It would seem that a substantial minority of philosophers agree with the moral anti-realist position that we have a problem going from "is" to "ought"--that there is no objective correlate of the moral principles humanity deems normative.(1)

Why, then, do the overwhelming majority of philosophers seem content to let their own lives be ruled by these quite inexplicable values? You rarely(2) see a philosopher live according to a religious faith that he acknowledges has no basis in reality. And yet living by moral values, which are arguably just as unexplained and unproven as the most fabulous religion, seems to present no problem for these philosophers.(3) Please explain where the distinction lies.

Is it that:

  • They acknowledge there is some as-yet-unknown reason that morality is "true" and therefore binding?

  • They subscribe to one or more classical answers to Hume's question (e.g. Kant, Mill and Bentham) and proceed from there?

  • It is some sort of Pascal's Wager: "If they are true, then we really need to. If they are not, then it doesn't hurt."

  • They don't really feel it is right nor necessary to behave morally, but do so because there are subjective advantages?

  • They don't think it is necessary in general to "walk the walk" of their philosophical conclusions?

I think that all but the second idea above may be at least partly contradicted by my religion example. Is my second idea, then, correct? Is some other explanation correct? Or could this be an example of inconsistency in belief and/or action by certain philosophers? (4)

(1)Of course, many have suggested solutions to the is-ought problem; some, like Ayn Rand, have excused themselves entirely. I overwhelmingly sympathize, believing, for my own part, that the is-ought gap may be bridged by the naturalistic phenomenon of pain. But let us look for a minute at the many who think it is not so simple. (2) It seems there are interesting exceptions. (3) It could be that some philosophers, perhaps Nietzsche, aspired or did in fact live according to a prima facie rejection of moral values. Are there any others? (4) I realize there are many potential technical problems with what I have just written and I ask you to forgive me for not being an expert in this field, and to focus on the question you think I am aiming to ask rather than the question I have asked.

  • I would challenge the Is-ought problem. "Is" part always has persuasive goals, in order to make audience accept the "ought" part.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 10:10
  • (3) Nietzsche had his own values, what he rejected are values common to society he lived in. Everyone has values, but not everyone has values common to society.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 10:16
  • 2
    I do not know the answer to the question as asked but would note that there is another view by which it is possible to go from 'is' to 'ought'. As you say, it may be the only way to ground an ethical scheme. I can't answer your question about inconsistency and belief but your list of seems to cover the bases.
    – user20253
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 11:46
  • This survey finds that 56.4% of philosophers surveyed "accept or lean toward" moral realism: philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl -- that is, that there is an "objective correlate of the moral principles humanity deems normative." (Oh, and I think the phrase you want to use is "walk the talk", rather than "walk the walk".)
    – Chelonian
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 13:48
  • 1
    Norms need not be either objective or binding to be followed, they can be followed for purely pragmatic reasons (so can religious norms, for that matter, but such following might be called disingenuous). And people do not "live by moral values", they act on habit most of the time and rationalize what they did after the fact, in terms of moral values, religion, utility, or whatever else comes handy. The idea that behavior is derived from some rational principles, even if there were any, is very naive, as Hume himself pointed out, where reason is useless passions take over.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 20:28

6 Answers 6



I don't think a philosophy site is the best place to explain the psychology of philosophers' practical stance(s) towards morality. But some response can be made.

Fact/ value distinction

If moral realism is right, then values and valuations are facts or factual, so that there is no logical bridge-crossing from [factual] 'is' to [factual] 'ought'. For whatever reason, a large number of philosophers subscribe to some version of moral realism. In which case there is no is/ ought gap or problem for them.

Reading (below) : DeLapp, Putnam.

Hume's emotivism

Hume assumes a fact/ value distinction and responds that while logically we cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' (if there are no normative premises there can be no validly deduced normative conclusion), this is besides the point morally.

