Bridging the Is/Ought Divide and Other Simple Questions

“How should I act in the world?” — probably the single most important question any one of us faces in our lives. Yet, in the real world, most people don’t really bother thinking too much about it. Quite understandably, one might say. After all, there are bills to pay, kids to feed and billion other small things.

Nonetheless, I still feel like, even amidst the chaos of everyday worries, one can greatly benefit from having a large-scale orientation to their actions. There has to be a method to our day-to-day madness. We cannot simply go aimlessly through life forever. And so, even the most practical of men would find it useful to have at least an inkling of an answer to how they should or ought to act.

Now, because it is so universal and evergreen, the question itself is far from new. Nor are the basic types of answers one can give to it. Religions and ideologies throughout history have all attempted to establish an ethical cornerstone on which one can base one’s life. We all know the important concepts: God, community, humankind, love, compassion, consciousness, equality, freedom, yourself. Depending on where you stand politically and philosophically, you probably believe you should act in accordance with / for the benefit of a quite few of these.

Yet, besides our emotional desires and fascination with these concepts, there are problems lurking in the shadows. 

Superficially, many concepts sounds pretty great. God is all-loving, freedom ensures lack of oppression, equality guarantees lack of discrimination. But as soon as one starts delving deeper into each of these concepts, the whole idea starts to fall apart. The edges become blurry and far from evidently good. Ask a committed atheist if God is good, a left-wing protester about freedom or a right-wing one about equality and you’ll soon be faced with the realization that every single guiding idea we have sucks if taken to an extreme (or, at the very least, is far from obviously good). Most people realize that wisdom is about combining a few basic ideas and adding footnote after footnote, but for the more philosophically minded even this approach remains a bit too unsophisticated.


A few centuries ago, David Hume introduced an important idea into philosophy. He argued it was impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is”. In other words, you can look at the world all you want and know all the little details about atoms and electrons, societies, and humans and everything in between. And still, you wouldn’t know whether you should nuke the whole damn place or whether you should love it all. You can know what the world is, but you cannot thus deduce what it should have been. There is nothing in reality that tells you how to act. In modern parlance, facts are not values and values are not facts.

To take a more practical example, take the common claim that “wellbeing/happiness is what’s good”. Clearly, if that is the case, then science and all other forms of knowledge of what is can inform us what to do. For instance, if music releases this and that chemical that make us feel happy, then producing and listening to music is good. Ditto for sex, art, exercise and everything else. The point Hume makes is that we have made a giant leap in saying “wellbeing/happiness is good”. We al know happiness feels nice, but are feelings a reliable moral compass? How can one deduce that one ought to pursue happiness just from the fact that it feels good? Why value our positive feelings? Why not value suffering, for example? (the idea is not that absurd as it might seem to some people — pain is a great teacher and it’s not difficult to imagine someone valuing knowledge more than happiness (hey, academia!). Besides, there are also these guys)

One can play similar games analyzing all sorts of claims like “x is good” and seeing that they could ultimately never be substantiated properly. Something like that was argued by G.E. Moore with his open-question argument a century ago. What he argued was that claiming that pleasure (or anything else) is good is meaningless because the claim itself (“pleasure is good”) implies both that one should try to achieve more pleasure, but at the same time is equivalent to (“pleasure is pleasure”) which is tautological and certainly free from any ethical implications. (and so a statement is both ethically bounding and not at the same time)

The world which one reaches when all of these arguments are taken seriously is admittedly a grim one. As many bright people foresaw (and felt deeply), without the illusion of God or any divine objective purpose for humanity, each of us would be simply left to wander a lonely universe full of facts but devoid of value and meaning. The existentialist wave in the 20th century was an expression of this realization: all we have is our own freedom to choose how we act and who we become; good and evil are either wholly subjective (and thus completely dependent on the goals we set for ourselves) or plainly unknowable to our reason. The death of god in the west was also the death of objective meaning and purpose. Today, each of us has to be free (and guard his/her rights) because what else could we do? Having the freedom to set our own goals is the only genuine way to find meaning when the universe has been pronounced deeply uncaring and indifferent to humanity.

The result has been a deep-felt desire to find meaning in everyday pursuits and activities, most usually precisely these that feel nice. After all, when one doesn’t know what must do, one will naturally default to doing what one feels inclined to. Sex, drugs, arguing on social media, even reading books and doing yoga — each decision hardly more or hardly less justified in the grand meaningless scheme of things. 

