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.

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I am Dean Cook. I currently live in Dallas Texas.