No Ought from Is

Presenting philosophical concepts is usually easier when they relate to something current, so it’s in some sense a good thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrity astrophysicist, has been defending his idea of Rationalia. Before I comment on it, I would like to step back and talk about a British XVIII century philosopher, David Hume, who provided good reasons for why the thinking behind Rationalia is flawed.

Hume, one of the brightest minds of his time, thought and wrote on a range of issues, from philosophy of science, through ethics, all the way to political theory. It is Hume who clearly delineated the problems we face when we infer general principles from observing particular events. It’s also Hume who stated, in his “A Treatise of Human Nature”:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized 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, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; 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. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

Book III, Part I, Section I

Hume’s complaint here is that people have a tendency to assume that some moral truths follow in a straightforward manner from some matters of fact. For example, an abolitionist might point out that slavery creates object-like property from human beings, and thus goes against the idea of equality of all humans. A monarchist might argue that the king, by the virtue of high aristocratic position, or by being a unique leading figure which everyone obeys, is in the best position to lead a stable country. Notice that, while nowadays people are more likely to agree with the first proposition (“slavery should be abolished”) than the second (“monarchy should be restored”), both go from facts (“humans are changed into property”/”a king is the most influential member of nobility”) to statements of principle. What Hume points out is that, while we can reason about whether or not the facts are true, this will not help us in establishing whether the principles are right.

Of course, people who sincerely believe in their principles will often postulate that it’s obviously the case that they follow from their evidence. And while it’s obviously practically beneficial to live in a society in which people don’t believe that murder is fine (since it lowers your chance of being murdered), that doesn’t actually establish that it’s rational. The problem is that “rational” has become – I assume through overuse – a somewhat nebulous term, living somewhere in the semantic vicinity of “espousing a modern scientific worldview” and “affirming humanitarian ideas of liberal societies”. While it’s true that rational thinking has influenced both modern science and morality, rationality itself is simply a matter of following reason – basing one’s worldview on facts and striving towards logical coherence in conclusions. Notice that the matter of morality is completely absent from this picture. The scientific research done by Kurt Blome was no less rational than that carried out by Linus Pauling. And herein lies the problem.

We cannot say – Hume claims and I agree – that evidence or logic would lead us to formulating “better” principles or policies. As scientific facts don’t take any sides, it is not possible to establish norms of behaviour by analysing them. We cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is”.

Here is where the concept of Rationalia comes in. Rationalia is, in Tyson’s own description, a country with a constitution which only contains one sentence:

All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

The problems with this approach are apparent once we consider the is-ought problem. But first, it’s hard to even say what basing policy on weight of evidence would look like. Who would get to decide what the weighing, or the threshold of certainty is? Assuming everyone can somehow agree on this – which would be interesting, since the choice of, let’s say, 95% certainty seems to be just as arbitrary as 96% – we still wouldn’t have moved forward. We can have all the evidence in the world that a given choice would bring about a given set of consequences, but this still doesn’t tell us whether such consequences are desirable, or whether the choice itself is good. Example: spending n billion dollars on renewable energy sources would offset the effects of global warming as efficiently as letting m million people die from poverty. Should we flip a coin?

The problem that Tyson doesn’t seem to understand is that there is always an element that lies beyond the reach of rationality in making any policy choices.ยน There is always an underpinning principle that guides policymaking, which establishes what it is that we’re trying to achieve – what is the result that we care about? What is the ought? Only with that can we say that, for example, preserving wealth is less important than preserving human life. In refusing to acknowledge this, Tyson continues enumerating supposed advantages of Rationalia, never quite explaining how they follow from no ethical commitments. Thus, he produces numerous paragraphs about how there would be more funding for social sciences, a better science education, freedom to be irrational, and other benefits available in Rationalia, but he fails to explain why they would be there. His post is a good example of failing to analyze one’s position carefully and to note one’s assumptions. And such analysis is worthwhile, because it is one of the tools which can take us from everyday thinking to philosophy.

1. Ironically, he cites the U.S. constitution as an example of a document that doesn’t discuss morals in the very same sentence in which he provides an example of just such a thing – the restriction on the use of the military.

The Non-categorical World

Immanuel Kant is one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy. The influence of his writing is so immense that almost all subsequent authors commented on or alluded to his ideas. At the same time, his texts are often difficult to understand, and beginners can end up being just being more confused after having read them. But because his ideas are so important, it’s worth to know even a single one than none. One of these, central to his outlook on ethics, and one that will be briefly presented here is the categorical imperative.

What is it? When we think about our actions, we notice that there is almost always a reason for why we choose to do something. We drink because we are thirsty, we read novels because we’re interested in the story, we get annoyed because the neighbours are being noisy again. Those are the examples of almost automatic actions – we don’t really think about the reasons involve, but what about moral decisions – those that people tend to debate? Some people choose to be kind because that’s what their parents told them to do, some people choose to help others because they hope they will get something in return. But such “morality” seems shaky – there appears to be no solid reason why one would obey their moral code outside of convenience or someone’s demands.

