This article is from TOS Vol. 8, No. 2. The full contents of the issue are listed here.
The Is-Altruism Dichotomy
A dichotomy is thwarting moral thought. Call it the “is-altruism dichotomy.”
You’ve probably heard of the “is-ought dichotomy” or the “is-ought gap”—the idea that you cannot derive moral principles (principles regarding how people “ought” to act) from facts of reality (from what “is”). This idea originated with the Sophists of ancient Greece, who held that all moral views and values are subjective or mere opinions.1 It was later popularized in terms of “is” and “ought” by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.2 Today the idea is widely regarded as a fact beyond question. Outspoken scientist and atheist Sean Carroll sums up the view: “Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.”3
The “is-ought dichotomy” is now affirmed, implicitly if not explicitly, by virtually all intellectuals; and taught, in some form or other, to practically all college students.4 This is why so many educated people subscribe to moral relativism. If morality can’t be grounded in reality, who’s to say what’s right?
Widespread acceptance of the “is-ought gap” not only breeds moral relativism; it also lends credence to claims that in order for objective morality to exist, there must be a divine lawmaker, a “God,” who issues objective moral laws or commandments. “If moral standards are not rooted in God,” says popular talk show host Dennis Prager, “they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky.’ They are simply a matter of personal preference.”5
But the idea that we can’t derive moral standards from observable reality is demonstrably false. We certainly can—but we must first understand why man needs morality at all. If man needs morality, then the reason he needs it—the ultimate end it serves—logically sets the standard for determining the validity of moral principles and values. If man doesn’t need morality, then he doesn’t need it, and there is no point in discussing or even pondering the subject.
This is why the American philosopher Ayn Rand began her inquiry into ethics with the questions, “What are values? Why does man need them?” and “Why does man need a code of values?”6 By looking at reality and pursuing answers to these and related questions, Rand discovered that values are the things one acts to gain or keep. For instance, we seek to gain or keep knowledge, food, wealth, relaxation, romance, and freedom. And she discovered that the ultimate reason we need values is to live—to sustain and further our lives. If we gain and keep values, we can live and prosper; if we fail to gain and keep them, we will suffer and die.
Rand discovered that man’s life—meaning, the requirements of an individual’s life and happiness on earth—is the standard of moral value: the ultimate standard against which we can judge good and bad, right and wrong, should and shouldn’t. . . .
1 See Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, trans. Kathleen Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 125; and Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), vol. I, pp. 91–94.
2 See David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Appendix I, esp. pp. 287–89, 292–94; and Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Book III, esp. pp. 457–59, 462–70.
3 Sean Carroll, “The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate,” Discover, March 24, 2010, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/03/24/the-moral-equivalent-of -the-parallel-postulate/.
4 Although some contemporary intellectuals are open to the possibility that moral principles can be derived from facts of reality, to my knowledge none (other than Ayn Rand) has shown how this can be done. In the absence of specific knowledge of how it can be done, intellectuals are effectively in the position of conceding that it can’t be done. The “is-ought dichotomy” goes by other names as well, including the “fact-value dichotomy” (the notion that you can’t derive values from facts) and the “naturalistic fallacy” (the notion that you can’t define “good” in terms of natural properties). There are trivial differences among the variations, but they’re essentially the same problem. Below I explain a major cause of the widespread confusion.
5 Dennis Prager, “Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally,” September 20, 2011, http://www.dennisprager.com/columns.aspx?g=b5f5f8f2-7c6f-4c41-a48c-cfb8b97d48bb.
6 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), pp. 13–16.