Marc Hauser, a professor at Harvard, has gotten a good deal of attention for his book Moral Minds in which he argues that morality is an evolved phenomenon and that our moral decisions are not so much rational choices as they are emotional responses. One of his first ambitions is to attack the idea that we can’t derive obligations from facts. This argument was introduced by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his work A Treatise of Human Nature and has been the pith of many philosophical arguments since.
Hume argued that simple statements about the world–facts, or what he calls ‘is’–cannot lead us to what we ‘ought’ to do. I don’t have a duty to carry an umbrella (ought) just because it’s raining outside (is). Hauser thinks this argument–or maybe just this formulation–is too strong. He gives a different example.
IS: A doctor can give anasthesia to a young girl about to undergo surgery with no consequences other than eliminating the painfulness of the procedure. Without it she will be in excruciating pain.
OUGHT: The doctor ought to give this anasthesia.
Hauser thinks that in this case we can move to a moral obligation–the doctor ought to give the child anasthesia–from only knowing the facts.
But Hauser misses the crucial point that even in his case we still need something to bridge the gap between facts and duties. What sort of peculiar thing can bridge such a gap? Well, a theory can. In the example I first presented, I ought to carry an umbrella if I hold the theory that it is unequivocally bad to get wet. Hauser seems to be claiming that we don’t need one of these fancy tricky theories in order to move from facts to obligations in his case. But that’s clearly wrong. The reason the doctor ought to give the child anasthesia is because we hold the theory that it is bad to experience pain, especially when that pain is easily avoidable.
But Hauser could go further (And perhaps he will. I’ve only read the first few pages). What would be an interesting project for an evolutionary biologist would be to try to show that our moral theories that we use to bridge the chasm between facts and duties are themselves just natural facts. How could a theory be a natural fact? Well, suppose that an aversion to bad consequences is actually an evolved and innate tendency. In other words, it’s not a rational theory we decide upon. It’s a characteristic. If our theories that bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap are themselves just facts (more of the ‘is’ kind), then Hume’s argument no longer makes as much sense. I think we’d need to find a new way of viewing the problem. Or perhaps it stops being a problem.