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Is-Ought Dichotomy

Is-Ought Dichotomy

Eyal Mozes

3 Mins
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January 26, 2011

Question: I found the following text in an article by Patrick O'Neil (Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 7, no. 1) and would like to know your answer to it.

"The following syllogism is defective, but it represents the most basic moral reasoning of the Randian system:

The adoption of value system x is necessary for the survival of any human being. You are a human being. Therefore, you should adopt value system x.

The missing premise - a prescriptive premise - is that one ought to do what is necessary in order to survive. But any inclusion of that prescriptive premise just triggers the infinite regression of the is-ought dichotomy. Treatment of the problem as a hypothetical imperative would prove equally unsatisfactiory:

If you wish to survive, you ought to adopt value system x. You wish to survive. Therefore, you ought to adopt value system x.

This syllogism is perfectly valid, but it will not serve for Rand's purposes, for its introductory conditional makes the entire ethical system subjectively dependent on the individual human will: If you do not choose to survive, there appear to be no grounds upon which the Randians can condemn your judgment morally. Objectivist ethics are, therefore, thoroughly subjective."

Answer: Of the two forms in which O'Neil presents the syllogism, the second one is certainly more accurate in presenting Ayn Rand 's approach. The first form implies that Rand's ethics is some sort of duty that you "should" follow independently of your own choices and values; Rand completely rejected the idea of such duties, and certainly did not regard her own ethics as one.

Ayn Rand stands in a long tradition in ethics, which started with the classical Greeks and also included many Enlightenment thinkers, of ethics as a form of applied knowledge, similar to engineering or medicine, whose purpose is to identify the means needed for achieving certain results in order to guide the actions of those who want to achieve these results. Ethics is wider in scope and more fundamental than other forms of applied knowledge, because it guides the most basic choices that affect everything in your life; but the pattern is the same.

O'Neil's criticism of Ayn Rand 's ethics therefore makes no more sense than criticizing the principles of civil engineering by saying that "the entire system is subjectively dependent on the individual designer's will: If you do not choose for your building to remain standing, there appear to be no grounds upon which the civil engineers can condemn your engineering judgment. The principles of civil engineering are therefore entirely subjective." In both cases, what makes the theory objective is if it identifies the means that are objectively necessary for achieving the result (in the case of ethics, your own survival; in the case of civil engineering, having the building remain standing).

O'Neil's criticism takes it for granted that the purpose of ethics is to provide a basis for morally condemning others; therefore, if it is possible for someone to act against the Objectivist ethics without the ethics providing a basis for condemning him, that is an essential failure of the ethical system.

The purpose of Rand's ethics is not to provide a basis for condemning those who don't choose to live, it is to guide the actions of those who do.

The idea of moral condemnation as the basic purpose of ethics comes from some elements of the Christian tradition, and is supported by the Kantian tradition; through most of the 20th century it was completely dominant and taken for granted in the philosophy profession (and mostly still so in 1984 when O'Neil wrote his article); but in the past two decades it has become much less dominant. While Ayn Rand did regard moral judgment, both positive and negative, as extremely important (mostly as a means for deciding which people it is in your interest to deal with), the idea of condemnation as the central purpose of ethics was completely foreign to her; the purpose of Rand's ethics is not to provide a basis for condemning those who don't choose to live, it is to guide the actions of those who do.