality. This is one of the common pitfalls that people fall into directly because of Hume’s trick, this equivocation which leads a person to slip, unaware, between morality and personal preference, which are two very different topics.

      • Buck Farmer


        I admit that the only ‘ought’ I understand is the obligation ‘ought’. For the others:

        2) I cannot conceive why someone would choose something they do not prefer. This may be my economist revealed preferences background, but it seems that the choice of some state of the world defines for us that the chooser prefers that. In that sense then there isn’t an ‘ought’ here, it is simply a deterministic (or operational/instrumental) thing.

        3) Based on your comments I assume that natural expectation is something along the lines of ‘the world obeys laws x, y, and z and is in state a so we ought to see b.’ This seems to me to be an ought only relevant to updating one’s understanding of the world (and a deterministic world at that).

        4) Once again, not an ‘ought’ I see as really relevant. This seems more like the ‘if A then B’ type relationship. Seeing ‘if A then not B’ only suggests to me my understanding of the world is off.

        Essentially, I see the statement ‘ought A’ only meaningful if ‘not A’ could occur/exist, and I only see that happening in the first meaning you mention.

        I’m no Hume expert, but the only way I see the is/ought distinction being interesting, particularly for morality, is by pointing to the question, “What gives a moral statement its moral force?” i.e. what about moral statements compels choices. That moral force I see as not being derivable solely from positive statements.

        Is my idea of ‘moral force’ or something being able to compel choice incoherent or otherwise flawed? Is this the wrong way of looking at this problem?

        If not, what I’m looking for is a positive statement that alone can produce that moral force. To borrow from Kant, to be a comparative without a hypothesis i.e. a categorical one, one that is self-evident and self-justifying.

  • Greg Conen

    While perhaps the is-ought distinction could be named better, the distinction is real.

    There is no way to use logical or statistical methods to derive moral statements from any set of (non-moral) statements of fact. We have to accept a moral “first principle”. It could come from an intuition, a holy book, or another source, but it cannot be deduced from the state of the universe.

    The entire point of the distinction is all attempts to make “ought” arguments are futile without an agreed principle. Either you accept a principle or you that there are no absolute moral truths.

    @Violet: The very existence of a prisoners’ dilemma requires an ought condition in order for a utility function to be defined. Without ought conditions, there are no preferences, and thus no utility.

    @Constant: The English language is neither rigorous or precise. Don’t get caught up in the literal use of “is” versus “ought”. Try to think about what the concept actually refers to, the separate “moral” and “factual” domains.

    • Constant


      There is no way to use logical or statistical methods to derive moral statements from any set of (non-moral) statements of fact. We have to accept a moral “first principle”.

      Statistic: the boy stole two (2) items from the store.
      Conclusion: the boy did something wrong.

      You might argue, “but that statistic incorporated a moral assumption” (since the term “steal” has a moral meaning).

      Alternatively, I could describe what the boy did without calling it “stealing”, but it would be recognizable as stealing. You might argue, “but you are quietly important an assumption about what is or is not moral.”

      My response to both of these points is that this is no more than what is done in any use of statistics used for non-moral conclusions.

      For example, if I want to come to a conclusion about trees by use of statistics, I would likely be counting trees. But that would incorporate a term from the conclusion, i.e. “trees”, into the statistical statement. In order to even begin counting trees, you have to assume that you can correctly identify a tree. Just as, to even begin to count thefts (i.e., an immoral taking), you need to assume that you can correctly identify theft.

      Remember that Hume was not merely a moral skeptic, he was quite widely skeptical about a lot of things. He was a smart guy, a consistent guy. Learn from him: if you want to be skeptical of the reality of morality and you are smart and consistent and persistent, before long you’ll be skeptical about the reality of reality.

      • Greg Conen

        If you make steal morally neutral, then reaching the conclusion requires a premise that “people ought not to steal” or similar. The action has no inherent moral value unless someone judges it to have value. To prove this, change the waiting. Assume the boy stole food to feed his starving sister, and the shop is a fundraising operation for Al-Qaeda. Most people would change their opinion about the morality of the theft, because I’ve invoked different moral principles.

