Normativity Before All Lights; Hume’s issue of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’

Humean Ethics in Postmodern discourse

J. Lucas II. a.k.a. Aesthetarchon

§a. Supplementing One Scheme for Another

What if I were to tell you that we need not respond to Hume’s charge: ‘how does one derive an ought from an is?’ Here’s the rub. The distinction, whose value today is up for debate, is significant, undoubtedly, in non-philosophical contexts, e.g., when we want to convey that we are not judging what one should do (ought), but merely describing the situation or scene as it occurred (is); that is, in cases that might require emphasizing the absence of an ulterior illocutionary point, for example. Ironically, on the other hand—the philosophical milieu of the dichotomy, i.e., from whence Hume’s moral dilemma first arose—is not only superfluous, but the distinct opposition is fundamentally non-existent. I will soon illustrate how the  ethicico-subjunctive ‘ought’ and the grammatical means of measuring-predication-and-equality, as connective-without-content—the copula ‘is’ (that i sl a n d  left to itself) remain entirely indistinct from one another; ought/is crash as one wave, and always, recede together. In sum, their average employment in idle talk possesses some useful sense; philosophically, on the other hand, its sense is as relevant to our contemporary horizon as a new and sincere a priori treatise of “corpuscles,” “souls,” or “Forms.”

            We need to update our lexicon to better deal with the issues Hume has raised, and bring the conversation to a more contemporaneous palpability, especially one that is free of certain obsolescent shortcomings in the Lockean theory of ideas. One way we might reformulate the Humean issue between “ought” and “is”[2](to better update the conversation) is to bring the matter from an order of “impressions” and “ideas” to a vernacular of “sense” and “propositions” —precisely what we have to thank the Analytic tradition for, i.e., the importation, via transcription, of the same epistemic axiomatics and anoretic binaries— that focuses on the distinction between Descriptive Statements and Evaluative Statements, or analogously, between Brute Facts (e.g., rocks, pencils, weight, height) and Institutional Facts[3](e.g., teachers, lawyers, Lexus dealers, ministers)[4], as found in John Searle’s essay[5]How to Derive an ‘Ought’ from an ‘Is’. Using this updated lexicon, somewhat eclectically for own ends, we can frame and better express Hume’s skepticism regarding “moral judgments”; that is, the lack of correspondence between what he calls “matters of fact” and our sentiments of “duty,” “justice,” and binding “moral obligations,” as a clear case of an argument with a missing premise. Therefore, between “matters of fact” and “moral judgements,” the gap must be bridged by way of deducing an evaluative “ought” from a descriptive “is.” We simply cannot derive evaluative statements from descriptive statements in binary isolation with Hume’s template; but—again—how do we proceed in arriving at one by way of the other? Granted it will do no good to assert: Tom beats women (descriptive) and attempt to derive the statement: Tom should not beat women (evaluative), without reference to an additional supporting premise (i.e., our ‘missing premise’)—one that grounds or underpins the moral “ought,” (whereby, where there is a., there is b.(of necessity), so that where “Tom beats women,” it follows that: “Tom should not beat women”) e.g., via appeal to some theory, creed, custom, community, or institution, etc. The latter simply fails to import any prescriptive duty or maxim from the mere fact that “Tom beats women.” 

§b. Hume Re-Formulated

a.    Descriptive PropositionJim, now married, has intercourse with his secretary.

            For Hume, there is no “ought,” and thus no evaluative proposition, or moral sense discernable through reason embedded in the act or report, such that we might derive the following proposition: 

b.   Evaluative PropositionJim should be monogamous and not cheat on his wife. 

            Rather, this would require a further premise, such as: 

c.    Evaluative PropositionJim should not commit “Adultery.”(Institutional Index: “Christianity”).

Therefore, we cannot arrive at moral judgement b.merely from a., without reference to some premise c.

            Now, as Searle might assume, we can derive an “ought” from an “is” in virtue of citing an “institutional fact”[6]—thus implicating and binding us to some “constitutive rule” essential to that institutional fact, which presupposes certain conditions of satisfaction that sanction the performing of unique acts of “obligation,” “duty,” and so on, as necessary for the fact being what it is, or having the sense it has, e.g., by stating “Jim is a Christian,” it is therefore part of the constitutive rules of (the predicate) “Christianity” that he live by such deontological Commandments that include abstaining from adultery; foremost, this is how the statement, “Jim is a Christian,” essentially obtains its sense. For “Jim” to be a “Christian” means that he fulfills certain duties and obligations, i.e., “oughts” derived from pure “descriptive propositions” or “is-es” themselves: 

The Answer—

Descriptive Proposition (“IS”/“Matter of Fact”): Jim, recently married, is a Christian who has cheated with his secretary. 

Evaluative Proposition (“OUGHT”/“Moral Judgement”):Jim, in virtue of a constitutive rule of Christianity embedded in the descriptive proposition (which is an institutional fact), alone, SHOULD NOT commit “Adultery.” 


—Commandeering Searle’s updated dichotomy, we’ve solved Hume’s problem. We’ve derived an “ought” from an “is.” 

Now that it’s Solved… Abandon that Theory!

