Going from Is to Ought

Sam Harris
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I remembered reading Sam Harris' argument that led from "is to ought" -- and when I tried to look it up online, I couldn't find it anymore. The link went to a broken page on Sam's website and was hard to find elsewhere. I'm reproducing it here because I think it is interesting and useful. Sam, if you don't want me posting this for some reason, let me know.

Getting from Is to Ought

by Sam Harris

FACT #1: There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of wellbeing for many sentient creatures, to the degree that wellbeing is possible in this universe.

FACT #2: While it may often be difficult in practice, distinguishing between these two sets is possible in principle.

FACT #3: Our “values” are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone’s) wellbeing.

FACT #4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain). (Religious values, focusing on God’s will or the law of karma, are no exception: the reason to respect God’s will or the law of karma is to avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings).

FACT #5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).

FACT #6: Given that the wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains, and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states, science can potentially help us avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.

FACT #7: In so far as our subsidiary values can be in conflict—e.g. individual rights vs. collective security; the right to privacy vs. freedom of expression—it may be possible to decide which priorities will most fully avoid the worst possible misery for many, most, or even all sentient beings. Science, therefore, can in principle (if not always in practice) determine and prioritize our subsidiary values (e.g. should we value “honor”? If so, when and how much?).

FACT #8: One cannot reasonably ask, “But why is the worst possible misery for everyone bad?”—for if the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, the word “bad” has no meaning. (This would be like asking, “But why is a perfect circle round?” The question can be posed, but it expresses only confusion, not an intelligible basis for skeptical doubt.) Likewise, one cannot ask, “But why ought we avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?”—for if the term “ought” has any application at all, it is in urging us away from the worst possible misery for everyone.

FACT #9: One can, therefore, derive “ought” from “is”: for if there is a behavior, intention, cultural practice, etc. that seems likely to produce the worst possible misery for everyone, one ought not adopt it. (All lesser ethical concerns and obligations follow from this).

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