[UPDATE: Clarified that choosing what-ought-to-be from what-can-be is based on our knowledge of ourselves, not on our knowledge of good and evil]

I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.

For you see what our discussions are all about – and is there anything about which a man of even small intelligence would be more serious than this -- what is the way we ought to live?

  -- Socrates

The infamous IS-OUGHT gap -- how do we go from the way something IS to the way [we think] it OUGHT to be? David Hume, like many others before and after him, would see a gap in there, leading them to question our ethics, our science, our ability to choose consciously, and the very existence of the consciousness itself -- thus pitching themselves head-on against, say, Socrates, who was adamant about our capacity to know good from evil.

I suggest that, indeed, what is often perceived as a gap, as void, is, in fact, the very quality that makes us human.

  • 2
    From philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic: "Please note that this site is not a personal blog or a pulpit for you to express your own personal philosophical beliefs." This question seems to do just that. A way to appear more compliant would be to ask a succinct question (no longer than 5 sentences) about the is-ought gap, and then put the rest of the text as a self-answer. That could still go against the above warning, but technically it might pass.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 1:05
  • 1
    Hume did not see the gap "like many others", the peculiarity is that all others before him missed it, so ingrained the cliche was. And explaining how "it could have been otherwise" does not require any special ability. "Can" is just a part of "is" (with relaxed background assumptions) and gets one no closer to "ought" than why-is gets one to why-should, not to mention that our emotional traits can not resolve logical problems in principle. But your rhetoric shows just how pervasive the gap is, even those aiming at it miss it by falling into sentimental cliches.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 3:28
  • @Conifold -- sorry, i pasted a wrong quote.. The difference between "can" and "ought" is this: "Know thyself. -- Socrates Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 19:53
  • @Conifold > "the peculiarity is that all others before him missed [the is-ought gap]" -- that "peculiarity" is having/being your conscious, rational Self (a.k.a. human soul). Which, yes, has been a dying art since that moment, a very long time ago, when we began crippling our children in nuclear families. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 20:41
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    You link to your personal blog in several places in this article (is there even any pretense left that it is a question?). So 1. you already have a place to blog your ideas, and 2. you try to use Stackexchange to self-promote your blog.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 23:37

2 Answers 2

  1. The is-ought gap is a fallacy, it does not need closing.
  2. What ought to be is solved by the categorical imperative
  3. Curiosity did not close this fallacy.
  4. Curiosity is just one of many traits of human nature and the human condition, not the only one nor the most important one.

An example for the is-ought gap is homosexuality. Some ancient philosophers argued that it is a sin against nature to do homosexual acts. They inferred what ought to be (no homosexuality) from what seemingly is (no homosexuality in nature). This is also known as the naturalism fallacy. It's not a gap that's needs closing, humanity does not need to justify why homosexuality is immoral, it can just accept it as moral. Hume merely rightly said that just because there does not seem to be homosexuality in nature, does not mean it's morally wrong. Same for other presumed sins of the middle ages and antiquity.

What ought to be, morally, is sufficiently solved by the categorical imperative, based on our reason and the desire of the individual for personal safety, liberty and profit. It is independent of curiosity and "why is", also independent of the current state of nature. It completely avoids the naturalism fallacy also known as the is-ought gap.

Finally "what makes us human" is not a useful question in philosophy. The closest approximation is known as "human nature" and "the human condition". Opposable thumbs, bipedal walking, natural language, toolmaking, our ability to love, to laugh, to learn, to enjoy art, to plan ahead, to know our mortality, to pursue happiness, to engage in diverse sexual acts, to compete for mating partners using various means, to lie, jealousy, hubris and so on. None of it is logically be more important in "making us human" than the other.

