A Dialogue concerning Hume’s Is/Ought problem

Hume’s is/ought problem is a famous problem in moral philosophy. It’s basically the question, “Why should I be moral?”. In more detail, suppose that you see someone suffering (maybe drowning or something), and it’s clear you can help them. You say, “Come on, we ought to help that person!” to your companion. However, your companion says “Why?” What answer can you give? Is there any way to convince your companion to help? Can you rationally convince someone to be moral?

Hume noticed that when people wrote about morality, they would always state things like: “People are suffering here”, or “Anne is drowning”, or something like that. These are statements of what is. Then the writer, after stating what is, then moves to what people ought to do. How is this move justified? How can you logically and rationally justify the move from ought to is? In a nutshell, why should I be moral?

The reason people act morally is, for the most part, because they care about others. There are psychopaths out there of course, that only seem to care about their own welfare, and nobody else. However, it seems like the majority, even the vast majority of people, at least care about the welfare of friends and family, and most of these people also care about strangers as well. Without going into the issue of what exactly makes people selfish or not, it seems that if you care about others, then you have a motivation to act in the interests of others. However if you are truly selfish, then you have no motivation to act in the interests of others, unless your own welfare is affected if you don’t help others.

Thus a truly selfish person will act in the interests of others only if it suits their own interests. They will throw a drowning person a floating ring if people are watching, because they don’t want to reveal their selfish nature. However, if nobody is around, they will not, or will have no interest in, throwing a life preserver to a drowning person. Those selfish people who additionally hate people, or enjoy watching death, will chuckle as the person drowns to death. In contrast, a person with normal sympathy and empathy will throw a life preserver regardless if anyone else is watching or not.

This seems to provide an answer to Hume’s question. Why ought one to be moral? Because you care about others. Simple as that. Notice that people who care about others don’t need to be convinced to help others, they will simply do it, without thinking or hesitation. If for some weird reason a person with sympathy and empathy forgets that they care about others, they only need a simple reminder that they do care about others, and they will be off and running to help a drowning person. Thus these people need no convincing.

Can you convince a selfish person to act morally? Short of them perceiving that their own interests are threatened when someone else needs help, the answer is no. If a selfish person is threatened, or browbeaten into helping others, or they think their own welfare will be affected, then they probably will act morally. If there is no threat, they have no reason to help others, and won’t. You can’t rationally convince someone to have a desire they don’t have. You might be able to brainwash them, but this is besides the point.

You can even give a rational reason for someone to act in the interests of others, even if they don’t care about others. However, it won’t work. You could argue from consistency. If the selfish person cares about their own welfare (it’s a rare person that does not, though it’s not impossible to hate yourself to a great extent) then why do they care about their own self? It’s hard to articulate, but they must see themselves as a beautiful thing. Thus something worth caring about. There is no real difference between the selfish person and any other person. They are both human beings with emotions, bodies, minds, etc. So if it makes sense to care about one (oneself) it makes sense to care about others. They are all the same beautiful things. Thus one is being inconsistent in not caring about all beautiful things (humans) equally.

The only problem with this argument is that it will convince nobody, even though it is sound. Why should someone care about being consistent? You cannot create desires to help others in someone through rational argument. The desire is there or not.

So it seems that, for the vast majority of people, there is a reason to help others, basically the reason is that they already have a desire to help others. For those that don’t, there is not much of a reason you can give, short of threats.

But hold on. Why should I do what I desire? This takes the question into philosophical la la land, and it’s what I want to look at with the following dialogue. The question now being asked, is: “OK, people who care about others will act more or less act morally, and they have a reason, or at least a desire, to do so. However, why is it that anyone should follow that desire, or any desire for that matter?”

One answer is that there are some desires we should follow (good ones) and one that we shouldn’t (bad ones). A bad desire for oneself would be to take addictive drugs, a good desire for oneself would be to eat healthy. But this misses the point. Why even eat healthy? Why should anyone follow any desire at all? Is there a reason that can be given?

To help with this, let’s look at a dialogue between Anne and Dave, who are stranded together on a tropical island, following a shipwreck. They have not eaten in five days, and are starving.