For Kant this was unacceptable. A true guideline for acting should always apply. There are no exceptions, because if there were, people could just break their moral code whenever they pleased. If we demand, instead, that people always treat others how they wish themselves and everyone else to be treated, then we demand nothing less than a universal rule. And such is Kant’s formulation:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 422

All it is saying is that the maxims – the reasons for one’s actions – should be chosen so that they can be made always applicable.

The categorical imperative fits neatly into Kant’s moral system, which revolves around an unquestioning fulfilment of one’s duties. The system was to be ruled by reason, so duties would be universal, not corrupted by people’s individual desires. (p. 434) (It’s worth noting that Kant specifically adds that we should treat humanity as an end, and not a means to an end.)

We can ask whether such a system is truly the right moral system, and we can wonder whether there is any set of rules that can be applied blindly, but one thing remains certain – this world is not a Kantian one. Whether in private or public life, people lie, cheat, and engage in all sorts of cynicism.

Kant’s principled approach stands in contrast with the reality most people know – it is clearly not how we govern ourselves. One can only imagine what an outrage it would be if a Middle-Eastern country decided to invade a Western one. Or what if everyone could establish themselves as legal entities in a tax heaven? Things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sound wonderful, but thinking about Kant’s philosophy, one quickly realizes they’re anything but universal. We live in an inconsistent world, and it’s only logical that we end up in a mess.

Further reading: Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, more background on Kant

For Goodness’ Sake

Not a day goes by that an average person doesn’t make a judgment. You’ve probably had something for breakfast this morning. When you opted for cereal over eggs, or coffee over tea, it’s because you clearly had in mind that what we can philosophically refer to as “value”, and saw more of it in one than the other. Even though it might appear trivial because it happens so often, judging things is anything but, at least when we try to define the basic notion of what goodness is. I will try to give a brief indication of the depth of the topic, because it has been an issue in philosophy for millennia.

The familiar act of choosing one thing or action over the other is the act of making a value judgment, and we usually refer to the things we want as “good” or a synonym. It’s surprising how accustomed we are to using words that declare things to be agreeable (“nice”, “pretty”, “right”, etc.) given how little we can say for sure about what it is that those judgments actually mean. Just to give you an overview of the problem: when you declare that something is “good”, is that the same as declaring any other property? Would you say that being good is exactly like being heavy or yellow? Probably not, as those two properties seem very “physical” in their nature, and we can even measure them with devices. But would you say that “good” is not measurable? If so, how do we come to make decisions, or achieve consensus when discussing an issue? The question of accounting for the nature of goodness is the same as the question “what makes ‘good’ things good”?

Let us say that “good” is a result of having another property. Which property should this be? According to hedonists, good things are those that are pleasant. This might seem like a good approximation, but some things that we would call “good” are not a result of those that we would – like a visit to the dentist. Yet, the pain of decaying teeth is not pleasant either. Furthermore, let us turn the definition around: are all pleasant things necessarily good? We can think of addictions that, while pleasant in the short run, turn out devastating in the long one. It seems that we have made a mistake and pleasure is at least not all there is to goodness.

But can we think of defining goodness by some natural property or the sensation it causes? For some philosophers, like G. E. Moore, the answer clearly seems to be no. The key to seeing this is to consider what question we’re answering when talking about natural properties and sensations. It’s clear that when we talk of characteristics that cause drugs to give pleasure, we are talking about matters of biology – but then, in his words, we are committing a “naturalistic fallacy“, because what we’re after is the perception, not the physical parts. And on the psychological side, when we talk of pleasure being good, and that good is what we desire, we can argue whether we desire pleasure or not, but we’re no closer to talking about what good actually is. It appears that for Moore this is merely a matter of a dispute in psychology.

Possibly, a quick dismissal could be that “good” is whatever people agree on is “good”. By this we simply mean that a philosopher, if he or she is so curious, can feel free to refer to a dictionary, or ask a linguist, and the answer will surely be provided. This seems like a good move, but the philosopher can again claim that something is missing, as Moore does. We might be perfectly satisfied that our usage of the word “good” is correct, just like we can be sure that our usage of “fast” is correct, but that won’t give us any more clue about either the nature of speed or goodness. It appears that, again, we’re not doing philosophy, but linguistics this time.

So what should “good” be then? Moore questions whether it can be analyzed at all, and proposes that it’s a fundamental property, not to be subdivided any further. Moore aside (I don’t exactly share his view), one can wonder whether there is anything “behind” good things – not that they aren’t “good” as we call them, but whether we would be able to tell if there was no ideal “goodness” to support them.

We have barely scratched the surface of the topic, and already the difficulty of defining basic terms is apparent – and that was the point. It’s worth taking some time to consider this problem on your own, if only to be more aware of what’s going on when you judge things and people. It’s not all so simple.

Further reading to get a sense of Moore’s position: Principia Ethica, Chapter I.