Wednesday 29th January 2020
Sea at Dusk

Is Ought

by Enza Ferreri

The is–ought problem or is-ought gap, also called "Hume's Law" and "Hume's Guillotine" after the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume who first fomulated it, simply states that from "is" we cannot logically deduce "ought", that is, from the knowledge of reality we cannot derive moral choices, from facts we cannot deduce values.

Hume's Law is still undisputed today, and nobody has ever found a way to successfully challenge it.

One of its major consequences is that from science we cannot deduce ethics.

Science can only be used to put into practice desiderata that we have arrived at by other means, i.e. moral reasoning and arguments.

The is-ought gap divides language into descriptive statements - about what is, i.e. describing reality - and prescriptive statements - about what ought to be, i.e. being normative and relating to an ideal - with no logical connection between them.

"Environmentalists, in an attempt to have the best of both worlds, are using the authority carried by science in matters of fact and transporting it beyond its realm, into the territory of policy prescription and value choice."

An important contemporary "violation" of this principle can be seen in the discourse on "global warming", in which the lobbyists of an environmentally catastrophic interpretation of climatic events have mixed science and politics in a blur, confusing the issues that would have needed clarification and in so doing making any rational solution more difficut to achieve.

Greens and their allies in governments and the media all over Europe and the West have been trying to push very drastic carbon-emission-reducing policies claiming a scientific consensus on the matter which in reality does not warrant their conclusions and in principle never could, due to the non-prescriptiveness of science explained above.

Environmentalists, in an attempt to have the best of both worlds, are using the authority carried by science in matters of fact and transporting it beyond its realm, into the territory of policy prescription and value choice.

First, as a matter of fact scientific consensus is not what they claim it to be, and it only concerns trivial, less controversial issues. There is no consensus on many crucial questions, for instance on the magnitude of warming, whether it is global or not, and what effects it will have.

Secondly, even if such a consensus existed, it still could not dictate the choices we must make.

No science in the world can spare us from from having to make choices.

Even in the worst, extremely unlikely, catastrophic climate scenario, what would be required is a calculation of predicted negative and positive effects - yes, you may never heard of them in public debate, but there are many, like advantages for the agriculture - of global warming if left unchecked, against a similar calculation of good and bad consequences of the "remedies" to it, like greatly cutting the world's energy consumption, proposed by the green lobby.

One obvious and gigantic of these consequences would be blocking the development of the Third World. Rapidly developing India, just as an example, is embarking on a project to bring electricity to hundreds of millions of people: for them this much higher energy use means the difference between spending several hours a day gathering wood or cow dung to cook their meals, as they are now, and being able to live much more productive, therefore more prosperous and healthier lives.

In the world one-fifth of the population, and in Sub-Saharan Africa as many as 70 percent, have no access to electricity.

The IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the United Nations body responsible for research and policy recommendations on global warming, is the concrete expression of the violation of the is-ought gap, a mixing of science and politics in the most confusing manner.

The IPPC is made up of scientists and government officials, some of whom are scientists and some are not. There are two main types of IPCC documents. The reports written by scientists, which are then translated into Summaries for Policy Makers by officials, often with great alterations and even misrepresentions. The Summaries for Policy Makers are usually the only IPCC documents that journalists and governments see. Many times the scientists involved in writing the original scientific essays have complained that their views had not been accurately reported and had been and misunderstood in the documents for policy makers.


Enza FerreriEnza Ferreri is an Italian web author with a degree in Philosophy of Science living in London, and former journalist.

Email: enza at



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