I enjoy having philosophical conversations with almost anyone who is willing to try. People on the bus, coworkers, and my fiancée are all potential victims of the madness.

One of my favorite questions is, “what makes something right or wrong?” It seems like a simple question, but as you continue to ask “why?” things become increasingly abstract and complicated. Whether you’re talking to a professor of philosophy or someone who might not be sober on the 15, all parties can quickly find the discussion difficult to manage. Comedian Louis C.K. describes the complex spiral that increasingly-abstract “whys” can lead to:


Warning: strong language.
In the same way, what seems like the simplest concept in ethics – what makes a thing good or bad, right or wrong – can turn into a overwhelming quandary that moral philosophers try to sort out for centuries.

We’re still working on reasoning our way out of David Hume’s observation that no matter how much you know, you cannot talk about what a person “should” do. He wrote the following, probably after trying to explain to one of his nephews why he should eat his vegetables:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

Basically, Hume challenged every moral philosopher before or since to show him how to jump from talking about what is true to what we ought to do. Skeptics (the kind with a capital S) say that you can talk all you want about the impact of a given action, but you can’t make the leap to prescribing any action as something one should or should not do.

All of us, hopefully, would say that it would be wrong to punch the innocent baby.

It’s easiest to explain Hume’s observation, known as the is-ought problem, through examples. Let’s take a very simple situation that most people would agree on. Let’s suppose a Skeptic asks you whether it is ethical to punch a stranger’s sleeping baby in the face in the middle of a supermarket – yes, a full fist right in the face of innocence. All of us, hopefully, would say that it would be wrong to punch the innocent baby. If you were speaking with Hume, the following conversation might ensue:

Us: It would be wrong to punch the baby in the face.
Hume’s advocate: Why?
Us: Because the baby did nothing to you. The baby is innocent.
Hume’s advocate: Why does that matter?
Us: (With a look of shock) Because it is wrong to hurt people, especially innocent people.
Hume’s advocate: (Calmly) Why?
Us: Because hurting innocent people is bad.
Hume’s advocate: Why?

I would love to read your answers in the comments, but already the Skeptic’s reasoning has us divided. Some would say hurting innocent people is bad because god says so, others because it’s not in our rational self-interest, and others would say because pleasure and pain are all that matter. If you want to play the game, Hume’s advocate will keep asking “why,” probably until you are reduced to snapping, “it just is! Now eat your damn fries!”

Why the Skeptics’ Arguments Don’t Matter

Asking “why” to infinity is, in reality, a cheap trick in logic applied to ethics. Hume is right that you can’t come to a final answer unless you resort to circular reasoning or poor logic. Does that mean that we are being illogical every time we apply words like “should, ought,” and “had better”? I think not.

Imagine now that your doctor tells you that you have a life-threatening bacterial infection for which there is a cure. He then tells you that he could not prescribe a cure, because nothing in the universe can prove that your living is better than your dying. Does Dr. Skeptic have a place in the real world? The doctor would have his license revoked, and you would seek a doctor who cares that you live.

The fact that no outcome is preferable to the universe is not relevant to our moral decisions. What we want and feel is real, and it matters to us. We have preferences to how things turn out, and in the psychologically healthy individual those preferences are towards end states that will keep us alive and bring us joy.

The Skeptics are right, but we are right to continue ignoring them. You cannot tell someone that they should want to live or be happy – but we can almost always agree on these as desirable outcome.  Even if that goal is as general as happiness itself, suddenly “should” makes sense again. With a shared goal in mind, we can reasonably talk about the  most efficient and effective way to achieve that goal. For example, “if you want to be happy, you should not punch an innocent baby.” That’s a statement that even Hume should be able to agree with.

We often assume a common goal – or “desirable end state” if you prefer – and we’re usually right. It’s usually safe to assume that people want to be happy, and that they would rather live and be healthy. I hope the lovers of formal logic will forgive me if, for the sake of simplicity, I leave off the clarifying if-then statement. When I say you should seek friendship and love, I am assuming that you would enjoy the happy outcome of doing so.

My goal, and the goal of the Rational Romantic movement, is real and sustainable happiness. If you do not seek or want happiness, you can safely ignore my statements that include the words “should” or “ought” as not applicable to you. If you do want to be live and be happy, then I hope you will find use in what we have to say in the coming months.