My Problem with the ‘Is-Ought’ Problem

My thoughts concerning the is-ought fallacy are confused, because I am not sure what the content of the fallacy is supposed to be. If it is such that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a ready counterexample comes to mind:

  1. If a person sees a baby drowning and can help, that person ought to help.
  2. A person sees a baby drowning and can help.
  3. Therefore, that person ought to help.

There, I’ve done it–I’ve derived an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The argument is deductively valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. But are the premises true? While premise [2] isn’t true of me or anyone I know, it is true of someone. Thus, the soundness of the argument is not threatened by premises [2]. What about premise [1]? Ah, this is where the is-oughter can press her challenge. She can assert, “You are helping yourself to an ‘ought’ in the consequent of the conditional. What you have to do is give purely descriptive premises and then conclude with an ‘ought’ something you cannot do.” Thus, I would have to argue like so:

  1. A person sees baby drowning and can help.
  2. Therefore, that person ought to help.

Now the argument is invalid, because it assumes p and concludes q, which is a non sequitur. Thus, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

I demur. Suppose, I cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and that I see a baby drowning and I can help. Should I help? I should think so and so should you. It would be no defense to appeal to the impossibility of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ if I responded to the situation by saying, “That’s too bad,” and kept on my way. We know that such a response is wrong if we know anything is wrong (would it be wrong to punish me if my is-ought defense is legitimate? If so, then why?). But if we know this is wrong, then the problem is not with our moral knowledge, but our logical language, which does have a rule of inference that allows us to move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’ Just because the logic we are using is incomplete does not mean that there is no fact of the matter regarding what I should do.

Therefore, at best, the is-ought problem is one that besets our deontic logical languages. Perhaps there is a language that has a sound rule of inference by which we can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The is-oughter cannot assume there isn’t one without begging the question. In any event, it is far from obvious that the is-ought problem besets our moral reasoning in general. We should beware of becoming ethical methodists who require that every empirically conditioned moral claim be justified by some method of derivation. Furthermore, we should make room for our intuitive moral judgments–they cannot be ignored.

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