Anne: Oh look, a grove of pineapples! and I see wild chickens, we’re saved!
Dave: Oh good, I guess.
(Pineapples are gathered, chickens are killed and roasted, Anne and Dave sit down to eat.)
Anne: Why aren’t you eating?
Dave: I don’t know if I ought to.
Anne: You are hungry, aren’t you?
Dave: Yes, very. I’ve never been more hungry in my life, I want to eat this pineapple very much. It’s probably the strongest desire I’ve ever had, but I don’t see the reason I ought to.
Anne: If you don’t you’ll die.
Dave: Yes, and I love life, and I have children, and I want to live for their sake and also my own. However, why should I act on this desire?
Anne: You think it’s a bad desire to want to live?
Dave: That’s not the point, those seem like good desires if there is any such thing as good desires. The question is why should I act on these desires?
Anne: Because you want to?
Dave: I do want to, but that’s not enough.
Anne: You’re crazy. You’ve gone too far into philosophical la la land.
Dave: I probably fit the definition of crazy, yes. What I want is a rational, logical, reason to eat.
Anne: Even if I can’t give you one, you’ll probably eat anyways.
Dave: Yes, it is taking all my willpower to not eat this pineapple.
(Anne thinks a bit)
Anne: Why?
Dave: Why what?
Anne: Why are you not eating the pineapple?
Dave: Because I want a rational reason to eat it.
Anne: Ah, but why do you want a rational reason?
Dave: Because I want to act rationally, and if I don’t do this for a rational reason, I don’t want to do it.
Anne: There you go, you are actually acting on a desire right now. You have this stupid idea that you should act “rationally”, and you stupidly think that unless you can see the reason to eat, you should not eat. However, your desire to act rationally is, in itself, a desire. So tell me this Dave, why should you try to act rationally?
Dave: It seems like a good idea?
Anne: Doesn’t it also seem like a good idea to eat right now?
Dave: Yes.
Anne: So why not eat?
Dave: (Munch) Good point.

There you have it. Human beings are not robots, we are not rocks. We have desires, and we will act on desires no matter what we do. In fact we always do what we value the most. Dave valued “acting rationally” more than his desire to stay alive (at least for a bit), thus he was doing what he valued the most at that time. We are helpless in this respect, we must do what we value the most. Whatever we end up doing, that is what we desire the most.

So when someone wants a reason to act on their desires, they are still following their desires, in this case their desire to act “rationally”. This is no different than any other desire, so it makes as much sense to follow this desire as any. What should we do? Follow the desires that seem to make the most sense, and a desire to help others seems like it can lead to a fulfilling life, not only for the people you help, but yourself too.

To conclude, Hume’s is/ought question, if he intended it to mean “why follow any desire at all?” is answered. Not only are you going to do what you desire no matter what (making his question pointless) but the stance that I should “act rationally” and “give me a reason before I do anything” is based on a desire as much as anything, so it makes no sense to question acting on desires in the first place. You will act on desires and you are acting on one when you ask. We are helpless.

One might complain that I have not given a reason to act on any desire. It’s true I haven’t. But why do I have to? You will act on desires no matter what. Further, why is it rational to ask for one? It can only be from a desire itself, in this case curiosity. Tell me why you should act on your desire to be curious. You can’t, and it doesn’t matter. Rationality is built on desires, without them, rationality and maybe even logic don’t exist.

It’s interesting to consider the logical breakdown here, or rather, the fact that logic breaks down here. Another way to put Hume’s question is to ask for a sort of scientific reason to act morally. People who like Hume’s is/ought question think that there should be a reason to act morally, whereas people who care about others don’t need a reason. The charge is that there is no compelling logical reason to help others. Well, there is no compelling logical reason to follow any desire at all. Rationality comes from desires, not the other way around.

Logic is the study of good arguments, it studies what makes some arguments good and some bad. The argument here is
(1) I desire to eat.
(2) Eating is an OK thing to do in this situation.
(3) I should do what I desire when it is an OK thing to do.
(4) I should eat.

The argument is valid, and Hume’s (if this paraphrasing is correct) charge is that there is no reason to accept:(3) I should do what I desire. This ignores not only that you will do what you desire no matter what, but also that we are not rocks. Humans have an additional but subtle trait, not included in the argument, we only take action if there is a desire in the first place. Thus asking for premise (3) to be justified makes no sense. It is literally irrelevant.

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The Answer to the Meaning of Life Question

The point to life is to have a good life. This is also the meaning of life. Though all of us seem to have a good sense of what a good life is, it is oddly difficult, if not impossible, to directly phrase what a good life is. The reason for this will be talked about.

That’s basically the answer to the most famous and fundamental questions in history (the meaning of life is to have a good life). You already knew this, more or less, anyways. The rest of this essay is basically commentary to clear up some ambiguities.

The question “What is the meaning of life?” has several different equivalent phrasings, and a few slightly different meanings. The different equivalent phrasings include: “What is the point to life?”, “What’s it all about?, and “Why are we here?”. The answers are, of course: The point to life is to have a good one. It’s all about having a good life. We are here to have a good life.

