Sam Harris recently made a series of Tweets which, he claimed, showed how to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here they are:
- Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what *is*—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.
- Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences
- Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)
- Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.
- If we *should* to do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)
- Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”
- We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But *better* solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)
- So what is morality? What *ought* sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).
The whole thing boils down to premise 5. He says that we ought avoid things that ‘suck’. By ‘suck’ he basically means things that are painful (as his example of the stove indicates). So premise 5 basically just says: we ought to avoid pain. That is assuming an ought coming from an is: we ought not do things that cause pain (that ‘suck’).
The only thing he says to justify this is “If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above”. But all ‘consulting the stove’ would do is remind us how painful the experience was. It wouldn’t, on its own, show us that we ‘ought’ not do it.
What Harris is relying on is the fact that we don’t want to have the experience of pain that touching the stove provides. The idea is that there is a hypothetical norm of the following form:
If you don’t want to feel pain, you ought not put your hand on the stove.
Harris is relying on the fact that we all don’t like feeling pain, and so the antecedent condition applies universally. But still, it is a hypothetical norm, not an unconditional (or ‘categorical’) norm.
What difference does that make?
Well, it isn’t really an example of getting an ought from an is; at least, not in any morally significant sense anyway. That’s because hypothetical norms are just the best ways of realising your desires. If you desire x, you *ought* to do y, when y is the optimal way of realising x. They can be morally significant things, like if you want to make the world a better place, you ought to give to charity, etc. But they can also be morally neutral: if you want to get your car fixed, you ought to take it to a mechanic; if you want to loose weight, you ought to take more exercise. They can also be immoral: if you want to murder your neighbour, you ought hit him over the head with this rock.
Morality, on the other hand, is usually thought of as being unconditional, or ‘categorical’. Take my last example. Sure, hitting your neighbour is an efficient way of murdering him. But we generally think that we simply ought not murder people at all. Even if I want to, I ought not do it. The ‘is-ought’ issue is about how to derive these sorts of ‘oughts’ from mere ‘is’s.
So the mismatch is that he is asserting a categorical normative statement (“we should avoid what really and truly sucks”), and he is offering only a hypothetical norm as it’s justification (which is that if you don’t want to experience things that suck, you ought not do things that will produce experiences that suck).
Hypothetical norms can’t justify categorical norms though, because the former require you to have a particular desire, whereas categorical norms are independent of what you desire; hypothetical norms only apply to you if you have a certain desire, but categorical norms apply to you regardless of whether you do.
Its a bit like saying ‘Everything is A’, but justifying that with the statement ‘Everything which is B is A’. Even if we agree with the latter, that cannot justify believing the former.