Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The Is/Ought Distinction Defanged
Hume held the view that no amount of descriptive propositions could ever yield a prescriptive proposition: no "ought" from "is." G.E. Moore said that to locate goodness and badness in facts about states of affairs was to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." This has struck many people (including myself at an earlier time) as a pernicious doctrine. But this week, looking at the issue for the first time in a while, it doesn't look like as big an issue as I remembered it being. I think that Hume (and Mill, and the whole run of empiricist ethics) is right that goodness and badness (value) is a property of experiences. If there were no beings that had experiences that were good or bad, there would be no value in the world. I know that environmental ethicists, for example, have wanted to make a case for first-order values in nature (appealing to Aristotelean teleological ideas, notably), but to do philosophy we have to ask ourselves what it is that we truly believe, and I have to say that I don't see any way to account for value if there are no experiencing beings. Valuing is an activity, after all. But that doesn't mean that environmentalism, say, can gain no moral purchase. Badness doesn't go away because we've located it "in the head." In fact I think that I want to be some sort of moral realist - I think that there are moral facts. It's only if we are already otherworldly about experiences and mind that we assume that to say that experiences are what are good and bad is to espouse some sort of relativism or nihilism about ethics. For me, subjectivity is a worldly, even an earthy, sort of thing, naturalist that I am; my mind is no more or less a natural fact than my body. As to Hume, like Berkeley he holds that experiences are the basis of all mental content, after all, that is, any property we experience is a property of experience. So in that sense it's trivially true that goodness and badness are properties of experience. Hume isn't suggesting, so far as I can see, that this Cartesian account of value underwrites any difference in normative ethics at all. He's just trying to explain how value goes. "Colors" are properties of mental representations, according to 18th century empiricism, just as much as goodness and badness are. Hume might not agree that Moore was just elaborating a Humean line: the Humean line is that no physical description is going to tell us what the color of something is like, and that there would be no colors if there were no experiencing beings. Isn't it the spirit of Moore's piece to argue that our moral statements are more detached from physical facts than our color statements? But Hume wouldn't say so.