I-O Essay, Research Paper
THE IS-OUGHT PROBLEMWhat is the Is-Ought problem? It is usually stated as the problem ofwhether it is possible to derive normative statements from descriptivestatements; but to state the problem at its most general level, it isthe problem of whether ANY moral statement can be literally true, andhence potentially knowable. It is the problem of whether there existany moral FACTS in exactly the same sense as there exist chemical facts,historical facts, or mathematical facts. Since libertarianism is a normative political theory, it is only naturalto expect that great libertarian thinkers would grapple with theIs-Ought problem; after all, if there are no moral facts to be known,then any normative theory would be senseless. It would be akinto a theory about unicorns. Of course even if the Is-Ought problem weresolved, it would hardly establish any particular moral doctrine;solving the Is-Ought problem is a necessary condition forlibertarian moral theory to be established, not a sufficient condition. Interestingly, libertarian political philosophers have spent even moretime on the Is-Ought problem than you would expect. Rand, among others,popularized the problem. She certainly stirred my initial interest inthe question, but I found her answer to be quite unsatisfactory. After several years of thinking about the problem, I now think that Ihave a very promising solution which I will presently expound.Now it is very widely believed that there are only two sources ofknowledge: observation and deductive reasoning. This is perhaps one ofthe few premises shared by philosophers as diverse as Rand and Hume,though naturally they put different spins on it. Now it is not too hardto show that IF these are the only two sources of knowledge, then moralknowledge is impossible. (Of course, just because we are totallyignorant about something, we could not infer that the thing did notexist; but, as with astrology, if a field is shown to have no validmethods, then the validity of the field itself falls into question.)So why can’t observation yield moral knowledge? Simply put, no matterhow long you look at something, listen to it, smell it, taste it, ortouch it, no moral conclusions arise. That seems fairly obvious, but ithas wide-reaching ramifications. For suppose that we try to justify amoral conclusion with deductive reasoning. The problem here is thatdeductive reasoning merely shows that IF the premises are true, THEN theconclusions are true, WITHOUT ESTABLISHING WHETHER OR NOT THE PREMISESARE TRUE.Therefore, for a deductive argument to yield a trueconclusion, we must know that the premises are true, and must thereforehave some non-deductive means of knowing this if we are to avoid aninfinite regress. Normally, this is no problem, since we can useobservation to establish the truth of the premises. But as we noted atthe outset, moral conclusions can’t be reached by observation. But couldn’t premises verified through observation coupled withdeductive reasoning yield a moral conclusion? I answer that they couldnot. As a general rule, a deductive argument can only reach aconclusion within the basic subject matter of the premises. You can’tstart with a premise about geometry and wide up with a conclusion abouthistory; nor can you take an historical premise and yield a geometricalconclusion. Deductive reasoning may yield new and interesting results,but not about a totally distinct field of study than that of yourinitial premises. So we seem to be in a quandary; neither observation nor deductivereasoning can yield moral knowledge. Fortunately, the quandary isself-created by the initial premise. If we take the premise seriously,we will notice that many NON-moral items are knowledge also fall intoquestion. Take, for three examples, the following propositions:1. Every effect has a cause; the same cause always produces the sameeffect. 2. The argument ad hominem is a fallacy. 3. 2+2=4Notice: all three are non-moral; and none of them could be known merelythrough observation or deductive reasoning. We surely do not observeevery effect and every cause, then conclude that they always come inpairs. But neither do we deduce the law of cause-and-effect fromanother, more basic premise. So too with the logical principle that theargument ad hominem is a fallacy; it is not that we learn it by
carefully staring at it; but neither is it the product of a deductiveargument. Or to take the final case, we don’t learn tha 2 and 2 mustalways make four by observing groupings of 2’s (though doing so mightsurely help us grasp the principle), nor by deducing it from anythingelse. But if we don’t learn any of these propositions by observation ordeductive reasoning, how do we learn them? I answer that the previousaccount of knowledge makes a critical sin of omission: it assumes thatdeductive, indirect use of reason is the entire faculty. I say thatthere is also DIRECT reason, which we may also call intellect orintuition. We use our direct reason when we simply turn our intellectsto a proposition and think about it as honestly and critically as wecan; and coupled with sufficient intelligence, SOMETIMES we canimmediately see the proposition under consideration is true or false. Thus, to validate the law of cause and effect, I turn my intellect tothe proposition and think about it to the best of my ability; andeventually its truth becomes evident. So too with the fallacy adhominem: I think about the fallacy, turning my intellect directly uponthe issue, and see that it is false. The same goes for 2+2=4. To sumup, the problem with the theory that all knowledge comes from eitherobservation or deductive reasoning is that it ignores the more basicfaculty of direct reason; and the best argument for this faculty ofdirect reason, besides the introspective one, is that unless we allowfor a faculty of direct reason, almost everything that we call knowledgeturns out to be unjustified. I’d call that a reductio ad absurdum if Iever saw one.Now how does this help solve the problem of moral knowledge? I claimthat SOME moral propositions are learned by means of direct reason. That is, we simply think about the propositions, turning our intellectsto them as honestly and critically as we can, and then sometimes weimmediately grasp their truth. For example: Consider the proposition”Murder is wrong.” Turn your intellect to it as honestly and criticallyas you are able. I claim that when I carry out this thought experiment,the wrongness of murder becomes evident to me. So too with other simplemoral propositions. When I wonder whether racism is wrong, or whetherHitler was a bad man, when I apply my direct reason to the problem, theanswer is all too clear. Now of course, it needn’t be the case that ALLmoral knowledge is direct. In fact, I could only learn that Hitler was a badman by the cooperative use of all of my faculties:1. Murder is wrong. (Premise supplied by direct reason.)2. Hitler was responsible for many murders. (Premise supplied byobservation of incriminating evidence, testimony, etc.)3. Someone who deliberately commits many wrong acts is a bad person. (Direct reason.)4. Therefore, Hitler was a bad man. (Deductive reason)The point is that for the argument to even get of the ground, directreason was necessary. It might be that direct reason supplies only atiny number of valid moral principles, from which valid conclusions mustbe deduced. My opinion is that the use of direct reason is morefrequent, but that is not the critical part of the theory. The criticalpart is the admission that we SOMETIMES use the faculty of direct reasonto come to know a moral proposition as literally true. –Now as I said at the outset, this theory is consistent with anysubstantive moral views. Nevertheless, it is peculiarly consonant withlibertarian moral theory. Why? Well, it is a common observation amonglibertarians that everyone follows libertarian principles in his or herprivate life; it is only where government is concerned that they grant amoral sanction to the initiation of force. And if you asked youraverage person why it was wrong to commit murders, or rob, or defraudothers, one popular answer would be: “That’s just common sense.” Indeedit is; the principle of non-initiation of force is just common sense;which is to say, that even the simplest mind, if ithonestly and critically turns itself to theproposition that it is wrong to use violence against peaceful persons, orrob them of what they have produced, can immediately grasp its truth. All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral theorywould be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason with thepremise, derived from observation, that governments habitually violatethe non-initiation of force principle, and then use deductive reason todraw the final inference that most, if not all, of what government doesis wrong and must be stopped at once.