facts, obligations, and theories

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.

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4 responses to “facts, obligations, and theories

  1. Someone might say: but this physical pain, by definition, is a bad thing. We don’t need a theory to tell us that, if we can, we should act such that a child doesn’t feel the kind of excruciating physical pain the procedure entails. ‘Children feeling unnecessary physical pain = bad’ isn’t a theory (on an intuitive definition, anyway). That’s just an accepted definition buried in the facts of the situation. So we get an ought from a can deductively. Whaddaya think?

  2. very very interesting. i think that’s exactly what hauser wants to say. and i think you put it more concisely and convincingly than he.

    i think g.e. moore would respond by saying that calling pain bad by definition is committing a naturalistic fallacy. moore argued that it’s a fallacy to appeal to a definition of a term, such as good or bad, in terms of natural properties such as desirable or undesirable (pain is clearly undesirable). although many unpleasant things are bad and many bad things unpleasant it’s a mistake to think that they’re one and the same property (moore drove this home by pointing out that the question of whether something unpleasant is bad is an open one–it makes sense to ask, whereas it wouldn’t if they were one and the same thing).

    thus, moore would argue–and i’m inclined to agree, but haven’t totally made up my mind about this–that if bad and unpleasant are different properties we still need a theory to explain how to get to one from the other.

  3. When you talk about good, bad and moral how does genocide and torture fit in? You and I see it as terribly immoral and bad. However it seems more and more people in our world are comfortable performing it. Any explanation? Could they possibly see it as a good? Could their rational decisons be based on emotional responses and not rational thoughts? Would Hauser think this is acceptable?

  4. That’s an interesting question because no one really gives a simple answer for when cultural variation turns into absolute wrongness. In other words, it seems reasonable that some moral values we have are not shared universally and that’s fine. But when it comes to the most extreme cases, we wan’t to say that cultures can’t be right if they accept genocide as moral.
    I’m inclined to think that actions such as genocide require premeditation and can’t, thus, just be emotional responses. Moreover, I don’t think that those who commit genocide and those who abhor it really disagree on the principles they accept, they just differ on how they apply. If you define genocide, roughly, as the mass killing of innocent civilians, I bet Omar al-Bashir would agree that that’s terribly wrong. What he would disagree about is that the people of Darfur are ‘innocent civilians.’ In other words, the problem isn’t so much in the schematic principle as it is in the status we attribute to other agents.

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