        I am in fact skeptical about the nature of reality, but I generally assume my senses are accurate, since concluding I’m a Boltzmann brain (or similar) provides me no useful data about how to act. Actually, I tend to assume moral principles when I make decisions, but being aware of the difficulties of deriving morals (and facts) is useful.

      • Constant

        I’ve invoked different moral principles.

        I think you have not, you have only changed the context. Standard everyday run of the mill morality is context-dependent. It is wrong to kill someone out of the blue, but it is not wrong to kill your attacker in self defense, for example.

        If you make steal morally neutral, then reaching the conclusion requires a premise that “people ought not to steal” or similar.

        But this is a weird operation. You can’t literally make stealing morally neutral, any more than you can literally make a building weightless to cause it to float into the sky. What you can do is stop assuming that the building has weight and stop assuming that the taking in question is morally wrong. But you can do the same thing with any category, any word. For example, you can stop assuming that those animals that we call “dogs” are dogs. If you don’t assume they’re dogs, how do you prove they’re dogs? Maybe look it up in an encyclopedia? But maybe the encyclopedia is also assuming they’re dogs. Maybe ask a biologist? But while biologists will readily classify your pet as a “dog”, a moral philosopher might similarly readily classify the taking as “wrong”.

        Whatever you can do to cast skeptical doubt on the reality of morality, I might just be able to do the same to cast skeptical doubt on the reality of dogs.

      • Greg Conen

        A totally dispassionate observer, who has no moral principles, could agree with totally about physical reality, but disagree that the boy did wrong.

        The physical domain is independent of the moral one. Assuming you and an amoral observer have the same facts, you’d make the same predictions about the future and the same descriptions of the past. Skyscrapers don’t float away, the boy will have more stuff, the shopkeeper less. But the amoral observer wouldn’t say “the boy did something wrong”. Another observer, with set of moral principles different from yours, would might say that “the shopkeeper did wrong, because owning property is inherently evil”.

      • Constant

        A totally dispassionate observer, who has no moral principles, could agree with totally about physical reality, but disagree that the boy did wrong.

        That is a tautology. All you are saying here is that an observer who does not perceive anything as immoral will not perceive this as immoral, which is an empty statement. You could invent hypothetical observers who are blind to one or another pattern without being blind to the underlying physical reality. In fact as I think Dennett might have pointed out, a Laplacean demon (who is by assumption fully aware of physical reality) does not need to even to take the intentional stance with respect to human beings, and therefore does not need to have any concept of language, since he can simply predict the future by directly simulating it particle by particle. We are able to perceive the meanings of others as a kind of poor man’s substitute making up for the fact that we are not Laplacean demons. And this is really very broad a point. A Laplacean demon does not need to be able to recognize anything from our familiar world. Not bananas, not pebbles, not anger, not wind. So a totally dispassionate observer can be omniscient about our physical reality and have not the slightest clue about any of these things we know and love. So this attempted proof of the unreality of morality by appealing to a hypothetical morality-blind observer applies as well to bananas as it does to morality. If it proves that morality is not real, then it also proves that bananas are not real.

      • Buck Farmer

        We do have contexts in which taking is not considered stealing. There are many socially promoted ways in which an individual or group might force/coerce someone to part with their material wealth, freedom, etc.

        However, usually we define things like taxes, court orders, repossession etc. differently than stealing even though from a physical standpoint it looks the same.

      • Constant

        However, usually we define things like taxes, court orders, repossession etc. differently than stealing even though from a physical standpoint it looks the same.

        I don’t know what you can mean by this. Surely if it looked the same, it would look the same, and you would believe it was the same. Obviously there is some difference. There must be a physical difference somewhere for your senses to detect, given that your senses are limited to the perception of physical reality.

        I’m trying hard to understand what you can mean by this, and the best that I can come up with is that you are saying there is no local physical difference (local in space and time). However, I could easily come up with many important and obviously real distinctions that are not local physical differences. For example, the relationship between mother and daughter is historical. Conceivably a mad scientist could create a woman atom by atom that, judging by DNA, could well be a woman’s daughter, but it would not be, because what makes a pair mother and daughter is a historical connection, i.e., the historical fact of birth – something that occurred long ago and possibly far away.

