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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