Richard Carrier not getting an ought from an is

0. Introduction

In the book The End of Christianity, Richard Carrier has a chapter called Moral Facts Naturally Exist, in which he claims to be able to “dispense” with the is-ought problem. I don’t think he does this. I’m not going to look at the whole piece here, because it is quite long, but I intend to come back to it later. I’m just going to look at a few remarks he makes about the ‘is-ought’ problem.

  1. The argument

Characteristically, he is quite ambitious:

It’s often declared a priori that “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’,” and that therefore science can’t possibly discover moral facts. This is sometimes called a “naturalistic fallacy.” But calling this a fallacy is itself a fallacy. Indeed, it’s not merely illogical, it’s demonstrably false. We get an “ought” from an “is” all the time.

Given this primer, I am expecting to see the demonstration of how to get an’ ought’ from an ‘is’. That is, I am expecting to see a valid argument, with true premises that are purely descriptive that has a conclusion which contains the word ‘ought’.

Yet, this is not what we get. Here is what we get:

For example, “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity.” This entails an imperative statement (“you ought to change your car’s oil with sufficient regularity”), which is factually true independent of human opinion or belief. That is, regardless of what I think or feel or believe, if I want my car to run well, I still have to change its oil with sufficient regularity

Now hold on a minute. Let’s break this down into the relevant bits. Firstly we have a conditional statement:

  1. If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity.

We also have an expression of the consequent of this conditional:

2.  You ought to change your car’s oil with sufficient regularity

Yet, contrary to Carrier’s claim, 1 does not entail 2 (if you disagree, please tell me the inference rule used). To make it entail 2, we would have to add in a premise, 1a, about what you want:

1. If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity
1a. You want your car to run well
2. Therefore, you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity (1, 2, modus ponens)

Together, 1 and 1a jointly entail 2 (via MP), but on its own 1 does not entail 2.

Carrier says that 2 is “factually true independent of human opinion or belief”, but it doesn’t follow from 1 unless we have the premise, 1a, which explicitly references what people want. We can, of course, assert that 2 is true independently of human opinion or belief if we like, but we have not shown that it is derived from 1. Asserting that 2 is true surely cannot be held to be an example of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; it would be just an assertion of an ‘ought’.

Indeed, Carrier changes scope in the very next sentence, from 2 being what is independent of human opinion of belief, to 1 being independent of human belief:

“That is, regardless of what I think or feel or believe, if I want my car to run well, I still have to change its oil with sufficient regularity”

Clearly, he is now saying that the conditional statement is what is true independently of what people feel or believe. In the previous sentence, he is making a different claim, namely that the consequent is what is independent of what people feel or believe.

But even if the conditional (i.e. 1) is true independently of what people feel or believe, this does not mean that the consequent of the conditional (i.e. 2) is true independently of what people feel or believe. You can’t derive ‘q’ merely from ‘if p, then q’. And you can’t derive ‘q is independent of what people feel or believe’ from ‘(if p then q) is independent of what people feel or believe’.

But perhaps his claim is just that we can derive 2 from 1 and 1a. If so, he is right. And I also think that 1 and 1a are both true. I’m not disputing the logical form of that argument, or either premise. So that argument is both valid and has true premises. Great!

So, what’s the problem? Well, premise 1 has an ‘ought’ in it. So this is not an example of an argument which has an ‘ought’ in the conclusion, but no ‘ought’ in the premises. We are not getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. We are getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’. That is not what was advertised.

2. Diagnosis

What is going on here is that we often express the relationship between A and B, where A is something we want and B is the ‘optimal’ way of getting A, by saying that we ‘ought’ to do B. For example, most will happily nod along to the following:

If you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams. 

But, if you stop to think about it, the relationship between the antecedent and the consequent is not one of logical entailment. That is, the following is logically invalid:

  1. You want to go to university, and studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university
  2. Therefore, you ought to study hard for your exams.

I admit that this argument sounds valid. It sounds valid, and it has a descriptive premise with a normative conclusion. Contrary to what I’m claiming, many people will think that this is a way to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

Regardless of how it seems, strictly speaking it isn’t valid. In reality it is an enthymeme, or an argument in which one premise is implicit. For example, if I say “x is a horse, therefore x is an animal”, we will hear this as valid, but only because the premise “if x is a horse, then x is an animal” is implicit. In formal logic though, we need to state all our assumptions. In the ‘is/ought’ problem, this is also true.

What is implicit in our case is the following premise:

1a. If you want A, and B is the optimal way of realising A, then you ought to do B.

We might have this in our background knowledge, as an implicit assumption, but if we are talking about logical validity (as indeed we are here), then we need to make these explicit. Once we add this new premise in, we can substitute terms from 1 to 1a to get:

1b. If you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams.