      • Greg Conen

        There’s a difference between disagreeing about an empty label like “banana” and a loaded one like “evil”.

        You have a set of objects called “bananas”; I deny that those objects form a single set, and place them into two sets, “cananas” and “dananas”. But since we agree on the physical reality, we would take the same actions (eg eat one when we’re hungry).

        You have a set of actions you call “good”; I disagree and divide those actions into sets I call “morally neutral” and “evil”. Suddenly, we take different actions. You expend resources to perform the an action that you call “good”. If I call that action “evil”, I expend resources to prevent you from taking that action.

      • Constant

        In your comparison between bananas and evil, you are comparing re-assiging the labels while retaining our original understanding of the subject matter so that it does not get re-assigned with the labels on the one hand (what you envision doing with bananas), with with re-assigning labels while also re-assigning our understanding of the subject matter so that it shifts along with the labels.

        That’s not a genuine comparison between bananas and evil. It’s just a comparison of the two different ways you are treating the terms.

        You could just have easily done the opposite: shift the meaning along with the label “banana”, so that you end up trying to eat whatever new object it is you are calling a “banana”, while on the other hand retaining your original moral understanding of actions while re-assigning the labels “good” and “evil” while this time treating them as empty labels (so that you punish some actions you are now labeling “good”, for example).

        It’s not the term “banana” itself that is empty while the term “evil” is loaded. It’s you who (in the hypothetical scenario) have chosen to treat “banana” as empty (as re-assignable without changing our understanding of the things being relabeled) while treating “evil” as loaded.

      • Buck Farmer

        Constant, my only point was that we have very pragmatic of things that ‘look like stealing without being considered evil’ (using the meaning of look that I think was used originally).

        I agree entirely with you that with a more rigorous definition of ‘look’ these things are obvious not stealing.

        Though to complicate things, maybe the historical (and social I think) distinction that you rightfully bring up only exists in our conscious minds, and so we might debate whether that distinction is ‘physically observable.’

        So a Martian anthropologist (there’s no other profession on Mars except slaving away at thought experiments) can build a robust model to predict how humans will behave that distinguishes between taxes and robbery, and he might being a martianocentric thinker attribute some moral mental states to these two categories, but he wouldn’t really know our mental states, whether these categories have different mental states, and even whether we have consciousness (as understood by Martians).

        This is when the Martians get worried that their nearest neighbor has been overrun by qualia eating zombies…

  • Bill

    Is “ought” an induction argument premised on probabilities?

  • Usually I have seen the claim in form

    is does not imply ought to

    which is quite different from your version.

    Additionally, traffic rules are obvious examples of this. There is no “is” correspondence of either right hand or left hand traffic which is “closer to reality”. Both are a convention, and convention is better than no convention, and one ought to follow a convention. This is one example where “ought to” is not necessarily based on “is”.

  • Robin – Presuppositions Aren’t Premises. It’s true that our arguments presuppose that we’re reliable in identifying true premises. So if you undermine this presupposition, you’ll undermine our moral arguments. But that’s not the same thing as the reliability claim being a *premise* in the argument from which the moral conclusion is “derived”.

    • I read your linked post, but I just don’t understand the distinction, which you keep repeating, between “(i) the justificatory basis for a belief, [vs] (ii) the presuppositions or prerequisites that must be met in order for one’s justification to not be defeated.” What does the “basis” for a belief mean, if not the other beliefs that, if revised, would make one revise this belief?

    • At that other post (where for unknown tech reasons I seem unable to comment) you say:

      There are two very different ways that revising a belief X might epistemically require one to also revise one’s belief that P. It might be that X itself provided the evidential basis for P, or it might be that X merely enabled other reasons to pull their epistemic weight (without pulling in any particular direction itself).

      It is not obvious that this is a distinction one can make very precisely, nor do I see the point of invoking this distinction here.

      I say we almost always derive ought from is, in particular the is that some ought seems so, and that seemings seem reliable. You respond yes but those don’t really count, because they are only “enabling” is claims. But without those seemings you usually have nothing. Why don’t they count?