Hume observes that 'Morality ... is more properly felt than judg'd of' (A Treatise of Human Nature, III.1.2). We can continue to use the term 'moral judgement' as long as we realise that a moral judgement does not refer, despite appearances, to 'real' moral properties in a mind-independent world. Rather, a moral judgement expresses emotions (or 'sentiments'). Not just any emotions one happens to feel, however. Very far from it. It must express a moral emotion. And for a emotion to count as a moral emotion, there are two prerequisites or conditions.

Moral judgement - condition 1

Hume stresses that :

it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained. (Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, I.)

Briefly put, moral judgement requires that we ascertain the empirical facts about a situation, distinguish them, see what they appear to imply, make sure that we are reflecting on the precise situation at hand and not on one merely deceptively similar to it, draw on relevant historical parallels : and so on. We need an accurate factual fix on the situation. Moral judgement is no flip emotional reaction; it needs to be factually informed.

But does Hume offer no criteria for just how much information, of what exact reliability, we need ? Partly, I think, he assumes that in many case we can use sociocultural standards to determine the degree of rigour and the extent of evidence required in making a moral judgement. Importantly, he doesn't leave us merely floating in this boat, however. In the Treatise of Human Nature, II.1.3 he lays down rules for the scrutiny of evidence, probability, and belief.

Moral judgement - condition 2

That is one condition for moral judgement. The other is that we must take a third party point of view. Of the moral agent, who judges, Hume says :

He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others. (Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, IX.1)

When these two conditions are met, we experience 'certain peculiar sentiments of pain and pleasure' - of approbation and disapprobation. Briefly, moral judgements express our sentiments - our emotional reactions - of approbation and disapprobation under these conditions. Moral judgement is causal through emotion, not cognitive through reason.

The role of sympathy in human nature and moral judgement

The whole picture rests on a picture of human nature as containing a capacity for sympathy which enables us (in Hume's language) to depart from our private and particular situations and take the standpoint of what Adam Smith would later call 'the impartial spectator' (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.5). In this detached, third-person perspective, and factually informed, we experience the moral emotions which we express in moral judgements.

In a distinction which Hume draws between the natural and the artificial virtues, the arousal of sympathy occurs less directly in the case of the artificial virtues than in that of the natural. But sympathy is still the key to both. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, III.2.1.)

In view of all this, there is no logical bridge-crossing in Hume's ethical theory any more than there is, on very different grounds, for the moral realist.

Reading (below) : Hume online references, Cohon, Harrison, Mackie, Adam Smith online reference, Thomas.

Theory and practice

If ethics is a theoretical discipline, a philosopher can quite properly scrutinise it philosophically without any practical requirement to act on it. I could study political philosophy without any political involvements and without seeing myself as having any practical commitment to engage in political action. The same holds for ethics. One may regard it as an outmoded way of thinking, and the moral life a mere curiosity, yet still do deep and intricate conceptual and logical work on both. Work on which one closes the door when one leaves one's study and walks away without walking the walk.

Reading (below) : Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk X, where contemplation (theoria), detached from practice, is given priority over moral action. (This interpretation of Aristotle is defensible but open to dispute but it has certainly informed a stream of philosophical thinking which denies practical relevance to philosophy. Aristotle did not go so far as that.)

Amoralism and rational choice

This leaves only your philosophers who 'don't really feel it is right nor necessary to behave morally, but do so because there are subjective advantages'. May they not be rational choosers (subscribers to Rational Choice Theory) who act morally, at least so far as concerns behaviour and without any sense of duty or obligation, because in any of a number of ways it 'pays' ? Their position is foreshadowed by Glaucon's account of morality (though not his own position) in Plato, Republic, Bk II.

Reading (below) : Plato, Republic : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm & J. Baron, Morality and Rational Choice, SBN 10: 0792322762 / ISBN 13: 9780792322764. Published by Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publ., 1993

Reading __________________________________________________________________


Plato, Republic : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics : https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40 : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm

David Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751/ 1777 ed. : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4320/4320-h/4320-h.htm.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759 : https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/smith1759.pdf.


