Hume, Rand, and The “Is-Ought Problem”

I want to take a look at a well-known assertion regarding ethics, or the foundations of ethics, made by philosopher David Hume. It is presented as a sort of “problem”, that seems fairly intractable for those of us who are secularist, and also assert that there are certain “shoulds” or principles of morality that one should follow. This is David Hume’s “Is-Ought Problem”. After I look at what Hume said, I will compare his approach on this subject to that taken by Ayn Rand. My goal is to show why I think the logic of her philosophy would largely regard the “is-ought gap” as a product of Hume’s mistaken view of both reason and his misunderstanding of the fact that the rational IS the moral and the moral IS the rational.

Hume says:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised 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 should be observed and explained; 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. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” (Book III “Of Morals”, part I “Of Virtue and Vice In General”, section I “Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason”, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739))

In essence, Hume says morality is not based in what he calls “reason”. What is “reason” for Hume?:

Those who affirm that virtue is nothing but a conformity to reason; that there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them; that the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation, not only on human creatures, but also on the Deity himself: All these systems concur in the opinion, that morality, like truth, is discerned merely by ideas, and by their juxta-position and comparison.” (Book III “Of Morals”, part I “Of Virtue and Vice In General”, section I “Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason”, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739))

Lets contrast this view “morality” and “reason” with the same concepts of Ayn Rand:

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a “moral commandment” is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments. My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.” (Galt’s Speach, emphasis added, For the New Intellectual, pg. 128,

So, I think that Rand would say in response to Hume:

You say that we cannot find an “ought” from an “is”, where an “is” is based in “…the ordinary way of reasoning…” that an “ought” is not “…founded merely on the relations of objects nor is perceived by reason…”. But, WHY do you make the “…usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not…”? WHY do you make is-statements at all? In other words, to what END do you aim when you REASON (make “is statements” based on your observation and thinking)? Hume makes a distinction between REASON on the one hand (so-called “usual copulations of propositions, is and is not”) and moral directives. But, he never discusses WHY one should reason at all? What is the “reason for reasoning”?

To recap, Ayn Rand says:

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms…My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these….” (Galt’s Speach, For the New Intellectual, pg. 128,

In other words, as I see it, the difference between Rand and Hume on this point is Rand doesn’t just ASSUME that one should go about reasoning -making “is-statements” as a sort of axiom. She says: IF you want to live, THEN you must recognize reality, which is what it is, regardless of human choice to the contrary. Similarly, Rand asks why you should follow ANY “oughts” at all?:

The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any touch of Kantianism, can best be illustrated by the following story. In answer to a man who was telling her that she’s got to do something or other, a wise old Negro woman said: ‘Mister, there’s nothing I’ve got to do except die.’…Reality confronts man with a great many ‘musts,’ but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘You must, if—‘ and the ‘if’ stands for man’s choice: ‘—if you want to achieve a certain goal.’ You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.” (“Causality versus Duty”, Philosophy Who Needs It, emphasis added,

For Rand, the concept of “ought” or “should” or “must” only makes sense IF you ultimately CHOOSE to live. For Rand, both an “IS” statement and an “OUGHT” statement only makes sense if you’ve chosen to live. An “is” without the choice to live is purposeless, and an “ought” without the choice to live is unintelligible. I think that for Rand, the distinction between “IS” and “OUGHT” is not so great. Every “it is” implies an “I should”, IF you want to live. For instance: “Certain strains of fungus kill bacteria” (An “it is”.) Implies “I must try to isolate the substances involved to cure human diseases.” (An “I should.” or “I ought”.) “Plants grow more when they’ve received certain chemical substances in their soil” (An “it is”). I must put these chemicals, called fertilizer, into the soil to increase my crop yields” (An “I should” or “I ought”.)

For Rand, the only “oughts” are those that are based in the choice to live and the nature of reality. Any “oughts” not based in this are to be swept aside. Therefore, most of the “oughts” found in the Bible, are either to be rejected, or only accepted within certain contexts. “Though shalt not steal.” Becomes “Don’t violate the property rights of others.” But, this doesn’t mean you cannot take the property of another in an emergency situation so long as you can recompense them. This is because the “ought” of “respect for property rights” is, like all “oughts” based in the choice to live and the particular facts confronting you in reality.

