Charles Scamahorn escaping from Hume’s tomb.
There are lots of ivory tower brains expending their power on what is called the is/ought problem, and they generally come up short after some convoluted, and fuzzy reasoning. This problem was defined by David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature in book III, part I, section I.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, 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 surpriz’d 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, that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; 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.
This problem resolves itself, if one takes the artificial selection of these properties—is/is not, and ought/ought not—as being verbally defined by our human ancestors. The definition of these traits: good, moral, honest and the rest of the long list of seemingly undefinable ethical qualities were resolved not by us, and our academicians, but by our physical ancestors. Simply, we have these qualities because our ancestors bred them into the evolving human genome. Why? Because they valued people who had those qualities, and bred more frequently with those people who possessed them than they did with other potential mates, who lacked them. If they had consistently wanted some strange quality such as a tattoo like birthmark of MOM on our chest over our hearts, we would have that now after a hundred thousand years of artificial selection. But they didn’t want that physical manifestation over our hearts they wanted an equally abstract thing the trait of goodness, in our hearts. Even if they didn’t define those various qualities of goodness as clearly as an modern academician would prefer still they instilled them into our very being.
The basic principle of evolution theory is that survivors survive, reproduce and therefore propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival, and reproductive success. Maybe our scholars don’t know what good is, but our ancestral grandparents did, and our genes permit us to embody those qualities. We are as moral as we are, because those are the qualities which have been bred into us.
Another difficult quality for the ancients to have defined, but one which we now have is color vision. We have it because it is a valuable ability to possess, and so that too was bred into us. However, we still have some colorblind people, and some unethical ones (sometimes called sociopaths), because both of these desirable qualities have not yet received an absolutely perfect genetic coding. These are not absolute one step cause/effect relationships such as one plus one equals two which philosophers appear to desire, but will never attain. They can never be, but relative relationships such as scientist are willing to accept, and work with, and use to create useful and testable theories with consistent results.
Hume complains that there is a subtle move from some copulation of propositions which propagate some bastard oughts, and ought nots, but in the argument presented in this post, is, there is an unhesitating step from cause to effect, and back to this effecting the cause, and on to the next effect resulting ultimately in human good. The oughts derive directly from our ancesteral grandparents defining what is, and is not, good behavior, and that’s the way it became part of us. The oughts, and is-es are locked in a tight feedback cycle, and have been ever since those early humans started this positive feedback cycle.
In the beginning, middle and end of this argument there are no fuzzy intellectual copulations, but there are a hundred thousand years of physical copulations selecting for people with better, and better human qualities which we call good. This isn’t a form of circular reasoning, but it is a cyclic one of repeated genetic improvements, and we are much improved by it, but we are not perfectly good and never will be. Life and morality are a continuing struggle of coping with current situations.