Stepping Across the Is-Ought Gap

Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape has fallen among the atheist community like a cannon shell, and I for one couldn’t be happier. This is an important and long-overdue project for us to begin: to take morality out of the hands of religionists, to rigorously define it as the achievement of human well-being rather than the set of rituals that must be undertaken to please an ineffable god, and to begin a discussion about the best way to accomplish this end. Establishing this firm foundation will give the atheist community its own distinct and recognizable voice, and will make us a stronger and more compelling alternative to the religious dogmas that pass for ethics in society’s discourse. (It doesn’t hurt, I have to admit, that Sam’s argument is the same one I’ve been making for years.)

But from the discussions I’ve seen, a lot of people are misunderstanding Harris’ basic point. In this post, I want to address that misconception.

It’s true that you can’t take any catalogue of facts about human nature, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to value human flourishing.” But for the same reason, it’s also true that you can’t start with any catalogue of facts about human history or the world, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to use the scientific method to study reality.” Does this cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a human endeavor? More importantly, does it imply that there exist other ways of knowing that are just as valid?

No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that’s a strike against objective morality, it’s also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?”

These people are beyond talking to, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have this conversation. We don’t have to subject every system of thought to a heckler’s veto. Instead, we rational people who can agree on a basic set of goals should have no problem recognizing the superiority of some methods over others for achieving those goals. We want to learn how the world works by the most consistent and reliable method possible so that we can better control it to our benefit. Therefore, we should use the scientific method. We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing. Therefore, we should empirically study what policies best advance human well-being, and then live by those policies and encourage society to adopt them. There, I just stepped across the is-ought gap, and it seemed a lot more like a hairline crack to me than a chasm.

And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be. If our approach to morality is correct, its superiority will be borne out in practice and people will eventually be persuaded to come along for the ride, just as theists switched from faith healing to antibiotics when they saw how much more effective the latter was. If the error theorists are correct, any attempt to rationally work out the principles of ethics will only end in discord and confusion (and since they, by definition, believe that no other outcome is possible, it’s hard to see why they should object to the attempt).

On the other hand, if we’re correct, people who begin with the same moral premises will eventually converge on the same conclusions. In fact, I would argue that human history offers some important clues that this convergence is already in progress!

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 14
Atlas Shrugged: The Marketplace of Ideas
Atlas Shrugged: Motive Power
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.