The is-ought Problem and the Appeal to Science

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I’ll start by saying that this isn’t an anti-science post. It’s based on a false arguing tactic that uses science incorrectly.

I have a compelling need to discuss this point as I see this arguing tactic more and more with regular discourse. It’s also something that is being accepted more and more as a valid argument - and a winning argument. All I see is an is ought problem.

Philosopher David Hume has written on this subject in his book “A Treatise of Human Nature” and here is a short paragraph:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention 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, nor is perceived by reason.

Let’s discuss it.

What is is?

Well is is the universe and the reality of it. Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. Grass is color green. A flu shot reduces your chances of getting the flu. An atom contains electron(s), proton(s) and neutron(s). My television is 55” diagonal. My water bottle holds 621mL.

Science is the study and investigation of the is. The complexity of is can be as simple as ‘there are bananas in my kitchen’ to the most complex aspects of quantum mechanics.

What is ought?

Ought is a verb. It’s an action. It’s a decision. It’s choice. Should I drink water? Should I cut the grass? Should I get a flu shot? How should I live my life?

Putting it simply, it’s what we ought to do.

The is-ought problem

The problem is how one goes from is to ought. As Hume mentioned above “how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are different from it.” Essentially, is in and of itself doesn’t produce or lead to an ought.

At this point you’re probably thinking that facts (the is) are really important for making decisions (the ought). Let’s properly bridge the gap between is and ought. The only way to go from is to ought is through ethics/morality/ideology. Simply put is > ethics/morality/ideology > ought.

Sticking with the flu shot example, knowing that the flu shot reduces your chances of getting the flu doesn’t tell you to get it. Morally you may value health and feeling good. You also know that getting sick doesn’t result in feeling good. Morality gives us this qualifer of the is. So maybe now you think you ought to get a flu shot.

At this point you’re possibly thinking, ‘okay I get it, but where is anyone actually doing this arguing tactic?’

The Appeal to Science

Science is important to society, our standard of living and I’m a science guy. But since science is important people tend to appeal to it as it being on their side and the unshakeable answer to their positions. Appealing to science is appropriate when you’re discussing is and trying to get the proper answer of is, but it’s not appropriate to appeal to science as the answer when discussing political policy, the way you live your life or anything resembling a verb.

Recently I was having a discussion regarding high speed internet to rural areas of Alberta. I gave an argument, from an ethics point of view, against the government running fiber out to every rural house and providing internet to people living there. I was met with a repeated rebuttal to take an intro economics course because my position is wrong and economics tells us what we ought to do.

Well economics is a science and all it is capable of is observing the is. You may think that this is one off person, but with the amount of support this person received for their argument - it’s viewed as very powerful.

Another example I see a lot is “Economist says we should…” in the news. The one I seen lately reads: “Alberta needs a sales tax, economists argue”. Even though this isn’t a direct appeal to science, it’s still appealing to some sort of authority of science. Economists are important to consult when it comes to taxes. They can tell us about how efficient it will be, how much revenue it will raise, how much varying rates will produce, how much it will suck out of the economy, etc.

A news story stating ‘economists say’ is really useless without some moral argument. And there really isn’t a moral argument given in the above story. It really boils down to ‘some people have an opinion’. It’s again oriented that some authority has an opinion and we should listen - why? And that’s what all this boils down to. Studying economics and being an economist that can tell us how to enact an efficient new tax, doesn’t answer the question about whether we should tax more or less.

Evidence Based Policy

The Liberal Party of Canada has abopted a very cute slogan of evidence based policy. If you haven’t caught on yet, there is no such thing as evidence based policy. There is such a thing as policy based evidence, which is about as much as we can expect from government.

Evidence happens to be an is and it must be qualified by ethics/morality/ideology in order to make policy (the ought). The very concept of knowing what evidence is requires qualifer from ethics/morality/ideology.

That’s why there is no such thing as evidence based policy. We have our views, our morality and ethics. The evidence, the is, will be qualified by our views and evidence is determined by what we’re looking for. Inevitably leaving us with policy based evidence.

The False Attempt of Deriving Morality from Science

This is something that I’ve seen come up over the last few years. The hypothesis is that as we learn more about our mind, our biology and how they work together we can piece out morality. This part of my article is a bit more than what I was planning to go into, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

A proponent of this is Sam Harris. I really like Sam. I’ve read a few of his books. I enjoy his perspective and arguments as an athiest because I see him trying to fight against the moral relativism and nihilism that seems to fester with many athiests. But when it comes to science derived morality I find his argument poor.

When I’ve seen him debate this topic, especially where there is a philosopher arguing against him, it becomes apparent what he’s doing. Sam has set the moral ground as utilitarian and uses very agreeable cherry picked examples. An example would be that science shows us that your body releases endorphines when exercising and when you sit around eating fast food you feel bad - therefore science has shown that it’s morally good to exercise and not sit around eating fast food.

Agreeability in this case is the tactic because what is left undefined is why something is morally good. When you move away from very agreeable examples you see very little value from any sort of deriving of morality from science. When should one commit suicide? How can science alone answer that question?

An Example in Action

Why is 30 the right speed for residential streets? Because physics. #yyccc #yycbike #yycwalk

Here’s a simple tweet I saw show up on my feed. Magic. A pure attempt at appealing to science and the is as a means to ought. The information is important for making decisions, but again only the ethical/moral reasoning can make that case. I chose this example precisely because this guy proudly has this pinned and shows you how successful this naturalistic fallacy (the is-ought problem) really can be.


A person cannot derive action (the ought) from an is. When you’re having a discussion with someone they cannot use a fact or a piece of science (the is) in and of itself as a reason to have a political policy or an action you should do (the ought). The only means of bridging the gap between is and ought is through ethics/morality/ideology.

The facts of reality (science) are very important for decision making, but you need to qualify and understand these facts through a framework of ethics/morality/ideology. A discussion of what we ought to do as policy or decisions is always a discussion of ethics/morals/ideology. Do not appeal to science as the answer because it is not. Also don’t be fooled if someone appeals to science as a means of arguing an ought.

Additional Reading

Naturalistic Fallacy - Wikipedia