Hume, and others, get into trouble because they accept “systems of morality” that have innumerable oughts not based in the axiom of “existence exists” and the choice to live. Some religions have ridiculous dietary restrictions that have no basis in principles of health or nutrition -or at least do not in modern times with modern food handling techniques. (Keeping Kosher, or not eating pork.) Some religions have restrictions on what kind of clothing women can wear. (Muslims require women to wear head covers or full-body covers, despite the fact that the Middle East is mostly a hot arid desert, and we have sunscreen today.) One of the Ten Commandments says “Honor your mother and father,” and makes no exception for being raised by psychotic narcissist. All of these “oughts” have no basis in the needs of man’s life, and, rather than simply brushing them aside, or delimiting them to certain factual contexts, Hume and others try to find “is statements” that can justify these commandments from some supernatural realm. This is where I think they get into trouble. They have a mental habit or “mind-set” of assuming we should have morality while never asking why be moral at all? Then that mind-set is combined with the post-Enlightenment mental habit of wanting to be rational and reality-oriented, and that gets them into trouble.

An example of this is someone I used to know who was quite sincerely interested in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but he had real trouble with her ethics. He had been a fundamentalist Christian in his younger years, but subsequently had become an atheist in young-adulthood. He would find the following statement by Rand very problematic as a result:

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” (“The Objectivist Ethics”, emphasis added, The Virtue of Selfishness, )

He routinely asked questions like: “But why is life the *ultimate* value?” He could see that it was “a” value, but not the “ultimate value”. He decided that propagating your genes was the actual “ultimate value” and that your life was just your “penultimate value” -the value that you achieve in order to achieve the goal of reproduction. The reason I think he found the idea of gene propagation more satisfactory was because he could see that genes are these sort of small “information vehicles”, and he thought, at least on a sub-conscious level:

“Ah ha! Here is my ‘secular commandment’. Here, at last, is something that I am being commanded to do -by my genes. They are saying: ‘Though shalt reproduce.’”

The remnants of his fundamentalist Christian “mindset” found this very satisfying. Of course, he never asked, if he does find a ‘commandment’, it doesn’t answer the question of *why* he ‘should’ follow the commandment. He would then need an “ought statement” that tells him he is supposed to follow the commandment -as opposed to ignoring it.

The choice to live is a ‘basic choice’, but it’s a choice, not a commandment. *If* you choose to live, then you must do certain things because of the nature of reality. If you don’t want to live, then there’s nothing in particular that you have to do. Furthermore, it’s “either-or”: Either you want to live, or…you don’t. There is no in-between -at least for those who want to live.

My theory on Hume is this: He was a post-Newton Enlightenment thinker. He respected reason and observation, but he was still a Christian when it came to his system of morality. He found certain moral principles to be very emotionally satisfying. He couldn’t justify his morality by anything he observed in reality or any reasoning from such observation. But, he never thought to ask: “Why do I reason?” Without the basic choice to live, reasoning serves no purpose. Once this is understood, then all principles of action that are not based in the choice to live and the nature of reality can be mentally swept aside. At that point the concept of “morality” is salvaged and converted to a completely secular format: Reason as a fundamental *ethical* principle, or guide to action, the purpose of which is the choice to live.

Three Views of The Concept of “Individual Rights”

There are essentially two views on individual rights today:

(1) They are provided by positive law, by a majority or super-majority. So, for instance, you have rights because a super-majority of people ratified the Constitution and that is respected down to today.

(2) They are based in some sort of “transcendent morality”. Provided by god or something like that. Without a supreme being there would be no rights.

Group 2 will criticize group 1 by saying that they don’t actaully advocate rights since they are just permissions granted by a majority (or super-majority) of people. Group 1 will criticize group 2 by saying that there is no scientific evidence for this “transcendent morality” that supposedly establishes rights.

The criticism that both of these groups make of the other has some merit. Since there is no evidence of god and it must be accepted on faith, which is nothing more than somebody’s feelings, then this view of rights seems to have no basis other than in one’s feelings. If rights have no basis other than in the majority’s feelings, then they are only necessary so long as the majority feels that way.

Ayn Rand proposed a different approach. She presents rights as an aspect of her overall system of morality. Moral principles are essential according to Rand because: (1) “Existence exists”. In other words reality is what it is, and has a certain nature. (2) Human beings also have a certain nature, and *if* they want to live, they need to take certain actions. (Grow crops, hunt for animals, build shelter, make clothing, etc.) Human beings must adopt certain “mental strategies” or “guides to action” that will generally lead them to obtain the things they need to live. These “guides to action” are necessary because the human mind has trouble dealing with numerous concrete things in reality without tying them together mentally and recognizing that they are sufficiently similar to other concrete things to be treated the same. For instance, if you have no concept of, “tiger”, then you will treat every such animal you encounter as behaviorally and physically unrelated to the previous tigers you’ve encountered, and you will fail to recognize the benefits and dangers of being around such an animal, and will tend not to deal with tigers succesfully.