      • I say we almost always derive ought from is, in particular the is that some ought seems so, and that seemings seem reliable. You respond yes but…

        No, no, no. Your failure to distinguish presuppositions from premises leads you to conflate two distinct argument forms.

        Here’s an argument of the kind you imagine:

        1. It seems to me that pain is bad.
        2. This seeming seems reliable.
        So 3. Pain is bad.
        4. Kicking Bob causes him pain.
        So 5. Kicking Bob is bad.

        Here’s an argument of the kind I have in mind:
        1. Pain is bad.
        2. Kicking Bob causes him pain.
        So 3. Kicking Bob is bad.

        In your argument, but not mine, the arguer appeals to their own mental states as positive evidence for the conclusion. These are different arguments.

        Again, adding the negation of every possible defeater to an argument is a bad idea, for two reasons:

        (1) Logically, there’s an infinite regress, as I pointed out in my other post.

        (2) Psychologically, it mischaracterizes the reasoning involved. Ask me why I think it’s bad to kick Bob, and I’ll cite the fact that pain is bad and that kicking Bob causes him pain. I might not have given any thought to facts about “seemings” at all, in which case you misrepresent my chain of thought by introducing this as an additional “basis” from which my conclusion was supposedly “derived”.

        Just because if I had believed not-X, I would no longer have concluded that P, it doesn’t follow that I inferred P from X.

      • Richard, yes you can distinguish arguments that refer to the arguer’s mental state from those that do not. But why are arguments of the second but not the first kind a “basis of justification”? And how is this status relevant? That is, when someone says “You cannot derive an ought from an is”, why should we presume they really meant “You cannot derive an ought from an is without referring to mental states”?

      • Robin – you claimed that ‘most every attempt to derive an “ought” is based ultimately on “is” claims about the reliability of our intuitions.‘ This isn’t so, if most moral arguments are of the second kind rather than the first.

        You could make an argument of the first kind, appealing to (i) the fact of your having a certain moral intuition, and (ii) the general reliability of your moral intuitions, as your basis for a moral conclusion. This is rather like other cheap attempts to bridge the divide, e.g. by appealing to semantic facts:

        (1) The sentence “Pain is bad” is true
        (2) The sentence “Pain is bad” is true iff pain is bad.
        Therefore, pain is bad.

        Technically, we see here ‘is’ facts supporting a moral conclusion. But of course we only have reason to believe (1) insofar as we believe that pain is bad. Likewise, we only have reason to believe that your moral intuitions are reliable insofar as we already believe a majority of the substantive moral claims that you put forward as intuitive. So they aren’t really pure “is” claims in the relevant sense.

        The point of the Humean dictum is that even if folks agree on all the purely empirical facts (that make no direct or indirect reference to moral facts), they aren’t thereby committed to any particular moral conclusions. Moral truths don’t follow from scientific truths. I don’t see that anything you’ve said here changes that.

      • Richard, I’m saying your second kind of argument has little persuasive force unless we understand that it can be implicitly elaborated into an argument of your first kind. In contrast, your proposed “the sentence X is true” sort of structures have little to do with actual common arguments.

        It sounds like you are suggesting that arguments of the first kind are themselves only persuasive because they can be expanded into an argument of a third kind that refers to all the other moral intuitions we have. But I’m not clear what exactly that third sort of structure would look like.

      • Constant

        The point of the Humean dictum is that even if folks agree on all the purely empirical facts (that make no direct or indirect reference to moral facts), they aren’t thereby committed to any particular moral conclusions. Moral truths don’t follow from scientific truths.

        You are assuming your conclusion. In your first statement you say that moral conclusions don’t follow from empirical facts that make no reference to moral facts. And in your second, concluding statement, you say that moral truths don’t follow from scientific truths. The second statement follows from the first only if one assumes that the set of “empirical facts that make no reference to moral facts” fully contains the set of scientific truths.

        Your first statement makes the argument artificially easy for you. You could use it to cast doubt on the reality of dogs, thus:

        The point of the Hundean dictum is that even if folks agree on all the purely empirical facts (that make no direct or indirect reference to canines), they aren’t thereby committed to any particular canine conclusions. Canine truths don’t follow from scientific truths.

