Why Ought Vs Is isn’t a useful argument

Sam Harris’s upcoming book “The Moral Landscape” is an attempt to argue that there are scientific things we can say to back up claims such as “throwing acid in the face of girls is not an effective way to propagate human well-being”.

Sam’s arguments have long come up against a lot of opposition from well-meaning people who nevertheless persist in arguing that since Hume said something intelligent about “ought vs. is” we have nothing scientific to say about issues of human morality.

The most tired argument is that Sam is arguing that we “ought” to minimise human suffering whereas in fact that is merely his opinion. This is, however, bullshit. First of all, this is not what Sam is arguing. Sam’s entire premise is that morality is a scientific discussion about the well-being of humans versus the suffering of humans. Remove the word “scientific” and nobody would bat an eyelid, however once you add that word, a torrent of opposition and abuse seems to be hurled in the face of the person arguing the point. Secondly, he is not arguing that we “ought” to minimise human suffering. He is arguing that most of our social policies do in principle act to minimise human suffering, in some way. He is further arguing, correctly, in my estimation, that there are quite a lot of these policies that can be scientifically said to be more effective or less effective in acheiving this goal than others.

This is all still rather hard for “ought vs. is” proponents to swallow so let’s examine the specific example of acid-throwing. Sam argues that throwing acid in the face of female children who try to read, or step beyond whatever other arbitrary social boundary their patriarchical society places on their second-class citizens, is not an effective method of minimising human suffering. He is correct in saying that this policy is indeed rooted in an effort to maximise human well-being (the converse of minimising human suffering) if not in this life, then in the next, by strict adherence to religious ideology and the traditions they believe to be integral to their cultural identity and their religious sense-of-self, and this is important to note, for it would be easy to say that Sam is simply arguing that he doesn’t agree with the practice and therefore it’s not moral based on his subjective opinion. Since, however, morality is about suffering vs well-being where acts that lead to suffering are labelled ‘immoral’ and acts that lead to well-being are ‘moral’, if we examine the situation closely, as Sam has surely done, and figure out whether it will lead to suffering or well-being, we can say definitively whether the practice is moral or immoral based on evidence and not simple subjective opinion.

So, what effect will throwing acid in the face of a female child have? First of all, there is the immediate physical pain of the act inflicted upon the child. It is a demonstrable fact that physical pain impacts negatively on the psyche of the sufferer, e.g. people with migraine headaches become sullen and agressive, easily upset and frustrated and ultimately unhappy, as expressed by them personally; animals experiencing intentionally inflicted pain become fearful of their torturer, and the effects of fear and torture motivation upon people, and animals, is a well-known phenomenon.

This ties into the further emotional pain the sufferer will experience, having had acid splashed in their face. As an animal tortured will become lethargic and disinterested when not motivated by threat of violence so do people who have been physically abused exhibit psychological effects such as lethargy, depression, feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem etc… In this case we also have to admit of the reality that such an attack will lead to feelings of victimisation, feelings of having failed either their society, their culture, their elders or their parents and their wishes, and feelings of inadequacy due to the inability to see their attackers face justice for what they have done to them.

Further to this the child will suffer permanent physical disfigurement due to the acid. Society is extremely good at marginalising the disfigured, the abnormal and the disabled, and as such, the physical pain, compounded by the long-lasting emotional pain is further complicated by social marginalisation. In a society where a female girl is forced to wear a burqa, is not allowed to learn to read, unable to drive a car, unable to vote and flagrantly treated as a second-class citizen, marginalisation is already in high gear for this child. They belong to an almost dirty class of people who have little rights and barely any voice for themselves, and now, having had acid thrown in their face, they are a pariah, amongst a class of pariahs. Even the most chipper of lassies would be hard pressed to honestly say they are experiencing even moderate levels of well-being after having had acid thrown in their face for merely expressing their innate curiosity.

Ok, you say, all well and good, it’s not an exactly nice practice, but in that society, staying true to one’s religion, ideologies and traditions will provide widespread well-being for that society as that is how they try to maximise well-being in their cultural traditions, whether it manifests in this life or the next. Ignoring the dubious, if not farsical, claim of a ‘next life’ can we definitively say that there is no better way for that society to maximise the well-being of their citizens?

It can be argued that there are many better ways. Obviously the society demands or requires the punishment of the child for stepping outside their supposed purview (otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary to carry it out) however a less impactful punishment such as a public flogging, a fine, a verbal reprimand, or any other less severe punishment than acid throwing would both address the need to keep to the traditions and encourage the child to keep from straying from them. It is not unreasonable to say that there exists some compromise whereby the child experiences less suffering and the cultural traditions and ideologies are maintained. Following from this, since the child experiences less suffering in this life, and the well-being maximising process is maintained in that society, it can be said that the practice of acid-throwing is not the best policy for maximising well-being for that society.

Not only can it be said that the practice is not the best to maximise well-being, but it is also supported by evidence and scientific analysis and not by a subjective opinion or any kind of false ‘ought’ inference. The argument is not that in order to maximise well-being in any society one ‘ought’ not to throw acid in childrens faces. The argument is that is demonstrably detrimental to human well-being to throw acid in childrens faces, which is a completely different kind of claim which is both supported by evidence and a scientific claim upon a moral issue, thereby dispelling the myth that science has nothing to say in areas of morality.


2 thoughts on “Why Ought Vs Is isn’t a useful argument

  1. Cathyby says:

    I was not aware that the myth existed that science had nothing to say in the realm of morality. To make a moral judgement one needs facts, and science is the best fact finding process we have.
    The problem with morality and science is deeper, however. IS well-being all there is to morality? Is an unjust society in which well-being is greater more moral than a just but less well off society? What is well-being anyway?

    These are questions that it is difficult to see science answering, and the core of the is-ought problem. What is, and what causes what, does not tell us what *should* be.

  2. The is-ought problem is a non problem though. Yes the definition of well-being is subjective but, given a specific definition of well-being, science, based on “is” can tell us “ought” in relation to fulfilling the necessary requirements for meeting the highest level of well-being to that specific definition.

    The subjective experience of sentient creatures is, itself an objective fact to which a specific set of data can be correlated

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