Friday, August 13, 2010

Objectivity within Prescriptive Statements

Paper I wrote a while back. My apologies for just posting philosophy papers from last year; I haven't had much free time as of late, but I'll hopefully start a series of short papers soon.

Among one of David Hume’s most oft-cited passages is one made toward the end of A Treatise of Human Nature, in which Hume points out that in order to get from statements of how the world is to ones concerning how the world ought to be, one must necessarily add an evaluative premise. Such an observation shows that there is an epistemic gap between facts and values. Many have thus taken to a non-cognitivist account of morality. Indeed, this seems the only logical conclusion: that morality is based, not on a series of moral facts, but non-cognitive prescriptions (what Hume describes as ‘the passions’) of how the world ought to be.

However, in this paper I will show two things: firstly, that it is possible to have a ‘semi-cognitivist’ account of morality without sacrificing the distinction between facts and values; this is due to the fact that values necessarily base themselves off of an objective understanding of the world. Secondly, through such a conception one may observe moral systems with some degree of objectivity (which I will demonstrate through an observation of facts and values within Marxist thought).

The Problem
In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume formally raised a distinction between what is and what ought to be, by stating the following:

“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.”

There has been much debate as to what Hume meant in this conclusion to the Treatise. However, a generally accepted viewpoint (as endorsed by contemporary philosophers such as R.M. Hare) is that Hume was making a distinction between the way the world is (facts) and the way the world should be (values). While the point may seem obvious, even trite to some, it is a crucial observation, which attempted to answer moral questions debated in Hume’s day.

One such question was epistemic: how does one acquire moral knowledge? In other words, how does one accurately determine whether something is good or evil, right or wrong? Most of the answers provided in Hume’s time were based on the idea that reason or divine command were the source of moral knowledge. However, another group of thinkers (such as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson) held that moral sensibilities are emotional responses; they were ultimately who Hume would agree with. Hume thought that through contemplation of character traits and action, we experience feelings of approval or disapproval that shape our understanding of good and evil. Interestingly, this appears to be the viewpoint of modern evolutionary psychology. (Downes)

Against moral rationalists and ethical naturalists, who said that morality was reducible to factual claims, Hume insisted that “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” He famously said that reason is the “slave of the passions”, which is to say that human will is motivated by sentiments that are not ever solely rational.

Of course, this has frustrated naturalists for a long time, due to many wanting to find moral knowledge that is verifiable the way that facts about the world are. However, while is/ought does present a problem that more or less spells the end to an absolutely naturalistic ethical account, it is possible to retain some of the benefits of naturalism (i.e., the ability to evaluate certain ethical systems) while losing its insistence on blurring the line of distinction. I will demonstrate this in the following pages.

I will make no pretensions to disagree with Hume’s distinction: an ‘ought’ cannot be derived solely from an ‘is’, and there is no point in pretending otherwise the way that ethical naturalism does. However, I do wish to focus attention to a certain point; namely, the necessity (not the sufficiency!) of reason in determining values. Put simply, while moral judgments depend on moods and motivations other than reason, reason often plays a vital role in making such judgments. To this it seems Hume would agree, but I feel the point may be missed without understanding why.

If we take Hume’s is/ought distinction as saying that an objective treatment of facts cannot say anything about values, we lose out on a critical feature of devising moral structures; namely, facts. To another extreme, if we deny the distinction between what is and what ought to be, we are merely ignoring the fact that statements such as “lying is wrong” contain evaluative propositions within their formulations. So we must find a synthesis, where we can say to what degree our facts inform our values, without confusing the two.

Let us first turn to the issue of delineating the difference between facts and values, and thus defining our terms.

What is a fact and what is a value?

A ‘fact’, in the manner that I use the term here, is an objective, verifiable proposition concerning the way that reality works. It is simply a statement concerning an observable truth (or rather, what one believes to be true). Whether certain facts are actually true or false is not a matter of concern here. The possibility of scientific truths to be overturned upon the discovery of contradictory evidence, or that a degree of personal bias and unfounded/false presuppositions may always be a part of scientific endeavor, bear little weight in defining a ‘fact’ as opposed to a ‘value’ (though such concerns are important to an understanding of the practicality of knowledge and objectivity).

The methodology used to observe a fact has little bearing on its ontological status, beyond the criterion that it not include moral sentiments of any kind. What’s necessary in defining a fact as such is merely for it to be a statement about reality with an absence of evaluative premises (statements of a given action or consequence being good or bad, right or wrong). For example, the sentence “torture causes pain to individuals” is a fact, rather than “torture is wrong.”

A ‘value’ is a sentiment concerning the way the world should be. Values are characterized by being non-cognitive: they are ‘prescriptions’ or commands for action, but do not themselves represent facts of the world. They are by definition subjective perspectives, as they involve decisions that are ultimately relative to individual determinations of right or wrong. Morality is thus a concept which is dependent upon beings evaluating the world.

How facts relate to values
However, despite the subjective status of values, they must necessarily make implicit and objective assumptions about the way the world is. This point may not seem directly obvious as one considers that facts are cognitive propositions and values are non-cognitive prescriptions. But cognitive or not, we start off all judgments based on our current understanding of how things work.

