Silly Utilitarians, You Can’t Derive an "Ought" from an "Is"

Jim’s last post on Sam Harris addresses a particular example of a more general problem that I see repeating in the skeptical/scientific community.  There seems to be a trend among skeptics to endorse very naive version of utilitarianism as though it is not merely a theory about moral value but an objective principle similar to empirical theories.  This trend is worrisome because many of the people who are endorsing it do not seem to be aware that they are doing this, or worse, they don’t get why this is a problem.    For this reason, I’m going to to take a few minutes to explain why this is a problem, so none of our skeptical readers will make a similar mistake.

The basic assumption of every utilitarian ethical theory is that happiness (the definition varies, of course) is intrinsically valuable.   Insofar as the definition of “intrinsic value” is understood in contrast to “instrumental value,” this observation is not controversial.  We do not seek happiness as a means to some other end, we seek it as an end in itself.  The value of happiness is also universal in the sense that nearly every person seems to value it.  But there is a trick in moving from this accurate description of the intrinsic and universal value of  happiness to the objective value of happiness that is necessary in order to make utilitarianism into an empirical moral principle.

Here’s the trick:  It’s not really happiness qua happiness* that is intrinsically and universally valuable.  It’s my happiness that I pursue as an end in itself, and it’s your happiness that you pursue as an end in itself.   Utilitarians want to take the empirical fact that we each value our own happiness and derive a prescriptive imperative from it- “we ought to promote happiness universally.”  Unfortunately, it just does not follow that simply because I value my own happiness I ought to promote the happiness of others.  In order to make that step, the utilitarian must argue that I value happiness itself -not particular manifestations of it- so that my failure to promote universal happiness constitutes a mistake in my moral reasoning.  And this argument fails because it is based upon a ludicrous premise:  The overwhelming evidence is that we value human happiness selectively and with huge variation of intensity.  I may strongly value the happiness of those I love, somewhat value the happiness of those I know, and slightly prefer the happiness of innocent strangers, but this does not mean that I value happiness independently of who manifests it.  If I really valued happiness universally, I would easily relinquish the money I spend on personal comforts and comforts for people I loved because that money could make so much more of a difference in the happiness of people I do not know who are starving and suffering somewhere else.

Inevitably, when I point out to a naive utilitarian that his theory does not seem to accurately describe his own moral values, let alone those of others, he will respond by saying something along the lines of, “Yes, but if I were a better person it would.” No doubt, utilitarianism is appealing as a moral theory because it discourages selfishness, clannishness, racism, and all other manner of discriminatory practices.  But unfortunately, this is irrelevant to its meta-ethical foundation.  If utilitarianism were a truly empirical moral principle, then we wouldn’t have to explain away discrepancies between what we actually value and what we ought to value.  Since those discrepancies exist, utilitarianism either hasn’t described the world accurately, or it is a moral postulation no more grounded in empirical science than any other theory of ethics. (Or, both.  I think it’s both.)  Either way, the utilitarians have failed to bridge the gap between actual moral sentiments (“is”s) and prescriptions about the way we ought to feel/act (“ought”s).

Of course, there is another method of bridging the is/ought that many utilitarians favor as well.  It has the advantage of meaningfully distinguishing between empirical descriptions and practical imperatives but with one rather unfortunate caveat:  It takes out morality altogether.  The move is to say that prescriptive language only refers to prudential advice, not moral imperatives.  In other words, the utilitarian would say “you ought to promote universal happiness because that will be likely to promote something you do value (a peaceful world, being seen as a good person, cooperation with others, personal fulfillment, etc.).” This move is problematic for two reasons:  First, the premise that acting as a utilitarian is likely to promote personal value-satisfaction will frequently be false (i.e., There are lots of times in which selfishness, or even hurting others, is the best strategy for promoting personal values), and second, and more importantly, it entirely misses the point.  As soon as we move from moral oughts to prudential oughts, utilitarianism goes from being an ostensibly defensible theory of moral foundations to a delusional program of self-help.  There is no reason to take advice from utilitarians unless it is moral advice, so the move from morality to prudence is just silly.

