I've recently met someone who identifies as an "Objectivist." I'm a moral nihilist, so naturally I asked about the is-ought problem.

His response was frustrating.

He claims that Rand avoids the is-ought problem by recognizing that it is not a problem at all. In his view, a "normative" claim is just a description of an individual's "objective values" (by which he seems to mean "subjective preferences").

I suggested that this is a non-standard definition. At best, it seems confusing, and at worse it seems like unabashed sophistry. I also pointed out the redefining all of the words used to state an argument does not address it.

He countered by accusing me of using an intentionally deceptive definition of normative. He claims that if I were not so caught up in an irrelevant notion of normativity, I would realize that what I'm actually apologizing is not moral nihilism but "objectivism." How convenient!

How do I go about explaining the is-ought dichotomy to someone who won't differentiate between normative claims and descriptions of desires?


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    It's not that Objectivists don't recognize the gap between 'is' and 'ought', but recognize that it is easily crossable with an 'if'. 'If you want this, then you ought...' is thoroughly rational, and they will argue that your status as a man, a living being, a philosophical creature, entails that you have already accepted certain values, and hence the 'is' of reality dictates the 'ought' of behavior given those values. – Ask About Monica Sep 28 '15 at 20:51
  • This objection is common not just from "objectivists". Propositions like, "If a man wants to live, then he must eat,” seem reasonable enough; however, they suffer from a phrasal ambiguity. If the speaker means, "The only way a man will be able to achieve his goal of living is by eating," he is making a positive claim. On the other hand, if the speaker means, "If a man wants to live, then he OUGHT to eat," the statement is a normative claim and a non-sequitur. The missing proposition usually being along the lines of, "If a man wants X, then he ought to do that which is logically entailed by X." – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 3:44
  • In my experience, once this proposition is stated outright, few accept it, and I have yet to meet someone who does not think it requires additional justification or restriction. – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 3:44
  • @kbelder (whoops forgot to mention you in my response) – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 3:53
  • A value is still an "ought", and it is not a preference (you know you should be working but you prefer to go outside). So your friend is not solving the problem. – Quentin Ruyant Sep 29 '15 at 13:45

There is a quote on the Wikipedia page on Objectivism that deals with this:

"[I]t is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible," and, "the fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do." Rand writes: "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action... It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death..."

It goes on to give another quote:

If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many "must's", but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: "you must, if –" and the if stands for man's choice: "if you want to achieve a certain goal"

So, the is-ought problem isn't a problem for Objectivists, it seems, because they reject that these are really two different kinds of claims - one about reality as it is and one about how reality could be. Instead, there are claims about what is needed if one is to continue living (or whatever the particular goal might be).

I agree though, your debating partner's dismissal of "a 'normative' claim is just a description of an individual's 'objective values'" seems (1) to go against Objectivism, (2) to just be renaming things. It seems that for a moral nihilist, the best rebuttal is not just the is-ought problem but rather pointing out that the Objectivist answer to the is-ought problem doesn't just kick the can down the road - while one ought to do something if one wants to remain alive, why should one want to remain alive?

  • All I can see in Rand's texts is an normative claim being derived from a positive claim. ;) Would you mind clarifying (1) for me? You seem to have roughly restated his argument with additional support from Rand's texts, but claimed that such a redefinition of normative goes against "objectivism." Am I missing something here? – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 3:50
  • I've also tried going down that path of questioning desires too. Again, his responses have been frustrating. He agrees that slavery is not consistent with the Objectivist ethic; however, his justification for this is that it is not in any individual's rational self-interest to be a master. I suggested that this may be the case now in light of modern technology for a subset of people living in first-world countries, but that this has always been and always will be the case is dubious, especially given the historical prevalence of slavery. – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 4:07
  • I'm still trying to parse it all out, but my understanding of his response so far is that in the same way as the cure for cancer (if it indeed exists) is a cure regardless of if it is known, slavery is (and has always been) suboptimal precisely because mechanization is possible (regardless of if it has yet to be invented or is known by the master). All of this seems to be closely related to why he is insistent about a distinction between "objective values" and "subjective values". I'm still pondering my response. – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 4:12
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    It isn't really about whether someone "wants" to be alive or not. It is a recognition of the fact that life is a precondition of value. Asking why one should want to remain alive ignores this and instead shifts the focus on an arbitrary whim, treating it as if it were an absolute. One reality about the natural of and healthy state of living beings, one could point out, is that the instinct for self-preservation (the choice to live) is the default, not the flaw. The question to be posed is why would a healthy organism choose self-destruction? I may formulate this into a broader reply later. – Lucretius Dec 17 '15 at 15:24