Yet, our intuitions scream: “danger!”, “mistake!”. But the question is why? Is it because our intuitions are some special sort of transcendent faculty able to bridge the is/ought gap and save us from our predicament? Some philosophers certainly think so. Or, at least, they argue that the moral intuitions we have truly correspond to what is objectively good. After all, Socrates was consulting his daemon about the right thing to do thousands of years ago. And it’s not like we don’t find appeals to inner conscience morally persuasive still. So, maybe there is something there?

Or maybe not. Maybe the conscience is just an evolved mechanism to keep us alive, a gift from evolution without much more moral significance than hunger, thirst, or a desire to have sex. In any case, it’s hard to see how an amoral process such as natural selection could bestow on humans any moral sense whatsoever. If we, being conscious, find it hard to see a way out of the is/ought divide, how could an unconscious process such as evolution do a better job? Maybe appealing to moral intuitions is one of these illusions (just like that of a god, perhaps?) that we used to be able to entertain only because we knew so little about the world?


Perhaps… Or perhaps the problem runs even deeper than that. Ask “why” long enough and you’ll inevitably reach an impasse. Why trust our moral intuitions? Why trust God, even? Aren’t these also subject to the same criticism as above? So what if God tells us not to fornicate (to take one point of conflict between people’s lives and intuitions today and traditional morality). Why is God saying it any different from me or you or somebody else saying it? Isn’t it ultimately just a blind obedience to authority rather than genuine knowledge of what’s good?

Maybe we didn’t even need the death of God to come to this point. Sure, it’s a bit harder to question morality when you are told you’ll be paying for it with your soul in an eternal hell, but besides the existential fear of damnation, why follow God’s orders? 

The Christian answer, as far as I understand it, is something like this: we should follow God not because of mere obedience, but because he truly is everything that is good. In other words, when God tells you what to do, there is no further question to ask, there is no “why is what you’re saying good?”. Goodness itself is speaking.

And that might well be a reason enough to consider the question settled and get on with one’s life. But philosophers are masochistic and don’t take “yes” for an answer that easily. The question simply becomes one of knowledge, or — using the fancy word for it —  one of epistemology.

How do we know there is a God? How do we know that whoever is speaking to us is Him? How do we even know God is Goodness itself in the first place? I won’t be blowing minds by suggesting that philosophers are generally not too happy with the Bible or any other similar documents. After all, some philosophers are hardly happy with any proposed way of acquiring knowledge.

I myself fall somewhere in this camp. Ever since I lost my Christian faith some years ago, I have been plagued by questions of epistemology: how can I know that my beliefs are true, how can I know I’m not living in a fantasy world of my own construction? For the longest time, science has been my guiding light, but its foundations have always been a bit too shaky for my liking. Hume again, with his problem of induction, is always the maker of nuisance. Why do we think that events  in nature will necessarily keep repeating themselves? Why do we believe that doing an experiment in the past could ever tell us anything useful about the future?

“Science — it works, bitches!” is Richard Dawkins’ response. And I generally agree. Science works. But so do many other things. And something working is not the same thing as something being true. For all we know, we could be in a matrix and all the physicists might not be studying the real world, but the minds of some alien programmers.

It’s hard to reach this point in your thinking and wonder whether the Truth is possible to know. Not the truth of “if you do this, this seems to happen and it works reasonably well”, but the Truth of the real world as it is, not as it appears to us to be. I have seen this philosophy traced back to Kant, but it might go back in time even more. In any case, what we experience and what is are not the same things. We think we know reality and that playing with optical illusions online is the limit of our limitations to perceive the world as it is. But what if everything is an optical illusion? What if all our senses are just messing with our heads making us think there are things which have never been or never will? 

Initially, the is/ought divide is annoying because we perceive the “ought” part as more difficult to know anything about. But maybe the “is” part is just as troublesome…


So, how are we to act?

If you are not totally depressed at this point and if you don’t think philosophy is all a bunch of non-sense, I want you to know that you’re a pretty exceptional individual! Because, really, everything about the question of how we should act seems to lead us into pretty significant doubts and troubles.

Thus, the desire to want to go back to being pragmatic is understandable. I took this route too, in both its everyday and philosophical sense. I stopped caring about what is — I could never know. Maybe true reality is like the minds of others — you cannot read it or access it. (and if you think we’ll eventually be able to read off minds by examining the brain, just change the metaphor to  suit your liking). 