J. Baron, Morality and Rational Choice, SBN 10: 0792322762 / ISBN 13: 9780792322764. Published by Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publ., 1993.

R. Cohon, Hume's Morality: Feeling and Fabrication, ISBN 10: 019959497X / ISBN 13: 9780199594979 Published by Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2012.

Kevin DeLapp, Moral Realism, ISBN 10: 144116118X / ISBN 13: 9781441161185 Published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

J. Harrison, Hume's Moral Epistemology, ISBN 10: 0198750374 / ISBN 13: 9780198750376 Published by Oxford University Press, 1976.

J.L. Mackie, Hume's Moral Theory, ISBN 10: 0710005253 / ISBN 13: 9780710005250 Published by Routledge, 1980.

H. Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, ISBN 10: 0674013808 / ISBN 13: 9780674013803 Published by Harvard University Press, 2004.

Geoffrey Thomas, An Introduction to Ethics, ISBN 10: 0715624318 / ISBN 13: 9780715624319 Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1997 : 53-8 [Hume].

  • ha! re your own book. has anyone said that maybe anti-realists are practicing what they preach, just not acting it out?
    – confused
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 14:19

I will answer this by some examples. These examples will be a challenge to a naive interpretation of is-ought problem. Then I will produce another interpretation consistent with explanations on given examples.

You ought to follow the law. Otherwise you will be punished.

Here is part is the one prescribing the punishment. It is interesting it is prescriptive being descriptive at the same time. The law-giver gives an ought to self making this claim. It stands as a foundation for the ought part.

You ought to follow the law. Nothing will happen to you if you do not, though.

This time it becomes arguable if this statement itself has any meaning. What's the point in making laws without a punishment? Putting "because" in the second sentence will result in non sequitur.

You ought to follow the law.

Since the second part is meaningless we get rid of it. The reaction of someone unfamiliar with a system of laws could be "Why?" if that person could speak English. This means ought seeks a justification. Ought cannot be justified by ought.

You ought to follow the law. Because everyone ought to follow the law.

A person might ask why is everyone ought to follow the law. No ought you produce will be a proper justification. You ought to use is for the justification.

I saw no successful normative theory having no justification. Ten commandments presuppose punishment, Kant has a pretty long explanation why CI should be followed, virtue ethicists use virtues for the justificiation. The list can be continued, but should it? One can produce an ought statement without justification. But I have not seen a successful one.

Now to your 4 points.

They acknowledge there is some as-yet-unknown reason that morality is "true" and therefore binding?

Sometimes, yes. People just have similar attitudes and behave in similar ways because they think in similar ways. But not all of them and we see it in the existence of different normative theories, challenging each others. This is an approach explained in Geoffrey's answer.

They subscribe to one or more classical answers to Hume's question (e.g. Kant, Mill and Bentham) and proceed from there?

I am not aware of Kant's answer on is-ought. It is true, though, he didn't believe everyone would accept his Categorical Imperative, thus in some sense agreeing with Hume. Otherwise he would not think about theory of justice. Mill's solution uses oughts as solutions for desires, method capable of fulfilling them. But one does not need to be a consequentialist to think this way.

They don't really feel it is right nor necessary to behave morally, but do so because there are subjective advantages?

There are enough people who do not break laws (prescripting something more than a small fine) only because the do not want to be imprisoned or severely punished in any other way. But not only a punishment can be such force making those people behave in ways others want them to behave. There also is a reward. Anf those people, if reward is seen by them great enough, will gladly do what other want from them.

They don't think it is necessary in general to "walk the walk" of their philosophical conclusions?

Again, any necessity follows from a reason. people do not "walk the walk" without a reason, but they can follow rules they have been taught just because they get used to it and it is more comfortable for them to behave the way they have been taught.

