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The Is-Ought False Dichotomy

by Francois Tremblay



The is-ought false dichotomy is the widespread idea that moral statements (oughts) are somehow of a different nature than ontological statements (is). This leads to the conclusion that morality cannot be objective, and that there is no moral standard.

This fallacy, however, is debunked by our understanding of the universe, especially of human action. We now know that actions are material events – there is nothing overly mysterious about their effects. To give a simple example, we know that if we stop eating or drinking altogether, we will eventually die. This is a fact of biology, more specifically about human metabolism. My actions, my metabolism and my decision are all material facts and events.

In short, we can refute the is-ought false dichotomy in this way:

(1) Actions have consequences.
(2) These consequences are within the province of causality, since they are material.
(3) Therefore, the relation between actions and consequences is objective.

(1), (2) and (3) are the basis and justification of moral objectivity. Is there a means to study morality detached from personal feeling, desires or whims? Yes, if we consider it to be a subset of causality. Using (3), we can then examine what kind of actions produce what kind of consequences. If we eat and drink proper foods and in moderate quantity, we will survive. This particular study is the field of nutrition. Using this scientific basis, we can deduce which actions are propensive to one’s life as regards to eating (and accomplishing other goals, such as gaining or losing weight), and which ones are not.

The is-ought dichotomy is a linguistic sleight of hand. It is easy to transpose “oughts” into “is” and vice-verse. To continue on the example of nutrition (which is widely accepted as an ethical standard):

(I1) Human beings have a metabolism which requires nutrients to be sustained.

Leads to

(I2) Human beings need to eat and drink in a certain way to survive.

Leads to

(V) Nutrition is a value.

Leads to

(O) We ought to eat and drink in a certain way.

The first two being “is” statements and the last two being “ought” statements. As we can see, it is easy to transpose a scientific fact into a moral value.

I think that (1), (2) and (3) are uncontroversial, except amongst some nihilists. Most people would agree that morality is a possibility, but would simply say that there are insurmountable barriers to its study. It seems unclear to me why they should think so.

One objection that I discussed with Derek Sansone is the idea that values alone are not enough for moral judgment. Do we need to smuggle something else in to evaluate a given action? After all, actions tend to gain a specific object and values are general in nature.

But this objection assumes that the specific implementation of a value does not depend on context. Values do not depend on context, since they are universal to all human beings living in society, but their implementation does. We all eat, but I may eat a poutine while someone in another part of the world might eat a souvlaki. This is generally irrelevant to the underlying value of nutrition. Both actions fulfill the same value and therefore must be judged the same general way. Assuming that no other consequence results of this action, they are both equally positive because they fulfill the important value of nutrition to the human body.

For more information on how moral systems can be derived, see “The Case for Objective Morality”

Last updated: January 1, 2005