All of that being said, I don’t want to give the impression that I have some sort of a personal vendetta against utilitarianism.  I don’t think it’s absurd to postulate that happiness qua happiness is intrinsically valuable.  It’s a perfectly defensible axiom, but it is not derived from empirical observation.  This puts utilitarianism in exactly the same meta-ethical position as every other theory of ethics.  You can’t bridge the is/ought gap, and the scientists and skeptics who don’t get this need a philosophy lesson.

*In the interest of clarity, the phrase “x qua x” is used to refer to any thing in the capacity or character of itself.  So, “happiness qua happiness” means “happiness as itself” in contrast to “happiness for some particular person” or “happiness as it as seen by some particular person.”

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9 Responses to “Silly Utilitarians, You Can’t Derive an "Ought" from an "Is"”

  1. SkiffytheAndroidKangaroo Says:

    Well said. A little too well said actually, since I have nothing cogent to say about it, you’ve covered all the bases of that misguided belief that the is-ought problem is so easily solved for utilitarianism or similar atheisms.

  2. Hedonism Says:

    I’ve pondered this problem before but I think it can be solved by the fact that the ego is an illusion and any distinctions made between the ‘self’ and ‘others’ is illogical. There are 100 billion separate neurons in the brain, each of those neurons is comprised of molecules and atoms that are replaced frequently (it’s actually statistically probable that, at some point in your life, one of the atoms in your body was present in William Shakespeare when he was alive), there is no single, separate, central observer with a constant identity who ‘values’ anything. Happiness and stress are valuable and dis-valuable as experiences.

    Happiness *is* universally valuable, just like knowledge is universally true or false. The feeling is qualitatively the same regardless of who’s experiencing it. No one is claiming that it is objectively true.

  3. Hedonism Says:

    You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ but the same applies to your own egoistic pursuits. You cannot argue that because your happiness is good, you should pursue it. Utilitarians cannot argue that we *should* help others but they can argue that it would be good for us to do so.

  4. Andiis Says:

    Wow !! I’ve stumbled upon a time capsule. Far ago in the last decade. Back before El Presidente Sam Harris’ published book. ” Abduction By Aliens : My Part In Their Downfall ” ( sorry Spike )
    Back when Utilism was spoken of, before all the works of Mill and Bentham were burnt and the word ” happiness “( praise be ) was replaced in all published works by the word “Well-Being” at the order of The Council of Wisdomness.
    So if you receive this Holographic Image-O-Speak or just it’s text, please tell your people we are sorry. We are so fucking sorry. It turns out that the Mormons were right. They found some more Gold Tablets and our Grand Furor Harris is translating them as I speak.
    I must go now, for today, oh hail the Blessed Gray Masses, yes today I am having my hands removed so I will no longer have to be bothered with this tedious typing and the doing of… things. For I, Sup/:153857#-67A have been upgraded to Serious Bean-Level 3, Hazzah !!!
    This will indeed increase my Well Being .

  5. Patrick Says:

    So this is basically the demandingness objection. It can be argued that a moral theory is meant to guide us toward an ideal, not pat us on the back and make us feel good about who we are. If we fall short of that ideal it is no reason to fault the moral theory.

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  8. unifiedfieldtheoryfound Says:

