in his work, ‘a treatise on human nature’ (1739), david hume, famously observed that, in the writings of the moral theorists of his day, he frequently observed a subtle yet unexplained shift in verbiage:
…the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning…when all of a sudden i am surpriz’d 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. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
he’s basically saying, “i don’t see how you got from ‘this and that is true’, to ‘that and this ought to be true’–there’s no explicit chain of reasoning there” and, for some reason, ever since then, everybody has just assumed that no such chain of reasoning is even possible.
so, if you think you know that murderous preschool rampages are wrong, you’re mistaken. saying that something–anything–is right or wrong is merely the expression of your opinion of what you believe people ought to do or not do. so saying that murderous preschool rampages are bad is neither true nor false in the same way that saying a certain style of music is bad (i’m looking at you, country) can be neither true nor false–it’s a matter of personal preference. ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘like’, ‘dislike’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, etc.–all of these words and others like them, when included in a statement, supposedly indicate that the statement is ultimately a matter of opinion (from now on, i’ll refer to statements of this sort varyingly as ‘value statements’, ‘moral judgments’, ‘opinions’, etc.).
but this is what distinguishes facts from value statements; the ability to be either true or false–what logicians refer to as the having of a ‘truth-value’. in order for information to qualify as actual knowledge, it not only has to have a truth-value, but that value has to be ‘true’. so claiming to know that something–anything–is right or wrong is simply nonsensical, since value statements aren’t even false let alone true.
i think there’s obviously something wrong with this. it completely divorces morality from rationality (i’m pretty sure this is why most of the people claiming to be moral authorities these days are total nut-bags) and it puts really severe limitations on the power of rational thought. but as far as i can tell, there’s no good reason to accept it. though it’s been regarded as insurmountable for nearly 300 years now, i’ve found that vaulting the is/ought barrier is actually not all that hard to do.
only 2 things are needed to get from ‘ought’ to ‘is’. 1) a goal or an aim (i prefer “aim” for reasons that i’ll explain later), and 2) some relevant information about how to move toward that aim. put these two together, and we’ve got a pole big enough to vault the is/ought barrier, leaving this land of opinion–barren of all truth-value–behind forever.
so here’s a simple scenario to get started with:
we’re in a crowd of people in the dark–nobody can see a damn thing–and somebody yells “we should all turn around 180 degrees!” whoever just said that might just be a crazy person. why should we turn around? what benefit would there be in it? this ought statement is probably just some irrational buffoon’s opinion.
but now, suppose we all have a common goal; to be facing north–maybe so we can watch a meteor shower or something. in this case, the guy’s probably not crazy–but what the hell does he know? he can’t see any better than the rest of us. does he even know which way is north? is he taking into account that other people might be starting out facing in a different direction than he is? it’s just some ignorant jackass’s opinion.
so now suppose we have, not only a goal to be facing north, but also some important information about the current state of affairs. say a flood-light is turned on and we all look around to see that we’re all facing the same direction, and that direction happens to be south. now the ought statement, “we should all turn around 180 degrees,” makes sense. in fact, it’s absolutely true; we should turn around 180 degrees.
together, the aim and the relevant information create a context in which statements of value are either true or false–just like ‘is’ statements. i call this kind of context a ‘value legitimizing context’ or a vlc.
so how does this help us establish a rational basis for morality? stating an aim or a goal is, after all, just making another value statement. so rather than rooting our moral imperatives in the rich soil of reason, this appears to, at best, lead to an infinite chain of ought statements, each one as ungrounded as the last.
before i can deal with this challenge, i need to be perfectly clear about what constitutes a moral value statement. for the purposes of my theory, value statements can be considered moral value statements when and only when they address human behaviors that impact the health and well-being of humans* (determining the meaning of ‘health and well-being’ across various cultures and environments is an important task that consists of the gathering of the relevant information that is a necessary element of a vlc).
given this definition of what constitutes a moral judgment, if we can identify one aim that is not just common, like hunger (we’re all aiming to fill different bellies), but actually shared by at least the vast majority of our entire species (with dissent being statistically negligible) , no larger context would be needed. and if we combined this universal aim with a reliable means of gaining the relevant information that would help us intentionally move toward that aim, we’d have a universal vlc (a uvlc). and then, under the uvlc, we could determine the truth-value of all moral claims, thereby determining our best options environmentally, economically, politically, and personally.
as far as i can tell, there’s really only one viable candidate to be the universal aim–but before i get into it, i want to explain the reason i prefer talking about aims rather than goals. an aim doesn’t necessarily imply any end point–like aiming for perfection; perfection isn’t possible, the concept merely provides a direction for further efforts (compare this to the futility of having perfection as your goal). so while an aim implies direction, it doesn’t necessarily imply a specific outcome. and since the aim we’re talking about has to be universal, it necessarily has to be somewhat nonspecific.
the aim that i have in mind is shared not just by our species as a whole but by every other form of life as well. it is the aim to flourish–to evolve. i’m not denying that there are some humans who are explicitly opposed to the flourishing of human life. but such beliefs are indubitably, and i think uncontroversially unhealthy to our entire species–as unhealthy as suicidal ideation is for any individual. as such, they should be considered a sort of memetic sickness, rather than a valid alternative way of thinking.
the aim to flourish is inherent in our biology. it could arguably suffice as the very definition of life. through the evolutionary process all life aims to thrive–not just survive–in whatever niche it appears. amongst humans there are currently vast differences of opinion concerning what conditions need to be met in order for us to thrive, but the underlying aim of flourishing is as close to universal an aim as we could ever hope to find. as for a reliable method for finding information relevant to this aim, we have developed the capacity for critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and various forms of empirical observation. this universal aim along with these sources of reliable and relevant information create a universal value legitimizing context in which the truth-values of all moral claims can be determined.
while this understanding of morality (which makes a science of morality possible) tends to support a great deal of our intuitive moral judgments (free of religious dogma) on a personal level, i expect that it would eventually pose serious challenges to conventional wisdom in the larger cultural and political arenas. for instance, when the moral aim of pleasing a judeo-christian god, is replaced by the natural evolutionary inclination to flourish as a species, the moral value system shifts from metaphysical concepts of good and evil to ultimately biological concepts of healthy and unhealthy. it then becomes obvious that the proper response to immoral behavior is treatment/rehabilitation/education rather than punishment.
i plan to explore this and other of the larger social implications, in later articles.
*would cruelty toward animals be worth worrying about if it neither indicated nor engendered callousness toward the suffering of other humans? it seems doubtful that it would even be called cruelty. my point may seem horribly anthropocentric, and that would be because it is anthropocentric–just not horribly so. i think our terribly scary environmental problems will be much more effectively dealt with if we acknowledge that what needs saving is not the earth, but us. if we go extinct, the earth will be ok. and no matter how we do it to ourselves–no matter how many other species we take along with us, life on this planet will continue on without us (there’s bacteria that live deep within miles-thick slabs of solid granite–we are not capable of ending all life on earth). i believe a healthy level of self-concern would naturally lead us to want to treat not only each other, but all animals and the ecosystem as a whole, with greater care and compassion. in fact, putting ourselves first might be the only way we can succeed in this endeavor. if you’ve ever flown on a commercial airline and actually paid attention when the flight attendant did the safety presentation, you might remember one of the instructions that is to be followed in the event that the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling: put on your own mask before you put on your child’s. if we can’t save ourselves, how can we hope to preserve the existence of any of those countless species that are currently facing extinction at our hands?