Now, 2 follows from 1 and 1b via modus ponens. That is, the following is valid:

1. You want to go to university, and studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university
1a. If you want A, and B is the optimal way of realising A, then you ought to do B.
1b. Therefore, if you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams (1, 1a, substitution)
2. Therefore, you ought to study hard for your exams. (1b, 1, modus ponens)

This argument is now formally valid, and the premises are true. But again, we have needed to insert a premise, 1a, which is not purely descriptive – it contains an ‘ought’ in it. Once again, we are not deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but are deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’. In addition, 1a does not seem to be something that is empirically discoverable. It looks like a kind of conceptual truth. It doesn’t look like something that science discovered though. Yet it is needed to get to the conclusion.

Carrier says that:

There are countless true imperative facts like this that science can discover and verify, and that science often has discovered and verified, from “If you want to save the life of a patient on whom you are performing surgery, you ought to sterilize your instruments” to “If you want to build an enduring bridge, you ought not to employ brittle concrete.”

I think that what science discovers is something purely descriptive, such as that sterilising your instruments is (part of) the optimal way of performing surgery on patients without them dying. What we discovered is that people much more frequently die if we perform surgery on them with unsterilised instruments. Presumably, we want to ensure that people don’t die when we perform surgery on them. That means we have the thing desired, and (let’s say) an empirically discovered fact about the optimal way to realise that desire. But as we saw above, unless we insert a premise which links what we desire, the optimal way of realising it, and what we ‘ought’ to do, we cannot derive anything about what we ought to do. And that generalised principle, even if it is true, isn’t something science discovered.

His examples only get the varnish of looking valid by smuggling in the premise which mentions ‘ought’. Thus, all of his examples seem to fall foul of the same problem, and none of them are examples of getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

3. A deeper problem

But, let’s say that we agree that there are basic hypothetical normative facts about the world of the form “if you want to do x, then you ought to do y”. As I mentioned in a previous post, some of these are clearly not moral. Perhaps it is true that if you want to torture someone, you ‘ought’ to kidnap them and tie them up in your basement. Perhaps that is the optimal way of realising your desire to torture someone. A central moral intuition is that, regardless of this empirically discoverable fact about how best to realise your desire, you ought not do that. Some things are wrong, and some things are good, regardless of what we desire. Some things, like torturing innocent people, are wrong even if you are a sadist with a desire to do it; and some things, like helping old ladies across the road (or whatever) are good even if you are selfish and don’t want to do it. Someone who believes that all morality is reducible to hypothetical norms has a very hard time explaining these sorts of situations, where bad things are in line with our desires and good things in conflict with our desires.

I suspect that Carrier wants to say that people with such sadistic (etc) views are irrational somehow, but this seems like an article of faith. Why can’t there be an internally coherent belief set in which someone desires to torture innocent people? Maybe he has a response to this, but I haven’t read enough of his work to know.

Even if there are true hypothetical norms, I think these cannot be the whole story about morality. What we need in addition to these are categorical norms. Carrier’s attempt to say everything we need to about morality purely in terms of hypothetical norms seems to me to be wide of the mark, because it cannot make room in principle for immoral desires, or for moral things that go against our desires.

4. Conclusion

I intend to come back to this essay of Carrier’s, because it has many other seemingly interesting things going on in it. To sum this up, I think he fails to show how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and even if we give him the hypothetical norms he wants, these can never be enough to capture all moral truths.

12 thoughts on “Richard Carrier not getting an ought from an is”

  1. I think a lot of confusion about the is-ought problem can be cleared up if people take a look at Prior’s counterexample, because that clears up what actually is the is-ought gap. Upon seeing Prior’s counterexample, people will probably think “what does that have to do with the is-ought gap?” But it has everything to do with the is-ought gap.

    I think people often get confused on the distinction between the is-ought gap, the naturalistic fallacy, and the fact/value distinction. The is-ought gap has to do with logic. The naturalistic fallacy has to do with irreducibility. The fact/value distinction has to do with a distinction between realisim and antirealism.
    https://philpapers.org/rec/DODTIG

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Alex,

    I wasn’t sure what the best way is to contact you, so I thought I’d leave a comment here.

    I’ve been enjoying your podcast, and wanted to offer my services. I am a producer who has experience with audio, and have worked on a few podcasts in the past.

    If you’d like, I’d be happy to work on the audio for your podcasts to improve the quality, or recommend things that may help in the future.

    Feel free to get in touch with me directly if you’d like some assistance with the audio.

    braden.deal@gmail.com

    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alex, re: your latest post “Richard Carrier and logic” the email doesn’t link through to the article on your blog. In fact I can’t find it on your blog.

    Like

    1. Yeah, I took it down because I had made a mistake in there. I am still looking at his paper, and will post more on it, but that blog post needed to be substantially modified.

      Like

  4. I’m also looking forward to the post on logic. Carrier is often telling…well everyone…that they’ve got their logic all wrong. I’m sure he’ll insist you don’t understand logic either.

