Thursday, July 01, 2010

Rebutting the is-ought 'problem' in five steps

Among the many philosophical puzzles that can captivate the aspiring thinker is the supposed is-ought problem. Originating with writers like Hume, it criticizes the supposed fallacy that one cannot derive an "ought" of moral obligation from a descriptive "is."

Obviously there is truth to this. Just because I am a blogger doesn't mean I ought to be one.

But some internet denizens have seized upon the problem and cite it with prodigality.

There are many responses to them, like the explanation of duty or teleological goal as inherent to existence. For such critics, it seems the is-ought makes a hard philosophical distinction out of a mere verbal distinction.

I am no longer in a position to judge most of these arguments, if I ever was. Yet I do appreciate a comedic rebuttal like that put forward by Deogolwulf.

In a long comment thread, he dismisses the purported problem as "a poor figment of an eighteenth-century philosopher's mind."

I. There is an is-ought gap.
II. A rational animal ought to accept what is.
III. I am a rational animal.
IV. I ought to accept that there is an is-ought gap.
V. Oh dear.

Because the is-ought problem is fundamentally an ethical one, it cannot be kept on the logical plane alone. By considering the personal obligation (and telos) of a rational creature, Deogowulf brings philosophy away from the mind games of the blackboard and the e-mail signature and back into life where it belongs.


Deogolwulf said...

Mr Jones,

I am glad you liked it. The odd thing about these internet-denizens who are fond of the is-ought gap (or what they fancy it to be) is that they are often the very same who claim to find philosophy rubbish, unworthy of attention, no source of knowledge, and so forth. Since I don't suppose they fancy that the gap was discovered at the end of an electron-microscope, and indeed since they can name a philosopher linked to it, I guess they just take it that philosophical claims which they like and which are commonly repeated as settled truths do not then count as philosophical claims.

Anonymous said...

Nope, it doesn't refute it. The Is-Ought Gap says that you aren't obligated to do anything. Lack of obligation=/=obligation to do something AND, furthermore, Point II is wrong due to point I.