Jun 27, 2011

Is Hume dead? Does Natural Law live?

There are certain ideas I find I can't really think through without recourse to Hume. I'm not a Hume expert. I've read more second-hand explanations of Hume than I have actual Hume, though I do seem to have collected a virtual pile of his works on my kindle. I think they're important; I think I have to get to them soon. The excerpts and essays I have read had quite a bit of an affect, and certain of his ideas seem indispensable to me. There's some stuff I just can't mentally think through without using some of the Scottish skeptic.

Take two sentences, for example:

1. All crows are black.
2. All bachelors are unmarried males.

What, logically and structurally, is the difference between them? Further: which one is more structurally similar and logically similar to the sentence:

3. All stealing is wrong.

It's not necessary, of course, that one use Hume to think these things through. For me, though, he's been invaluable. Especially with regards to his ideas of a posteriori knowledge, and the is/ought problem.

Which is to say -- especially with rejecting "natural law," the sort touted and assumed in popular discourse all the time (e.g. in the debate over whether homosexuality is "natural"), and of the sort one finds behind certain political philosophies (i.e. some kinds of Conservatism), and that which seems to be necessary for some religious ethics (e.g. how Thomists & Neo-Thomists talk about Catholic ethics).

Some of the places I've been, those ideas were dominant, so Hume has been helpful to me. I often point others to him as well. When students, for example, don't question Sam Harris' idea that there are such things as moral facts, and that they're a species of scientific facts, and that the expanding, increasing knowledge of science will, eventually, make all this clear, giving us a scientifically objective morality that cannot be questioned or doubted*, as we'll have moral imperatives discovered with the scientific method and thus as obviously right as, say, penicillin is obviously useful, I find myself hauling the little Hume I have up out of my memory and recommending his work too, pointing people to Hume for an explanation of why this idea isn't likely to actually work.

This is why I was surprised to find that, for some and in some circles, Hume's thought it considered to be clearly dead, dead, dead.


I had just figured Harris et al were ignoring Hume, or maybe ignorant of Hume. Apparently, though, there's some sense that the is/ought thing is dead, Hume's objections to natural law are dead, and natural law theory is resurgent, sometimes under the name "New Natural Law."

Besides Harris, e.g., and the students who have no negative reaction to the idea that science and its empirical studies can give us morals and ground our ethics, there's Robert P. George. The Catholic thinker has excited quite a few conservatives and, in arguing against same-sex marriage (or perhaps, depending on how you read him, all non-procreative marriages), has supposed demonstrated the vitality of natural law and the application of the new version to today's pressing issues.

It has seemed to me that there's nothing particularly "new" in George's New Natural Law, but maybe I'm missing something. It's not clear to me how George believes he's found a way over the Hume hurdles. What moral facts has he found in the world as it is that are more than definitionally true, and presuming he has found them, how can he turn those facts into imperatives about what one ought to do without introducing into his argument claims which are more than is-statements about the world? I haven't seen where he shows how he does this: he seems to take the death of Hume as a fait accompli.

He seems to use his idea of a functional good, i.e. the purpose of something, which is a telos, as somehow the ground, or to say that since a given human activity is intelligable as an action that is good in an of itself, without appeal to a reason, that that's somehow the ground of our moral imperatives.

As he writes**, "ethical thinking proceeds from a concern for human well-being and fulfillment," and that "these precepts yield fully specific moral norms such as those forbidding murder, rape, torture, enslavement, and genocide."

Such ends seem to me, though, to not be derived at all from things as they are, and to not really be grounded. They're free-floating, as it were.

We can, perhaps, socially agree to the premise "one ought to act in such ways as maximize well-being and fulfillment," but I don't see how that conclusion comes out of any empirical facts about the way the world is. And even if we do agree to this ought, it's not clear to me how it necessarily leads to "specific moral norms" that would get us past the definitionally true statement that "murder is wrong" and determine for us with some clarity whether or not such things as abortion, capital punishment, "mercy" killings, suicides, seld-defense deaths, accidental deaths, negligent deaths, deaths in war, etc., should count as murder.

