An Interesting Take on Hume's NOFI Principle

David Hume famously argued that you cannot logically deduce an ought from an is, which principle can be abbreviated as NOFI: No Ought From Is. This seems reasonable but it potentially leaves morality in a quandary.

Some time back we discussed whether or not there could be moral facts; I thought there could be moral facts, but some here vehemently disagreed. One of the possible conclusions from NOFI is that moral facts are impossible. Maybe a moral statement like "murder is wrong" is simply cheerleading: "Yay for not murdering people!" Or maybe it is a command: "Don't murder!" But it cannot be a fact that murder is wrong because there is no way to deduce what ought not be done just from what is.

Philosopher Charles Pigden disagrees. He has a different explanation for NOFI and its implications. Since I am not a philosopher, nor do I play on one TV, it is best to read his explanation if you are interested. However, in brief, as I understand it, he uses historical evidence and reason to clarify that Hume's NOFI claim was that there was no logically valid way to derive ought from is, but that Hume left open analytically valid ways to derive morality. This, then, would leave the door open for an objective basis for morality.

As to why I am considering Hume's NOFI principle at 4:12 a.m., I will leave that to the reader's imagination, but note that champagne was involved.

Good night, all.


Christopher B said...

Not a philosopher either. I can see how he's trying to limit NOFI to suggest a way to derive moral principles but I don't know that he gets the job done. He admits that NOFI forecloses the usual practice of stealing first base in an attempt to derive moral principles without reference to some external standard, then steals first base all over the place by simply asserting that all human beings share a standard desire for moral approval without discussing either were that desire comes from, or more importantly what happens when those desires go off the rails. The history of the 20th Century should show that even if all people share a moral approval of "Thou shalt not kill" we will discard it pretty quickly if we get more approval (or avoid the extreme disapproval of being executed ourselves) for killing.

Tom said...

Yeah, I thought that too about Hume's argument that we share a moral sense, although it seems to have been a common idea historically. I think many Westerners truly believed that until the rise of multi-culturalism and moral relativity. It's a very Christian idea that the moral laws are written upon every human heart.

However, Pigden just seems to be using Hume's claim about a common moral sense to show that Hume did allow for analytic arguments for moral facts and make space for naturalism.

His real concern seems to be the conflict between non-cognitivism, which takes NOFI to mean that no objective moral facts are possible, and naturalism, which does think that "moral judgments can be true or false based on facts about the world" and views NOFI in a different way.

J Melcher said...

The problem of "No OUGHT From IS" is not limited to the OUGHT, but extends to the IS.

Plato's cave, right? What "IS" is only our best guess about its IS-ness as inferred from our sense of what all else has been IS'd before and around its present evident IS-ness. In the worst case, the solipsist might argue another person IS not real, does not exist, and certainly has no moral claim that he "ought" to continue to exist, therefore there is no OUGHT that requires the solipsist to love his neighbor, nor no OUGHT NOT regarding murder.

Descartes begins with "I think, therefore I am." Which puts thinking in the position of the axiomatic premise, and his own IS-ness as the logical conclusion. An older and perhaps more tested, useful, axiom begins by confronting the solipsist with the declaration that solipsism is a false premise. Instead, "I AM the LORD, your God". I exist, and you perceive me. "I AM" and I have made a tangible difference in your life and the life of everybody around you; you exist and they exist and you and they may discuss it freely together and as you are not slaves you are uncompelled to answer to anyone else in anything other than your own experiences and you will then logically conclude "I AM". "I AM" and you shall put no other premises or axioms into the chain of reasoning before me. "I AM" and you shall make or substitute no other premises for mine. ...

As axiomatic systems this one is, I think, no worse than Euclid's.

Tom said...

You're right about the IS bit. Hume also developed the "problem of induction," which challenges human knowledge based on experience, and experiments. Hume gave skeptics plenty of ammo.

Ontology is a mystery to me, but I like the way you framed that.

So, what does the guilty solipsist say? It's all my fault!