A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2011
David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

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While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.


What people believe is X, so X is good: Appeal to belief.

What people do is X, so X is good: Appeal to common practice.

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9 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 16, 2011 at 8:22 am

    I never knew Hume was so fat 🙂

  2. magus71 said, on August 16, 2011 at 9:52 am

    People may commonly appeal to common practice without considering the deeper reasons that an action is a common practice. So the appeal to common practice may not reveal the essence of why something is right or wrong, however, many things that are common practice are common because they are good, right and beneficial to society. Not all of course. Most people don’t accept lying as good because it is common.

    Most people appeal to common practice when talking about homosexuality. They are merely unphilosophic, not wrong in their assertions that homosexuality seems to be manifestly bad in many ways. Now, of course we could go on about “necessary aspects” like AIDS is not a necessary aspect of homosexuality, and yet the statistics on the many bad things that go along with homosexuality. The average lifespan is around 45 years old. Common practice seems to be the right practice.

    • dhammett said, on August 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      An “if” test. If homosexuals had not been considered social pariahs over several thousand years, how might that have affected their lifestyle? What if homosexuals could have married and maintained licit relationships instead of being limited to an illicit, closeted lifestyle? Would that change have affected the average lifespan of a homosexual?

      • Anonymous said, on August 17, 2011 at 11:37 am

        I doubt it would change the lifespan. A myth about homosexuality is that homosexuals are just like heterosexuals in all respects except for whom they choose to have sex with. This is not what I see. It is an entire culture unto itself, and it’s not because it is closeted. As a matter of fact, isn’t flamboyancy a well known aspects of homosexuals? I would say they are less closeted than are larger portions of the populations, such as people in adulterous relationships.

        It’s unfortunate that talk of homosexuality usually ends up being a rather preposterous dance around the actual activities that homosexuals engage in; lets just say that the average gay man’s exposure to fecal matter is hundreds of times that of a heterosexual. Even the most tribal of cultures know that how they handle they’re waste is a matter of life and death.

        Gays have not been able to give blood since the 60s–before the AIDS crisis.

        • dhammett said, on August 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm

          I’m happy that you qualified your first paragraph and the entire comment with “This is not what I see”.
          So this is what I see. Down through the ages the closeted lifestyle forced homosexuals seeking sexual release to be far more promiscuous than their heterosexuals counterparts who were seeking sexual gratification. The promiscuity increased chances of disease transmission and subsequently shortened their lifespans. If research is correct, AIDS didn’t originate among homosexuals. AIDS is not the only sexually transmissible disease. Fecal matter is not the only way it can be transmitted.
          Another question: Do you have any statistics on homosexuals who married and had children before the “sexual revolution” and the slow acceptance of gays in our society? Specifically, I’d be interested in information about those who have subsequently chosen to end their marriage ties and pursue the natural inclinations they have felt since their earliest sexual memories? How long, in your opinion, would those homosexuals live, on average?

          • magus71 said, on August 18, 2011 at 4:13 am

            “Down through the ages the closeted lifestyle forced homosexuals seeking sexual release to be far more promiscuous than their heterosexuals counterparts”

            Do you see this? Have gay people told you this? There are many habits that people try to hide. Are you saying that people who gamble, gamble more because it’s not socially acceptable? And don’t forget, promiscuity is not socially acceptable, at least openly.

            As far as gay marriage changing death rates and lowering rates of disease, I doubt it would have any impact. People in America don’t usually marry to just so they can have sex, with a few religious exceptions. And the gay community would seem to accept very few religious dogmas as far as sex goes.

  3. dhammett said, on August 18, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Obviously, I’m not writing about gambling which has never been treated by society in the same way homosexuaity has been. And I’m not talking about heterosexual promiscuity. After all, historically, society hasn’t created the same kind of oppressive environment for heterosexuals as it has for homosexuals. As a result, hetero promiscuity and homo promiscuity are basically different–like gambling and homosexuality. And I disagree with your implication, based on a belie,f that homosexuality is a “habit”. I believe it has its main roots in genetics and environment. And I don’t think there’s convincing evidence that ‘conversion therapy’ works for but a few. The gambling “habit”, on the other hand. . .

    And , as I view your last two comments, I see that you’ve got no proof that the average lifespan of a homosexual is 45, or 50 or 60. If you’re going to question whether I’ve ‘seen’ “the closeted homosexual lifestyle” shorten a gay person’s lifespan–no. But I haven’t personally ‘seen’ the heterosexual lifestyle lengthen the lifespan of heterosexuals either. There are too many societal factors involved there to even hazard a wild guess to the answer to such a question. There’s an overwhelming lack of real knowledge out there on this subject. I’m willing to admit that. Neither one of us has presented anything but assertions supporting the possibility that lifestyle does/does not have anything to do with lifespans .
    There’s a six-or-so year gap between the lifespans of blacks and whites in this country.
    But I’m sure you’d agree that being black is not a habit.

  4. Asur said, on August 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.

    I’m not sure what we stand to gain by looking at Is/Ought from another angle, Mike? I agree with you, though, that it is something of a meta-fallacy; committing it should always entail committing at least one other fallacy…I/O never stands alone.

    The Is/Ought fallacy points out that a factual claim must be paired with a normative claim in order to result in a normative claim (every instance of F=N is an instance of F+N1=N2, where N1 is either assumed or stated). Of interest is whether there is non-arbitrary justification for any pairing F+N1 — as far as I can tell, there is not.

    Hopefully, I’m overlooking something, as otherwise we’re all in a bit of a pickle. I assume that anyone claiming F=N1 has seen the same thing and is making a last-ditch effort to escape the implied conclusion (not that you’re doing this, obviously).

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