As an illustration of this, let’s consider the thought process of a hungry individual. This individual says “I should eat.” However, behind this sentiment there are certain ideas about the way the world works that she starts any process of judgment with. One such idea is that “hunger is what happens when the body is devoid of proper nutrition”. From there, she may work deductively: “to cause hunger to cease, I have to eat”, “hunger is a sensation that leads to an unpleasant state of being”, etc. The sentiment “I want to avoid unpleasant states and experience pleasant ones” is more or less where the evaluation of the facts comes in. At this point, we are left with several facts of the world that are contained in the evaluation “I should eat.” Despite the non-cognitive basis of hunger, facts help to make an evaluation a cognitive one. For simplicity, I will call this model of facts/values ‘semi-cognitivism’, which I define as the notion that values are cognitive propositions (e.g., “I should lie to my friend”) consisting of cognitive and verifiable facts (“the truth would hurt my friend”, “lying would produce better results for my friend”) and non-cognitive propositions (“I want my friend to be happy”).

It is here that facts may be evaluated objectively and (perhaps) scientifically. The world of facts acts as a representation of the world; the world of sentiments and ‘passions’ does not. Let’s take the first example and alter it so that the person in question does not want to eat. In this instance, she does not want to eat, because she is depressed and suicidal. Her sentiment “I want to avoid unpleasant states” has changed, but not her evaluation of facts. Tweaking it again, let us say that this time the person is an ascetic who believes that starving oneself will lead to enlightenment. Here, the sentiment of wanting to avoid unpleasant states of mind and find pleasant ones has not changed, but the evaluation of facts and his methodology of attaining such states has.

As another example, let us imagine two monks of different religious orders. The first believes in the law of karma, which guides his actions by saying that all good actions have good consequences, and bad actions are met with bad consequences. He takes his actions in accordance with this principle, and seeks to make good actions in order to ensure good consequences for himself. The other monk is a materialist, and believes that the physical world is indifferent to moral actions. He takes his actions based on the idea that personal happiness is increased by making others happy. Ultimately the monks come to similar yet different conclusions (roughly deontology and utilitarianism, respectively). Both start off with the premise that personal happiness is good, but diverge in their understanding of the world around them.

Thus we can reduce values to both sentiments and facts, and objectively evaluate the facts while leaving sentiments up to the individual. None of this is to say that a certain ethical system or way of thinking morally is ‘wrong’ (which is akin to saying ‘this heat is cold’). Rather, it is to show that our ethical deliberations can be mistaken, in the sense that they do not lead to desired results.

Mistaken values
An understanding of this gap has implications for how we treat morality. Throughout human history, many ethical and political systems have been proposed, each with intense variance in methodology, aims, and results. Ultimately we cannot evaluate such systems as good or bad based on what they aim to do (with the exception of individual determination). We can, however, say that a system will or will not work in achieving such aims based on analysis of its assumptions, methods, and previous results.

Take, for example, the political thought of Karl Marx. Marx set out a theory known as historical materialism, which focuses on giving an account of history as continuous struggle between classes. This theory has been the thesis of a movement within literary criticism and has attempted to give unique perspectives to historical events by seeing them through the lens of class struggle.

Yet Marx’s understanding of human nature in constructing this account seems to be off. In the sixth of his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, he writes “… the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Through methods such as evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, analysis of why the Soviet Union and other socialist or communist economies collapsed, and perhaps a dose of common sense, we can understand why this thesis is verifiably wrong. Human nature does not appear to be malleable, as there are cultural universals in human societies such as hierarchy, a strong tendency for social interaction, and gender roles. In this and in other ways we see that human nature does not appear to be infinitely malleable, and can evaluate one of Marxism’s basic claims as wrong.

However, we again can say little concerning Marxism’s aim, which more or less appears to be reducing suffering and promoting economic well-being. With an understanding of how Marxism fails to accomplish this, we can reform the system of thought, and thus through analysis of the facts our methodology is changed for the better. Perhaps this system would be unrecognizable as ‘Marxism’, but its aims could remain exactly the same as before.

We can see that Marx was coming from a perspective that was heavily based in reaction to Hegelianism, Kantianism, and other philosophical movements. Yet his understanding of history and the ideas he was working with were uniquely his own, and were in sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries. While there may have been some disagreement in how vast of a moral circle (to paraphrase W.H. Leckey's term) Marx wanted, it is clear that much of his values matched up with his contemporaries. The disagreements often arose more in relation to methodology than to aims. Mikhail Bakunin, an anarchist and rival for control of the First International, critiqued Marx for his understanding of human nature and his advocating totalitarian rule in accomplishing his aims. However, both wished similar ends in the liberation and well-being of individuals. The source of these disagreements is a proper demonstration of how argument can arise and be debated: through analysis of fact, not through analysis of the will.

In understanding the difference between facts and moral sentiments, we are able to construct values which are consistent with both. Sentiments will always vary between individuals, and individuals may choose to ignore facts in carrying out such passions. But our values are inevitably formed by our understanding of facts, and we ignore them at our own peril.

With an understanding of where the difference lies we can find that the vast moral systems which are constructed need not be evaluated on the basis of opinion, but on the basis of cold and clear analysis. This is important; even if in practice we have yet to fully understand processes of evaluating schools of thought to any satisfactory conclusions, in principle we are able to submit such schools to the tyranny of evidence.

It may seem strange to think that an embrace of Hume’s meta-ethical distinction would lead one to conclude something that sounds so similar to ethical naturalism, but fears of moral relativism via the denial of realism should be all but extinguished when one recognizes that non-cognitivism need not necessarily follow from the acceptance of non-cognitive sentiments within value judgments.

1. Cohon, Rachel, "Hume's Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
2. Downes, Stephen M., "Evolutionary Psychology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
3. Morris, William Edward, "David Hume", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
4. Sayre-McCord, Geoff, "Metaethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
5. Singer, Peter. A Darwinian Left. United States: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

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