You Can’t Derive an “Is” from an “Ought”

David Hume famously taught that you can’t derive an “is” from an “ought.”

For example, we can use science to describe how nature “is,” but we can’t use science to tell nature how it “ought” to act.

You might want a flying unicorn puppy for all sorts of cute reasons, but nature says no.

While the “is-ought” problem usually breaks down into a “describing vs. prescribing” dichotomy, we might be better served to think of it as an “is / ought” continuum.

Hume (I think) wanted to point out at that if you can test something – meaning you can prove or disprove it – then you know you are dealing with an “is.” That meant that anytime you are talking about something that can’t be tested, proven, or disproven, then you are dealing with an “ought.”

While it’s helpful at the individual argument level to break stuff apart into these categories, much of what we actually think of as “life” takes place at the cultural level. Here, it’s much harder to tease everything apart completely, so we end up chunking stuff together. We can test how people are chunking that info by placing their argument onto this continuum.

For example, to the “meat is murder” bumper sticker crowd, we see your “is / ought” framework, and also acknowledge a separate set of information coming from the hamburger lobby. Culture is how these groups form, and more importantly, how they coexist.

Since both groups want to add members and change opinions, the continuum comes in handy as we attempt to understand the foundations of each side’s arguments, and make sense of their cultural place in the world. We might even use it to better understand our own feelings on the topic.

Last but not least, if you ever hope to exert some influence, or change someone’s mind (be it selling your product or services, or passing wisdom on to your kids), try this continuum as a starting point.

Rarely do we think we are wrong first. We start out assuming we’re right, and it’s a delicate task to update our is’ and ought’s. If you put in the effort to know where a person is on the continuum with various ideas and why, then you’ll have a much easier time figuring out how you want to help move them.

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