D. Friedman just left a comment at Samizdata making yet again this foolish, anti-real (anti-real: against reality, as one might be anti-State for instance) statement attributed to Hume that “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’”
Herewith my thought on the subject, lightly edited and tempered with an introduction which might hint at my feelings about it. (I could have added a few more applicable tags to the list just to be snarky, but I was a good girl and refrained. I felt I ought to.)
. . .
Sigh. Listen carefully, class.
You can ONLY “get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’”
Because the very concept of “oughtness” implies some sort of goal or objective or state of affairs or value that you wish to achieve or maintain. And that you hold said goal, etc., is itself a fact.
In order to satisfy that wish, one must act in accordance with a whole bunch of facts of reality, or of what you believe or understand or assume to be the facts of reality.
For instance: I ought to go to the Post Office later. [I want my Christmas cards at least to be postmarked prior to Christmas, and I don't want my insurance payments to be late so I lose my insurance (!). Two FACTS about what I want to achieve (or avoid), and implied fact that the achievements are affected by the realities of the Post Office operations, and of date and time.]
Or: I want to live as God has outlined in the ethical strictures of the Mosaic Code, so I ought to follow those as best I can. (To achieve this involves a whole string of “oughts” and the “is’s” from which they derive.)
Or: I want to live as God wants me to live, so I ought to follow the Mosaic Code, which is, ultimately, the source of our knowledge of Right and Wrong. [N.B. -- Don't get funny ideas, Class. Personally I am an atheist.]
In other words, the very concept of “oughtness” implies the existence of a reason for the “ought.”
We very very very commonly say “I ought to do X” with no explanation of why that is. This is either because in context the reason for the “ought” is clear: I ought to go to the P.O. today [because it's important that I get certain stuff mailed today], or because at some level we will feel unsatisfied (“uneasy” in von Mises’ terms) if we don’t do it, though we may not be able quite to articulate this. “I ought not to hang up on this Yay-Hoo.” (Why not? Because one doesn’t hang up on people, even Yay-hoos. Why not? Because….)
One is wrong to conclude from this that “ought” is a free-floating thing, with no criteria (except perhaps feelings — “sentiment”) to go by as to whether one has complied with it.
I do not know of my own knowledge whether Mr. Hume actually made the oh-so-often-stated claim, let alone why he did so (in what spirit) if indeed he did so. So I decline to argue against Mr. Hume per se, but rather against the claim. However, there is a half-baked conception of what “ought” means that does unmoor the idea from any fact or presumed “fact” except that of its existence, which is totally independent of anything else: No criteria given as to WHY one “ought.” “Ought” is just Out There, free-floating, no reason why one OUGHT to obey “ought” except the existence of the putative “ought” itself. “Why ought I to…?” has no answer, by this conception of “ought.”
This is pure Platonism. This free-floating “ought” exists out there in the Universe and we Ought to obey it because we should; or, you might say, “Because we OUGHT to obey it.”
“Since when isn’t because a reason?” as the mother, at the end of her rope, says to her recalcitrant child in the old joke.
Such a thing is, of course, a pure fantasy, regardless of how one arrives at it.
And one notices that it is this DEFINITION of “ought” that makes it underivable from facts.
It makes of “oughtness” a mirage, something that can never be reached (intellectually understood) because it only gives the appearance of something real, of the lake in the middle of the desert, of the puddle down the highway on a bright sunny day after a month of drouth.
This is the nature of Plato’s putative Forms. They can never be connected to reality, because all the connections have been abstracted away. It is like cutting the bridge over the chasm and then saying it is impossible to get to the other side — impossible in principle. It is this metaphysical theory that in general supports both subjectivism and intricism. (Story for another time.)
Such an “ought” does not mean anything like what people mean when they use the word, except when they are conducting an (acknowledged or tacit) debate, or trying to philosophize.