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    The contemporary objection to the CI is that it’s guilty of the same thing - “Reason” is not a universal set of principles but a folk model of the effective psychology of successful people. People can and do reason differently, and so the “is-ought” problem re-emerges at the level of dispute. Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 6:47
  • People do reason differently, and some "problems" or idiosyncrasies arise, but those are not the "is-ought" problem. People may use the naturalistic fallacy in their reasoning, thus polluting the CI with the is-ought gap, but this does not happen necessarily, and is entirely avoidable.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jul 26, 2020 at 7:11
  • @SofieSelnes "People can and do reason differently" -- irrational people fall victims to different kinds of logical/cognitive fallacies. Logic itself is a branch of math, and having one's own makes no more sence than having their personal arithmetics. Commented Jul 27, 2020 at 9:21
  • Heh, since you brought up the categorical imperative (by which I assume you mean the Kantian concept) as the solution... and since you also mention homosexuality... Kant actually came up with the opposite conclusion than yours in that regard... jstor.org/stable/27744817 "Kant repeatedly says that through each of the unnatural vices, a person degrades herself below the level of animals" (MS 425; L 159, 170). He calls homosexual sex, bestiality, and masturbation "the most disgraceful and the most degrading [conduct] of which the human being is capable" (L 170)." Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 20:20
  • But kant's assertions on this topic are generally not regarded as a result of his framework, but merely an artifact of his time. In philosophy, it's important to distinguish pure ideas from contemporary culture of writers.
    – tkruse
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 9:56

Wisdom begins in wonder.
  -- Socrates

That quality is in our unique ability to ask and explain why.1 With it, we can go beyond what is and explain, through logic and reason, why it is so,2 and, by that measure, how it could have been otherwise,3 thus, giving us our options (what-can-be).

To understand is to be free.
  -- Baruch Spinoza

Knowing "what is necessary", what is an option and what isn't, gives us freedom-as-the-agency to choose among options available. And it is the latter choice that, depending on our [knowledge of ourselves][1], gives us the ought part -- our opinion on how things should be.

Note that the chain above is rational,4 all the way through, from "is" to "ought". Free from normative statements, it makes "ought" descriptive as well.

But it makes no sense at all!

I know.

The Truth holds always, but humans, always time and again, prove unable to ever understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.
  -- Heraclitus

The "closing the gap" story above contrasts two distinct kinds of curiosity -- one is of a cat, the other only humans can have. The cat's curiosity is about WHAT-IS (and we have plenty of that too). The second kind -- the WHY-IS curiosity -- is, however, optional. A 4 y.o. can easily ask 100s of why's in a single day -- until she starts getting cordially invited to can it. So that's why.

The learning of many things does not teach understanding; otherwise, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.
  -- Heraclitus

Human nature, however, is harder to tame. Very often it means a person would long for understanding, but unable to express it as WHY-IS, would keep falling back to WHAT-IS, looking for new experiences instead... like catching that travel bug. “Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” however, as Socrates would put it. No matter how many experiences, no matter how amazing, they won't quench that empty feeling in your heart. What's missing is your human soul, your conscious, rational Self. There's hardly a substitute for that, but there is hope.

To find your Self, think for yourself.5 -- Socrates, who else.

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1a e.g. why we -- the adults -- permit bullying in schools, despite being physically stronger than our adversaries and enjoying a numerical advantage over them?.. or what's up with UBI? -- it's been 50 years, what are we waiting for? and why we accept pieces of paper for... yes, lemming fallacy, but still?..

1b It has been proposed before that the is-ought gap can be closed with "if", but that begs for the question, obviously.

2 An explanation is a mental-model (not to be confused with "mental-image", a.k.a. "empirical concept" in kantoneese, a.k.a platonic forms), also scientific theory (also platonic particulars as a caricature of it). A mental-model is a computer mental simulation of that particular aspect of the objective reality. We can only understand something if we have a mental model for it (nothing like Kant's "understanding", which means having an idea of something). Connecting individual models (indicated by 💡 going off) creates a more comprehensive simulation of reality, a.k.a. the map, not the territory. Stitching it is a slow process till collected puzzle pieces reach the critical mass and your whole world lights up as all pieces fall into place, and you realize that “Happiness is a virtue, not a reward. -- Baruch Spinoza

3 No other species on Earth have evolved that capacity. Allowing for knowledge sharing, it proved to be invaluable. Before then, an individual had only its own experiences to rely on. With knowledge sharing, experiences by one can be shared with literally everyone else.

All of us benefit from lessons learned by one of us, from that person's discoveries, insights, and inventions, as if it were our own discoveries, our own lessons.

4 "Rational" means explainable.

5 ... rather than being cool with your subconsciousness speaking "your thoughts" to you. Consciousness is doing the thinking.

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