Does the Is-Ought Divide Make Atrocities More Palatable?

David Hume, seen here contemplating the benefits of the one-child policy
David Hume, seen here contemplating the benefits of the one-child policy

Those who might object to the incendiary title of this post need to stop being such mood affiliators. I’m merely asking a positive question, quit being so normative about it!

This week, on reports that China will be moving from a one-child policy to a two-child policy, I was horrified to see a slew of pieces on the benefits of the original policy, or how it “worked”. Then, when people had the predictable human reaction to such a framing, they received, without fail, this same rationalism-bot response:

The original source of my own horror was Tyler Cowen’s post, Did China’s one-child policy have benefits?

The post is masterful in its way:

  • He starts out by saying that the policy is an immoral restriction on personal freedom so of course he opposes it.
  • Then he points to a paper on how it nevertheless increased investment per child.
  • Nevertheless, the paper, and he, think that decreased fertility explains the lion’s share, if not all of this, so the impact of the policy in this regard was probably small or “it is highly likely the policy has been obsolete for some while.”

When I read this post, I thought to myself: he believes he’s washed his hands by making the categorical assertion about infringement of liberty. And he thinks that this is a mere is-ought matter, or as economists like to say (following Milton Friedman), he’s talking about positive, factual economics as opposed to dealing with anything normative.

And moreover, the moment that anyone expresses outrage, he will call them a “mood affiliator,” which he defines as follows:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

This is in the fine and growing tradition of saying one is cognitively impaired through some bias, or invalidating an argument by calling some piece of it a fallacy, rather than coming out and saying that you think the other person is arguing in bad faith (or more simply, is mistaken!)

To summarize:

  • A morally monstrous policy that, in a slightly moderated form, continues to terrorize innocent people, is appraised specifically in terms of its benefits.
  • The author washes their hands by saying that of course they’re normatively opposed to the policy, they just want to examine it positively!
  • The costs—in a bloodless utilitarian sense or in the sense of human costs—are not even mentioned.
  • Anyone who reacts with predictable horror at this framing is told that they’re simply being illogical or irrational.

And indeed, in discussing this post a defender of it implied that I was being a mood affiliator.

And consider this glowing comment on the post itself:

This was an excellent post. It clearly separates the normative from the positive, separates means from ends, addresses the most obvious objections (e.g., for twins, “what about birth weight”?) immediately, and kicks the comments beehive.

Excellent post. Clearly separates the normative from the positive, and means from ends! What more can one wish for?

The Unbearable Gulf of Facticity

Hume’s famous (and in some circles, infamous) is-ought divide comes, of course, from his A Treatise of Human Nature. The frequently quoted passage is as follows:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.

Rather than subverting “all the vulgar systems of morality,” it seems to me that rather it has given birth an endless string of philosophers who take it as a matter of revealed truth that you cannot get a normative implication from a fact about the world.

But that isn’t what Hume said. As Charles Pidgen explains:

He was not denying that the moral can be defined in terms of the non-moral. He was merely denying the existence of logically valid arguments from the non-moral to the moral. This becomes clear once we note that Hume does not think that he has to argue for the apparent inconceivability of is/ought deductions. It is something he thinks he can take for granted. This is what we would expect if he were making the logical point since it would have been obvious to his readers. For it was a commonplace of Eighteenth Century logical theory that in a logically valid argument the matter of the conclusion – that is the non-logical content – is contained within the premises, and thus that you cannot get out what you haven’t put in. Thus if an ‘ought’ appears in the conclusion of an argument but not in the premises, the inference cannot be logically valid. You can’t deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ by means of logic alone.

Which isn’t quite as Earth-shattering a revelation as it continues to be made out to be, because you can’t do much of anything by means of logic alone. Moreover, the obvious implication is that if you bake a relationship between is and ought into your premise, you can absolutely derive an ought deductively. For whatever that is worth.

