I decided to rename my blog “Is-Ought GAP: The Cure for Oughtism,” simultaneously turning separate eristic jokes by Stephan Kinsella and another libertarian on their heads.1 Stephan, who believes the alleged is-ought gap is unbridgeable, jokingly suggested I title my blog “Is-Ought GAP” during an argument; the other guy was calling the belief in objective morality “oughtism.”
The following are some excerpts from two sections of one chapter of Veatch’s For an Ontology of Morals: A Critique of Contemporary Ethical Theory. Veatch calls the mentality he describes the proofreader’s mentality because it allows him to make good use of an analogy (see below), but I think “scientistic mentality” is more appropriate and informative.
Veatch starts with the following quotation from Hume:
But can there be any difficulty in proving, that vice and virtue are not matters of fact,. . . Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object.
Now surely no one can consider this account which Socrates gives of his own behavior without recognizing that here was indeed a man of no ordinary worth – brave, but without being in the least ostentatious about it; and with a real sense of justice, from which he was not to be deterred by either threats or blandishments, be they from the Left or from the Right. How then could Hume possibly maintain that you have but to consider a man like Socrates, admitted to be virtuous, to examine his character and behavior in all lights, and you will find that his virtue entirely escapes you? Could it be that Hume was somehow strangely value-blind, or, perhaps, virtue-blind? Or must we not rather explain it by saying that when Hume claimed simply to look at the facts and to find no values in them, he was but displaying what we might call a sort of proofreader’s mentality? It’s as if he had so trained himself as to be able to read letters, words, and sentences, but without heeding the sense or meaning of what is being said at all. Not that such sense and meaning are not there; instead, it’s just that the proofreader in reading an author has no particular eye for the sense, but only for the typographical errors. And so analogously, when Hume insists that, in examining an action admitted to be virtuous or vicious, such virtue and vice entirely escape him, this surely betokens no more than that Hume has no eye for values, not that such values are not really there in the facts at all.
And here’s part of Veatch’s explanation for the mentality (although something is being lost by my not quoting the entire section dealing with the explanation, or indeed the entire book):
The explanation is not far to seek, given the particular ontological account of nature and character of objects that we have here been putting forward. For the so-called properties of an object, in addition to being just what they are as such, are also actualities of prior potentialities in the object. Indeed, in this latter respect, they even have the character of “perfections” answering to that appetitus for completion and fulfillment that any potentiality simply is. Any particular property, ‘a’, in addition to being just itself, namely, ‘a’, is at the same time something desireable, when considered in its relation to the appetitus of a prior potentiality. But so also is it something intelligible when considered in relation to a possible knower or knowers. And no less is it an effect when considered in relation to the causes that produced it. Accordingly, all of these further features of ‘a’ that are, as it were, supervenient and characterize ‘a’, just insofar as it stands in relation to other things – to causes, to prior potentialities, to knowers, etc. – may, of course, be abstracted from ‘a’ so that ‘a’ may be considered just in itself.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that something may thus be considered in abstraction from certain of the features that pertain to it by no means implies that that thing can actually exist in abstraction from such supervenient aspects, or even that one can fail to see that the thing has these, the minute the thing is considered not in abstraction but in its concreteness. Right here, then, would appear to be the source of Hume’s mistake and of his unfortunate blindness. For the mere fact that objective facts can be viewed in abstraction from the values and disvalues that pertain to them certainly does not mean either that they must be so viewed or that values and disvalues are not factual and objective.
(It should not be necessary to point out but will be pointed out anyway that Veatch does not take this to be a one-shot, knock-down argument against Hume; he has others. And these are, of course, merely excerpts from the full argument.)
This disorder, no offense to all those poor deficient souls who suffer from it, might also be called “oughtism” as a play on words with the disorder “autism.”1 Accordingly, “oughtism” may be defined as “a brain developmental, or just a mental, disorder characterized by an impaired ability to recognize and understand natural values/norms/oughts.”
“Oughtism” may be defined as “a brain developmental, or just a mental, disorder characterized by an impaired ability to recognize and understand natural values/norms/oughts.”
The cure for oughtism lies in developing an understanding of (neo-)Aristotelian philosophy. I may go into more detail on these issues in a later blogpost, but this should suffice to explain the blog title change. However, you are invited to read chapter 4 of my dissertation and the relevant sources I cite therein.
- No public links are available for the two jokes. Sorry. [↩]