Who The Heck Created The Is-Ought Problem?

While reviewing my simplification of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature Book 3, I came upon a strange wiki article called Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

The ‘Is-Ought Problem’ seems like such a major feature in Hume’s Treatise —  about the ‘gap’ between what is observed and what should be done.  It’s even called Hume’s guillotine or Hume’s law because it severs facts and values:

“Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? The question, prompted by Hume’s small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible.[2] This complete severing of “is” from “ought” has been given the graphic designation of Hume’s Guillotine.”


Eh??? Say What?!?

Who the heck created this nonexistent problem?

Did whoever create the Is-Ought problem even bother to take the context of that paragraph with the rest of Book 3?


Hume just describes a flaw in the process of deriving moral rules (should / should not) based on the connection of ideas (is / is not) or reason. It’s ‘inconceivable’ because any reason or connection behind a moral rule must be based on another totally different connection.


For example, not killing others is an idea called a moral rule. But why should we not kill others? A shallow philosopher would say ‘because God says so’, by connecting the idea called non-killing with a totally different idea called God and then connecting it to another idea called God’s rule. This is fine in ordinary cases, but what if you encounter a situation where a terrorist starts shooting innocents and you’re in a position to kill him to save the people? Using God’s rule, then you would not kill the terrorist and you would be morally correct.


But Hume simply overthrows the whole paradigm and says that morality is based on feeling, not reason. So you don’t kill because it feels wrong, but you can kill the terrorist in action because it feels right. Hume supports this by exposing that justice is based on common interest and that social morality is based on sympathy. Common interest and sympathy are in turn, based on feeling. All these were then fully expounded on by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments which based all of these on fellow-feeling through the process of putting oneself in the shoes of others. Smith did not write Theory of Moral Reason!


This ‘eh?’ or ‘huh?’ observation about the Is-Ought Problem is strengthened when Hume himself downplays its importance, at least not as major as it has been seen by later philosophers (who seem to be over-intellectualizing something very simple):

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. 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.

In other words:

Shallow philosophers establish moral rules by saying “God says ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that'” or “humans should do this and not do that” (reason-based), instead of ‘this is good’ and ‘that is not good’ (feeling-based). That’s a problem because no one can know or reason out what or how God thinks or even what is best for all humans.


God-based moral rules are often not based on reason (i.e. unreasonable)


It seems the scientific-academics after Hume and Smith simply overthrew the sentiments-based morality and reverted to what scientific-academics do best — use maximum reason and denounce feeling, since feelings are unscientific. The expected result of this is an over-intellectualization of something that is ultimately non-intellectual, leading to something unanswerable, which is what the Is-Ought problem is.


Personally, I think that non-problems like the Is-Ought problem are just like the many ‘unsolved’ problems or paradoxes in mathematics that deal with infinity such as The Banach–Tarski Paradox. They’re just intellectual exercises by academics who have either nothing better to do or, more likely, just need to create something sensational or seemingly so difficult to show their intellectual superiority, as described by Hume himself:

Philosophers often greedily embrace whatever has the air of a paradox and is contrary to the first and most unprejudiced notions of mankind, as showing the superiority of their science.




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