This is percisely what natural law theory, old or new, was supposed to help us with. This is exactly what George seems to think his theory does -- give us moral imperatives which are not based on culture, not free-floating, ungrounded social agreements and constructs, which can be appealed to regarding specifics because everyone already knows they're true (unless they're deceiving themselves).

If he succeeds, I don't see how.

If someone could point me to a place where he shows in more depth how it works, and shows how he deals with Hume, I'd be grateful.

The little bit of George I've read has felt like it wasn't "new" natural law as much as zombie natural law: a dead theory mysteriously alive and eating brains.

The fact that George and those who've hailed him were pre-committed to the theory and the positions it was being used to support, that their support more-or-less fell out of their Catholicism and Conservatism, essentially, and that this theory didn't seem to force anyone who holds it to reconfigure any of their thinking or re-evaluate any of their commitments has certainly left me disinclined to delve any deeper. If you hold a theory because you have to, in order to defend what you already believe, then it's really not more than an apologetic prop.

There does seem to be a whole movement here, though. And one with some serious thinkers who probably should be taken seriously. There's an account, too, of how Hume's ideas are dead, dead, dead, and how "analytic Thomists" are up and dancing, very much alive. This is a history of contemporary philosophy I'm not so familiar with, having gone another directions with my reading. But there's a thoroughness to this account and a confidence with which it's stated that gives me pause.

Matthew O'Brien & Robert C. Koons, for example, offer in three paragraphs the names of 41 philosophers who contributed to this death of Hume and resurrection of New Natural Law. That's not quite true, though, as Hume seems at points to be conflated with logical positivism, and sometimes one idea such as causation stands in for everything and not all the names mentioned are part of the same philosophical party. O'Brien & Koons acknowledge this, noting that these "developments are by no means homogeneous."

Still, 41 philosophers is an impressive line up of suspects in Hume's demise.

Disputes about who actually is responsible for the killing might just affirm the assumption Hume's ideas are dead. I found myself, in looking at the names, having to stop and say, wait, is this really done for? The is/ought problem and all that, solved? Certainly O'Brien & Koons present their story of philosophy as if this were a basically accepted fact by everyone who knows -- thinking the is/ought distinction matters is presented as a sign of ignorance of recent history of philosophy, and nothing more than that.

I'll just cede I don't know, and honestly ask: 1) Is it taken for granted that Hume is dead and Natural Law lives again? 2) What exactly killed him and his idea?

It would be nice to have an autopsy of some sort.

O'Brien & Koons, e.g., give us phrases like "David Hume’s so-called is/ought gap was exploded as fallacious by the late Elizabeth Anscombe," without reciting her argument or the particularly salient points and showing how she blew it up. That's fine for the context of their paper, probably, but I would have found it helpful. They do, later, offer this: "there is no logical gap preventing inferences from facts to values, unless you define ‘fact’ and ‘value’ arbitrarily in order to manufacture such a gap, as Hume did. Hume’s is/ought gap was an implication of his simplistic, empiricist psychology."

Against Hume, they claim "we can infer both from ethical truths to natural facts and from natural facts to ethical truths." The argument they offer, the explanation, is this:
Take three examples of inference from facts to values: from the fact that you hand me certain green pieces of paper, I can infer that I now owe you $20; from the fact that a tree’s roots are wide and numerous, I infer that the tree is healthy; from the fact that another beer would make me woozy, I infer that my drinking it would be intemperate. All three of these inferences share the same logical form, and all three derive values—owing, healthfulness, and intemperance—from natural facts. There is nothing logically distinctive about the third inference, which is the only ethical one, and so unless there is something suspect about the first two, there is no general problem with “deriving” ethical conclusions from natural premises.
The first two are very suspect, though. At least, I would think so, using the little Hume that I have.