Hume himself wanted to build up a foundation for morality from human nature—hence the name of the Treatise. Morality was not found in “the relation of objects” but rather in subjects, in our in-born moral sense. Our sense of what we ought to do, in Hume’s own system, originates from facts of our nature. Which is obviously different from deducing what we ought to do in a given situation. Nevertheless, even in Hume, this gulf does not appear to be so very vast.

Hume Was Contributing to a Project Which Has Failed

The Treatise only makes sense in the context of the Cartesian foundationalist project. Reason as it was understood in the Enlightenment was framed by Descartes’ project of radical doubt—only that which could be proved beyond a measure of doubt counted as justified, rational belief. His doubt took him right down to the level of whether he himself even existed, and the fact that there must be a questioner in order to ask such questions is essence of the famous cogito ergo sum. From there, he seeks to build reality back up through abstract reasoning. No one thinks he succeeded.

But he did succeed in imposing a new vision of rationality and reason, one that modern discussions still are all too often caged inside of. This is the notion that what is rational is only that which has some ultimate foundation that cannot be questioned. No such foundation exists, and in fact the very idea of it is incoherent, and so all contributions to this project were doomed to fail. Including Hume’s.

Descartes and his contemporaries also developed the subject-object distinction, something that has at this point become basically everyone’s background assumption of how reality and knowledge work. You can see it in Hume’s argument that “the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects.” Operating within the subject-object schema, he argues that morality is not objective, “out there,” but rather a characteristic of subjects. This is not to be confused with our modern use of the word “subjective” to mean merely arbitrary. Hume clearly believed that noncognitivism, as it came to be called, provided a kind of foundation for morality. Just a different sort from those who believed in an external, objective moral law.

Unlike foundationalism, the subject-object distinction does have its uses. It’s clearly been a helpful tool throughout the centuries. But it is not the only set of joints from which to cut reality, nor, in my judgment, the best. I think we’d all do better to start treating it as a special case rather than assuming it by default.

How to Think Like a Human

Socrates often avails himself of the sophistic arts of argument, but whatever the reason might be, that he does cannot in any way be attributed to some deficiency in the logic of that time. To be sure, Aristotle was the first to clarify the essential theoretical foundations of drawing correct conclusions, and in so doing he also explained the deceptive appearance of false arguments. But no one could seriously contend that the ability to think correctly is acquired only by a detour through logical theory. If we find in Plato’s dialogues and in Socrates’ arguments all manner of violations of logic—false inferences, the omission of necessary steps, equivocations, the interchanging of one concept with another—the reasonable hermeneutic assumption on which to proceed is that we are dealing with a discussion. And we ourselves do not conduct our discussions more geometrico. Instead we move within the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding. Thus it does not seem at all reasonable to me to study Plato primarily with an eye toward logical consistency, although that approach can of course be of auxiliary importance in pointing out where conclusions have been drawn too quickly. The real task can only be to activate for ourselves wholes of meaning, contexts within which a discussion moves—even where its logic offends us. Aristotle himself, the creator of the first valid logic, was well aware of how things stand here. In a famous passage in the Metaphysics, he declares that the difference between dialectic and sophism consists only in the choice or commitment in life, i.e., only in that the dialectician takes seriously those things which the sophist uses solely as the material for his game of winning arguments and proving himself right.
-Hans-Georg Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic

Nothing can stand up to Cartesian doubt. If that’s the standard, then philosophy will fail every time.

It seems clear to me that scientists have achieved an astonishing amount when it comes to understanding the world we live in, however incomplete that understanding might remain (and perhaps always must be). So when someone trots out an epistemology that calls into doubt our ability to know anything at all, it seems to me that it is that philosopher, rather than scientists, who begins to look rather foolish.

Similarly, it seems to me that every day people are able to leap from an understanding of the facts to what they ought to do. Often they feel they have made mistakes, or think others have also made mistakes. But to trot out a bit of formal logic, where you can’t get an ought in the conclusion if you only have an is in the premise, and then treat any normative conclusions drawn from facts as a fallacy—seems, to me, to be ridiculous.

