The Is-Ought Problem and Moral Advocacy

David Hume once made the very useful observation that you can’t really make an argument for what ought to be based solely on logical statements. Ultimately, you need to have a stated assumption about what you believe is good or ideal or desirable, and then you can use logic to draw out implications. It’s called the Is-Ought problem.

So, much to my chagrin, I can’t tell people they shouldn’t like mayonnaise based on strictly logical facts. Somewhere in my arguments there will be some (usually hidden) assumption about what I think is right (e.g. the destruction of all mayo or of all creamy white things), with the rest of my argument being constructed on that premise. And because it’s not really a matter of logic, people can agree or disagree with that premise.

I think Hume’s idea is true, but it sure does make moral advocacy more difficult. It means I can’t just tell people that to be misogynist or racist or a lot of the things I hate is irrational. But I’m not a sophist, and common sense tells me we need to keep telling people to do “the right thing”, so I need a different approach.

Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Start with the standard existentialist position: there’s no externally imposed meaning, so each person has to impose meaning internally. I can keep telling people to stop being racist or misogynist or into mayo – but I have to own it. I think those things are wrong; it’s not God or Reason or any other higher authority that does the work or gets the blame.
  2. If I own it and am trying to get people to change, it’s incumbent upon me to persuade them. I can’t just call them irrational and go home, basking in superiority. If I didn’t persuade them, I’ve failed.
  3. I think people can be persuaded; I think human beings share a lot of the same wiring. If you dig deep enough past the culture and experience shaping a person, I think you get pretty similar basic drives. So, putting it roughly, there’s probably a lot of shared ought between me and most people.
  4. Start from the common ground and build up. Start with finding the common ground of oughts and then try to work your way towards the point you’re advocating for by using logical arguments. Don’t start with the arguments until you’ve hit on genuine common ground. You’re essentially leveraging human beings’ need for internal consistency to change their point of view.
  5. ???
  6. Profit!

Admittedly, this is difficult. There may be no common ground, which means you’re done (I don’t think this is the issue most of the time). More likely, people will stop listening or engaging with your arguments (and punch you) whenever they makes them uncomfortable (something about horses not drinking water). Or, it turns out you have no valid arguments, in which case you’ve got to do more thinking.

Its chances of working aren’t great most of the time, but I’m guessing they beat those of the alternative approach (it’s illogical to be racist). Of course, you could also just bully people into thinking what you think, but I think that’s wrong.

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