Stuart K. Hayashi
In moral debate, participants frequently bring up David Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum. It can be summarized as follows:
Truths or facts cannot be where proper prescriptive rules of human conduct come from. That a truth or fact Is (meaning, is a truth or fact already validated) cannot tell you what you Ought or Ought Not to do . The simpler statement of this is: “You cannot get Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do from that which Is .”
- The Contextualist Interpretation: Truths or facts, by themselves and out-of-context, are not sufficient to indicate what you ought or ought not to do. Yet, that an out-of-context datum, by itself, is not sufficient to tell you what you ought or ought not to do, does not properly preclude you from taking facts into consideration of what you ought to do upon already having chosen the proper standard of value.
- The Nihilist Interpretation: Truths and facts do not properly tell you what you ought or ought not to do; period. It is indeed possible for you to take pertinent truths and facts into consideration for the purpose of accomplishing some goal, but there is still no objective reason why you ought or ought not to strive for that particular goal. Since truths and facts do not tell you what your goals ought or ought not to be, it follows that truths and facts have zero bearing on what you ought or ought not to do. In sum, truths and facts are ultimately irrelevant in judging, in the grand scheme of everything, whether your past actions were were objectively moral or not.
Once we introduce the context of my goal to live my life to the fullest, though, such facts become pertinent. As my main goal is to live my life to the fullest, it follows that it would be contrary to this main goal for me, as a young man, to die painfully, violently, and quickly, based on some accident or misjudgment. In line with my goal, the facts about gravity and momentum and mass and human physiology do tell me that I ought not to jump out of a skyscraper’s fifth-story window; that would kill me.
- Primary goal: Live life to the fullest, which requires that I not die in the next few weeks.
- Truth or fact: I will die if I do not eat anything within the next few weeks.
- Conclusion: I ought to eat within the next few weeks. As a corollary to that, my secondary goal is to find suitable food to eat.
In his arguments, the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick implicitly accepts Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum. In direct rebuttal to Objectivism, Nozick proclaims that there is no reason why you ought to choose a full life as your primary goal. And, he adds, if there is no out-of-context Is — no out-of-context truth or out-of-context fact — that commands you to choose a full life as your primary goal, then it follows that is no objective reason, in the grand scheme of everything, why you Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do anything.Thus, what can be inferred from Nozick’s argument is that facts and truths can never provide any input in helping you consider what you ought or ought not to do. That is, Nozick’s argument is that it is not merely the case that out-of-context truths and out-of-context facts — separated from the goal of a full life — are unable to provide a guide for ethical prescription. Rather, Nozick goes as far as saying that in any and every context, truths and facts will never have any bearing on what you should or should not do.
This is not to say that Nozick explicitly denies there is any morality, though. Explicitly influenced by Immanuel Kant, Nozick puts forth what he proclaims to be absolute objective moral principles, and then adds that such allegedly absolute objective moral principles did not and cannot come from observation-based reasoning. (That is, though Kant and Nozick would not put it in such explicit terms, this really comes down to their allegedly absolute and objective principles being unsubstantiated and arbitrary.)
My answer to Nozick is the same one that Ronald E. Merrill gave him. I entirely concede that there is nothing I can say or cite to make you choose full living as your primary goal. But unlike Nozick, I do not see this as any sort of dilemma for Objectivism. Anyone who does not want to live fully is free to go somewhere and die. It is for those of us who choose maximal living — at least, choose it in practice if not by conscious explication — that secondary goals become pertinent. And to reach those secondary goals, we must consider the facts and act in accordance with them, and that is where Is becomes a guide for what we Ought and Ought Not to do.
Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum Is Truth, So You Ought Not…
Now I want to address the internal contradiction of anyone in an ethical debate, such as Nozick, invoking Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum in order to influence the thinking and debate behavior of his debate interlocutor. Anytime someone in an ethical debate cites Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum to you, there is an implicit imparting to you that there is something you Ought-to-Do or Ought-Not-to-Do in ethical debates, based on the premise that Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is itself a truthful Is.
The reasoning is as follows.
- Explicit Statement 1: Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is that you cannot properly learn what you Ought or Ought Not to do, based on truths or facts, based on what Is.
- Explicit Statement 2: Hume’s Is-Ought-Dictum is the truth. Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is a truthful Is.
- Implicit Conclusion You Are Supposed to Draw From This: Based on the truthful Is that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, you Ought Not to derive any Ought-Not from any truthful Is.
You see the internal contradiction there? Someone tells me that Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum is a fact or, at minimum, an objective truth. Based on acceptance of this objective truth — this objective Is — that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I Ought to stop making these ridiculous attempts to argue that Ought-to does come from Is.
“Cannot Do It” Vs. “Ought Not to Try It”
In response to my pointing out this internal contradiction, one nihilistic apologist for Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum (who claims to be an Objectivist!), replied along these lines:
No, no, no, no, no! You Ought to [why should I Ought-to, silly?!! –S.H.] pay heed to the distinction between my saying you are forever unable to do something versus my saying you ought not to try to do it. When I cite Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I am not telling you that you Ought or Ought Not to pay heed to it; I am not telling you that you Ought Not to try to get your Ought -Not rules from that which Is. I am merely saying that if you do attempt such an effort, you will always fail, because it is logically impossible.
I do not buy into that rebuttal, because it slyly obfuscates the implicit purpose behind telling anyone that any proposition is impossible to accomplish.
Suppose I know someone named Bob. Bob seriously believes that if he keeps flapping his arms hard enough, there will come day in the years ahead when flapping his arms will enable him to fly. I tell him, “Bob, it is impossible for you to fly, ever, by flapping your arms.” What is the point in my telling Bob this? The implicit message behind telling anyone that a proposition is impossible to accomplish is that that person ought not to act on that proposition — implicitly because Bob trying to do something impossible would be contrary to Bob’s eudaemonic self-interest.
If it is logically impossible for me to acquire Ought-Not-to from that which Is, then — because living a full life is my implicit primary goal — it logically follows I Ought Not to try to acquire an Ought-Not-to from that which Is, does it not? The point in telling someone that he is forever unable to accomplish a specific task is to convey that he ought not to expend any more effort at that specific task. Therefore, the rebuttal from that nihilistic apologist for Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum does not hold up; any citation of Interpretation 2 of Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum in philosophic debate remains implicitly self-contradictory and hypocritical, because it conveys that, in consideration of the allegedly truthful Is that is Hume’s Is-Ought Dictum, I Ought Not to do something.