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The Is/Ought Problem

The is/ought problem is the claim that theories should be supported by facts, but that moral theories apparently cannot be supported by factual statements about what exists. This leads to the problem: how can we justify our moral theories? Can we somehow bridge the gap and infer moral theories from facts? Can we derive moral theories in another way? Or are moral theories always to be mere assumptions or guesses without any sound basis?

This is a bad problem, and we can avoid it.

We should start with the moral question: "How should I live?"

And we should start with the life we have now, not take a revolutionary view and try to discover morality starting from absolutely nothing.

We should take our current life, and our ways of making decisions, and we should try to improve them. In particular we can criticize them and look for problems in our life, and then we can try to think of new ways of life that wouldn't have those problems. Through this process of brainstorming and criticism we can improve on our life. Then we'll have a better life. We'll have made moral progress. We'll have learned something about morality, which means to have created moral knowledge.

And thus the is/ought problem is circumvented. The is/ought problem is only important when you approach morality in the wrong way, e.g. by asking "What is good?" or by asking "How can we justify our moral theories?" If we are not essentialists or justificationists (ways of thinking that Karl Popper refuted) then we won't care too much about those questions. If they were fruitful then they'd be fine, but if we find they are not (which is the thing the is/ought problem asserts: it says that these questions are very hard to answer) then that is not a serious problem, we are not required to answer them.

Elliot Temple on October 26, 2008

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