For those that doubt that this simple answer is a (or the) correct answer to this “ultimate question”, ask yourself if you would rather have a bad life, or a mediocre life, or no life? Except for suicidal people, who might actually want no life, I can’t imagine anyone else truly wanting a bad or mediocre life, given the chance to have a good life. Suicidal people of course are having such a rotten time they’d rather be dead, so they are not contradicting anything being said here. So philosophically and logically speaking, as long as it is rational to want anything at all for oneself, it makes no sense to want anything except a good life for oneself, thus the point to life is to have a good one. For those of a strange philosophical bent who want to explore the thought that it’s not rational to want anything at all, have fun with that.

Due to Douglas Adams, a popular answer to the meaning of life is 42. Obviously this answer (to have a good life) is a little more informative, if you were having trouble thinking of it yourself.

Of course, this simple answer, though correct, does not tell you what a good life is, which is probably partly what we meant by the question in the first place (this is the first slightly different meaning, I’ll get to the rest of the meanings as we go on).

What constitutes a good life? This seems impossible to phrase directly and well. We can say that a good life has something to do with being happy, feeling good a lot, probably something to do with being successful at what you do, finding love, being healthy, living to some sort of code, and so on. Notice that, first, this is pretty vague, and second, none of this tells you, in particular, how to be happy, how to feel good a lot, how to be successful in your particular set of activities you engage with over time, and so on. Other thoughts along this line that I have come across over the years include meditating so much that you control how you feel all the time, or rather you surrender to how you feel so successfully that you feel good all of the time, and cultivating patience (advice from someone who eventually became Shogun of Japan).

I think part of the reason all of this is so vague and that none of it tells you how to attain any of these things in your own life, is that everyone’s particular circumstances are unique. You can’t give a general answer to something that is situation specific. For instance, one component of a good life, for the vast majority of people, seems to be to not be lonely. Being alone is not good for us. This is why solitary confinement is considered torture. However, there are probably a few people out there that are an exception to the rule, some sort of extreme hermits, who find it much better to have no social interaction for the rest of their life. If so, then you can’t say in general that social interaction is necessarily part of a good life for all people, even though it seems like a good candidate. Further, it’s not even clear that something like happiness is part of a good life, as you can be far happier most of the time than most people, but be a drug addict. Human being seem to differ enough that what is a good for most of us (like social interaction) may not be good for all of us. Food seems to be the exception, everyone seems to need it.

Further, you can’t really say what will be better for me: to go to university and become an engineer, or to take chemistry, or to even go to university at all. Not only are my particular tastes unique to me, such that it’s hard to tell if I’d enjoy being a chemist more than an engineer (even I can’t tell), but also it’s impossible to predict the future. I can’t tell beforehand what will happen to me if I make either life decision. This applies to much of life: everyone has unique needs and wants, and you can’t predict the future implications of major decisions. Thus there is much that is situation specific in our lives, and you cannot give a general answer to what to do with your life : you have to figure it out for yourself. Nor can we describe a good life in more specific terms than general platitudes like try to be happy, seize the day, that sort of thing, again this is due to the problem of situation specificity.

Nevertheless, this hardly spells disaster, for we all seem to have an amazing capacity to detect what is a good or bad state for ourselves, and others, despite the fact that none of us can phrase in general what a good or bad state actually is. All of us make many decisions every day aimed to achieving a good life. We don’t jump off tall buildings, we do what we can to get enough food, we try to make sure we don’t get lonely, we try to be successful in what we do, we try to be healthy, and so on. Of course, we don’t all succeed at getting these things that we all seem to need, but we are all perfectly capable of detecting what will make our lives better in a great variety of circumstances.

Thus we get sort of a paradox, we all know a great deal about what a good life is, but none of us can phrase what a good life is. Again, part of the reason seems to be situation specificity. The other reason is that though we can readily identify what a good state is, it is something that we seem to sense, and thus too fundamental to describe. It’s the same problem as describing the color brown to someone, what else can you do except point to the color? If they can’t see it, you can’t describe it. The same problem holds with describing what it’s like to experience happiness. There is very little or nothing you can say to someone who asks you to describe it. This holds for any good state, it seems.

However, as above, we are all quite good at detecting good or bad states for ourselves or others, even if nobody can describe them in other terms. They are too fundamental to language, and our thoughts, to phrase directly. Couple this problem with the problem of situation specificity, and we can now understand how we can all know a great deal about what a good life is, but cannot say what a good life is beyond mere platitudes.

