Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hume's Ought: The Ironic Solution

I'm certainly not the first person to claim to have solved Hume's ought. In fact, I tried to come up with a format for this article that wouldn't even mention Hume, so as to avoid unnecessary name-dropping. The idea is the idea, regardless of the fame and prestige of the people associated with it. Nevertheless, given that I've been interested in philosophy my entire life, which means I have been paying attention but haven't seen this solution, plus the fact that I am actually building on Hume's ought instead of trying to replace it, suggests that my solution is qualitatively different.

I suspect that many people are capable of intuiting what I'm about to put forward, but incapable of truly manifesting it in words so as to write it down properly. Essentially they can't understand their own genius. This is why, I think, that so many people try to disprove Hume's ought.

Essentially, I have credit Ze Frank for this idea. The Show is supposed to be mainly comedy, but its treatment of the concept of personal values is by far the best I've ever seen.

Let's start. There is no ought from is. No matter what facts you have, what data about the world, you cannot construct a logical chain to prove that we ought to do something. In fact, we could all walk into the ocean tomorrow and drown. But that would be bad, right? We ought not to? Yeah, but bad according to whom? From the perspective a contemptuous alien race, that might be good; they get a nice cushy planet. And thus the quandry; there is no objective means to distinguish between the alien's viewpoint and ours. You certainly don't have to do anything, which is the usual language used to express 'ought,' and every justification you might put forward to 'prove' that we 'shouldn't' all suicide can be answered, 'So what?'

"But people don't want to die!"

"People want to get stuff for free instead of paying for it, too. That is not a reason. So what?"

"But it will waste all our effort and striving and progress!"

"So what? We'll all be dead. Nobody will mind - nobody will be left."

This analysis, as proven by Hume, applies to every possible conflict of values. There is no is that can distinguish between opposing oughts.

Ironically, because of this very truth, we can indeed get ought from is. Specifically, it is a fact that I want some ice cream. Therefore, I ought to go get ice cream. To make this clear, let me unpack it.

In fact, I do not want to pay for it. I want free ice cream. It is a fact, however, that there is no free ice cream. And while I want to keep my money, I want the equivalent amount of ice cream more. Similarly, I want lots of things that aren't ice cream, such as to stay at home lazing about, but I want ice cream the most. And, it is a fact that there is no objective ought, which means that these facts - that 'I want ice cream' inevitably implies* that I want it more than anything else available at the moment - can produce an ought.

*(Or at least should so imply. Many people are fond of saying 'But I want X, which conflicts with your plan!' but fail to note that they don't want it very much. For instance, most people want the disadvantaged to be taken care of, but don't want to pay for it themselves. However, since not paying for it should mean that it simply isn't done, of the real alternatives people do want to pay for it. This is yet another example of the generalized broken-window fallacy.)

I ought to go get ice cream, because there is no objective way to prove that I shouldn't. And thus the irony forces me to equivocate on 'objective' to get my point across.

Subjective values can never be trumped by objective facts. Therefore, the facts about your subjective values uniquely determine what you ought to do.

My first solution to objective ethics is essentially a detail along this vein. Surely, you should not do anything you yourself think is wrong - in other words, there is no time and no place where a hypocrite is anything but wrong. Again, this only works, ironically, because there is no objective standard of right and wrong, as otherwise you could value wrong but be doing right.

Taken together, this forms a simple algorithm for forming oughts, both positive and negative, that generates an intricate and complex code of conduct, and moreover each code of conduct is tailor-made to the individual without stepping beyond the logically consistent bounds of each person's rights. The downside being that you have to personally run the generating function, which isn't trivial. Nobody can do it for you - in practise it is impossible to communicate your values in the necessary detail.

Basically, whatever you want to do, you ought to do, unless it is hypocritical, and then you yourself think it is something you ought not to do. As it turns out, given the facts of human biology, this replicates all the essential parts of today's legal system. By my evaluation, the parts that are left off are indeed all flaws, not only in reference to this theory of ought, but flawed in reference to most people's subjective opinions, and finally contradictory to the purpose or manifestation of the rest of today's law.

But yes, I would have preferred to explain this idea with no reference to Hume's ought, basically because I've come to understand that name dropping Einstein derails explanations, and is done to associate with the greats rather than to demonstrate anything meaningful. (This does not apply to actual discussions of relativity.) First of all, it's boring. There are lots of people who say the same things Einstein did, but everyone references him. Second, it's the fallacy of authority. The fact is right or wrong, regardless of associations to famous people. Unless you personally check it, you don't know if Einstein is right or wrong on any particular issue - but if you've personally done the work, it doesn't matter what Einstein though. These issues don't appear to me to be limited to Einstein.

So, ought from subjective is. Think about it. Also, I have a feeling I've missed something or been unclear. Kindly help me find it.


Anonymous said...

I ought to go get ice cream, because there is no objective way to prove that I shouldn't.

But then wouldn't you be able to substitute "get ice cream" with something most people would classify as wrong (because there will also not be an objective way to prove you shouldn't)?

Alrenous said...

(because there will also not be an objective way to prove you shouldn't)?

Okay, so we can't say murder, because I can objectively prove that you don't want to be murdered, and so you think it's wrong.

Let's talk instead about, say, being snowballed. I don't mind at all, but many people do. It is not hypocritical for me to snowball at first glance.

However, I don't want people to violate my values at all, and what else am I doing but violating values by snowballing random passers-by? It is something I myself consider wrong; I should not do it.

Notably, the distinction between self and other is not an objective distinction. I cannot logically support treating other humans in any other way but symmetrically.