Getting an ought from an is

0. Introduction

In the Treatise of Human Nature, Hume outlined the ‘is-ought’ problem, sometimes referred to as ‘Hume’s Guillotine’. The idea is that it is not possible to argue validly from ‘descriptive’ statements (about how things are) to ‘normative’ conclusions (about how things ought to be). 

Hume describes how he often notices a change that takes place when he is reading certain passages on moral philosophy:

“I am surprised 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” (Section 3.1.1)

Examples of this switch include the move from 1 to 2 in the following examples:

A)

  1. X makes people happy
  2. Therefore, people ought to do X

B)

  1. God commands people to do X
  2. Therefore, people ought to do X

If we want to turn A) into a valid argument, we would naturally want to add another premise, as follows:

  1. X makes people happy
  2. People ought to do what makes them happy
  3. Therefore, people ought to do X

Now the argument is valid. But now the conclusion follows from a set of premises which are not all descriptive. Our new premise 2, needed to make the argument valid, is normative (because it is about what ought to be the case, not just what is the case). Therefore, it is not a case of getting ‘an ought from an is’; but of getting ‘an ought from an ought and an is‘. Hume’s point is that without the addition of a normative premise, like 2, an argument like A or B cannot be made valid.

We can state the is-ought problem as follows:

There is no valid argument such that the premises are purely descriptive, and the conclusion is normative.

A counterexample to this would be a valid argument with purely descriptive premises and a normative conclusion.

1. A counterexample to the is-ought problem

Consider the following example:

  1. The conclusion of this argument is true
  2. Therefore, we ought to do X

This inference is valid; there is no way the premise could be true without the conclusion also being true. After all, the premise says that the conclusion is true; so the only thing that makes the premise true is the conclusion being true.

The premise is seems to be quite clearly descriptive. It doesn’t include the word ‘ought’ or any synonym of the word.

On the other hand, the conclusion clearly is normative, involving the word ‘ought’ quite explicitly.

This means we have a valid argument with purely descriptive premises and a normative conclusion. This makes it a counterexample to the is-ought principle as stated above. In some sense, it shows that it is possible to derive an ought from an is, after all.

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