Thursday, January 07, 2010

Is and Ought

John Hasnas argues that "because Hayek was arguing for normative conclusions without recognizing when he was crossing the is-ought barrier, I characterized him as a bad moral philosopher." As one who does not believe in the is-ought barrier, this argument doesn't fly for me any more than it did for Bruce Caldwell.

Michael Polanyi, in "Meaning", argued that the is-ought division comes about due to the rejection of science as being imaginative, meaning it is value-free Specifically, he says,

"Science has most commonly been thought to deal with facts, the humanities with values. But since, in this frame of reference, values must be totally different from facts, the humanities have been thought to deal only with fancies. Values have thus come to be understood to be the product of fancy, not of facts, and so not any part of factual knowledge" (64).

David Barash argues too that imagination is a necessary ingredient for reaching scientific knowledge. Every theory is of course a story explaining a group of facts, out of which come hypotheses that one can test to acquire more facts, which in turn inform the story. But the story is at the center of it all. And, as a story, it is not and cannot be value-free.

Indeed, one may wonder where the is and the ought lie in such a scenario.

Recent work showing the evolutionary origins of ethical behavior also do away with the is-ought barrier. They show that whatever protects the social group in social mammals (and we are a species of social mammal), is considered to be ethical by that species.

I know of course where the is-ought barrier argument comes from. We know, for example, that racism among humans is natural. But does that argue that we ought to therefore be racists? Of course not. But we forget that xenophilia is also natural, and it turns out that xenophilia has the benefit of expanding our social world, making life better for everyone in a xenophilic society than in a xenophobic one. We have a choice between two "is"es -- and knowing what the consequences are of each, which one do you think we ought to take? I would argue for the one that IS going to create more complex, more just, more beautiful society -- meaning, the xenophilic route. Both are two real options available to human beings, but only one of these two behaviors is ethical in modern society.

All in all, I would argue that any ought that cannot map well on what is (regardless of what we think is, which is different than what is), is an ought we ought not to have.
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