Such “mental strategies” or “guides to action” can be called “virtues”. The dictionary has various definitions of “virtue”, but the closest one to what is meant here is “a good or useful quality of a thing.” A human being has a “good or useful quality” if he adopts these guides to action because they will help him to live. For instance, human beings must judge others to determine if they are a benefit or a danger to their survival. This is the virtue (the guide to action) of justice. Human beings must generally refrain from lying when dealing with others in order to maintain their trust so that they will want to deal with them in the future. (This is the principle/virtue of honesty.) Human beings must act in accordance with these principles because simply holding them as ideals without taking action in accordance with them will cause your mind to slowly become disconnected from reality and will make rational thought more difficult. (The principle/virtue of integrity.)

Similarly, the principle of “individual rights” is a guide to action when dealing with other human beings. Since other human beings can be assumed to want to live just as much as you do, then you must give them an “initial presumption” that they will take action to maintain their lives. They will produce the material values necessary for their survival -property. Just as you must not have your property taken from you by means of physical force without your permission, so must they. As such, you must adopt a sort of baseline guide to action when dealing with all other human beings. This is the principle of individual rights, and the specific right that encompases property is the right to private property. (More generally, all rights are subsumed under “the right to life”, which means the right to live the life of a rational being.) If individual human beings are going to live in a social environment and gain the benefits of living together, they must have their individual rights respected:

“‘Rights’ are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.” (Man’s Rights, by Ayn Rand)

As an aside, the concept of “government” comes in because there is a temptation to “cheat”, and violate the rights of others while hoping that they will still respect yours. For instance, there is the temptation to rob someone at gunpoint and take their property, or just to pilfer it while they aren’t looking. If you are suspected of this, though, then others will use force in retaliation to stop your initial use of force. Government helps keep people honest by promulgating a list of prohibited acts that are widely-recognized as rights violations. Additionally, it isn’t always easy for others to tell who the aggressor is and who the victim is in a given situation. For instance, if you come upon someone with a gun held on him, is he the victim or the aggressor? Perhaps the person holding the gun on him was just robbed, but perhaps he is the robber? Government is created to provide for an orderly protection of individual rights by a recognized central authority that everybody generally trusts to be a rights-protector.

Going back to where we started: How is this view of individual rights different from groups 1 and 2? Both group 1 and 2 tend to present the concept of “rights” as something that is “nice to have”, but as unessential to the task of living one’s life. Both group 1 and 2 tend to think that a working social order is somehow possible even without respect for individual rights. They generally see rights as “altruistic” -a restraint from complete self-interest. Group 2 says rights are a gift from god, but if they are violated by persons here on Earth, there won’t be any consequences for doing so. (You might go to hell when you die, is all.) Group 1 says that the majority of people just feel that rights are nice to have, but think that a functioning society is possible without rights, and might even be more “efficient”. Ayn Rand says that “society” is nothing more than a number of individuals, and if the individual cannot live in society, then there can be no society. Ayn Rand’s concept of individual rights holds that they are necessary for the individual person to live in a social context, and that that “society” is only good to the extent that it is beneficial for the individual to live in it.

In essence, both groups today are partly right and partly wrong. Group 2 is right that group 1 seems to have no basis for rights other than the whim of the majority. Rand’s conception of rights isn’t “whim”, but the “law of nature”, i.e., the law of identity. Human beings are what they are -they have a certain nature. If they are going to live in a social environment, then others must respect their life and property by refraining from the use of force “as an initial matter”. I say “as an initial matter” because once a specific individual has demonstrated with a sufficient level of certainty that he will not refrain from the use of force to deprive others of their life or property, then force can and should be used in retaliation.

A society that tends not to respect rights will not exist for long because the individuals that comprise it cannot survive. Rights have a functional basis in the facts of reality.

Group 1’s criticisms of Group 2 has merit insofar as group 2 can present no evidence for their “transcendent” basis for individual rights. I’d also note that regardless of whether Group 2 is right about the existence of god, if they believe that reality has a certain nature, and to the extent that they want to live, then Rand’s conception of rights should also be persuasive to them, and can form the basic intellectual foundation upon which a government can be constructed, regardless of whether we all agree about the existence of a creator.