Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Chapter 2, Part 2 of 3)

by | Oct 24, 2005 | Psychology & Living

If we are to establish an objective, fact-based morality, we need to discover a final end--one toward which all of our other goals and values are properly aimed.

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

An end is a goal toward which one acts; a means is the action one takes toward a goal. For instance, if a student studies in order to get an education, the education is an end toward which his studying is the means. Likewise, if a person works in order to earn a paycheck, the paycheck is an end toward which his work is the means. But notice that such goals are not ends in themselves. A student gets an education so that he can pursue a career–which he pursues in order to support himself and earn a paycheck–which he earns in order to buy things–which he buys in order to use for various other purposes–which he pursues in order to accomplish still other goals–and so on. Each end presupposes another. So where does it all end?

If we are to establish an objective, fact-based morality, we need to discover a final end–one toward which all of our other goals and values are properly aimed. Such an end is by that fact our standard of moral value–the standard against which we can objectively assess the value of all our choices and actions. So the question becomes: What is our ultimate goal?

Now, one would hope that we could turn to philosophers for some assistance here; after all, it is their job to answer such questions. But, alas, most philosophers hold that an ultimate goal or standard of moral value cannot be rationally justified. Philosophy professor Lionel Ruby explains the essence of this popular position as follows:

[Goals] are like standards, in that some are more basic than others. Any goal short of the “ultimate” can be justified by a more basic goal. But a truly ultimate standard or goal cannot be justified by logic, for a proof requires a premise–in this case a value premise–and “ultimate” means “nothing more basic.” …[Thus] truly ultimate standards or ends … are beyond the scope of logic and scientific evidence.[1]

This widespread belief underlies and gives rise to the problem known as the “is–ought” dichotomy, according to which it is impossible to move logically from the facts of reality–from what “is”–to moral principles–principles about how people “ought” to act. As Professor Ruby states the problem:

Every value conclusion must rest on value premises. The “ought-to-be” can be deduced only from another “ought-to-be,” and never from a mere “is” or statement of fact. A premise that merely states that something is or is not the case cannot yield a value conclusion.[2]

This dual claim–that ultimate ends cannot be justified by logic and, thus, that moral principles cannot be grounded in facts–was first made in the eighteenth century by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (from whom we will hear shortly).[3] “The essence of Hume’s view,” explains Cambridge professor C. D. Broad, “is that Reason is wholly confined to matters of fact.”

It will help us to analyse a situation, to choose means for a given end, and to infer probable consequences of various alternative courses of action. But it has nothing whatever to do with our choice of ends as distinct from means. We desire things as ends only because they move some emotion in us, and not because of any objective characteristic in them which Reason can recognise.[4]

Not surprisingly, this notion breeds moral subjectivism. And unfortunately, it is almost universally accepted among intellectuals today.

Princeton professor Peter Singer declares that “The gap between facts and values remains as unbridgeable as it was when David Hume first drew attention to it in 1739….”[5] UCLA professor James Q. Wilson tells us: “I learned from Hume, as did legions of my fellow students, that this transition is impossible; one cannot infer an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement; in modern parlance, one cannot infer values from facts. It is logically untenable.”[6] And in a textbook titled Attacking Faulty Reasoning, Professor T. Edward Damer writes: “It is not logically sound to move in an argument from a factual claim, a so-called ‘is,’ to a moral claim, a so-called ‘ought.’ To do so is to commit the well-known ‘is–ought’ fallacy.”[7]

On this view, to recognize the facts of a given situation, and to try to use those facts in order to discover and take a moral course of action, is to commit a “logical fallacy.” Apparently, to be moral, one should disregard everything one knows to be true and act solely according to one’s unfettered desires or the norms of one’s tribe. Some advice.

The is–ought problem may seem silly, but if left unsolved it has serious consequences. If facts have no bearing on what a person morally ought to do–if reason is merely a means of achieving subjectively chosen ends–if morality cannot be grounded objectively in reality–if there is an unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought,” between facts and values–then, as Professor Ruby notes, we have only “personal preference or the approval of our group as the ultimate basis for our value-judgments.”[8] And we know what that means.

The is–ought gap is the secular subjectivists’ technical retreat. It serves as their linguistic asylum from the imposition of any moral standards. It is their ticket to “get away” with whatever they (or their group) feel like doing. And it is why no one can answer them when they say: “There are no moral absolutes” or “Morality is not black and white” or “Who’s to say what’s right?”

People who make such claims are counting on our inability to name a fact-based, logically provable, objective standard of moral value. Consciously or not, they are relying on the is–ought dichotomy to defend moral subjectivism. And, consciously or not, they are supported by the likes of David Hume and the legions of subjectivist college professors who each year teach another batch of future intellectuals that moral principles cannot be derived from the facts of reality.

What do Hume and company propose as an alternative? How, in their view, are people supposed to determine what is morally right and wrong? How are we to distinguish virtue from vice? Their answer: By reference to a “moral sense,” which they also call “sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness” and, you guessed it: “feelings.”

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

[1] Lionel Ruby, Logic: An Introduction (Chicago: Lippincott, 1960), p. 498.
[2] Ibid., p. 496.
[3] See David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Appendix I, esp. pp. 287–89, 292–94; and Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Book III, esp. pp. 457–59, 462–70.
[4] C.D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1934), p. 107. Cf. Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955), pp. vi–vii.
[5] Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 12.
[6] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1993), p. 237.
[7] T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 3rd ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), p. 10.
[8] Ruby, Logic: An Introduction, p. 498.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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