    Salvationists state that people are not animals, and physically base that statement on the fact that there are no living links between animals and people. The reason there are no living links between animals and people is that all those links were exterminated by people.
    These programs of extermination have become deliberate and organized. Adolph Hitler had the volumes of Helena Blavatsky’s “Secret Doctrine”, and “Isis Unveiled”, in the book case that was right next to his bed. This system of evolution was explained in more simple terms in Max Heindel’s “Rosicrucian Cosmoconception”, in which species, races, and nationalities are listed in order of their designated superiority.
    Jews were considered to be the remains of the “third evolution of the fourth race”, thus, inferior to the “fourth evolution of the fourth race”. This scheme was derived from the “Secret Doctrine”, which supposedly derived it from ancient writings from Tibet. The scheme repeated itself holographically, repeated systems within systems, with the greater scheme representing the descent of life from the spiritual (1), to the astral (2), to the ethereal (3), to the physical (4).
    But, on the way down, life in the spiritual had the consciousness of minerals, life in the astral had the consciousness of plants, life in the ethreal had the consciousness of animals, and then, life in the physical had human consciousness. The evolution of life back up, in the ethereal (5) will have the consciousness of angels, in the astral (6) archangels, and back up in the spiritual (7) principalities.
    In this system there are higher evolutionary life waves so that angels are the group spirits of groups (like families, teams, etc.), archangels are the group spirits of organizations, and, principalities are the group spirits of societies. The Greek word for group spirit, also derived from the root “dem”, from which we get our word “democracy”, is “demon”.
    Coincidently, this system was actually based on the Hebrew Kaballah: the spiritual, which the Jews called Atziluth; the astral, called Briah; the ethreal, called Yetzirah; and, the physical called Assiah. All freemasonic symbolism is based on the Jewish tradition, yet, before the mid Twentieth Century Jews were not allowed to join the lodge. Later Jews were allowed to have their own freemasonic lodges, but were deprived of the supreme grand secret which, thanks to modern medicine, can be printed on a bumper sticker: “Vagal stimulation is as effective as LSD”.
    Adolph Hitler closed all freemasonic lodges? He only allowed his own lodge to exist secretly. Adolph Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tito, were Thelemite freemasons; and today, Mugabe is a Thelemite freemason. The falcon, Ra Hoor Khuit (Horus) is on the Zimbabwean flag. This idol was found in ancient ruins in Zimbabwe, and it was back in those ancient times brought down from ancient Egypt; but, Mugabwe adopted the current, ubiquitous Thelemism for his Machiavellian goals. And, Thelemism is based on that ancient Egyptian scheme that was brought down to Zimbabwe in ancient times.
    It is conspicuous that all the major “satanic” cults promise immediate nonexistence after death, to avoid the return of all the evil karma caused by such cruelty. It has always been quite obvious that “In the one substance, energy, motion can only be in closed circuitry, that there be something to move out of the way and fill in behind”, so that even these satanists knew that their evil karma was on the way back to them; but, if they became nonexistent, they wouldn’t exist to feel it.
    Even the Ninjas believe that Benzeiten (Ben Satan?), the Japanese Kali (Satan in drag), will absorb them into nonexistence. Kali is the personification of Nothingness. And, Kali promised her Thugee nonexistence after death. Adolph Hitler also belonged to the Order of Satrurn (Satan), and Aleister Crowley’s Thelemite O.T.O, the Agentum Astris (The Great White Brotherhood, also known as the Illuminati today),as well the the Thule Society.
    In the Thelemite bible, Liber Al Vel Legis (Liber Evil Legis) in the first chapter, Nuit (the personification of the infinite nothingness of outer space) promises to absorb her worshipers back into nothingness after death. But, a selfish disregard of others begins in chapter one. In chapter two it starts to get elitist and nasty. Chapter two is Hadit’s chapter, and he represents the infinitesimal point nothingness. Chapter three is Ra Hoor Khuit’s chapter, and it is atrocious, commanding murder and torture of all those considered inferior.
    The Illuminati’s Guide Stones in Georgia order that the population of the human race be reduced to only fifty million people. The other six billion five hundred million of us are to be exterminated. The concentration camps are built; and, efforts are being made to eliminate our Constitution. With a Muslim in power there is an attempt to put America under an Islamic government, which will enable the Illuminati to exterminate everyone who knows their supreme grand secret, “Vagal stimulation is as effective as LSD”.
    In the past this knowledge of our own bodies was kept secret particularly to identify descendants of Cro Magnon Man. All Cro Magnon males have Double Y Chromosomes, and easily stumble upon this secret. Many malicious lies have scandalized Double Y’s. Any male caught knowing anything about this secret was genetically tested for Double Y “syndrome”, and if the test was positive, was, at the very least, sterilized. In the socialized medicine summit of 1995, it was promised that all Double Y’s would be “locked up” (imprisoned for life). Now, that the whole human DNA has been read, female Cro Magnons can now be identified.
    Before modern genetics, Cro Magnons, called the Anakim in the Bible, were suspected of being Cro Magnons by their instinctual knowledge of the supreme grand secret. Surely some Homo Sapiens were mistakenly captured during this perpetual inquisition since the beginning of “civilization”; but now, six billion five hundred million people are to be exterminated. And, the “inquisition” will continue to keep the population from exceeding five hundred million. It is no wonder that there are no species, or subspecies, between the human race and the animals.

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