Is/Ought and Public Policy

Is Ought and Public PolicyA contemporary obstacle every natural law and/or virtue ethics theory must overcome is the so-called is/ought dichotomy prevalent since Hume. The is/ought dichotomy enshrined in the modernist understanding of reality claims that we cannot derive what we ought to do ethically from the “is” of nature; that is, there is nothing in nature that can point us to or bring us closer to the “ought” concerning the nature of the good or the good life.

This problem, however, does not begin in moral philosophy; rather, it is a problem that has its roots deep in the soil of a specific metaphysical understanding of reality. A primary reason for the is/ought problem in moral philosophy is based on the mechanistic metaphysical world picture popular since the Enlightenment. The mechanistic understanding of the natural world casts aside the notion of formal and final causes that were so vitally important for the classic understanding of an organic rather than mechanistic view of nature. For the classic mind, borrowed by the Patristics and perfected by the Scholastics, nature is teleologically laden. The rejection of the Scholastic synthesis resulted in the reformulation and ultimately the denunciation of a teleologically infused natural order. When telos is no longer a central feature of a metaphysical understanding of reality, appealing to human nature can never point us toward proper ethical behavior. Human nature is simply a brute fact, so to speak, and we can either appeal to some sort of utility maximization, categorical imperatives, or a will to power. However, the utilitarianism of Mill and the deontology of Kant were shown by Nietzsche to collapse into a will to power that must overcome the abyss of nihilism by striving for Zarathustrian values. Therefore, to choose the Enlightenment project’s attempt to replace the telos of virtue and the divine commands of the Decalogue ultimately result in the transvaluation of all values.

Another important thing to consider regarding Hume is the fact that the is/ought dichotomy is based on the idea that the causal interactions are merely patterns of sensory impressions. The causal features of the natural world are loose and disjointed, rather than causally connected in the classical sense of our shared participation in an organically unified metaphysical reality. For example, we experience the pattern of event B following event A, but we can never “prove” that event A is the cause of event B because this “proof” is only based on past experience. There is nothing in our experience that says event C could not follow event A. The only sensory input available is the pattern previously detected. When this understanding of nature is accepted, it would make sense to disregard natural law theory because there is no “ought” that can possibly be derived by the “is” of nature since there are only disjointed patterns.

Where do we go at this point in the discussion? If we adhere to a theory of natural law and virtue ethics, how are we to overcome this issue? What is our first step?

I would argue that the first step is not at the level of moral philosophy, as I previously hinted above. The debate is more fundamental; it is metaphysical and ontological. It is metaphysical in the sense that theism as a foundation will point us in a different direction than Hume’s atheism; it is ontological in the sense that the Scholastic structure of nature and the Aristotelian acceptance of formal and final causes allows for an organic understanding of nature imbued with telos. These classic views differ drastically from a mechanistic metaphysical world picture as well as the flattened ontology of naturalistic mathematical physics. We can also say that the classical theism of the ancient world and Medieval Catholicism differs significantly from the deistic concept of theistic personalism that has been popular since Newton, although it has only recently received this catchy title.

This is something we will run into quite often in contemporary debates concerning almost every topic under discussion, that the topic of conversation should actually be met at a more fundamental level than most interactions allow.

Let’s consider the dust up over bathroom laws and the treatment of transgendered persons. Within the mechanistic pattern detection outlined above, it may be perfectly sensible to think that gender dysphoria is something that should be “tolerated” and accepted as a normal state of affairs within the disjointed nature of human experience. After all, if this view of the world is true there is no biological “is” that should dictate a gender “ought.” Moreover, there would be no psychological “is” that should direct us towards any moral “ought” concerning this dysphoric state of affairs within the transgendered person. So understood, it would seem completely reasonable that public policy should be shaped by these truth claims about reality.

But what if this view of reality is false (which is exactly what I am contending)? What if the correct view of reality is much older than the innovations of the Enlightenment? What if nature is organic and connected rather than mechanical and disjointed? Well, this changes things a bit.

If reality is organic and connected, we most certainly can derive an “is” from an “ought” and nature can be a dependable guide towards ethical norms and the pursuit of the good life. Natural law and virtue ethics all of a sudden become realistic, if not entirely accurate, moral persuasions guiding individual, communal, and state conduct concerning economic transactions, jurisprudence, and public policy. This public policy would include a recognizable biological “is” connected to a gender “ought.” Person’s suffering from gender dysphoria would be encouraged to seek professional psychological assistance in order to overcome their identity crisis, rather than pushed to sex change surgery. Rather than being used as political props by the sexual revolutionaries and secular progressives, transgendered persons should be encouraged to seek psychological help before they mutilate their bodies with hormone treatment and surgical procedures. Instead of allowing children to maintain the incorrect belief that they were “born in the wrong body” they should be helped to understand reality correctly, and shown that they are simply confused about their so-called gender identity.

It becomes quite clear, given these explanations and examples, that metaphysics and ontology greatly influence moral persuasions, which also influence politics and public policy. Unfortunately, we live in a society entirely uninterested in these fundamental questions and continue to scream at the surface.


– Lucas G. Westman

Is/Ought and Public Policy – Updated 

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