        It is surely the case that if you strictly prohibited yourself from speaking about canines and strictly prohibited yourself from making assumptions about canines, then you would be unable to draw any conclusions about canines. It’s a cheat. It’s a trivial logical truth that if you strictly prohibit yourself from using a term in an argument right up to the very last step and strictly prohibit yourself from employing assumptions about that term in any of the inferences, then you will be unable to include that term in the conclusion. To give a simple example:

        All A are B
        All B are C
        Therefore Z is C.

        The problem there is that Z wasn’t introduced until the very end. So of course you can’t draw any conclusion about it. This is not an illuminating discovery about morality. It is a triviality that is equally true of dogs, comets, tapioca pudding, and morality.

      • Buck Farmer

        Tapioca pudding in fact does not follow from scientific truth!

        I agree, Constant, that if you’re willing to just let:

        “purely empirical facts (that make no references to X)” exhaustively cover “scientific facts” for all X….

        …you’re right, but isn’t that a pretty ridiculous assumption?

        (E.g. purely empirical facts (that make no reference directly or indirectly to empirical observations)

        A much more charitable (and I’d say accurate) interpretation of the argument is that there is the implicit assumption:

        Purely empirical facts (that make no reference to moral facts) exhaustively covers scientific facts

        Which I agree is more or less identical to the conclusion…

        …but at least it makes disproving it simpler. Just give one counter-example and voila, assumption knocked down.

      • Constant

        Just give one counter-example and voila, assumption knocked down.

        It would have to be a counter-example that you accept. You are playing an analog of the solipsist’s game here. The solipsist says: give me just one example of something that exists apart from myself. But he rejects everything offered. It’s an easy game for the solipsist to play. It’s an impregnable mental fortress.

      • Buck Farmer

        The solipsist says: give me just one example of something that exists apart from myself. But he rejects everything offered.

        That cuts quite to the heart of it, in my opinion. This has to do with what we are willing to accept as justification. I have a very hard time imagining accepting some ‘is’ statement as sole justification for an ‘ought’ statement but it might occur. The reason I can’t say definitively “it will never happen” is because I haven’t defined for myself what statements I’ll accept as justification are/look-like.

        Robin’s proposed ‘is’ statement to justify an ‘ought’ statement doesn’t seem like justification to me. I can’t make it not be a justification for Robin or for anyone else. I can only try to get them to believe that it is not a justification…usually by showing that it contradicts some other belief that they have.

        This is a very messy problem that I’d appreciate enlightenment on, but I recognize is not obviously tied in to is/ought question. I believe though in my gut that it is tied into the is/ought question, but I haven’t come up with a clear and cogent argument how.

    • Buck Farmer

      “Seeming” is a pretty crummy justification for most positive statements. I don’t see why we should lower the bar for normative statements.

      Positive statement 1: The world is flat
      Justification referring to mental states: “The world is flat” seems to be true.
      Rebuttal: I’ve got this dandy model that shows how the world could be round and things would look just about the same.

      Correct response (IMO): Oh, dang, well, looks like we have two mutually exclusive hypotheses that both explain current observations…let’s go sailing to gather empirical data that will allow us the differentiate them.

      Incorrect response (IMO): No, your complicated round-world idea doesn’t “seem” right to me; ergo, my hypothesis has stronger justification and can be used to make decisions instead of your hypothesis.

      I don’t see why ‘ought’ statements should be different.

  • Tom Powers

    It seems like you’re saying the is-ought gap is bridged like this:

    Is: My intuitions about “oughts” are often right.
    Ought: You ought to do X, because I had an intuition about it and those intuitions are usually right.

    I’m not sure that the first statement is really an empirical, factual statement. How would you empirically know whether intuitions are right? The is-ought problem is a problem about moving from empirics to morals and I guess I don’t understand how you are doing this.

    On another point, you say that moral claims rest on judgments of the reliability of our intuitions, but I’m not sure this is the only thing they rest on. That is, perhaps this is one part of the bridge from is to ought but I think there have to be more pieces. Note that this is separate from my other point.

