It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you do know that just ain’t so. — Mark Twain
According to the overrated philosopher, David Hume, we should not try to draw logical conclusions about objective morality based on our knowledge of the real world. This was his smug way of claiming that humans are incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong.
Through the years, his devoted followers have tweaked his message into a flat out declaration: We cannot derive an “ought to” (a moral code) from the “is.” (the way things are). Just to make sure that we don’t misunderstand, they characterize this formulation as “Hume’s Law.”
The only problem with this philosophy is that it is tragically, clumsily, and inexcusably—wrong. On the contrary, we can learn a great deal about the moral law from the observable facts of nature as long as we acknowledge the point that some truths are self-evident.
Unfortunately, hyper-skeptics cannot grasp this point because they first fail to understand that morality is a measure of, and is dependent on, what is good. If there is no (objective) good, then morality cannot exist. But we know that some things, such as life, are obviously good for humans – universally, absolutely, and objectively good. It is the same for goods that flow from life, such as the desire to survive and reproduce. As would be expected of objectively good things, they exist in a hierarchy, which means that we can differentiate between lower goods (wants) and higher goods (needs).
People want food that is pleasing to the palate, for example, but they need food that meets their nutritional requirements. The latter good is more important than the former, even if it is not perceived to be so. If one allows his desire for pleasure to overpower his desire for good health, he will eventually lose the capacity to be pleased and the opportunity to be healthy. It is self-evident to any rational person that the desire for long-term health is a higher good than the desire for momentary pleasure.
So it is with sex. Humans may want to experience immediate physical gratification, but if they ignore the higher needs, such as the desire for love and respect, they will harm themselves and others. Sexual responsibility is less about submitting to the technology of birth control and more about responding to the challenge of self-disciplined behavior.
Again, through nature, we learn that the good of procreation is made possible by the complementarity of the species. That is why a marriage is properly defined as the union of one man and one woman: the difference between them allows them to unite in one flesh. Two members of the same sex cannot become one flesh because it is the complementarity that makes the oneness possible. From Biology, we also discover that sex has a specific function, which means that it can be misused by those who do not respect its intended purpose.
From the all this information about the “is,” (complementarity and biology) we can derive four distinct moral conclusions: [a] Men should not have sex with men. [b] Women should not have sex with women. [c] Same sex marriage cannot and does not exist. [d] Any law that defines so-called “gay marriage” as a true marriage is an evil lie and should be resisted.
In a broader sense, the lower goods, such as fun, pleasure, and delight, are designed as an incentive for pursuing the higher goods, such as love, self-esteem, self-control, meaning, and purpose, which are the ones that matter most in any discussion of morality. Because we really need them, they are good for us and we ought to have them. As Mortimer Adler says, we ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.
From the testimony of social scientists, we learn that humans are social beings, so we may safely conclude that they ought to reproduce, build families and establish communities. In every area of life, there are legitimate moral needs that ought to be pursued and illegitimate wants that ought to be eschewed.
Moral growth, therefore, involves a definitive behavioral strategy: We should learn to like what is good for us and to dislike what is bad for us. In other words, we should form good habits so that they will crowd out the bad habits. Nature not only teaches us about the need for virtue, it also helps us to acquire it through practice. Psychologists tell us that it takes three to six weeks to form a new habit.
The take home message, then, should be clear: Beware of the hyper-skeptical doctrine that goes by the name of Hume’s “law.” The so-called “is – ought” dichotomy is a deceptive bluff. It poses no intellectual challenge to the natural moral law or the human capacity to apprehend it.