            Now that we have commandeered a contemporary vocabulary to better formulate an adequate response—I feel moved toward a negation of that very sense of “descriptive statements,” outright, as well as the sense of Humean “is-es,” outright. Stated simply, I take issue with both Hume and Searle and reject the answer we’ve constructed. Neither position should satisfy us. Why? Here’s one reason: Institutional normativity, as we will soon illustrate, and “matters of fact” (Humean “is-es”) are far more rich[7]and profoundly embedded in our “average-everyday perceptions,” “interpretations,” and “judgments” than either of them allow for in their analyses. A satisfactory argument (especially for nominalists and anti-essentialists), on my account, would in the least, undermine the privileged autonomy and rigid division of both terms in the categorico-oppositional philosophemes: ought/isevaluative/descriptive, institutional/brute, that they once enjoyed or were thought to possess in traditional Western theory (i.e., Philosophy as a foundationally epistemic discipline—a pseudo-scientism). If the twentieth-century has taught us anything whatsoever, historiographically, it is to be weary of such neatly delineated, rational antitheses. Let’s try another picture on the likely hypothesis that there exist contexts or situations capable of exhausting these simple distinctions.[8]

§c. The Murder Scene That Is 

            The first thing we can probably agree on with little demonstration is that no one arrives ex nihilo, without bringing with her some myriad biases, expectations, (pre-)dispositions, and meanings that bear directly on the context at hand (and as I will argue, on its revelation as such, morally or otherwise). Hume argues that if we examine the Murder Scene, “by all lights,” neither reason nor a relation of ideas will render a moral position from the matter of fact of the scene itself. Whatever “ought” we propose against the act of murder, as it pertains to this case, will be adjusted after some impressions have begun to stir our sentiments and passions. What if we think Hume has moved too fast in presupposing an immaculate and naked “is” from which we could further adjudicate a moral prescription? Are we not always-already arriving on the Murder Scene in fright, stimulation, disgust, or feelings of moral reprehensibility? Are these not potentially bound, for us, to the facts ‘appearing as facts’? Does “murder” exist outside of its relata: capital punishment, highest sin, wrong-doing, self-defense, malicious intent, premeditation and the plurality of connotations that surround its articulation? Has there ever been a Murder Scene that merely “is”? 

            A stronger argument might be constructed that emphasizes the role of the Interpretive Communityand Normativity, in general, (which includes “oughts” among its myriad customs) as the ultimately disclosing power of “is-es” by their first light, “before all lights”; that is, a network or background of institutional-pedagogical custom that constitutes the structurality of facts as always-already moral, useful, offensive, or harmful. 

            This critical path brings us to the issue of immediacy, proper. One might recall, keeping in line with our modus operandi of sense and proposition rather than impressions and ideas, Stanley Fish’s story of the student who asked his colleague on the first day of the semester: “Is there a text in this class?”[9]The professor quickly answers, “Yes. It’s the Norton Anthology of Literature…” but then is interrupted by the student, “No, I mean, in this class, do we believe in the existence of discernible meanings in poems, novels, epigrams, or do they only exist for us?” Here’s the trouble. If the professor is familiar with Fish’s work in literary theory, he would have been perhaps primed for the rouse; on the other hand, since it is the first day of school, the situation seems to solicit the professor to a different literal sense of the question, namely, “which text?” Obviously, the “Norton Anthology.” However, there are various other plausible senses given the structure of the background-context. A passerby with no knowledge of literary theory could assume the first sense that the professor had in mind; or, one might even consider yet another literal sense: “was there a book left behind in your classroom?” In either case, the response is “immediate,” given that the situation is always-already institutionally structured in such a way that delivers over or fixes a sense. Notice, this is not, as Searle would argue, in virtue of the constitutive rules of language itself, but because of the larger, outside, interpretive community that meaningfully organizes that very situation. Despite whatever background one is solicited by, it is never possible to be in that scene without first having a sense immediately at hand. Even having a wholly non-relevant sense would amount to something like the sense of one’s assuming the book was left behind in the classroom rather than the intended sense involving a complicated problem in literary theory. 

            There is never a null, or gappy space, calling for interpretation. One might extend or revise some initial disposition after one’s arrival; but to have arrived—or perceive anything on scene—is already to have been caught up in a “sense” in the horizon of some interpretive community and pre-intentional background. Ultimately, we would have to respond to Hume in the following way. Sense is not disclosed by the “matter of fact” or “is” of the Murder Scene, but a fore-understanding of sense discloses the Murder Scene, initially, as the Murder Scene that it is: whether it is of vice or virtue or neither—but never is there an “is” without sense. Rather, we can now imagine “moral-is-es,” just as all “is-es” are what they are under some such disclosure. Without normativity anything resembling what philosophers have long since referred to as “Perception” would lose its meaning. This contradicts Hume’s assertion: “since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion” (Treatise, 470). What we’ve demonstrated is that the occasion does not bring about a sense, but the very occasion is occasion-ed by a sense in its first light, since moral sentiments, if they arise, already organize the structure of the occasion—pre-intentionally and unconsciously inscribed in the milieu or background of any occasion, proper. The scene is a Murder Scene insofar as it is a tragedy, evidence of a sin, or sickening, etc. Arriving to some mute, originary, barren matter of fact of Murder is an oversimplified fiction—useful in systematic philosophy for the purposes of isolating certain ideas, deducing others, and building formal structures; however, this does not reflect the averageness of the Murder Scene—but is purely mise-en-scène philosophical reasoning. 

End Notes

  • [1]CSULA. 03.06.18. 
  • [2]See:Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • [3]Searle, John R. Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970.
  • [4]Whenever I find myself searching for a baseline to begin any critical or deductive inquiry—I ask myself, what would the Naïve Realist say? And work from there. 
  • [5]His theory, per se, is far more parasitic on a systematic taxonomy of illocutionary acts in response to larger topics in the philosophy of language—a subject that exceeds the space of this address. 
  • [6]Ibid. Searle.  
  • [7]Cf., Stroud, Barry. Hume. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. On the charge of richness levied against Hume.
  • [8]In philosophy, if something can fall over—push it over! If it’s slipping, it’s better to not be dragged down by the traditional furniture. My contention: the distinctions we’re working with will overflow and exhaust their own delineation: therefore, we need new furniture! 
  • [9]Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class? Cambridge, MA: Havard Univ. Pr., 1982.