• Richard Dawkins, Reason and the Is-Ought “Problem”

    I recently read an article entitled Is Richard Dawkins a Bully?,1 in which Neil Ormerod (Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University) takes aim at Dawkins’ objective as stated in the preface to his book The God Delusion:

    If this book works as I intend, the religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.2

    Dawkins’ intention in the book is to show that religion is irrational and, hence, that the religious should abandon their beliefs.  Rather than attempting to refute Dawkins’ arguments against religion, Ormerod’s article identifies and critiques a key assumption in Dawkins’ approach:

    [W]e can also ask how Dawkins himself would account for this sense of normativity that demands we act in a rational manner which he implicitly holds.

    And later:

    How then might Dawkins construe the apparently purposeful appeal to live according to the dictates of reason that is implicit in the aims of his book?

    In other words: if reason says that something (such as Christianity) is false, then on what grounds can it be said that one ought not believe that thing?  Ormerod is claiming that Dawkins is running into David Hume’s famous Is-Ought Problem3 which, very roughly, states that one cannot deduce an Ought from an Is.4

    In my interactions with religious folk, I am often confronted with the same question.  If I implore a Christian to read the work of critical Biblical scholars and not only that of Christian apologists, I am sometimes asked:  Where do you get this moral imperative from?  Why do you think I should do that?  Even if such research would lead one to conclude that Christianity is false, why should a Christian pursue it?  Where do you get your Ought from?

    Well, I should say up front that I tend to agree that Is Statements cannot validly imply Ought Statements, if by an Ought Statement we mean an Unrestricted Ought Statement: one that objectively compels us to act in a certain way.  However, I do not believe there is any evidence for the existence of valid Unrestricted Ought Statements.  And neither do I think a theist can rightly claim that there are any of these.  For example, if one tries to ground Unrestricted Ought Statements in the commands of their God, one is then faced with the question “Why ought we obey God’s commands?”.  If one answers “Because disobedience leads to punishment,” then one is faced with the question “Why ought one behave in a way that avoids punishment?”.  It seems that these considerations lead to Restricted Ought Statements like “If you do not wish to go to hell, then you should obey God’s commandments.”

    To further explain, consider a simple statement like:

    S1: You ought not put your hand in a fire.

    I think most of us would agree with this principle (modulo some contrived special cases).  This then might appear to be a valid Unrestricted Ought Statement.  Now, if someone asked why we ought not put a hand in a fire, you could reply by detailing the damage that would be caused if one did put their hand in the fire.  However, a mere description of the damage a fire will cause your hand does not directly support the prescription that one ought not put their hand in a fire.

    So why do we believe the statement?  Is there some transcendent Law Giver that has declared it Objectively Bad to put your hand in a fire?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think that statement S1 is just an abbreviation for the Restricted Ought Statement:

    S2: If you value the proper functioning of your hand, then you ought not put it in a fire.

    Here, the Ought is preceded by an all-important If.  The sentence says that if having a properly functioning hand is one of your goals, then it makes sense not to put it in a fire (again, modulo contrived exceptions).  To do otherwise would be to deliberately act against your goal.  And it is these kinds of Restricted Ought Statements that I believe can be properly derived from Is Statements.

    But why is it that we tend to speak of Unrestricted Ought Statements?  Well, if you were talking to a typical human being, you would not need to include the words “If you value the proper functioning of your hand” when making your exhortation to be careful around fires.  It would normally be safe to assume that retaining the use of one’s hands is a goal of any person you were addressing.  This gives us cause to abbreviate statement S2 to S1.

    Hopefully the connection to Ormerod’s critique of Dawkins should be clear.  Consider the statement:

    S3: One ought not believe something if reason shows it to be false.

    This is basically what Dawkins is advocating.  But S3 is really an abbreviation for the more convoluted statement:

    S4: If one values believing true things and not believing false things, and if one believes that reason’s inferences are true, then one ought not believe something if reason shows it to be false.

    As in the analogy of the hand in the fire, it is safe to assume that virtually every person values truth and reason.  If you are speaking to such a person, there is no real need to state S4 instead of S3.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to a person that does not value truth or reason, then you have no reason to expect a meaningful dialogue.  Sam Harris put this very nicely in his debate with William Lane Craig:

    If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?5

    In summary, I think it is plausible to suppose that any seemingly valid Unrestricted Ought Statement is really an abbreviation of a corresponding (but not necessarily unique) Restricted Ought Statement; one that is qualified by an appeal to a person’s values.  I intend to pursue this issue at greater length in a series of posts on morality.


    1. Is Richard Dawkins a Bully? Neil Ormerod.
    2. The God Delusion. Richard Dawkins.
    3. See the Wikipedia entry on the Is-Ought Problem.
    4. Ormerod’s article covers a lot of ground that I won’t address here; my main interest is in this claim.
    5. Sam Harris vs William Lane Craig.  Live debate: Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?  Harris’ quote may be found here.

    Category: Is-Ought problemReasonRichard Dawkins


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian