Let Is-Ought Sink In


he first step is to sit back in our chairs and let Hume’s Law sink in. What is Hume really telling us?

There is no existential reason to be nice to others.

(Here I use the term “existential” to mean existing as an objective fact in the universe, a force outside of us acting upon us like a law of nature.)

We like to think that there is some force bigger than us – Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Karma, the Universe, Mother Earth, the Laws of Physics, Reason – something, anything – that cares what we do. But what if there isn’t? The way that sentient beings treat each other, whether they care tenderly for each other or claw each other to death and eat each other, only matters to the sentient beings.

That’s a bit terrifying, isn’t it?

What first jumps to mind is that this seems to grant a license for evil. And not just run-of-the-mill evil like driving inconsiderately or cutting in line at the store. We’re talking diabolical evil like herding ethnic minorities into concentration camps or going on kidnap-torture-rape-and-murder sprees.

When religionists consider the prospect of godless morality, they often conclude society would quickly descend into what might be called Nightmare-World. They cannot fathom why people would be kind to each other without a force external to humanity forcing kindness upon them. Are the religionists correct?

No. Hume’s Law is not a justification for evil any more than it is a justification for good. And here’s why:

There is no existential reason to be cruel to others, either.

“You ought to serve yourself even at the expense of others” has no more existential validity than “you ought to serve others even at the expense of yourself.” There are no oughts in the universe, floating out there in space on eccentric orbits around the galaxies. Oughts come from within us.

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 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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