    I’ve been looking through some of your other posts. Great stuff! Keep ’em coming!

    Like

  5. Thanks a lot for this explanation of the is/ought gap. I realise now that I had never truely understood it and was making the implicit assumption you mentioned about the optimal way to achieve something.

    Is there any way to discover/derive moral oughts? You refer to an intuition that you ought not to kidnap someone and tie them up in your basement. Do we just take it as given that we ought to do what our intuitions tell us we ought to do?

    Cheers,
    Nick

    Like

  6. This whole section is quite surprising for me. First, we obviously cannot logic something into existence. Logic is the manipulation of premises. We cannot assert truth value of premises through logic alone. What logic does for us is ensuring that if we manipulate certain logical statements we change their truth value certain way. However we need to find truth values of our premises some other way. We may find it through empiricism or as with science or usefulness as with math or some other methods.

    As for what Carrier fundamentally says it is something like this. All thinking agents capable of making moral choices exist in reality. Being capable of making decision means taking some action instead of some other action based on some sort of value function. There cannot be decision making agent without value function that it uses for making decision. But it also means that thinking agent can examine itself to find out the reason why it makes those moral decision. The decisions are based on how that agent was created, which value function it has embedded in its decision making algorithm.

    So the ultimate “is” statement comes to “I was made this way”. It really is that easy. I can say that because I am human I prefer eating fruit as opposed to cellulose. The evolutionary history made it so that I prefer eating apple to eating grass. But even if some person overrides this conditions and actually prefers eating grass as opposed to eating apples with sufficient knowledge of ones brain and psychological conditions we should be able to find out why this is so. In other words the reason for thinking agent is embedded in physical structure that is its brain and body. And those are structures that we can study scientifically and we can break them down to just IS statements.

    Like

    1. Hi JV.

      I agree that people have preferences, and desires, and in general motivations for making the decisions they do. These are often hardwired into us, and by examining ourselves using science, I am quite confident we can come to understand how that stuff works. None of that is in dispute.

      What is in dispute is about whether there are moral truths beyond that. Carrier identifies what philosophers call ‘hypothetical’ oughts, which is like if you want X, and doing Y is the best way to get X, then you ought to do Y. This requires the desire element in it to make sense.

      There are other types of moral truths that philosophers talk about as well, often called ‘categorical’ oughts. These are independent of desires. They are like ‘you ought to help people in need’, etc. If they hold at all, then they do so even if you dont want to help people in need. These are not dependent on desires at all. Carrier doesn’t think there are any oughts like this (I think).

      The question though is whether any premises which are purely descriptive (just ‘is’ statements) can ever logically entail any normative statements (any ‘ought’ statements). You could say:

      1. I am made to prefer eating apples to grass.
      2. Therefore, I ought to eat this apple rather than this grass.

      But does 2 follow logically from 1? I don’t know the inference rule that allows it. Do you? (That’s a rhetorical question)

      It could be made into a logical argument, like this:

      1. I am made to prefer eating apples to grass.
      1a. If I am made to prefer eating apples to grass, then I ought to eat this apple rather than this grass.
      2. Therefore, I ought to eat this apple rather than this grass.

      Now that is valid (the inference is modus ponens). But now the premise 1a is not purely descriptive because it uses the word ‘ought’ in it.

      The is-ought problem, the one Carrier takes himself to be addressing, is whether there is any logically valid argument in which the premises are purely descriptive and the conclusion is normative. His arguments though always either smuggle in a tacit normative premise (like my 1a) or are invalid. He doesn’t actually solve the problem. It requires more than just saying that we are all real and have desires and that we can find out about those desires through science. All that is true, and not in dispute. What is in dispute is about whether any argument exists which has the properties I described. That’s what someone needs to do to get an ought from an is.

      I hope that helps, because I get the feeling you were addressing a slightly different point, which is very understandable because this issue is often horrendously handled by atheist writers (not naming any names!).

      Cheers,
      Alex

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will try to simplify the argument as much as possible. It goes like this: humans are decision making agents that were born with value function. We process external stimuli and react upon them in a way that our value function deems as valuable.

        In this model the “ought” means that we tell to this thinking agent some aspects of action X that it does not know so that it can realize for itself if making action X is desirable for it. But in principle we can make this “ought” sentence purely by description of action X and its impact on the world. The normative “and therefore you should or should not do action X” part is left for the agent to decide. But in a sense if we know everything about agent’s value function we also know how it will decide. Even if it is in a sense “and here the agent will throw a coin and decide randomly between these two options”.

        As for categorical oughts, these are oughts that are valid for all decision making agents or to be more specific, these are oughts that are valid at least for all humans. I am not sure if these ought exist but if they do we will find out about them by scientific study of human decision making. But we should be also prepared that these oughts do not exist or that they are banal and ones as obviously they need to be shared by all people.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s