4 comments on “vaulting the is/ought barrier

  1. You, indeed, have hit the nail on the head by showing that we need “a goal or an aim” in order to turn descriptive facts into normative “oughts,” but this is exactly what Hume is trying to show. He is saying that all moral statements are merely expressions of the subjective sentiments of those individuals espousing the claims. If we look only at what is, before it is influenced by our own desires, then no values or prescriptive claims can be derived from those raw facts. If I am hungry, I turn the fact that a cheeseburger exists in front of me into the normative claim that I ought to eat it, but this only reflects my hunger. The cheeseburger does not ever actually cry out “I ought to be eaten” to any and all. This, however, is precisely how people use moral statements: they are independent of our personal desires, and they are universal, applying to everyone.

  2. hey brian!

    thanks for commenting!

    i’d like to respond specifically to your statement, “If we look only at what is, before it is influenced by our own desires, then no values or prescriptive claims can be derived from those raw facts.”

    i’d argue that your statement is true only if the ‘what is’ that you’re looking at is not alive. when we look at any living organism, we’re looking at a something that depends on resources that can be found in the surrounding environment. but more than that, we’ll see the organism actively pursuing these resources. at the very least, it will be engaged in a metabolic process to make the most of the resources it collects.

    all of this goal oriented activity can be understood as a primordial judgment–one that favors life and well-being. and it’s this judgment that i’m identifying as the universal aim–one that we all have in common.

    that said, i’m realizing that there are many points in my article that need clarification. so i plan to post an addendum soon.

    • Then I think it would be right to say that we can arrive at a descriptive statement about what individual organisms desire and choose to pursue, not normative statements that the organism SHOULD desire or pursue that thing. We can say that all living beings, in fact, desire life and well-being, but this is only reporting what is valued by them, not that the organisms are correct or mistaken in valuing those things.

      • as living beings, we ourselves are subject to this desire. as you make clear, we’re not bound to live by it–but if we choose not to, that decision is made in the context of this desire. as living beings, it’s not possible to make judgements outside of the context of this universal aim. therefore, choosing not to value life and well-being can validly be declared unhealthy.

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