Sunday, January 27, 2008

Moving from "Is" to "Ought"

In arguing for Darwinian conservatism, one of my fundamental claims is that there is a universal human nature shaped by natural selection that supports the natural desires that motivate moral judgment. More specifically, I argue that there are at least twenty natural desires that are universal to all human societies because they are rooted in human biology, and these twenty natural desires provide a universal basis for moral experience.

I agree with Thomas Aquinas that "something is good insofar as it is desirable" (Summa Theologica, I, q. 5, a. 6). If the good is the desirable, then the satisfaction of our natural desires constitutes a universal standard for judging social practice as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required in judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances.

Many contemporary philosophers would complain that I am overlooking the distinction between "facts" and "values" or "is" and "ought." They would say that we can not infer moral values from natural facts because what we ought to do is not the same as what we actually do. So from the fact that we desire something, we cannot infer that it is good for us to desire it.

But I would say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value or is/ought dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken--because what we desire is not truly desirable for us--then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. In Darwin's account of the moral sense, he explains how deliberation can lead us to regret our past behavior, and thus how we can learn to judge our present choices in the light of past experience and future expectations.

Whenever a moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why? And ultimately the only final answer to that question, Because it's desirable for you as something that will fulfill you or make you happy. And if I am right about my list of twenty desires as rooted in human nature, then this would constitute a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings, although the specification of what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances will vary.

Contemporary philosophers often don't see that the move from facts to values is not logical but psychological. Because normal human beings have the human nature that they do, which includes propensities to moral emotions, they predictably react to certain facts with strong feelings of approval or disapproval, and the generalizations of these feelings across a society constitute their moral judgments.

Although contemporary philosophers commonly attribute the fact-value or is/ought dichotomy to David Hume, I believe that Hume belongs to a tradition of moral naturalism that I defend, and that the sharp separation of natural facts and moral values derives not from Hume but from Kant.

I have elaborated some of these points in Darwinian Natural Right, especially pages 69-83 and 158-160.

Other posts on the is/ought dichotomy can be found here, here, here, here., here, here., and here.


Anonymous said...

I think many philosophers mistakenly assume that human beings are basically sociopaths who will not do the good unless they are so persuaded by bullet-proof ethical arguments. And many religionists have a similar assumption about human nature, but see the moral conversion instead coming from scripture.

Fortunately, as you have been explaining so persuasively, science has recently been discovering that human beings (at least most of them) are not by nature sociopaths but instead have an inborn moral sense, though that moral sense is imperfect and often in competion with other drives.

-- Les Brunswick

Anonymous said...

The only justification you give for the good being the desirable is that Aquinas said so. It would seem that you are trying to skirt the “is/ought” distinction by simply appealing to the most overarching “ought” possible: that we ought to follow what is desirable. But this does not overcome the “is/ought” problem because you simply pick one notion of the overarching good, that the good is desirable, without further justification. If you were to examine this notion further, you would continue to run into the “is/ought” problem.

Also, it is difficult to agree with your definition of the good as the desirable, especially considering that 1) people disagree as to what is desirable, 2) the universal desires Brown lists are only universal on a general cultural scale, not for individuals, 3) you pick and choose certain universal desires, and ignore "negative" desires such as the desire to do violence to others, cheat on our partners, kill our own children, make war, and wield power unjustly, 4) you give insufficient weight to environmental and cultural conditions that contribute to each individual's personality and sense of happiness, and 5) the constellation of human desires can itself be altered through biotechnology.

So my questions would be:

1) How can you use the desirable as a standard when there is no universal agreement on what is truly desirable? Also, at what level are we considering the concept of “desirable ?” The individual? The group? The species? All living things? The answer to this question could lead you to highly divergent ethical domains, from ethical egoism to preference utilitarianism.

2) How do you account for the lack of universality of Brown's universals on an individual scale, especially if your theory is supposed to help individuals make moral choices?

3) By what standard have you picked the twenty desires over any of the others? It seems you would have to use a standard outside of the "desirable," considering you are making a kind of meta-level choice about the desirability of desires themselves.

4) Even if we agree that the general constellation of desires is partly a product of evolutionary inheritance, environmental factors still play a great role in the moral make-up of any individual. You give weight to tradition and culture in Darwinian Conservatism, but how do we weigh competing political claims within a culture, especially when opposing factions use differing definitions of human happiness? If two factions disagree about happiness because they give weight to differing universal desires, how do we resolve their conflicts?

5) Lastly, in light of the revolution in bioethics, by what standard do you choose desires when human nature itself is up for grabs? How does Darwinian natural right assist us in deciding whether or not to alter what is naturally desirable? By an appeal to what is currently desirable? Why is the currently desirable superior to the potentially desirable?

Anonymous said...

Dr Arnhart -

You say "But I would say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value or is/ought dichotomy."

I daresay this fails to grasp the criticism that it seeks to address. Desires, any desire that you may have, whether it is one that you call factual or one that you call prescriptive, exists in the category of facts, rather than values.

The desires that you just find yourself having are facts about you, and the is/ought criticism is that you appear to be moving immediately from the factual existence of those desires to moral judgements or natural laws about the way people *ought* to live. Surely, so the objection goes, the most you can defensibly infer here is the way that people whould live if they are to be happy, rather than simply the way that people, morally, should live.

Larry Arnhart said...

Rob Schebel,

I have responded to your comments in a new post.