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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

More on the Is-Ought distinction

Jeff Lipshaw has an excellent and down-to-earth post on the Is-Ought distinction, which asks me to clarify my own earlier post on the topic.

Of course, there is an ought-is distinction in our speech, just as there is a boundary between France and Germany on our maps of Europe. I did not mean to argue against the distinction. Instead, I meant to argue against drawing the implication from this distinction that one cannot cross the border from facts to values. I find that this view comes in the form of a certain bastardized version of Hume (or G.E. Moore) floating around law schools -- a view that uses the distinction to argue one of the following: (a) "Morality is 'subjective,' facts are 'objective'" or (b) "Facts are irrelevant to morals: Any morals can co-exist with any state of the factual world."

Both of these positions seem untenable to me. Indeed, I doubt that Hume himself really endorsed either view. (On this subject, my favorite book is Stephen Darwall, The British Moralists and the Internal 'Ought,' 1640-1740. Hume is discussed at chapter 10).

So what's my own (admittedly amateurish) take on Is-Ought? (N.B.: There must be some serious philosophers who check this blog: Tommy Crocker, Brian Leiter, or Kevin Heller, among others. They should weigh in to prevent any further philosophical malpractice).

I regard the Is-Ought distinction as similar to other distinctions in natural language grammar -- say, the subjunctive-indicative distinction. The distinction exists, but it is an unsettled and controversial matter whether moves across this linguistic boundary are normatively correct. Yes, of course, the relationship between "ought" sentences and indicative sentences is not the same as the relationship among purely indicative sentences: One cannot (should not?) infer from the sentence, "I am only blogging" that "I should be grading" in the same way that one can infer "I am not grading" from "I am only blogging." But the same holds true for relationships between statements about possible and actual worlds. (E.g., one cannot infer "I could be grading" from the statement "I am only blogging"). This fact (norm?) about language does not make subjunctive sentences "subjective" or essentially controversial. And neither does the the analogous fact (norm?) about "ought" sentences.

I find that many law profs use the Is-Ought distinction to endorse a sort of folk relativism. Facts are "objective," verifiable, uncontroversial, whereas norms are none of the above. But this proposition (a) does not follow from the Is-Ought distinction and (b) is untrue. Some factual matters will always be controversial and, indeed, in principle non-resolvable (e.g., Are there universes outside the outer limits of the known universe?") Some moral statements are wholly uncontroversial (e.g., "Rick should stop blogging and grade the last 60 exams -- now!").

I believe that these statements, by the way, are consistent with Hilary Putnam's views expressed in "The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy," by the way. Except for that bit about my obligation to grade, which is simply a synthetic a priori proposition.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 4, 2008 at 09:57 AM | Permalink


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Of course the necessary logical and conceptual distinction between facts and values (the 'is' and the 'ought' in ethics) is perfectly compatible with the notion of fact/value entanglement. One might also mention, as he makes plain in The Collapse..., Putnam's enormous debt to the brilliant economist Amartya Sen for his argument against the "dichotomy" between facts and values (which, to be sure, Putnam dealt with in the natural sciences before he extended his argument). Indeed, it's in neo-classical economics (cf. the division between 'positive' and 'normative' economics, with many introductory texts taking themselves to be--avowedly or implicitly, concerned with the former) where this dichotomy has become entrenched (Cf. Sen's On Ethics and Economics, 1987, Hausman and McPherson's, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, 2006 ed., and Elizabeth Anderson's Value in Ethics and Economics, 1993).

While outside ethics or morality proper, here's a nice illustration of the "entanglement" thesis of facts from Putnam long before he published The Collapse... (from Reason, Truth and History, 1981):

'The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence “The cat is on the mat.” If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions “cat,” “on,” and “mat”—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category “cat” because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species as given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category “mat” because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category “on” because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, “the cat is on the mat,” and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, “the cat is on the mat” would be as irrational as “the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76” would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (“considerate,” “selfish”). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.’

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 4, 2008 10:27:56 AM

My experience in reading law professors is that they are much more likely to make the opposite error of the one Rick describes- that they draw normative conclusions from factual claims all too quickly and without realizing that this requires some argument, at the least. (Perhaps they do realize this but the poverty of argument is, to one trained in philosophy, glaring.) This also seems to me to be the greater intellectual sin and the one more likely to lead to bad real-world results. Given this I'm not very upset to have a sort of simple-minded version of Hume's idea beaten into people until they realize that they need to be much more careful in both distinguishing normative and factual claims and moving between them.

Posted by: matt Lister | Jun 4, 2008 10:37:20 AM

What Matt said, which goes double for the types of scholars I tend to engage in my world (physicians, scientists, data-driven health policy researchers, etc.) One of the reasons I like reading (economist) Tyler Cowen's work (and his blog) is because while I disagree with at least 80% of his preferred policy positions, he clearly understands the necessity of actually arguing for normative positions, as opposed to merely assuming that a description of a given arrangement as "efficient" suffices to establish its normative superiority.

And I also concur with Patrick that perceiving a non-trivial and morally significant difference between descriptive and normative premises is entirely consistent with recognizing that facts and values are inherently entangled. There is a great deal of moral philosophy and philosopy of science which either argues directly for this fact, or which takes it as a given. Later Wittgenstein, as I suggested below, Kuhn and Feyerabend -- both of whom argued for the value-laden nature of scientific "facts" -- and many different kinds of moral theorists, like Mark Johnson, adduce all sorts of interesting and creative arguments for this.

Posted by: Daniel S. Goldberg | Jun 4, 2008 10:55:06 AM

There is a very brief introduction to the fact-value distinction at:

Posted by: Lawrence Solum | Jun 4, 2008 11:31:37 AM

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