I will grant that people’s inferences about what they should do is not as strong a piece of evidence as the atom bomb, the astonishingly precise and accurate predictions from quantum physics, or the results of germ theory. Nevertheless, the argument against such inferences is even weaker than the evidence. As Gadamer put it, “no one could seriously contend that the ability to think correctly is acquired only by a detour through logical theory.” And invoking this particular piece of logic is, in the context, quite weak indeed.

Which brings us back to the piece that set me off: Tyler Cowen’s post on the one-child policy.

Look at the title again. The question is “Did China’s one-child policy have benefits?”

And yet the commenter I quoted above assures us that this cleanly separated “normative from positive.”

What, dear readers, is a “benefit”?

This is the problem with economic analysis in general. They talk a big talk about separating normative and positive, and thus honoring the is-ought distinction, but the very notion of a benefit is normative!

The counter argument, of course, is that economics assumes a “benefit” in terms of individuals’ own subjective valuations. But that is not a morally neutral choice, either. It demands, at least while performing analysis within the framework, that we exclude other notions of what a “benefit” is. Pure facticity is to be found nowhere in this.

The Humean turn in this regard is just one more way in which Enlightenment rationalism has made us very bad at thinking carefully about our rhetoric. Tyler Cowen is usually very careful in this regard, which is part of why I was stunned by the rhetoric of his post. But it’s clear, as his commenter observed, that the provocation was the main goal of how it was framed. I find this irresponsible given the horrors of the policy in question, horrors which remain unmentioned in the post.

Moreover, while he did not levy the accusation this time, this bit about “mood affiliation” is part of another trend that is due for a reversal; that of taking anything human about the nature of arguing, and categorizing in a way that makes it easy to dismiss.

Let’s take a relatively old one: the “ad hominem” fallacy that is the bread and butter of all Internet arguing.

When we’re talking about an Internet troll who is simply insulting you, of course there’s nothing productive going on.

But once you step out of foundationalism, it starts to become clear how much what we know rests on who we can trust. Trust puts the “faith” in arguing in “good faith”. If we cannot trust the one making an argument, we cannot trust the argument—simple as that. Taking an argument on its merits is not simply looking at the logic of the thing, it’s also looking at the credibility of both the one advancing it and the sources cited.

It’s one thing, in other words, to call someone ranting in a knee-jerk, thoughtless manner, a “mood affiliator.” I don’t know why you wouldn’t simply call such a person unhinged, but if sounding more clinical floats your boat, who am I to judge?

But when you’re talking about the benefits of a policy that is not only an infringement on freedom, but involves an ongoing brutality and inhumanity of a systematic sort, it is shameful to call the predictable negative response to it “mood affiliation” or a failure to understand the is-ought distinction.

Take Responsibility for Your Rhetoric

The Politics of Truth had several explicit targets and many more implicit ones that I felt best left unnamed. I will continue to leave them unnamed, but here are a couple of passages that might be of interest:

There’s a problem inherent to this fact of our nature. What if merely asking a particular question automatically made you less credible? And what if any group that systematically investigated that question, and other related ones, became similarly less credible as a result?

This is no abstract point. Asking “what should be done about the Jewish problem?” tells us a lot about who you are and the group you belong to. Anyone with an ounce of decency would not pay any attention to the claims made by the kind of person who would seriously ask and investigate that question, or the groups that would focus on it. The only attention that such people would draw would be defensive—it would be the attention we give to something we consider to be a threat.

Further down:

Now a modern libertarian, good child of the Enlightenment that they are, wants to assert the clear mathematical truth that no individual vote makes a difference. Especially at the national level. I have seen this happen many times, as a GMU econ alumni. I have done this many times myself.

The problem is that it’s never really clear to me what people hope to accomplish by doing this, other than being correct. Certainly the strong emotional backlash shows that there’s a cherished idea there. But other than casting ourselves in the role of unmasker of a manifest truth, what do we do when we insist upon this point?

A single vote does not sway an election, and therefore it follows…what? Other than undermining a cherished idea, which is indeed incorrect, what exactly is the larger value of the specific point?