I want to point out that the question immediately implies that Objectivists have no understanding of the Is-Ought problem. This is quite unfair as there is Objectivist literature specifically addressing the Is-Ought problem. Ayn Rand herself addressed this in "The Virtue of Selfishness." The problem is that a lot of the jargon she uses is that paragraph has to be unpacked. I've unpacked it quite well (I think) in my response to another question about Objectivism and the Is-Ought.

"objective values" (by which he seems to mean "subjective preferences").

This is one of the most common communication problems between Objectivists and non-Objectivists. This may be second only to the misunderstandings around "selfishness" (rational self-interest) and "altruism" which most people associate with a general concern for the well-being of others (but not Objectivists!). I explained a little bit about Ayn Rand's disposition as a non-native English speaker here.

It could qualify as sophistry, but there is a lot of written material on why these terms mean what they mean. No deception or "wiggling" is being attempted. Ayn Rands theory of Concept Formation doesn't accept language as necessarily valid because of common convention. It's terrible to reduce an answer down to semantics, but Ayn Rand put forth a theory of Concept Formation that was very unique in that it ascribes identity to concepts. Words mean very specific things, and if we can't agree on that we can't even communicate. Words are verbal concretes that encapsulate a vast amount of conceptual data, and there is no reason to believe all currently understood concepts (words) are valid in their meaning.

Objectivism, by means of describing an individuals value system, is able to provide context around "subjective preferences" that explains them as "objective values." Sounds like sophistry... but again, value systems, and the concept of value itself, are very specific identifications (what is a value? Why?)... but only the individual can determine their own core set of values (beyond those survival level must-have values common among all humans). In this manner, being different from person to person doesn't make them any less Objective. For example, the amount that another person values his wife, family, or job is an objective fact of reality to me... whatever it is (for whoever)... and I have no way of disputing it or contradicting it. ("No! You actually love driving way more than you think!")

someone who won't differentiate between normative claims and descriptions of desires?

Objectivists do this already, but just using different language (again, but for good reason). Rand herself even acknowledge "normative" claims, but she differentiated "Normative" from "Cognitive". She viewed Normative as being dependent on the Cognitive abstractions, i.e., things we learn about reality (including our own nature).

The distinction you're looking for is "Value" (normative) vs "Whim" (subjective preference) which again forces one to dig into each of those concepts as Objectivists understand them. How can Objectivists differentiate between values and wishes? Actions!

While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man’s choice).

So to answer the question how things "ought" to be (normative ethics) is entirely based on first learning what is (cognitive abstraction). What a person "wants" is irrelevant, what a person values is where normative ethics come into play. Ex. Since we live for ~70-80 years on average, we ought to incorporate long range planning in planning our daily activities if we value a prosperous future. The nuance of Objectivism comes in its concept of value (cognitive abstraction), which is used as a basis for all of its normative claims about what one ought do. The modifier, perceived as subjectivity, is that individual value systems give way to differences is what one ought do.

One user asked a question about delayed gratification and Objectivism that illustrates the point well. He was asking what he ought do, and I answered his question consistent with my response above.

If you value living in your home town and pursuing a teaching career more than any benefits you're currently getting in your corporate job then you are behaving irrationally. If you believe your current job is a stepping stone that is enabling you more economic freedom so that later in life (not necessarily 30 years) you can move home and pursue teaching, then you are fine where you're at.

Only you can weigh those values friend, but you don't seem happy. Perhaps you haven't explored all of the opportunities for excitement, fun, leisure, activities, etc... in your new city?


