How do you solve a problem like ‘is-ought’?

The problem, in a nutshell

With the release of Rational Morality less than a month away, now would be a good time to go over what I believe to be one of the most important features of the theory: how to rationally solve the ‘is-ought problem’. Those who have read or studied any moral philosophy will likely not need an explanation of what this problem refers to; non-philosophers will not need a great deal either as the problem is so intuitive. So I’ll keep it short.

Science/rationality is a method of discovering and testing truths about the universe. It does not stop at things that we can directly observe, instead branching off into areas such as theoretical mathematics and physics, whereby answers are implied by evidence elsewhere. Science is a reliable method for teaching us about the way things are.

The is-ought problem claims that although science can tells us the way things are, it cannot tell us the way they ought to be. In other words the problem posits that no statement of ‘is’ justifies a statement of ‘ought’.

Many have approached and referenced this problem, and of those a fair number have disagreed with it. Alisdair MacIntyre, for instance, argues that ‘ought’ statements are related to goals, and thus it makes sense to say that a knife ‘should’ be able to cut by virtue of it’s purpose (the goal of making a knife). Thus we are justified in saying the knife is ‘bad’.

There is little to disagree with here, however it does not solve the moral problem; even if ‘oughts’ do relate to goals, why ‘ought’ we have certain goals? After all, no natural characteristic of human beings is constitutive of being an end goal, nor should it be, lest we commit the naturalistic fallacy of assuming something is good based on it naturally existing. So we are still faced with a perplexing question of how to derive moral facts from a materialist conception of the world?

This very dilemma persuades many to moral relativism. Morality, they claim, evolved entirely naturally as a useful social tool: morality is relative. This, of course, does exactly what materialists are trying to avoid. In stating that morality evolved relatively, and so is relative, they have been careless in deriving an ought from an is. Morality did evolve relatively, but this doesn’t mean we ought to be relative on moral issues.


A solution through lateral thinking

What the moral relativists did, as we saw in the last paragraph, was to try and come up with the most simple of solutions by using Occam’s Razor. Morality evolved relatively, so it is relative. This might still fall foul of the very problem is was trying to avoid, but it betters classical accounts of moral realism by not providing an untestable set of assumptions and instead just taking the simplest path. We know that moral relativism is rationally untenable, but we also know that accounts of morality that posit classical moral realist positions are also untenable (due to adding irrational assumptions in order to justify their conclusions), so if these are our only two positions then we begin to give up on morality being a rational subject to study.

In trying to either create new assumptions (which good science should never do) or else provide the simplest possible path through the problem, it seems everyone has missed the glaringly obvious solution. In order to be rational you need to justifiably derive an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement, and we undoubtedly cannot do this with any naturally existing ‘is’ statements. The key part of that sentence is ‘naturally’. There is a social situation in which you can rationally invoke an objective theory of morality. If we live in a society where everyone agrees we need a code of morality, and thus a set definition is agreed upon, we have an ‘is’ situation in which ‘ought’ statements can be derived. Specifically, we can derive moral rules entirely rationally from our set base point at which we defined morality. It really is that simple.

From this very simple methodology we can then start using the work of Sam Harris (among others), who has argued very clearly for science to help us determine human values and has also provided us the best current definition of morality (in my opinion) with which to start: morality is about the well-being of sentient individuals.


To subscribe for updates on the release of ‘Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong’, please enter your e-mail address at the top right and click subscribe.