The Modern Is-Ought Fallacy - by Kenny Collins


If you encounter/read a lot of (most likely pointless) arguments online or in real life, you may have noticed a certain fallacy that (at least for me) seems to come up frequently.

Here's an example:

Person 1: It's great for the world that Twitter is full of people insulting each other - it toughens everyone up.

Person 2: Don't you think it would be better if people were nicer on the Internet? Can't the world use a bit more kindness?

Person 1: I mean, what can I say? The Internet is a toxic place.

What Person 1 last said is not necessarily false. In the world this conversation takes place, it is totally possible that the Internet is a toxic place. What makes it a deceptive conversation tactic is the fact that it appears to address Person 2's question (of Person 1's original stance).

Whenever I hear statements similar to the final comment above, I consider them expressions of criticism or apathy towards the current state of the world. For example, "I mean, what can I say? The Internet is a toxic place." comes off as "I'm not saying I like it, but the Internet is a toxic place." But we know Person 1 actually does support the current state of the world from his first statement: "It's great for the world that people on Twitter insult each other all the time."

So after analysis, we can see that Person 1's response to Person 2's questioning doesn't actually address it at all. Although Person 1 doesn't explicitly link their first and last assertions by saying "It's great for the world that people on Twitter insult each other all the time, because the Internet is a toxic place", it does sound like that's what they're implying. Assuming it is, it's an instance of the is-ought fallacy.

The format of the modern is-ought fallacy is as such:

Person 1: I think the world should be in state A.

Person 2: Don't you think the world should not be in state A (because of reason x)?

Person 1: Well, it is simply the case that the world is in state A.

Pay attention to the statements being made. Some of them make a descriptive claim (e.g. "the world is in state A") about how the state of the world is, which is related to reality. Others make a prescriptive value judgment (e.g. "the world should be in state A") about how the state of the world ought to be, which is related to morality.

As David Hume tells us, it is not clear that one can coherently move to what ought to be from what is.It's difficult to reach conclusions of morality fromfacts of reality, as if they are independent worlds. But Person 1 starts with a prescriptive position, and when Person 2 questions the validity of that moral stance, switches to a descriptive defense. This conflation of morality and reality is key to the is-ought fallacy; just because something is the case doesn't mean it should be the case.

In other words, when Person 1 originally says "the world should be in state A", this is a value judgment on state A - which is that it's good/moral, based on some definition that Person 1 has. But the is-ought problem says that that internal opinion of the world is independent of the facts of the world. So it is nonsensical to use "the world is in state A" to defend the original moral stance.

Another example:

Person 1: I think businesses should be legally allowed to refuse customers for virtually any reason they want.

Person 2: Doesn't that result in companies being discriminatory based on race - and don't you think that's bad?

Person 1: They are permitted to, after all.

Right, but whether they're permitted to or not is besides the point, Person 1. Your original statement was that the world ought to exist in a state where businesses are free to discriminate. After being questioned on the ramifications of that policy, you switched gears to an irrelevant position: that the world does exist in a state where businesses are free to discriminate.

A better response would be to actually defend the morality of the effects that Person 2 brings up. Maybe Person 1 believes that the negative effects of the racial discrimination that occurs are outweighed by the economic positives of increased corporate freedom. But instead, Person 1 couldn't think of adequate arguments to defend their original position, so they dodged the moral question entirely, diverting the conversation to a fact of reality with no bearing on a moral belief.

It should be noted that sometimes comments imply the speaker is applying the fallacy to their thinking when they are actually trying to express a different position - something along the lines of "Although there are flaws, I stand by my proposal because it is the best of the possible options."

For example:

Person 1: I think that the government should not force citizens to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Person 2: Won't that result in unvaccinated people continuing to spread the disease, causing deaths and forcing businesses to stay closed - and don't you think those things are bad?

Person 1: That is just how the world goes.

This appears to demonstrate fallacious thinking. But maybe the conversation continues like this:

Person 2: What do you mean by that? Are you falling victim to the modern is-ought fallacy?

Person 1: Sorry, let me clarify. What I meant was that I acknowledge the negatives associated with my position. But unfortunately, we live in a world where we can't have everything and need to make sacrifices. And I believe that the benefits of saving money on not rolling out a nation-wide mandatory policy exceed the costs you mentioned that will occur due to a minority of individuals who choose not to be vaccinated.

And this is a line of reasoning that does not shy away from defending the original moral stance. But if it's what they meant to express, they should probably have said it as their original response, instead of using vague language that could be confused as fallacious thinking.

Hopefully now you are able to spot interlocutors who utilize the modern is-ought fallacy and adequately counter them.

Well, you can - but should you?