What exactly can is-ought problem stand for, then? I would in fact call this problem is-is problem, stating that different people can have different views on the world and thus when one person sees a justification, another may not. And it is common undestanding of this problem: "Why is someone ought to have any particular goal?", that's the common question and interpretation. Do we try to persuade serial killers what they do, the goals they have, is wrong? If they are serial killers, probably, it is too late and it does not work. Therefore we just imprison them, escaping ought. It is too late to speak in the terms of ought. Those people ignored empathy, common morals and not even a threat of punishment could stop them.

So, you can't use an explanation to justify your oughts universally, for everyone. An unsatisfactory justification problem (however, this can be extended beyond ethics). And this is how is-ought problem can be interpreted.

  • You do not seem to understand what the is-ought problem is. "Ten commandments presuppose punishment, Kant has a pretty long explanation why CI should be followed, virtue ethicists use virtues for the justification" is exactly what Hume noticed in the ethical literature of his time, that justifications jumped from ises to oughts often without marking it, let alone reflecting on what is behind it. And if you are not aware of Kant's response why not read up on it? As elsewhere, it will benefit you to learn more about issues studied extensively instead of amateurishly reinventing the wheel.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 20:59
  • @Conifold, so where does Kant respond to the is-ought? And what's the problem of jumping from ises to oughts? That's exactly where I say Hume is wrong. Without ises, without jump, the lone ought makes no sense. I don't find such a jumping more or less wrong than jumping from one is to another is. If Hume finds a jumps from ises to oughts non sequitur, that's his problem, not social. Maybe then a responce of Rand is the most rational one? Do I reinvent the wheel? Makes no sense: there is an alien on a far planet inventing a bicycle now.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 21:32
  • I'll give you a hint: synthetic a priori. It is hard to take the rest seriously.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 21:39
  • @Conifold, synthetic a priori is a response to Hume's fork. Indeed, one can say it also affects is-ought problem. What I don't see is a connection between is-ought and Hume's fork. Ought is never about a priori. Show me at least one such ought.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 22:04
  • Reading helps, e.g. Synthetic a priori Proposition of Kant's Ethical Philosophy by Potter. And if you want to argue with Kant please keep it out of the comments here.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 22:29

Keeping it very simple: some who are moral non-realists (such as myself) act in ways that could be called "morally" just out of personal preference. I greatly dislike causing harm or suffering to those that can feel it, and so I make a point to not do that, even if it means my inconvenience, though I'm not quite as I would like to be (I could always get better with my purchasing decisions, for example).

Maybe this is covered by your point about "subjective advantages"?

  • But you still can cause suffering to those who cause suffering.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 17:33
  • @Chelonian Is this to say that if one day you ran across a morally-necessary action that did not serve you, or the inverse, you would for sure act contrary to the norms of morality?
    – SAH
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 10:09
  • @SAH I think you mean some kind of social norms. I'm pretty sure everyone at least sometimes does something others (the majority) may dislike. But what's the point of this question? There are people who are not conform.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 10:59
  • @SAH The point is, speaking strictly philosophically, I don't believe there are morally-necessary actions, nor that that concept is even coherent. That said, my behavior matches quite well to common moral norms, because I happen to be a kindhearted and fair-minded person.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 11:32
  • @Chelonian OK, I see... Although aren't "kind" and "fair" a new problem?
    – SAH
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 17:44

Why not?

Why, then, do the overwhelming majority of philosophers seem content to let their own lives be ruled by these quite inexplicable values?

Because why not? The is-ought problem doesn't just apply to morality, but also to rational choices. So, if no action is more rational than another, why not follow a live by quite inexplicable values? It's no more or less rational than, say, hedonism, for example.

In particular, just as there is no binding force making people be moral, there is likewise no binding force making people be amoral.