Maybe, all I could really do is simply explore the world as it appears to me. Descartes said the only thing he could know for certain is that he existed because he was thinking. Husserl took this approach to its logical conclusion and started exploring the world not as theorized but as it appears to us. Maybe all I can know is simply what’s in my consciousness and nothing else.

And still, I must act. Thought appears to be capable of altering my experience so it’s worth knowing exactly how this happens. This is where science enters the picture for me. It seems to work and that’s all I need. Thinking there is a world out there, that this world is populated by others, and they are just as conscious as me seems to work too. It explains much of my world, as I experience it, anyway. So I can say hi to you guys without worrying too much if you really exist 🙂

And yet, hidden in this picture are dangerous implications…

But these must wait for the next post!

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11 Comments, RSS

  1. Joanna Sills February 8, 2018 @ 3:58 AM

    This is wonderful. I know we spoke briefly of Epicurean hedonism, and the is/ought divide as described by Hume has been the biggest criticism of the ethical system (humans seek pleasure and avoid pain ~= we should). It’s also an issue with the utilitarian framework due to that same problem. Ironically, I’ve been reading about G.E. Moore in a virtue theory class, and his impacts regarding emotivism. I think you also touched nicely on the value-gap between science and how we should live (ethics). Seriously, lots of good stuff here. And I hope to hear some of your thoughts on Merleau-Ponty, who gave a pretty interesting counter to solipsism. Keep philosophizing, friend!

  2. […] my previous post (good for background on what I am discussing), I left off at a place which seemed good enough to […]

  3. […] this (last) post in my series on the is/ought problem (part 1, part 2, neither strictly necessary, but read them anyway), I wanted to approach problem from a […]

  4. bimonoliberationfront February 9, 2018 @ 4:18 AM

    Mao had a pretty straight forward response to this question:

    How can we know if we’re in the Matrix? Well, if you can’t find a test for the proposition, does it matter? Unfalsifiable propositions are a no-no.

    • blago

      blago February 9, 2018 @ 12:50 PM

      Well, are they a no-no or simply convenient not to ask 😉

  5. bimonoliberationfront February 9, 2018 @ 3:32 PM

    Unfalsifiable propositions are all too easy to propose. Such speculations can be useful thought experiments, but if, at the end of the day, they cannot be tested they become harmful to adopt as ‘truths.’ Religions, with all their pernicious fantasies, exist in this space between “There’s no evidence for that” and “You can’t prove it’s false.” Following the implications of “What if it was true” is sci-fi, a very worthy practice, but investing such propositions with belief is dangerous.

    • blago

      blago February 9, 2018 @ 4:48 PM

      Well, I am generally skeptical of pretty much any “truth” anyway. I don’t see why one should restrict his/her opinions to only unfalsifiable propositions. I think that’s too narrow. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s possible to escape all unfalsifiable propositions in one’s thinking. That’s why I’m a pragmatist.

      And besides, many important questions rest on unfalsifiable claims such as there is no free will / there are other conscious beings / etc. People all have a working answer for these questions and act accordingly. Religions are not special in that way, but they get the flack for lt often undeservedly.

      • bimonoliberationfront February 10, 2018 @ 9:36 PM

        You seem to have mixed ‘unfalsifiable’ and ‘falsifiable’ somewhere above, but I agree that ‘truth’ is something to regard with suspicion. I believe Mao is pursuing a pragmatism based on materialism- that is, he suggests that you make propositions and test them against reality, and thus refine or reject your propositions and construct new ones. There is no suggestion here that this process will lead to an ‘absolute truth,’ only that functionally correct ideas can be developed.
        As for the old bones of idealist philosophies, it seems to me that Mao makes most of the moot. Like Free Will, for instance: it seems to me that whether or not there is Free Will, we operate as though there is- that is to say, we feel as though we are able to make choices. Even if that ‘feeling’ is part of a deterministic calculus of how we make choices, it IS a part of that calculus and we don’t really have a practical method for eliminating it. A useful theory of decision making has to recognize both the feeling and the limitations placed on choice-making by material reality. How’s that for pragmatism?

  6. blago

    blago February 9, 2018 @ 4:51 PM

    Oh and moreover, it’s far from obvious how one proves something is truly unfalsifiable when one doesn’t know everything about the world to begin with. And unfalsifiability clearly depends on one’s epistemology. Science gets away with it only because it artificially restricts itself to a certain methodology that fixes what’s allowed and what’s not. But it’s not clear why one should adopt this approach towards life in general.

  7. Syed Danish February 11, 2018 @ 5:12 AM

    Nice post ….keep your good work going 🖒🖒

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