  • This is an argument by assertion:

    “we have to at least believe that our intuition tends on average to be right about similar sorts of claims.”

    There’s nothing at the level of ‘intuitions’ that could falsify our basic or foundational ‘oughts.’ So they don’t ‘tend to be right or wrong’ in the way that beliefs about facts tend to be right or wrong. In fact, it takes a lot of experimentation and inquiry to find even a few intuitions that tend to conflict, let along to settle which of them might be right and which wrong. You haven’t said anything about how we might verify or falsify an ‘ought,’ or what counts as a truth-maker for a consistent relation between truth and the intution.

    Just look at the way that framing effects determine judgments of fairness or harm, and the way that different theorists have interpreted those experiments.

  • Tom and Joshua, not all facts are easy to test or check empirically.

    • Indeed, many facts escape regular or easy testing, but we don’t allow accept untested facts alongside contradictory facts without complaint. The world looks flat. Genetic engineering seems wrong. Ought I to accept such appearances?

  • Tom Powers

    If, as you claim, it is an empirical fact (i.e., an “is” statment) that your moral intuitions are usually correct, let’s hear what criteria you would use to make this determination. How do you plan to test whether your moral intuitions are correct without sneaking Utilitarianism, or some other “ought” statement, in there?

    You’re not bridging the is-ought gap, you’re just putting ought statements in the guise of an “is” claim, the claim that your moral intuitions are usually correct.

    • Pavitra


      “The statement ‘I ought to do such-and-such’ is true” uses the predicate “is”, but that doesn’t make it an is-statement.

      An is-statement is a statement about the objective, material facts of the world or some other rigorously-defined system. An ought-statement is a statement about compatibility of a given course of action with an _unspecified_ moral framework.

      Thus: “Assembling a heap of five pebbles is ‘right’ according to Pebblesorter morality” is an is-statement, while “Assembling a heap of five pebbles is ‘right'” is an ought-statement.

      Hume’s unbridgability of the is-ought distinction merely means that it is necessary to specify the moral framework under discussion; that is, that there are no universally compelling arguments.

  • Interesting. I reject the ‘is’ ‘ought’ distinction on the grounds that I think happiness is the end people seek, and so knowing what ‘is’ going to make someone happy (probably) will tell them what they ought to do.

  • “I think happiness is the end people seek,

    I respect you as a thinker, so I’m surprised you go for something so overreductionist, given our current, state of the art, model of the klugey human mind.

    • Hopefully,

      Does the existence of a kludgey mind mean that one can’t have a model of human action as a pleasure-seeking thing, ultimately? I’m open to the idea but I don’t see anything preventing me from having my view.

      • Mike,
        It just makes it seem like an unecessarily bad model to me (and not just due to an unecessary level of reduction). Also, I notice your shift there from “happiness” to “pleasure”.

  • I agree with the notion that “oughts derive from is”. I have a blog post on the idea here:


    • Buck Farmer

      Your post only appears to address how people behave (in a sort of pop anthropological way). You seem to be saying that because people act as if ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’ that it must be true.

      If you’re arguing something else, I’ve missed it either through my own poor reading or the subtlety of your argument.

      (Personally, I believe I make mistakes all the time. I admit my life would much easier (though probably shorter) if I believed that the fact that I behaved a certain way meant that that was the right way to behave.

      (Well, maybe not shorter. Dr. Pangloss seemed awfully hale for someone hanged, burned, and separated from this best of all possible worlds.))

  • Jackson

    I’ve not read this one but can imagine the gist. Take a recent article about Wikipedia, people are rightly sceptical but some.. well… I call it Wikiphobia (why the hell not eh?) People have invested so much in moral relativism that they fear the notion that a more concrete social phenomenon is forming (and yet paradoxically, I recently referred to everything as dissolving). A response to this article went: T

    here are so many inaccuracies that Wikipedia is to be avoided as a research tool at all costs. For example, look at the entry for Israel. It states that the Israeli Capital is Jerusalem when all the world apart from four countries recognise it as Tel Aviv. If they can’t get that right, what hope is there for the rest of their entries.

    This unleashed a volley of replies along these lines

    Poor example since they do have a link to a footnote which explains the situation properly.

