Friday, April 12, 2013

Examination of the "is-ought" fallacy and its implications on the nature of the epistemic warrant of ethics (part 1)

   In my personal studies, I came across something interesting that I think gets easily lost in the discussion concerning ethics. It is a little nuanced, and so, it comes as no surprise that you can have highly respected thinkers look at this particular issue from completely opposite ends of the spectrum. I would like to offer my own observations on how the gap can be bridged.
   The particular issue is called the "is-ought" fallacy.  The "is-ought" fallacy is what is called an informal fallacy. An informal fallacy is an argument that errors despite acceptable form or structure. To think about it from a different angle, they are counterfeit arguments because they consist of premises and conclusions which seem to be related, since conclusions drawn logically from true premises. However, while there might be some connection between premises and conclusion in such arguments, the connection is ultimately a ***psychological*** one, not an actual logical relation.
     As an aside: a formal fallacy is a mistake in the actual forms of the argument (the forms are incorrect). Informal fallacies have correct forms (in the premises and conclusions), but the issue is that the sound (correct) conclusion cannot be inferred from those particular premises. Suffice to say, most of the time, in various debates and everyday conversation, we mainly deal with informal fallacies.
     Simply put, the "is-ought" fallacy involves attempting to derive moral directions (imperatives or normatives) from descriptions of nature (indicatives or descriptives). For instance, say Johnny has a father, Timothy (indicative). From this, we can infer that the proper moral direction for Johnny is to obey his father (imperative). The fallacy affirms that we can properly draw a conclusion about Johnny's obligation to obey his father.

    At this point, this is where this particular fallacy becomes a little interesting.
    Dr. Joel McDurmon in his Biblical Logic In Theory and Practice, says that the "fallacy lies in assuming that allegedly impersonal nature can direct personal and social standards of living. You cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is.'" In other words, Dr. McDurmon would say that the you cannot simply conclude that Johnny has an obligation (imperative) to obey his father simply from the description (indicative) that Johnny has a father.
     In John-Michael Kucynski's Analytic Philosophy, he delves a little bit into metaethics, and says that this "fallacy" may well actually be true. Specifically, he mentions that you can derive an "ought" from an "is" since "'x is what ought to be done' can be inferred from the fact that 'x is more likely than the other possible courses of action to maximize happiness/the actualization of human potential."
     Atheist philsophers David Hume, and G.E. Moore both expressed doubts about this. In Principia Ethica, Moore says, "My objections to naturalism are then... that it offers no reason at all, far less any valid reason, for any ethical principle whatsoever; and in this it already fails to satisfy the requirement of Ethics, as a scientific study.... though it gives a reason for no ethical principle, it is a cause of the acceptance of false principles - it deludes the mind into accepting ethical principles, which are false; and in this it is contrary to every aim of Ethics." In other words, there is no foundation for and therefore no such thing as values and morals, and if you do believe in morals, you are creating a delusion for yourself.

     So, who is right? You have Dr. McDurmon and Hume/Moore on one side. Dr. McDurmon is not arguing this point as an atheist, but as a Christian attempting to explain the naturalist worldview. Hume/Moore are simply expressing what they actually believe in terms of their worldview.

And on the other side, you have Dr. Kucynski, who says that we can derive "ought" from "is" based on human flourishing etc...

     The next blog post will deal with this question, the nuances behind the issue, how it relates to worldviews and the Christian epistemic warrant. And I hope to round out the discussion on how this relates to our current reformed polemic of the NL2K (natural law 2 kingdoms as espoused by Westminster Seminary Escondido) and the other "side" (theonomy, kuyperianism, neo-calvinism).

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