Is isn’t Ought


Useful to be reminded this week that among David Hume’s many contributions to the world of ideas is this one – you can’t get an ought from an is.

So it is. You can describe a phenomenon or circumstance, however awful or wonderful but it doesn’t mean it’s objectively good or bad.

Nearly everyone struggles with this. It feels all wrong – but that’s the point, it feels. ‘Oughts’ are a matter of interpretation and beliefs, not matters of fact.

9/10ths of bother in human affairs derives from this misunderstanding. And so it was this week as I was besieged by people pointing out things they didn’t like – and inviting me to agree with them on what ought to be the case. Generally I didn’t.

Sometimes, all you can do is give people the context; more facts and data, the ‘oughts’ we all end up deciding for ourselves.

Subway Sceptic

In amongst the standard issue ‘New York stylie’ graffiti I walked past yesterday was a quality thought. ‘Question everything’. This struck me as rather profound for a coastal Cornwall underpass. But who inspired the phantom sprayer? Was it:

1) The Sex Pistols – a call for ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
2) David Hume – there are absolute limits to what we can know.
3) Pyrrho – hold back on your judgements for a less troubled existence

I reckon a mix of 1) and 3). Two fingers to authority and a nod to the inalienable right to your own freedom to escape society’s preconceptions.

I read Wilhelm von Humbolt quoted by John Stuart Mill in his seminal ‘On Liberty’ yesterday:

From the union of ‘freedom’ and ‘a variety of situations’ arise ‘individual vigour and manifold diversity’ in society.

Mill himself goes on to say:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Graffiti is vandalism. And if we buy this weeks analysis that the cause of the UK’s ills is gangsta rap and consensual policing then the callow youth who sprayed his question (lots of assumptions here…) deserves his head cracking with a ‘zero tolerance’ truncheon.

But ‘epoché’. After Pyrrho, this week ‘I hold back’. I’ll suspend judgement and ignore Hesiod. Some questions are worth asking – and some liberties worth defending.