    • Jake

      I think the problem with wikipedia is that it’s based on the idea of crowd-sourcing, or “the average of what most people will say will probably be right”. Where i think wikipedia fails is that, in fact, most people dont take the time to weigh in on topics.

      Now, does that make wikipedia worthless, no; accepting it as straight fact, however, is obviously a bad idea.

      • Jackson

        Now, does that make wikipedia worthless, no; accepting it as straight fact, however, is obviously a bad idea.

        Maybe, but by what standard of discernment can, or do, you make that claim?
        Does this suggest there is an is? From which we derive ought?

        To what extent is Wikipedia and assault on ‘Authority’ or esp the tenure that goes with it, which is spent of lifestyles that cranks up ‘relative deprivation’ in those who have not secured tenure? Do education systems tend to select with a far too broad an apparatus? There will be may losers, but the winners will be of superior quality, and the ‘losers’ afterall, have transferable skills – or appetites of entitlement.

  • An argument for an “ought” is typically built on some set of more basic “obvious” claims that the speaker assumes their audience will accept without argument. Many of those claims have their own supporting arguments somewhere else, but those arguments are also be built on further obvious claims.

    Eventually we end up with with a set of basic supporting claims that seem obvious, but which don’t have much in the way of explicit arguments supporting them. Yes, almost always one of these obvious but not explicitly argued claims is of the “ought” type. So in this sense every “ought” is derived from an “is.”

    Did you mean to write something else? What this actually says is that every “ought” is derived from an “ought”.

    I’m instead pointing out that most every attempt to derive an “ought” is based ultimately on “is” claims about the reliability of our intuitions about such more basic “ought” claims. If we can’t find a coherent way to integrate these “is” claims with the rest of our network of reasonable “is” claims, then we can’t argue coherently for such “ought” claims at all.

    And this says it again. I think the logical closure over what you said is this:

    Every “ought” claim
    1. is ungrounded and ultimately meaningless, because every ought claim depends on another ought claim (you argue this twice, but it fails to play any part in the main point you are making), and
    2. “comes from” “is” claims, because you need to have facts to make an argument.

    You have no evidence for the first claim; and the second is irrelevant. Yes, “ought” claims make use of an infrastructure of “is” claims; but that isn’t what people mean when they say “ought doesn’t come from is”. They mean that an “ought” claim can’t bottom out entirely in “is” claims. And not only did you not argue with that, you agreed with it.

    • Yes the last word of the first quote is a typo – have fixed.

  • Nicholas Shackel

    Hi Robin. I think you are conflating two quite separate issues, one is about the relation of logical consequence and the other is the basis on which we know (or justifiably believe, but for brevity I’ll speak of knowledge) ethical propositions. Either of these might be being referred to when speaking of what we can derive and the fact that knowing the conclusion of an argument depends both on the whether we know the premisses and whether the premisses entail the conclusion allows the two to be conflated by talk of derivation.

    The issue of knowledge you raise is that of knowing the general ethical principles from which we derive particular ethical conclusions, such as when I infer I ought not hit Johhny because harming innocents is wrong, hitting is a harm, and Johhny is innocent. Whether I know that harming innocents is wrong may well depend on the truth about the nature of ethical intuition. If I don’t know the ethical premiss then I don’t know the conclusion despite the validity of the inference. Perhaps it is only if ethical intuition is reliable that I know the ethical premiss. But the issue over deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is about whether the inference is valid.

    The validity depends on the nature of the relation of logical consequence. The denial of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is the claim that there are no sets of purely descriptive propositions that entail a normative proposition, alternatively, that any set of propositions that entails a normative proposition contains a normative proposition. Quite clearly, the fact you mention, that whether I know an ethical principle depends on a descriptive truth about the reliability of ethical intution, has nothing to do with whether there are any sets of purely descriptive propositions that entail a normative proposition. Hence that fact is irrelevant to the question of whether we can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

    • Nick, I say your ought belief that hitting innocents is wrong is not basic, but derived from your beliefs that it seems to you that hitting is wrong, and that your seemings seem reliable indicators of moral truth. I say both of these are is beliefs? Which of these two beliefs do you say is an ought and not an is belief?