In my view, “I believe in freedom so I would never implement the one-child policy, but if I didn’t, here are some benefits” is highly irresponsible and impolitic rhetoric.

Here’s one way that the substance of Cowen’s post could have been framed:

Subject: “Did Decreasing Fertility in China Result in Higher Relative Human Capital Investment?”

Body: “A recent paper suggests that this is the case, drawing on the natural experiment created by twins. They ultimately conclude that the one-child policy likely had little impact on this due to pre-existing trends in declining fertility in China and the rest of the region.”

Sounds different, doesn’t it? And the substance really is basically the same.

To frame it in terms of “the benefits” of the one-child policy, especially with substance so reasonable as that, is either poorly thought out or unethical.

But perhaps I am just a mood affiliator who does not properly understand the is-ought distinction.

11 thoughts on “Does the Is-Ought Divide Make Atrocities More Palatable?

  1. Pingback: Tuesday assorted links

  2. This whole “benefits of one child policy” reasoning makes me just want to throw up my hands in frustration and want to declare that we can’t say anything about morality! If you earnestly believe that slaughtering millions of babies is an acceptable method for a marginal improvement in per child human capital investment (of course not including those children who were murdered in your averages), really what’s the point in doing economic cost/benefit analysis at all? Yes, you can make the trite comparison and talk about the benefits of the Holocaust of reduced Jews in Germany, but you don’t even need to go that far. For example, there are real world labor markets which raise average worker productivity and wages simply by excluding the least educated workers from the workforce entirely. You can averages look much better simply by picking a group and simply not counting them.

    If this were just some nutjob, sure, whatever. I understand how the internet works. There are crazy people, they say crazy things, you can’t let it get to you, but this is Tyler “Reasonable and Levelheaded” Cowen we’re talking about, not some bloodthirsty communist commissar. There are so many times when I read some news story and my reaction is 180 degrees to what everyone else is saying, mostly in the direction of being morally appalled by something others are saying is justified. The torture stuff, drone strikes, new wars, not to mention the lesser evils of stupid domestic policies. Maybe that’s why people retreat into the Is/Ought stuff. They realize they are so distant from other’s Ought’s that all that’s left to do is talk about Is’s.

    Once people consider reduced population a benefit, and consider killing people an acceptable means of achieving that benefit, well, there’s nothing left to say. How can you argue morals at all with such a person?

  3. Ian Lippert

    “Moreover, the obvious implication is that if you bake a relationship between is and ought into your premise, you can absolutely derive an ought deductively. For whatever that is worth.”

    “But to trot out a bit of formal logic, where you can’t get an ought in the conclusion if you only have an is in the premise, and then treat anynormative conclusions drawn from facts as a fallacy—seems, to me, to be ridiculous.”

    The fallacy is that you are assuming your conclusion. The only way to get an ought from an is is to have some normative assumption baked into the premises, as you have stated above.

    How do we get these premises baked in? The only way is to use some utilitarian statistical method but in economics we can rarely sample the counter-factual. For example, it is easy to see the negative consequences of the one child policy because we live in the world of forced abortions. But what about the world where millions of people starved to death due to Chinese over population?

    What you believe in these difficult economic/political debates will entirely come down to where your biases lie. The problem with biases is that we can see them so easily in others and not in ourselves that it is far too tempting for Internet debaters to pull the fallacy 101 card on their opponents without applying it as strictly to themselves.

    But I find the is-ought dichotomy becomes a lot more interesting when we move past statistical bias (which can be eliminated through a diligent collection of the facts) and move towards normative bias, using normative assumptions to prove normative conclusions.

    As a former libertarian I find the concept of property fascinating because there is no way to prove who owns what without crashing directly into Hume’s is/ought dichotomy. People have a moral right to owning property because they, or a group of theys, assume they own it. There is no moral case to be made for why some people are allowed access to abundant amounts of land (I’m from Canada) while others are trapped in small unproductive countries. Countries that are so unproductive that they are escaping by the millions (as in Syria).