I think the person you were discussing this topic with did not do a very good job of explaining the Objectivist theory on the is-ought problem. This is something that Rand has written about explicitly in her essay The Objectivist Ethics, and it is also discussed in many Objectivist works, including Chapters 6-7 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Probably the most detailed reference on this topic is the book Viable Values by the philosopher Tara Smith. This work sets out the argument for the moral philosophy of Objectivism and its bridging of the is-ought gap in great detail.

Notwithstanding these excellent references, I will try my best to summarise the argument for bridging the is-ought gap in its most basic form. The argument Rand uses to bridge the is-ought gap is one of conditional reasoning that recognises that for a living being engaging in moral reasoning, certain values have already been implicitly accepted. Rand recognised that living beings have a choice of whether to live or die; she regards this as a "pre-moral choice" which occurs prior to the bridging of the is-ought gap, and for which moral philosophy does not provide assistance. She also recognised that life-vs-death in living organisms is not just a dichotomy, but a continuum from flourishing (good health, efficacy, etc.) down to non-flourishing (sick, tired, hungry, etc.) right down to death. An analogy often given in Objectivist discussions of this topic is that of the wilting flower, which is alive, but not flourishing (i.e., it is close to being dead).

Once this pre-moral choice is made, if a person choses to die then they can die, and so they don't require moral philosophy (or arguably their moral philosophy then just becomes a set of normative instructions for telling them how to die, which is not very difficult). On the other hand, if a person chooses to live then they have implicitly accepted life as the root of later values. Rand argued that this entails that they have implicitly accepted flourishing as a value, since this is the extreme of life-versus-death. Once the choice to live is made, various "oughts" follow logically as consequences of this choice (I ought to eat, I ought to go to the doctor when I am sick, etc.). This bridging of the is-ought gap is conditional on the pre-moral choice to live, and so moral philosophy is a set of logical normative consequences of the pre-moral choice to live.

** Although the choice to live or die is "pre-moral", this does not preclude the use of Objectivist moral philosophy to evaluate life (according to this being a value) to make a comparison to death, to assist the person to make this pre-moral choice.


Person A says "I want A, therefor it ought to be A."

Person B says "I want B, therefor it ought to be B."

Let's say A and B are not compatible and the statement A xor B must remain true.

Let us also say that both people are "Objectivists" and so both will act in their best interest to strive for their own goal.

One, both, or neither will succeed. But who wins out is irrelevant.

Neither one will be able to convince the other that there goal ought to be the case. Both goals cannot be an ought, only one, as the two goals are not compatible.

That "is" defines "ought," or "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do," is clearly circular. Rand confuses this situation with her theory of moral choice which leaves the "ought" to choice and not to "is." This is the problem of pre-moral choice which has stymied Objectivist ethics for decades now.

So really your acquaintance almost hit the nail on the head when they claimed you were describing "objective values" except what he REALLY meant was "subjective values" as you pointed out.

The "Objectivist" is not arguing from an "Is" to an "Ought" but from an "I want" to an "ought" and as such, they really have an even bigger gap to close, if they want to provide a gap closing rationale.

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    I completely agree with your analysis; however, it's worth noting that the "I want"-ought gap is just a special case of the is-ought gap where the positive claim is a description of an individual's desires. Regardless, all of the words I would use to explain this idea have been systematically redefined. Do you have any idea how I might go about explaining this to someone who does not recognize the distinction between normative and positive claims? Paradoxically, he seems to make the former quite frequently. – anarchocurious Sep 29 '15 at 4:21
  • @Alec normally when 2 people are talking past each other the debate will go nowhere until one of the underlying premises that cause the difference in views can be resolved. My view on the difference between the "is" and the "I-want" is that the "I-want" is only a small fraction of the "is" The "is" being the totality of reality is so much larger than the "I-want" – hellyale Sep 29 '15 at 4:54
  • @Alec maybe make him watch this? youtube.com/watch?v=AV_p_QntywA – hellyale Sep 29 '15 at 4:55

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