I’ve been giving a lot of thought to ethics lately. It’s tough not to when certain presidential candidates are constantly telling me what I ought to do with my life, and how I ought to do it. This has made me think about the classical is-ought problem (otherwise known as Hume’s Guillotine). Basically this problem involves the lack of evidence that would allow someone to jump from observation or logic (what is) to moral prescriptions (what ought to be).
Upon further reading, most post-Hume philosophers solve this problem by introducing a goal into the mix. For example, if my goal is to lose 50 more pounds, I ought to avoid beer and Funyons. (A, ahem, purely hypothetical example to be sure.) But when the goal rests upon answering questions like, “What are we, why are we here, what is our purpose in life?” a problem emerges because the answers to these questions are usually faith-based or open ended.
The religions serve many purposes – among them, is to provide an answer to the “ought” question. (For more on this, check out this article by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in Standpoint.) Religious texts, albeit clumsily at times, provide a series of answers about our origin, purpose and destiny. Where they fail miserably is in areas addressing observation. When we observed that the earth didn’t revolve around the sun, all hell broke loose. Religion is a weak “is” but a strong “ought.”
Science, on the other hand – and specifically the scientific method of observation, peer review and openness to change – is currently our best “is.”However, whenever I read prescriptive ideas from the non-religious, they sound an awful lot like the religious. (This is where, like a broken clock that is right twice a day, I must begrudingly give Santorum some credit for making this observation about the liberal statists currently in power.)
The church of pure reason has its faith-based positions, too. But they are often in conflict. On one hand, there is a very strong polarity towards altruism. The Left takes the observation: humans tend to be cooperative (an “is”) and then leap to: humans ought to put the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or one (the “ought” in Star Trekparlance).
However, the church of the Left, wary of the crimes against individuals wreaked by totalitarian regimes, does its best to infuse another belief – the belief in (some) individual rights. They say, we ought to provide medical care to women, and women ought to have the right to any procedure they want. At the same time, this creates a dissonance with their categorical truths. If individual rights are an “ought,” then why is it that we ought to forcibly take away the wealth of one individual and give it to another individual (a moral position) simply because the needy individual is in need (an observation)?
How did we get from “person A is in need of a doctor” to “we ought to seize the wealth from person B to pay for it?”
To do so, it seems we have to introduce a new series of “oughts” to justify our behavior – “oughts” that seem to be as based on beliefs. As to whether this “new theology” is any more supported by evidence than the old theology seems to be an appropriate area for debate.
But if we discover that we can only replace one “ought” with another, is our belief system on any steadier ground than anyone else’s?