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Saurabh

Hume's Is-Ought problem

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Hi all,

I came across the is-ought dichotomy recently, and it appears that there is just one paragraph from one of Hume's writings that mentions his position on the matter. See below:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; 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,that 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.

It appears that it is from this paragraph that people have concluded that Hume meant that an 'is' cannot imply an 'ought'.

May be I am not understand Hume's language well - but I do not see which lines in Hume's para convey the above meaning.

All I gather is that he expects that an ought "..shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given..", when one is jumping from an is to an ought.

Can anyone throw some light? Thx!

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In any normal argument in logic there are premises and a single conclusion. The conclusion is said to be supported by those premises. The parts of an argument can only be declarative sentences, for example "something is", "Something else is", "Therefore this other thing is" All arguments in logic are structured this way. Each premise and the conclusion is a statement of fact, whether true or not, opinion or not, it is structured as a factual sentence.

In moral arguments the conclusion is always a command. One or more of the premises in the argument is a moral principle which the speaker believes to be factual, but which may not actually be objectively factual, and the conclusion is a command: "Therefore you should live this way." It is the should, or ought, which Hume is pointing out. People's first instinct is to point out a flaw in the moral principle or premise, but Hume claims the problem lies in the conclusion. Premises which state facts cannot prove a conclusion which states how something ought to be, in Hume's view. An ought cannot be observed and explained using declarative premises.

According to the ARLexicon, Rand's view is that living entities' existence necessitates oughts. The mere fact of living and choosing to continue to live means that certain things are objective values and certain other things are not values. This is why her moral arguments carry certain assumptions: That you are a living being, capable of volition, and that you are trying to continue to exist as such. Given those fundamental premises Rand said the is-ought dichotomy was disproven.

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... An ought cannot be observed and explained using declarative premises...

Jackethan,

All I am interested in is knowing where exactly in his quote (captured in my original post) does he make this point? I can't seem to figure it out - may be due to his language...

I belive that this quote is the only source where Hume has made any comment on is-ought problem..

Edited by Saurabh

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When Hume writes his conclusion:

for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

"new relation" refers to the 'ought or ought not', "others" refers to 'is or is not'. Rewriting this thought as a stand-alone sentence gives:

It is altogether inconceivable that "ought or ought not" can be deduced from "is or is not", because ought is entirely different from is.

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When Hume writes his conclusion:

for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

"new relation" refers to the 'ought or ought not', "others" refers to 'is or is not'. Rewriting this thought as a stand-alone sentence gives:

It is altogether inconceivable that "ought or ought not" can be deduced from "is or is not", because ought is entirely different from is.

Thanks Grames. Now the question is if he intended to make this point, why did he write the previous statement? See below:

'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given;

He could have simply written the subsequent statement which you have pointed out.

May be I am splitting hairs here. But, I was wondering if he meant that unless a reason for is--> ought is given it is inconceivable to acccept this transition.

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Hume was a rationalist and empiricist. What would Hume would accept as an explanation? An ought cannot be observed, nor can an ought be deduced from any of the Aristotelian syllogistic forms, so the inference he implies is that no ought can be justified.

Was not Hume also the philosopher that claimed there was a mere correlation of events and not causation in the case of a ball striking a window and the glass breaking? He refused to ever connect the dots, or to integrate in the Objectivist terminology. He would never accept such a tenuous connection such as depriving an organism of food, water or air and its subsequent death as causal so he would never accept Rand's explanation of oughts as deriving from the conditional requirements of life.

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Whether Hume would accept Rand's explanation is not really relevant to whether she correctly answered his is-ought problem: for the same reason that no truth can be held hostage to the acceptance of individual people. For example, that creationists refuse to accept evolution isn't the fault of evolutionary science.

Hume may well have not believed it: but he would have been forced to accept it, had he been dumped on a desert island. As anyone who has observed modern philosophers would note, philosophers are quite capable of believing any amount of nonsense - as long as their comfortable way of life doesn't require them to actually live by it.

BTW I have attempted to inject Rand's solution into the broader atheist world in my chapter "Good Without God" in The Australian Book of Atheism (my chapter is now available as a stand-alone purchase too).

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