    And yet when the topic of immigration comes up you hear all this fantastical rhetoric about our right to our land, and our country’s sovereignty. Maybe Tyler’s focus on the capital benefits of the one child policy was facetious but the OPs focus on the use of the is/ought dichotomy as a fallacy ignores the fact that there are unsolvable philosophical problems that the dichotomy brings to light.

    1. I’m not talking about assuming what you prove.

      Hume’s only point was that people were assuming a relationship between is and ought without specifying what that was—not that it was impossible to specify such a relationship. The point about formal logic is trivially true. But if formal logic was all there was to reasoning, we’d already have true artificial intelligence at this point. We do not, and it is not.

      Hume specified a relationship of this sort himself. From facts of our nature—our moral sentiments and our customs—he argued that we _feel_ certain ways about the facts of a situation which then leads us to believe we should take certain actions in response. This is not a tautology, it does not assume what it proves; I think it is incorrect or at least incomplete, but it can’t be dismissed simply because both “is” and “ought” are involved.

      “But what about the world where millions of people starved to death due to Chinese over population?”

      It is this ridiculous specter that should be dealt with directly, and it is for this reason that I find Tyler’s post so irresponsible. He knows that every Malthusian argument since Malthus himself has proved erroneous, and there was no reason to suppose it would play out in Malthus’ favor in China more than anywhere else. Yet people still entertain such notions, and that is their primary interest where one-child policies are concerned—NOT human capital investment per person. To mention the “benefits” of the policy without going into this central argument around the policy was, I think, irresponsible.

      But look at what you have just done—you’ve posited an imagined factual scenario: overpopulation leads to starvation. And you’ve leaped to a policy that we ought to therefore consider—the one-child policy. People who assert the primacy of the is-ought divide do this all the time, because it is basically impossible to talk about anything important without doing so, and believing in that primacy is not enough to stop people from caring about important things.

      As for utilitarianism; there is nothing special about it that makes it somehow more immune to the is-ought criticism than any other moral philosophy. It, too, seeks to direct our actions based on facts about the world. If the is-ought distinction has teeth (which it doesn’t), then we ought (hmm) to reject utilitarianism along with all other moral philosophy.

  4. neal


    This seems to me a poor argument against a notion of an is-ought divide. Why not just conclude that people usually have “oughts,” values, embedded into their premises which allow them to translate observation of fact into course of action?

  5. Pingback: My Moral Foundations | azmytheconomics

  6. You make a number of very good points here. Someone who wrote a piece called “Did Nazi extermination of imbeciles have benefits?” which started “of course it was wrong but …” before (say) examining the welfare budget of 1950s Germany in detail would not be a coolly analytical observer of economic facts but rather a provocateur (or worse). It’s not dissimilar to Bernard Williams’ point about the person who says, when confronted with a business difficulty, “well of course we could hire a hitman to kill the competitors, but that would be morally wrong so let’s not do that” – even raising the point shows a moral blindness on their part.

    Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want to throw out concepts like mood affiliation as being simply an attack on human reasoning (meaning all reasoning other than logical deduction). There is good and bad human reasoning, good and bad appeals to authority, good and bad ad hominem arguments, and so on. The modern trend of being more aware of cognitive biases such as mood affiliation is helpful precisely because it is capable of improving normal human everyday reasoning. Just as it is worth knowing that post hoc propter hoc is a fallacy, it’s worth knowing that one might be subject to confirmation bias. The best use of an awareness of cognitive biases is in self-scrutiny, but that’s not to say that it can’t also be properly used in arguments with others.

    1. This is all very well put, and I think the disagreements we might have here are fairly minor.

      I don’t oppose the cognitive bias literature or the identifying of logical fallacies; I mostly just protest how they are currently employed. Of course, in a way they are employed in exactly the way the former would predict they would be!

      I think that an ethics of argumentation should put the onus on us to avoid writing off people by reaching for some bias or fallacy to categorize their points inside of. One does not have to go so far as to “steel-man” the other side (though that’s admirable when done) as much as simply say that you think they are incorrect, and marshal evidence accordingly.

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