If you accept that there are no rational choices and no binding forces, you are essentially accepting that your brain is governed by the laws of psychology (and indirectly, the laws of physics). So the question of "will I be a moral person" becomes a scientific problem, a problem whose answer is partially yes, because that's just how humans work, but also partially no, because that is also how humans work.

  • "Why not?" --Well, for one thing, in so-called moral tests, it seems there is usually something to be gained by the subject himself from failing to be moral. The law's arm is not long enough, I don't think, to make moral actions the right choice for personal utility all or even most of the time.
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 21:23
  • @SAH If one accepts the is-ought problem, the same reasoning can be used to show that one can not derive a personal utility function from is-statements as well. Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 23:53
  • Really interesting. I'd never heard that. Is that idea---i.e., that utility value is independent of "is"--- true only if "utility" is construed as something arbitrary/undefinable, or also if it is considered as simple as, perhaps, "surviving, having healthy offspring, and avoiding pain"? I thought the definition of utility was that it is buried in "is"?
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 7:17
  • (I realize there are tons of potential problems there. Just suggesting some could be solved definitionally. Surely something in philosophy sometime requires a definition.)
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 7:21
  • @SAH In practice, one's personal utility function usually involves both selfish and moral elements. Even if you do not believe that morality is "real", it is still true that people desire to do things such as helping other people. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 18:02

You might enjoy this short article

A phrase I've seen, which I like, is normative "authoritative reasons" (I've meant to read this book for years now; it discusses the phrase in relation to Mackie's skeptical argument from queerness).

I can't speak for philosophers at all, but:

  1. without any authoritative norms at all (Bernard Williams says that desires etc. count but others disagree) I'm really sure how anything can have value.

  2. it would be unspeakable to "walk the walk" and be wrong, so why risk it? Especially for your metaphysics.

  • Interesting! Your #2 was one of my hypotheses. However, I don't understand your #1; it seems tautological. Why is it, you say, that people choose an arbitrary set of norms instead of none?
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 21:26
  • Also, great article!
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 21:27
  • yes maybe an equivocation between arbitrary and irrational, i'm not sure @SAH
    – confused
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 12:02

The overall notion of social construction allows for a morally anti-realist position that still respects the current state of human decision making as a useful reference. Science does not know anything, absolutely, and yet it can predict how things work because it has made observations and continually adapted its expectations to meet them.

All other negotiated human decision-making systems similarly lack access to any ultimate reality, but have continually adapted to the observations of other humans. They are the overall consensus of a large composite intelligence that is likely to continually improve its ability to make useful decisions.

Observing that science works, and works well, without presupposing upon anything absolute, why is it hard to understand how most of us can accept a similar approach to morals?

  • This is an interesting answer. I just wonder if they thought about it and decided as systematically as that before the fact.
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 21:20
  • 1
    It doesn't matter whether they explicitly espouse this in a clear way, they are acting the way the theory predicts. It makes sense of their actions. Whether people do something consciously does not matter, as long as they do it... And anyone alive now who has not been exposed extensively to the notion that lots of things are social constructs is living in a pretty serious bubble. Especially philosophers, since Wittgenstein is a part of most canons.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 18:50
  • Right. I'm suggesting that a philosopher might reasonably be expected to have the self-awareness and critical powers to consider the question of his own life within such frameworks. Whether he actually considers it or not is, I guess, up to him.
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 7:03
  • @SAH. I guess the main objection is that this kills your position (2). Science is unlike the most fabulous of religions. As a social construct that does not have a fixed basis in a tradition or especially in a story or a given text, it is exactly not 'fabulous'. We can argue morality on a mushy humanistic basis as an international project independent of religions. And philosophers can analyze the resulting 'fluid dynamics of decisions making' without adopting a foundational ethical theory. This is still useful, and it is still philosophy.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 1:11
  • Science, because it builds the bridge and cures the illness. But why moral behavior? (Unlike science, it usually costs us from the point of view of individual utility.)
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 22:45

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