      • Nicholas Shackel

        The content of the belief that it seems to me that harming innocents is wrong includes the normative notion of wrongness. Therefore it could be argued that the proposition believed is normative (something similar to this issue was, if I remember rightly, discussed by Hare in his reply to Searle’s ‘How to derive an ought from an is’). You might reject this on the grounds that ‘seems’ is not a factive operator and so having a normative notion within its scope does not make the proposition normative. OK, so take it that both are purely descriptive beliefs.
        The derivation you are proposing is
        1. It seems to me that harming innocents is wrong
        2. My seemings seem to me to be reliable indicators of (moral) truth
        3. Therefore harming innocents is wrong
        I doubt whether I or anyone else actually derived their moral beliefs by such reasoning, any more than we reason from sensory seemings to perceptual beliefs. Rather, we have the sensory seemings and absent certain defeaters they cause us to have the perceptual belief, and this process is sometimes misleadingly described as an inference. Similarly my belief that harming innocents is wrong might be caused by it seeming like that.

        But perhaps you are proposing that this is how an ethical intuitionist would defend the moral principle that harming innocents is wrong. There is a simple reason why no intuitionist should present this as a derivation of the moral principle: the form of the argument is invalid (and hence {1,2} is not a set of descriptive propositions that entail a normative proposition).

        Some ethical intuitionists explain how it is that we know moral truth in terms similar to this (but the second premiss would be that seemings are reliable, not that seemings seem to be reliable). Taken like that, it is missing an intermediate conclusion ‘2b. therefore I know that harming innocents is wrong’. The step from 2b to 3 is valid but the argument as a whole is still invalid. Furthermore, such externalist explanations of knowledge are explanations of how we know what is true, when it is true, so properly formulated it would take 3 as a premiss, and 2b would be the conclusion.

        Moreover, such explanations of moral knowledge don’t entail that belief in the conclusion (3) is not a basic belief, (in the sense that basic beliefs are where the regress of justification stops). For example, if intuitionists were then to explain the seeming and the reliability in terms of conceptual competence and the nature of the concepts involved their whole story could be that ‘harming innocents is wrong’ is a self evident proposition.

        Finally, you might say, great, the step from 2b to 3 shows that you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, since 2b is prima facie a descriptive proposition whilst 3 is normative. First of all, that’s fine, since I was not trying to defend Hume’s critique but point out that it was about entailment of normative propositions rather than knowledge of them. Secondly, however, since knowledge is factive it is less clear that it is a mere quibble to point out that the proposition ‘I know that harming innocents is wrong’ contains a normative notion. The normative notion is within the scope of a factive operator and that looks like a ground for saying it is a normative proposition. Thirdly, setting that aside, 2b is still the wrong kind of proposition to embarrass Hume’s critique. He is criticising people for deriving things like ‘you ought to help Fred’ from ‘Fred is suffering’ alone. That you can derive ‘you ought to help Fred’ from ‘I know you ought to help Fred’ is beside his point.

      • Nick, I’m not addressing Hume in the context of his writing, but the wider “you can’t derive is from ought” claim tossed about casually as a very general and reliable theorem. Who actually proposed to or went to what effort to derive what when is not so relevant for evaluating the “you can’t derive” claim. I’m not talking about efforts to derive or conscious intentions to derive; I’m talking about what people use to support their beliefs when those beliefs are called into question, besides just saying “because.”

        I’ll follow your lead in elaborating the argument further, but renumber for clarity:
        1.(unexpanded) My meta seemings (about seemings) are reliable indicators of truths about seemings
        2.(observation) My moral seemings seem (to me) reliable indicators of moral truth
        3 (combine 1&2) My moral seemings are reliable indicators of moral truth.
        4.(observation) It seems to me that harming innocents is wrong
        5.(combine 3&4) I know that harming innocents is wrong
        6.(unexpanded) If I know something, that something is true.
        7.(combine 5&6) Harming innocents is wrong.

        My basic claim here is that all of the unexpanded and observation claims (1,2,4,6) are reasonably thought of as “is” claims.

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