Against the Is/Ought Gap

If you’re following the debate over whether science can take over morality it’s worth remembering Korsgaard’s distinction between explanatory and normative accounts of ethics. An explanatory account is an account which explains why we have certain moral convictions and what those convictions are; a normative account is an account that justifies having those convictions rather than some other ones. It’s easy to mix those together accidentally, Korsgaard writes, and indeed I believe that’s what most people writing about this debate do. The scientists and science-fans assume that an explanatory account is desirable, while the philosophers are focused entirely on a normative account.

Of course an explanation of morals is not going to lead to a justification of them. This is Hume’s famous is/ought gap: you can’t derive an ought from an is. Hume’s argument is gigantic. One of the most punchy criticisms of Sam Harris says that deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is like adding two even numbers and obtaining an odd one – you don’t have to check the working to know you’ve made a mistake somewhere. But is Hume’s argument really decisive?

Let’s take Dan Dennett’s response to Hume: that if you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, just what can you derive an ‘ought’ from? Look at it this way. We have ‘oughts’ in our lives, moral prescriptions and rules that govern our consciences. But by definition everything that is in our lives ‘is’: it exists in the real world! So what are these ‘oughts’ based on, if not something about the real world?

Secondly, take Philippa Foot’s argument from her essay “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” (although she recanted much of that later on.) Can’t we just agree that there are no ‘oughts’ that impose duties on us? Sure, you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but that doesn’t matter because all our ethical duties originate from our built-in feelings. In short, there is nothing on the other side of the is-ought gap.


3 thoughts on “Against the Is/Ought Gap

  1. Ivan

    The way you represent Dennett’s argument, isn’t it just changing the subject and shifting from a normative account to an explanatory account? I don’t see how it constitutes a real answer to Hume.

    1. Sean Post author

      It is exactly a change of subject, but not I think a needless one. At the moment I’m becoming less and less convinced that the first subject (the existence of objective normativity) is coherent. What would a coherent account of “ethics in the world” even look like?

      1. Ivan

        I think that a divine command theory can be perfectly coherent.

        Whether or not you agree with that, this calls to mind something I wrote… ah, to you, it turns out! “When people thought and said that the sun revolved around the earth, that was precisely what they meant. And honest and clear heliocentrism involved acknowledging this meaning and calling it wrong—not some pretense of redefining geocentrists’ words for them.”

        To return explicitly to Dennett’s quote, lots of people believe in “oughts” that you, Dennett, and I do not believe in. So face that squarely.

        (Yes, of course there is the human conscience, and of course we can give explanatory accounts of ethics. But that’s a different question from the normative one.)

        It’s just like you wrote in that other post: “the kind of ethics science can determine is not what most people mean by ethics. Accepting Carrier and Harris’ argument means accepting a pretty radical philosophical take on ethics: that there are no rules or principles, and that it is really all down to how we feel. Which is correct, I think – but that’s what they need to argue, and in general they just pass it over as if it were obvious.”

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