Who the Heck Created the Is-Ought Problem?
February 3, 2016

While reviewing my simplification of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature Book 3, I came upon a strange wiki article called Hume’s Is-Ought Problem.

Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? The question, prompted by Hume’s small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of “is” from “ought” has been given the graphic designation of Hume’s Guillotine.

Did whoever create the Is-Ought problem even bother to take the context of that paragraph with the rest of Book 3?

Hume merely described the flaw in the way of how shallow-minded moral philosophers make moral rules. First, they explain the nature of things using reason. Suddenly and discretely, they inject their bias and personal feelings into the nature of things (is), as to create casuistic moral rules  (ought). This then makes a work of reason become an unreasonable work of subjective bias.

In every system of morality, the author proceeds in the ordinary way of reasoning and establishes God, or makes observations on human affairs. Suddenly, instead of the usual propositions of 'is' and 'is not', I meet propositions of 'should' and 'should not'. This change is imperceptible, but is of final consequence. This 'should' or 'should not' expresses some new relation or affirmation. This new relation should be observed and explained at the same time that a reason should be given for what seems inconceivable. How can this new relation be a deduction from other deductions entirely different from it?

An easy example is the Ten Commandments. In it, the author writes the 'is' in Exodus 19:3 that the Israelites did leave Egypt, as a matter of fact.

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Exodus 19:3

But then, the author adds his bias and personality into the fact or 'is' that was stated, in order to create a personal rule or 'ought':

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

Exodus 20:2

According to Hume's principle, this tactic is improper because had the Israelites known that their freedom from Egypt would have a price, as the Ten Commandments, then for sure, not all of them would have fled Egypt. It is therefore unfair for that the 'is' was converted to 'ought', as a new relation that is connected to the author instead of to the nature of things. To prevent this problem, Hume advises people to be mindful of moralists who inject their biases very subtly as to create moral rules that favor them, and are therefore immoral.

Authors do not commonly use this precaution. I recommend it to the readers. This small detail would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, and perceived by reason.