Tackling David Hume’s Is–ought Problem

ought from an is David Hume
Evidence of a philosophical dinosaur.

David Hume’s Is-ought problem is often brought forth by William Lane Craig, and other theists when debating atheists.

Sam Harris introduced morality back into the spectrum of conversation concerning science and morality.  For centuries philosophers and scientists gave this ground to theists, standing by the premise that science can teach us how to obtain what we value, but not what to value itself.

In Sam Harris’s book the Moral Landscape he writes:

“…science is often a matter of philosophy in practice. It is probably worth recalling that the original name for the physical sciences was, in fact, ‘natural philosophy’… One could call [his case in The Moral Landscape] a ‘philosophical’ position, but it is one that directly relates to the boundaries of science.

This is a simple and practical reason for understanding any philosophical claim  is within the purview of science.  The question may be yet unanswered because we have not achieved the scientific framework to understand or answer it, but that does not mean it will be forever out of the reach of  our understanding.

David Hume’s is-ought Problem Explained

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher and historian that lived from 1711 to 1776.  Hume discusses this is-ought problem in book III, part I, section I of his work, A Treatise of Human Nature.

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

This is just one piece of Hume’s thinking on the matter taken from his writings, but it seems clear he is not ruling out the possibility of obtaining an ought from an is.  He is cautioning us that an is, how things are, how things work, that which science explains, can be perversely twisted in near infinite ways into an ought without any validity to the jump.

But when you read it closely, tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given…”  This seems clear too, that anytime an ought is derived from an is, that this must be observed and explained, and reasonable that we should draw this conclusion.  This is science.  David Hume still leaves the door open for an is to lead to an ought, but he finds it doubtful in most cases that a true case can be made as to why it would be true.

The Debate On Morality Between Atheists and Theists

In a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, Craig employed this argument – among others involving the is-ought problem:

“What about objective moral duties? I first argued from the is/ought distinction that there is no basis atheism, for thinking that we have any moral duties. And here Dr. Harris says, “If we have a moral duty to do anything, we have a duty, to avoid the worst possible misery”. But the question is the antecedent of that conditional: “If we have a moral duty to do anything.” What I’m arguing is that on atheism, I don’t see any reason to think we have any moral duties to do anything.”

Theists believe morality is dependent upon a transcended being of perfect morality in which all actions would be measured against.   Theists derive morality from scripture, or from certain beliefs and dogma dependent upon their religion, or sect within that religion.  The idea that science could better handle the question of morality than could theism is anathema to them.  This is what many theists believe this to be on the firmest ground to stand on in debate, and that ground will be defended against the intrude of scientific inquiry.

Putting Hume’s Theory In Perspective

For a moment let’s consider the fact David Hume lived in between 1711 to 1776.  Think of how little knowledge in the way of science Hume would have had when considering our ability to derive an ought from an is.  He would have no understanding of evolution, modern physics, neuroscience, or any capacity to foresee the type of equipment, like EEG and MRI technology that are now at our disposal.

Do Atheists Have Any Foundation For Objective Morality?

In the absence of god, many theists, as evidenced by the above quote from William Lane Craig, that atheists have no ground on which to find morality.  I have two arguments to this.

The first is the fact we evolved from a social race of primates that encouraged group cooperation in order to survive and propagate.  Without empathy and compassion, without the capacity to trust and to love, we would never have gotten as far as we have.  We have developed these traits because it was necessary for us to do so.

Second is evidence by our progression in many directions over the last couple of centuries as to how we treat our fellow man.  As science and reason has found a larger audience not worried about imprisonment or execution in the modern world, abhorrent morality condoned in the bible such as slavery have been abolished, and though discrimination is still rife, is is fought on many more fronts now than was the case in the past.

To elaborate on my second objection, with new discoveries in neuroscience we are able to better understand casual states of the brain, and how various behaviors can stem from these states.  If we know certain decision making processes or behaviors that translate into morality depend upon our mind state, and we accept that morality, if it has any meaning, is meant to address the well being of conscious creatures on a scale, then we know science may well be able to one day show systems of morality, and ways to achieve mind states that reflect that morality and are more consistent than anything previously founded in scripture, faith, or someone’s subjective understanding of the best ways to operate in this world for their benefit and the benefit of those around them.

That isn’t to say that science should, or would, or even could be capable of imposing these moral systems on us.  That seems to be the purview of religion.  What science could do is better inform our public policy and understanding as to how to go about negotiating with other countries, and within our own country, in ways that are more probable to yield a positive result.

The idea that there could be a science of morality is obvious to some, and completely unfathomable to others.  I welcome any arguments in the comments that you may have, and I’ll do my best to tackle them.  David Hume’s Is-ought problem has been around for centuries, and it will take a lot of conversation, debate, and testing before it can be put to rest as a philosophical bedrock that theists feel comfortable debating atop from.

Below is a lengthy debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, much of which hinges on topics relevant to this article.  If you have the time it’s certainly worth watching.




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