Maybe it makes me a bad person, but if you hand me a $20 I will not necessarily infer a debt. I might say, "thanks," or, more likely, "what is this for?" The value of the fact needs all sorts of contextual frame work to make sense of. No moral imperative is derived from the mere act of passing a $20 bill. If one wants to get to the claim that "you ought to pay me back," there's all other sorts of premises necessary, including what a debt is, how contractual arrangements are entered into, and what one ought to honor arrangements made. The "ought" in "I ought to pay you back" doesn't arise here out of premises that are facts.

The second sentence is a little better, but "healthy," in this case, isn't an inference. In the example, healthy means having roots that are wide and numerous. For another type of plant, it might be different. Lateral roots are good for a Redwood, but a California Dogwood is only healthy if it has deep roots. In each case, though, healthy is defined as that which is the case when the roots are such-and-such way. And still, to call "healthy" a value, in the sense that "a Redwood tree ought to be healthy," still requires a non-empirical, a priori claim about it being good that a tree is healthy. Unless O'Brien & Koons mean something totally different by "value," and aren't talking about imperatives at all.

Granted, this is exactly what they said Hume was doing. I'm not trying to play gotch with this. It seems to me, though, that their are really problematic and don't make as much sense as they're supposed to. It's certainly not just "clear."

The third sentence continues this problem: intemperance isn't a fact like they're setting it up to be a fact, but a value judgement. The gap they say doesn't exist seems to still be present. How many beers equals "woozy" is obviously not a universal truth, and that "woozy" equals "intermperate" is not something that's even widely agreed upon. They slide right over the problem that "intemperate" is bad, but definitionally so, but there's no clear way to decide what counts as inemperate. It could be two drinks, or 24. It could be getting woozy at all, or once a week, or only at the times and places, e.g. before work, that makes one socially dysfuncitonal. There might be good arguments for deeming certain states of affairs to be intemperate, but the facts themselves don't give us that value judgement, don't render as a verdict the imperative, "one ought not be intemperate." So the whole move to prove that "values" exist in nature, are out there, objective, discoverable, turns out to not be helpful at all.

It can get us as far as socially, contextually agreed-upon values, or to things that are true by definition, but not in any way that can be applied.

It's possible I just don't understand what O'Brien & Koons are saying. My response, upon reading the New Natural Law theorists and their talk about morals derived from empirical facts and the death of Hume and his dead, dead, dead ideas, is, actually, I don't understand.

I really don't want to tackle a whole stream of analytic philosophy unless there really is a good argument their resusitating natural law and showing how Hume missed it, etc. Maybe what I have to do is hunt up Elizabeth Anscombe's “Modern Moral Philosophy," Hilary Putnam's Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy, or some of the works of George or Germain Grisez and wrestle with this stuff anew. I'd rather get around to the stockpile of Hume that I have.

Can I just keep dismissing the New Natural Law people, though? Is this something I need to take seriously?


*It probably bears mentioning that the point of this debate is not necessarily (despite what some say) whether or not there are moral imperatives, but rather, where they come from and in what they're grounded. Sometimes this is framed as being about whether morals are "absolute" or not, though even that doesn't have to be what this is about. We might say, for example, taking a very old orthodox Christian idea that has been out of favor for some time, that morals can only come from revelation. That is, that they don't come from nature and can be determined by scientic methods, and that, while it may be possible to do the right thing without knowing the revelation, it is the revelation that gives us ought statements. If one asks why one ought not commit suicide, then, the only justified appeal would be to the revealed ought statement. Or, likewise, one might say that there is no ultimate ground for such imperatives, but they're social contstructs, produced by culture, etc., with the agreed upon but ungrounded telos of human flourishing, e.g. There might also be an argument that they come from a moment of universally available glimpses of transcendent truths, such as the irreducible infinity of other people, the possibility of the kingdom of God, or the dignity of humans. These are still not empirical facts, though. I.e., there's a version of "human rights" that doesn't posit these rights can be discovered in nature.
**George does, in this piece, specifically deal with Hume, but not the part of Hume that seems to me to be problematic for George and New Natural Law.