In fact, there seems to be a sort of perfect, 100% agreement on what are good or bad states. The only reason anyone would describe getting a broken leg as a good state would be a circumstance where your broken leg led you to finding a horde of gold, or taught you a valuable lesson, or something like that. If you eliminate these sorts of possibilities, nobody on Earth (except for a liar) would describe getting a broken leg as a good state. That is, if you describe a broken leg in specific situation, such as you getting a broken leg and it messes up your life, then you must get agreement on it being bad for you in that particular circumstance, or people are just plain lying to you, or don’t understand what a broken leg is.

Of course there does not seem to be agreement on other issues, beyond simple broken legs. For instance, in some parts of the world, women are treated quite badly, in some cases like property, and have less rights than men. In the part of the world I come from, “the west,” the ideal is, at least, to get rid of this idea that women are less than men, which has more or less historically oppressed women ever since civilization began. This leads to some drastically different evaluations about how women should be treated. Where I would be horrified to see a woman stoned to death (for the reason that she was raped), in certain parts of the world many men see this as a good idea. Nevertheless, if questioned, these men would admit that being stoned to death was not a good state of being for the woman in question. The whole reason to stone her is to put her in a bad state, after all. However, they don’t care, for various reasons. Thus there is no disagreement that she was put in a bad state, there is disagreement about the overall good of her being put in such a state. Presumably these men think it helps their society become better overall to see women who offend god punished. If so, they are making the case that sometimes it is overall better to sacrifice some for the good of the whole. This is a principle hardly anyone denies. However, I and many others would say it is grossly misapplied here.

The point is, though, that even though there are vast cultural differences, differences in moral reasoning, and differences in empathy and sympathy here, there is no disagreement that the poor woman is being put in a bad state. So, even here, there is no disagreement on what is a good or bad state for someone. If it’s true for this example (where there is an extreme moral divide), then this seems to be true for any evaluation of a good or bad state for someone, no matter the cultural divide.

This is something nobody I’ve met yet agrees with me on, so I’ll do a further example. Suppose I learn Japanese, and travel back through time and meet a medieval samurai warrior in Japan. Samurai warriors had an authoritarian tradition where they would not only obey their master, but also kill themselves if simply asked to by their master. I can’t think of someone with a different set of cultural values than mine. So I get friendly with this samurai, tell him about myself and where I come from, enough so that he understands my way of life (that of a 21st century “Western” male), but probably doesn’t approve of it. Time goes by, and one day this samurai receives an order to kill himself. I talk to him about it, telling him about freedom, the beauty of personal choice and liberty, give a beautiful speech on anti-authoritarianism, and state that he should ignore the order, and come to the future with me or I can take him to another country of this time era instead. Of course, he refuses and prepares to kill himself.

The question here is: do we value the same things? No. He has come to value living to a code above all else, I value things like liberty, both because of our upbringing, and our lives up tot this point. However, can he understand that if he were to experience my upbringing, then he would value the things I do? Yes, and I can understand that if I were to be raised like him, I would kill myself too. So while we do not agree about what is more important in life, living to code or personal freedom, we can still understand, at least intellectually, the point of view of the other. I can even think of an experiment to settle the issue of which leads to a better life. If one could construct a virtual reality and speed up brain processes so that you could live a simulated life of a samurai in a day, then also live a life like mine over a day, then you can ask which is better after having lived both.

There is a right or wrong answer to the question of which leads to a better life on average, all else being equal. The matter of what sort of life is better (one based on personal freedom or one based on living to a code) is an empirical question. There is a right or wrong answer, depending on what actually transpires in one’s life. There is no disagreement on things that potentially lead to a good life (living to codes and liberty), it’s just that it’s very hard to tell which leads to a better life in empirical reality.

There is no theoretical disagreement, to try to put this subtle point another way. I can grasp the idea that living to a code (like is emphasized in the life of a samurai) could be rewarding as well as any other person, despite that such a thing was not emphasized in my life. I can sense that this could be potentialy rewarding, the same as anyone who understands the meaning of the word combination “living to a code”. Whether or not it would be for me is an empirical question, and that is where the disagreement starts. Someone might find “living to a code” disagreeable, another might thrive on it. To say it again, there is no theoretical disagreement about this, just a possible empirical one.

With the case of the woman being stoned to death, there is no theoretical disagreement that sacrificing one might be best for the whole. This idea appears across cultures. The difference is that, to me, this is a terrible attempt to justify such horrible behavior, and I reject that it makes society better to treat women so badly.

If two people from such different cultures and backgrounds have the same theoretical ideas about what constitues a good life, then the theory is the same across cultures. Theory of good or bad states of being must be the same for all humanity. What is a good or bad state for each person will be situation specific, due to everyone having unique characteristics, either intrinsic or developed, but the theory is universal. This is a subtle point, and I hope I am putting it well. Just as I have never encountered the answer I am giving to the meaning of life question, I have never encountered anyone saying this before either, so I hope it’s comprehensible.

