Deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’
Normativity is about evaluations of right and wrong, good and bad, better or worse. How can we possibly infer the way things ought to be (a subjective value) from the way things are (objective scientific facts)? How can a moral judgment, a prescription, be derived from something descriptive?
Biological values derive from the propensity of all life to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom). The universal biological axiom is, simultaneously, a statement of both fact and value. It describes what organisms do (fact) while also describing their observable (objective) goals manifest as a behavioural orientation which, in human-talk, we can refer to as an expression of ‘biological value’, like a mindless ‘point of view’. The quotes here indicate the lack of vocabulary and struggle needed to convey the close and real connection that exists between mindless behaviour and its evolutionary development, behaviour that is guided by minded representation.
In this way all life is an expression or manifestation of value.
The meaning of ‘value’ as something that is mind-dependent is here being challenged. The claim is that the notion of ‘value’ is more scientifically coherent when applied to all living organisms, not just humans (see life as agency and biological values and human-talk).
As a matter of fact, organisms do not exist passively in the world like rocks. As part of their biological nature their behaviour demonstrates that they have a propensity for (they ‘value’) some things over others – they act in purposive and goal-directed ways. This is part of the flexibility of behaviour displayed by all organisms. As circumstances change, so does their behaviour.
Hume would no doubt point out that the biological axiom is not a logical necessity. The survival, reproduction, and flourishing of organisms is no more logically necessary than is our own human survival etc. And to regard such values as ‘good’ is wildly overstepping the mark.
The difficulty here is that to deny the biological axiom is to deny life itself: the values expressed in the behaviour of organisms are not logically necessary, but they are biologically necessary. If life did not express these values it would not exist. It is these values that motivate or drive the behaviour of all living things even though humans, having the capacity for mental representation, can use reason to override (but not eliminate) them.
The feeble filtering valuation of physical constants that applies to inanimate nature, that reduces possible outcomes, takes a giant stride with the emergence of agential matter that can reproduce itself (life). Out of the mindless values expressed in the behaviour of non-sentient organisms there evolved the human capacity for conscious deliberation that could override our biological inclinations.
Reason is not separate from our biological values, but superimposed on them and ultimately grounded in them. If reason is ‘the ability to use knowledge to obtain goals‘ (Pinker 2021, where knowledge is defined as justified true belief) then the ultimate goals of human reason are co-extensive with those of the biological axiom. In this way, perhaps contrary to our intuition, reason becomes a thick concept: that is, it is a concept that combines evaluative and descriptive elements (like wellbeing, health) with thin concepts being purely evaluative, like ‘dood’ or ‘ought’. The functionality of the mind is simply an extension of the functionality of nature, albeit a much more elaborate one.
Like the purpose so evident in biological agents, value proceeds from within living organisms as an imminent faculty: life and value are intimately and inexorably intertwined. Reason then, through language, takes value into the institutionalized human sphere, as ethics.
The common-sense support we intuitively feel for Aristotle’s biological imperative and Steven Pinker’s moral injunctions at the head of this article can be understood, not in terms of the arbitrary subjectivity of our human values, but as the biological necessity that we conform to objective (mostly mindless) biological values of the biological axiom, even when modified by their servant, reason, a biological evolutionary add-on. Indeed, we cannot get ethics out of biology . . . because it is biology on which our ethics rests.
Human agency and its values are best understood scientifically as a highly evolved, specialized, and minded form of objective biological agency.
Facts have moral significance as they impact on universal and necessary biological values as mediated by human reason. Pointing out that our human valuing of survival, reproduction, and flourishing is a matter of subjective orientation because it is not logically necessary is philosophical chicanery. We do so based on the fact that we are living creatures whose behaviour, like that of all organisms, observes the biological necessity of the biological axiom.
Whether organisms (their processes, structures and behaviours) achieve their goals depends on circumstances in the objective world, on the way the world is. To achieve our goals we must change the world from the way it is to the way we would like it to be or, to use more moral language, the way it ought to be.
The point about us deriving ought statements from is statements is less about logic and more about biological necessity which can be modified by reason but not eliminated.
We cannot pass logically from ‘murder causes suffering‘ to ‘murder is wrong‘ without the insertion of the moral statement ‘suffering is wrong‘. But survival, reproduction and flourishing are what it means to be a living being – they are a factual biological necessity without which life could not exist. Murder is unpopular, not because we have an ethics saying that as a matter of logical ethical principle murder is ‘wrong’ and therefore we ‘ought’ not murder. Instead, we do not murder because it is contrary to the objective and biologically necessary universal biological values that are part of what it is to be a living organism.
Murder does not break a logical connection in an ethical theory, it resists the biological necessity expressed in biological values.