Christianity’s Is/Ought Problem

Atheism is often criticized for not being able to provide an “objective foundation for morality”. One form of this criticism is a relentless repetition of David Hume’s Is/Ought Problem. This is the idea that descriptive statements and normative statements are categorically different and incommensurable.

From David Hume’s 1739 work A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, 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 surprised 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.

Hume is remarking that every moral system he has seen surreptitiously transitions from making descriptive claims to making moral claims, a transition that doesn’t seem justified. Hume’s point, in plain English, is that no statement about how the world is can tell you how the world ought to be.

In my experience this is one of the most prolific arguments against secular morality, in one form or another. Atheists are often asked to ground their moral system, only to be lambasted for trying to make an ought from an is, as in “I ought to help this homeless man because he is suffering”.

Whether Hume is right—whether there is a genuine and universal impasse between all descriptive claims and all moral claims—is not what I intend to discuss here, mostly because I haven’t fully developed my thoughts on it. Instead, I’d like to point out that Hume’s claim hits equally hard against theistic moral theories as it does against secular moral theories. Simply observe that the justifications given for moral prescriptions in theistic moral theories are purely descriptive.

When asked “Why is X morally right/wrong?”, how may a religious person reply? Here are a few examples I’ve heard from Christians:

…because God has revealed to us what is right and wrong.

because we love God and desire to please him.

because God loves us and we reciprocate.

because God commands us (to/not to) 

…because God’s nature is good.

because God is the ultimate.

Notice that all of the above either describe God or describe our relationship to God. They are all statements about how things are, so they tell us nothing about how things ought to be, under Hume’s argument. Indeed, in the very paragraph from which the Is/Ought problem originates, Hume hinted that explanations of religious moral theories are no exception; he lists [establishing] “the being of a God” as an example of the sort of descriptive statement from which a prescriptive claim mysteriously follows.

The examples I gave are, of course, not an exhaustive list of every justification a religious person may give for their moral claims, but I do think that every justification I’ve heard is a variation on one of the above. If there is a way in which theistic accounts of morality uniquely solve Hume’s Is/Ought problem, I would love to know about it.

I’m a bit perplexed as to why the Is/Ought problem is still successfully employed  in apologetics to help argue that theism has a kind of ‘moral superiority’ over atheism—that theism provides better explanations of morality than atheism. Why hasn’t the vulnerability of theistic morality to the same problem been pointed out en masse by atheists in ethics debates?

Perhaps we find ourselves so often on the defensive in moral arguments that we tend to forget to go on the offensive.

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One thought on “Christianity’s Is/Ought Problem

  1. Derry Tseng says:

    “If there is a way in which theistic accounts of morality uniquely solve Hume’s Is/Ought problem, I would love to know about it.”

    RESPONSE: If naturalism is true, then everything is explained by science. The job of science is to explain the way things are (the “is”), not the way things should be (the “ought”). It follows that on the naturalistic worldview, there is no libertarian free will (see definition of libertarian free will at: https://www.theopedia.com/libertarian-free-will) and consequently, no ability to do otherwise. The way it is IS just the way it is on the view of naturalism. There is no possibility to believe or act in any way other than the way the laws of nature causally determine us to believe or act. It then follows that both rationality and morality are illusory; giving no grounds for “oughts”, if the way it is IS just the way it is.

    Conversely, on Christian theism, God creates and gives humanity libertarian free will so that the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the Big Bang do not causally determine humans and human behavior. The way it is, is actually NOT the way it is! We have a choice and can behave the way we should or ought to, according to the design, plan, and purpose of God (which is true apart from human opinion or preference). God gives us the freedom to fulfill our purpose -or not. We can actually act AGAINST our own human nature!

    “Hume’s claim hits equally hard against theistic moral theories as it does against secular moral theories.”

    RESPONSE: The key word in Hume’s is/ought (alleged) problem is the word “ought”, not “is”. There are no OBJECTIVE “oughts” to be followed on naturalism- nor is there the ability to do otherwise. Christian theism has neither of these problems.

    “So if I were to ask you: ‘Why is X morally right/wrong?’ you have to be able to respond with something that is not a description of the way things are (because Hume’s argument is that no description of the way things are can tell you how things morally should be). If your response is “because we love God”, that is a description of the way things are, and Hume would say that it can’t tell you anything about the way things should be.”

    RESPONSE: Hume would be correct, that is a description of the way things are. So let’s say that “X” is equated with a hateful action. We could answer this way: “X is wrong” because humanity was created for the purpose of loving everyone from our neighbors to our enemies. This is objectively true even if an atheist disagrees or has a different opinion. If this is so, the atheist is (objectively) wrong. If God created us to love all people, then that is the way it should be. If humans have libertarian free will, then we have the genuine ability to behave in a way that things should not be. We have the ability and the freedom to be objectively well, stupid – or not!

    “I’m a bit perplexed as to why the Is/Ought problem is still successfully employed in apologetics to help argue that theism has a kind of ‘moral superiority’ over atheism—that theism provides better explanations of morality than atheism.”

    RESPONSE: As stated above, theistic morality is not subject to the same problems as atheistic morality. God is perfectly intelligent and created humanity with intention and for a specific purpose, apart from human subjective opinion. There is an objective purpose to human life that is true despite what any person thinks about it. God gives us the freedom to cohere with His perfectly intelligent purpose –or not. When we freely choose NOT to adhere to His perfect intelligence, that means we are free to be foolish (or, again stupid!), and face the consequences of our choices.

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