Frames /sing


A Spoonful of Ought

Some Thoughts on the Is-Ought Distinction










Hume famously said that he noticed something very peculiar in the arguments of those making moral arguments. They would always conducted this curious kind shift, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. This is how he put it:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, 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 surpriz’d 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,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; 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.

– A Treatise of Human Nature

At first this seems quite formidable, for there does seem some kind of slippage. Suddenly one kind of thing seems to be talked about, and then another. And the assumption here is that these are really two kind of mutually exclusive things, that one really can’t go from one to the other. That is, one is really reefed on the one side of “is”, getting a glimpse of the sandbar of “ought” but just can’t agumentatively swim the distance.


But to change the metaphor (always exciting to mix metaphors, it makes the world turn), this apparent insolution is based a bit on a fork in the road, the so-called “Hume’ Fork”. He puts it this way:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.  

– An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Moral “oughts” just don’t have place in this dichotomy of “objects”. There are, by his assertion, no “moral objects”. One can see floating behind such a fork the Analytic truths distiction which Quine worked to undo. The question is, if this strict and categorical distinction is not maintained, can the from is-to-ought (and from ought-to-is ) prohibition be maintained? Is there really such a fork in the road? As a side note, Wittgenstein went far in this direction turning “Relation of Ideas” into the “grammar” of words but also relatedly, the realm of criteria referring reasons, but was this When one starts treating the grammatical or criteria as if one is treating “facts”, Wittgenstein wants us to see that one approaches a kind of non-sense. But I would like to keep my eye upon the is-ought distintion.

I would say that what one has to understand is that this difference between “is” and “ought” is not a matter of deduction, that is, one can differentiate claims into kinds, but not make them mutually exclusive. That is, again, knowledge is not something that we “get” from an environmental “is” which then we do stuff to (empiricism). No sense data enters into our brains, which then gets mashed up into different forms by ideas and concepts, which eventually gets transformed (appropriately, or inappropriately) into “oughts”. If this were the case, this would be an empirical picture of the world, and in such a picture one can get the sense that is and ought do not coincide. But because the analytic (saying something about ideas alone) and emprical (saying something about the world) distinction does not strictly hold (beliefs and criteria must always be included in statements of fact about the world), the normative cannot be categorical excluded from any “is”. Further any “is” statement, pulls along with it a communitarian inforcement quite related to “ought”.


To show this conceptual inter-relationship: “That is a ‘cat’.” (A simple ostensive defintion), is certainly differentiatable from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'”. But the second form is wrapped up in the first. I certainly can tell the differences between them, but I can also see that the two are intimately related. Now, there is a very long way from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'” to “You ought not to murder”, but the essential, thought-to-be-unbreakable transition is already there. Prescription lies at the heart of description.

As one employs these ostensive, and otherwise established criteria, to describe the world, the normativity of use is subsumed in the process.

To argue the length of it, from the one (of use) to the other (of murder) is a perhaps worthy but lengthy task. One that I would not readily engage in this particular post, under this particular question. If one wants to get a taste of it, one can visit Spinoza’s Ethics. One can, as I have done elsewhere, put his “imitation of the affects” principle which governs sociability and conflict,

If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

Spinoza, E3, Proposition 27:

in close relation to Davidson Principle of Charity and Triangulation (more on this in essay “Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification“). If one does, I believe they will see that because the Principle of Charity is not a wise adage, but a componented part of all interpretability and sense making, any description presumes a prescriptive. Any communicability of what “is” draws in with it the normatives of community, which enable it. The Deontic is a folded into the Ontic, so to speak. First at the level of performative force, secondly at the level of affective binding. The mistake is, of course, to think that any ONE prescriptive has deontological standing, which cannot be violated (this was Kant’s mistake of universal law-making). Just like beliefs where any particular belief can be false, but all beliefs cannot be false, any one rule can be broken, but not ALL rules can be broken, and one still remain a describer of the world.


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