How to distinguishing between Is and Ought when arguing with irrational people

One of the awesome philosophical concepts David Hume articulated was the Is-Ought Distinction (or the Is-Ought Problem). It’s very similar to the naturalistic fallacy and it tries to deal with how we can derive how individuals and societies ought to act from objective, verifiable facts. Can we proceed directly from what is to what ought to be? Hume didn’t think so.

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, 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.
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)

Now in this context, Hume is criticizing those who try to derive the ‘ought’ from what someone believes is the ‘is’ of God. So the position he’s taking down is something like this: “Since God is X, we ought to do things that comply with X-ness.” Let’s say that’s the position of moral philosopher A. Then moral philosopher B comes around and says that A is wrong about what God is. B has a different idea of God with different focuses on different aspects of a God. And the moral/ethical philosophical discussion is framed around the question of What God is.

So Hume sees this and sees a badly neglected gap. Even if A or B are right about what God is, neither of them have justified that that observation leads to anything morally good. Why should a quality of a deity be something we want to emulate? How do we even know if that is good or not? Nobody seemed to be discussing that. Put this way, it’s very similar to the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Euthyphro, Plato

Now you can extend the Is-Ought Problem beyond just the Is of God (which is kind of a waste of time for nonbelievers like me) when people try to derive policy from history or observations of nature. The problem becomes less of one in these instances because, unlike God, nature and history are about empirical facts which can be verified or falsified. You still have the gap between what Is and what Ought to be (a problem completely lost on some creationists), but at least the Is can be checked independently of subjective theistic assumptions about the supernatural.

Now you have someone like Glennifer Beck saying that because Congress printed official, government-approved Bibles in the early period of American history (that’s the Is part), we therefore ought to not worry so much about that silly old separation of church and state thing anymore.

A secularist who doesn’t know his history might be tempted to argue along similar lines as Hume above; i.e. that just because it was the case that the government approved official Bibles for use in schools, it does not follow that we ought to revive that practice. But someone who made that argument would be missing a much better point, which is that even the initial Is claim of Beck’s argument is just factually wrong.

That’s part of a video series by Chris Rodda, who’s a Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. She’s been going after the factual errors and misrepresentations made on the nature of secularism and America by people like David Barton and Beck. They’re very effective in how they just deal with the actual history without getting caught up in how to solve Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

See, someone can say that we ought to have, say a public education system that hands out Bibles and whatnot, and then I can say why I think that’s a bad idea. But then we’re just arguing for subjective positions on an Ought issue. But when Beck claims that we ought to imitate history and then proceeds to misrepresent it, Rodda’s corrections of those misrepresentations cut the argument down to nothing. Here’s her unfortunately HuffPo-y RSS feed, and here’s some other of her great counterpoints to pseudohistory:

Our Constitution is not based on the book of Deuteronomy

And the newest one just out today about Barton’s claims of Founders who went to “seminaries.”


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