What is good for a particular person, or even a group of people due to their upbringing, will be relative to the situation. Not to opinion, but to the situation. Suppose coffee is good for me, but gives you an allergic reaction. However, once that situation is defined, then what is good for you and for me becomes perfectly clear. It becomes absolute. Once I know that coffee gives you an allergic reaction, then coffee is bad for you due to your unique situation. This is an absolute fact. If you were constituted differently, then coffee could be good for you, but since you are not, it isn’t. Once the situation is defined, there are facts about good or bad states, before the situation is defined, what is good is relative to the situation. That coffee is bad for you is not relative to opinion, it is a fact, but is relative to the situation. Once we define the situation, such as defining that nothing imaginable good comes from the broken leg in a certain situation, we can then pronounce absolute judgement on the broken leg for that situation.

Once we see what sort of person the samurai is, and his upbringing, we then can understand why he wants to live to his code. We can even understand that it might be the best thing for him, due to his unique situation. The situation becomes defined, the answer becomes absolute. The theory is understood and accepted by all, how it applies to each person, and the thought that everyone ought to be exactly the same as me, is where disagreements develop.

Thus there is broad (theoretical) agreement on what a good life is, even perfect agreement, when you look into it.

Finally we come to the issue of another way to interpret the meaning of life question. It would seem that if we know the meaning of life, we should be able to use this knowledge to have a good life, be happy all the time, be in a good state perpetually, and all that. I don’t know why anyone thinks such a magical state is possible, but it seems to be another interpretation of the question, “What is the meaning of life?”

How could a certain piece of knowledge enable you to feel good all the time? How could a certain piece of knowledge enable you to predict the future so that you know the consequences of any decision? It seems impossible.

The closest thing that a human could achieve that compares to this magical requirement for the meaning of life answer is to somehow change one’s personality (through meditation or something) so that one trains oneself to feel good all or most of the time. This seems very difficult. We’ve all had those moments in life where we’ve had an “epiphany”, and the feeling one gets from that and the insight can be quite something. However, as we all know, these experiences are fleeting, and do not last. To attain this state all the time seems impossible, but it seems to be the point of some religions, like Taoism and Buddhism. Perhaps it can be done, I certainly haven’t tried as hard as I can to attain such a state more.

If such a state can be attained all the time, then one would “know” the meaning of life in a way beyond the “intellectual” manner of knowing the meaning of life. The answer that the meaning of life is to have a good one is surely correct, but is only an answer in an “intellectual”, factual, sense. If one could live in the state of constant epiphany, one would have knowledge of a good life in a different sense of the word, “knowledge”, i.e. one would live it and “understand” it in that sense.

As above, I have no idea if this is possible. Notice that this “answer” to the meaning of life cannot be given to anyone, it must be earned through lots of dedicated effort. Further, this would lead to a good life in an emotional sense only, it does not mean one would be successful in the tasks one gives oneself in life, does not mean one would be healthy, or in any other sense one might judge a good life.

Now, we get to another possible interpretation of the “meaning of life” question that I can think of. It’s a variant of “Why are we here?” in the sense of “does the universe have a plan for me, or us?” Probably not if God or some powerful Gods do not exist. What else can you say about that? No matter what the universe’s plan for you is, the point to life is still to have a good one, and you still have to work to understand and get things right for yourself. Life is work, no getting around that.

Even another possible interpretation of the “meaning of life” question is a variant of “What’s it all about?” which is kind of asking “how does the universe work?” Scientists have taken a good stab at this, but there is still a lot we don’t know. Further, even if we achieve a physical theory of all measurable things (i.e. matter), it seems we will still be faced with the question of how this relates to our conscious emotional states, one component of a good life. Even if we someday gain an understanding of the universe at this level, it seems doubtful that this will help us attain a good life. As always, you have to put in some effort.

That’s about it. I’ve always found it weird that I had to figure this out by myself. It doesn’t seem likely that I was the first person in human history to figure out the meaning of life, it’s really quite simple. Nevertheless, nobody told me this, I had to come up with it all. I suppose someone could reply that I didn’t really figure anything out that we didn’t really know already, I just managed to phrase it correctly and unprofoundly (I agree). Or that I didn’t figure out how to have a good life. I also agree. However, as I’ve already pointed out, aside from hard work, nobody can figure out how to have a good life – it’s not a question of knowledge in that sense, it’s a question of how much effort you’re willing to put out.