Ought vs. Is

In Book III of his Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume asserts that normative statements (saying that something ought to be so) cannot be derived from descriptive statements (saying that something is). This is widely agreed upon among philosophers and is sometimes referred to as the "is-ought problem". A related tenet of philosophy is that knowledge can come from either observation or from deductive reasoning. Descriptive statements are based on observations, whereas normative statements are products of deduction. Some statements are based entirely on observation (naturalistic statements), while others are solely deductive (normative, or prescriptive statements). Bodies of knowledge can be built from statements in either or both categories, but neither can a normative statement be derived from a descriptive statement nor can a descriptive statement be derived from a normative statement.

In his essay Of the Original Contract, Hume describes the situation where a government has been in place for a period of time long enough that its citizens believe it ought to be in control, and as such, feel duty-bound to obey it. At first glance this appears to be in conflict with Hume's assertion that 'ought' does not follow from 'is'. However, this paper will refute that, and instead demonstrate that these are two distinct arguments.

Establishment and Continuance of Government

Obedience to Which, Then or Now?

In the beginning of Of the Original Contract Hume lays out the process of the establishment of government, stating that people voluntarily form the beginnings of government and subject themselves to its rule:

When we consider how nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers and faculties, till cultivated by education, we must necessarily allow, that nothing but their own consent could, at first, associate them together, and subject them to any authority. The people, if we trace government to its first origin in the woods and deserts, are the source of all power and jurisdiction, and voluntarily, for the sake of peace and order, abandoned their native liberty, and received laws from their equal and companion. The conditions upon which they were willing to submit, were either expressed, or were so clear and obvious, that it might well be esteemed superfluous to express them. If this, then, be meant by the original contract, it cannot be denied, that all government is, at first, founded on a contract...

This "original contract" is willingly entered into by the founding citizens of a government. Their descendants, however, have no such luxury of choice. They are born into the system of government that their ancestors chose for them. These descendants did not enter into any 'contract'; their birth sealed their fate as subjects of the government, to be ruled by it as their ancestors were. To these descendants, Hume writes,

...Obedience or subjection becomes so familiar, that most men never make any inquiry about its origin or cause, more than about the principle of gravity, resistance, or the most universal laws of nature. Or if curiosity ever move them; as soon as they learn that they themselves and their ancestors have, for several ages, or from time immemorial, been subject to such a form of government or such a family, they immediately acquiesce, and acknowledge their obligation to allegiance... But the contract, on which government is founded, is said to be the original contract; and consequently may be supposed too old to fall under the knowledge of the present generation. If the agreement, by which savage men first associated and conjoined their force, be here meant, this is acknowledged to be real; but being so ancient, and being obliterated by a thousand changes of government and princes, it cannot now be supposed to retain any authority. If we would say any thing to the purpose, we must assert that every particular government which is lawful, and which imposes any duty of allegiance on the subject, was, at first, founded on consent and a voluntary compact. But, besides that this supposes the consent of the fathers to bind the children, even to the most remote generations (which republican writers will never allow), besides this, I say, it is not justified by history or experience in any age or country of the world.

Constant Change, Inconstant Allegiance

Were a government perfect and without the need for change, this might be acceptable. However, the world is neither perfect, nor is it static, and as such government must necessarily reflect this, changing over time. Given the passage of time and the attendant certainty of change, the question "To which government does one swear allegiance?" becomes relevant. Is it with the government of yesteryear, to whom one's forefathers swore their allegiance? Or is allegiance due to the current and constantly evolving government of the present? Extrapolating further, is obedience required to the government of the future? (which, though certainly a descendant of the current establishment, will inexorably yield to the forces of change in ways which one cannot predict)

This fleeting, evanescent nature of the definition of government seems to require that the citizens (whether they entered willingly into a contract to establish their government, or they were born into an existing system of government) be able to opt out of their contract and seek another government that more ideally suits them or establish a new system for themselves. Ideally this would be possible, but in reality most governments of the world have created political (and in some cases, physical) barriers insurmountable to their citizens.

While it is indeed difficult for an individual to seek another form of governance, the pressures of conformity, tradition, and custom all but guarantee that as time passes citizens become more complacent with their rulers and submissive to their laws, even to the point that they think they ought to be governed. Here we come to the meat of Hume's argument:

When a new government is established, by whatever means, the people are commonly dissatisfied with it, and pay obedience more from fear and necessity, than from any idea of allegiance or of moral obligation. The prince is watchful and jealous, and must carefully guard against every beginning or appearance of insurrection. Time, by degrees, removes all these difficulties, and accustoms the nation to regard, as their lawful or native princes, that family which at first they considered as usurpers or foreign conquerors. In order to found this opinion, they have no recourse to any notion of voluntary consent or promise, which, they know, never was, in this case, either expected or demanded. The original establishment was formed by violence, and submitted to from necessity. The subsequent administration is also supported by power, and acquiesced in by the people, not as a matter of choice, but of obligation. They imagine not that their consent gives their prince a title: but they willingly consent, because they think, that, from long possession, he has acquired a title, independent of their choice or inclination.

Deduction or Construction?

One might mistakenly presume that Hume is violating his own dictum given in his Treatise by deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'. This is not the case however, as it is not as simple as drawing a line from point A to point B and stating a direct connection. Point 'ought' is in fact separated by many degrees from point 'is'. Multiple logical and causal regressions must take place to get from the time of the original contract to the present day assumption of just governance; these regressions arise as the world changes and people's mores and customs evolve, along with those of their government.

As previously stated, bodies of knowledge can be built up by combining descriptive statements and normative statements. Custom and mores are derived from knowledge, hence the customs and mores of a people are based on combinations of descriptive and normative statements about the world. The moral code and laws enforced by a government, being themselves derived from customs and mores, must therefore also have at their heart combinations of 'is'-statements and 'ought'-statements.

The editors of the online "Wikipedia" give the following caution regarding the error of deriving normative statements from descriptive statements or vice versa:

Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject like that, not without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. A similar thesis was argued by G. E. Moore's 'open question argument', intended to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties--the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy'. Now any ethical theorist who wishes to give morality an objective grounding in more down-to-earth features of the world is fighting an uphill battle.

from http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume

The present-day opinion that one ought to obey one's government is not a direct logical derivation from the past and present reality of being governed. Rather, it is an opinion supported by knowledge gained about the world--knowledge built upon both descriptive statements and normative statements. As such, it is not a naturalistic fallacy but rather the result of the accumulation of knowledge and the evolution of one's beliefs and mores.

Kim Slawson
20031001 0000
Great Thinkers: Hume
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