What has ‘is’ got to do with ‘should’?

I think some people know this as a fact that we cannot derive should and shouldn’t from what there is. If that is true, then science would have nothing to do with morality and values. That, I believe has problems. It is indeed true that we cannot derive values directly from is and are, but ‘what there is’, is at least one of the two steps that we use for reasoning in favor of our justification of our values (‘what there should be’).

Take this one good and obvious example (It’s my favorite as well): ‘We should not smoke’. The reason is quite obvious for all of us: Because ‘smoking is bad for our health’. Now, there is another assumption that is so simple and obvious that we usually ignore: ‘We should not do things that are bad for our health’.

Now let’s look at the logical structure of how we derived should from a combination of is and another should.

  1. Smoking is an action that is bad for our health.
  2. We should not commit an action that is bad for our health.
  3. (Conclusion)
    We should not commit smoking.

A more simplified logical structure would be as follows (I will use this form from now on):

  1. Smoking is bad for our health.
  2. We should not do things that are bad for our health.
  3. (Conclusion)
    We should not smoke.

Now, if someone wants to disagree with that conclusion, he or she has to prove that at least one of our two assumptions is wrong. One can simply attack the second should: ‘We should not do things that are bad for our health’. But that statement is common sense, therefore the only way would be to falsify the first: ‘Smoking is bad for our health’. And in that case I could simply say good luck with that!

As we see above, at least one of those steps that we take to derive the conclusion of ‘should’ is an ‘is’, and a scientific one none the less. To disagree with that conclusion is to disagree with those facts. Let’s see a more sensitive example:

  1. Homosexuality is an unnatural sexual behavior.
  2. We should criminalize all unnatural sexual behaviors.
  3. (Conclusion)
    We should criminalize Homosexuality.

Of course, nowadays nobody advertises such nonsense in a western society (except maybe the bible belt of the United States), but in Arabian and Islamic countries this is still a problem with many faces, and this is one of those ugly faces. How can we attack that conclusion? In two (or maybe three) different ways:

One way is to simply state that ‘natural sexual behavior’ cannot be defined easily; But that is not our topic. The other two ways would be attacks from two sides: We can either argue that Homosexuality is not unnatural, or we could simply deny that we should criminalize all unnatural sexual behavior, or we could do both.

Historically, the latter has happened first. Long before scientist knew that this phenomenon was actually quite common among different species of mammals and birds, and even long before psychologists come to the realization that this was not a mental disorder, Liberals had started asking this question: “What does a government care about private lives of individuals?”

Really, why should a government be concerned about what people do and how people live their lives, as long as those people are consenting adults acting consciously? The liberals may not have known the fact that this is not a disease or a mental disorder, but that didn’t stop them from objecting to the unjust and unnecessary conclusion. Of course, now we know this as a fact that ‘Homosexuality is NOT an unnatural sexual behavior’, and obviously for most of us it’s easier to use this other approach: the scientific one.

This is how science changes our values, and this is how ‘is’ will aid us to reach a better and more justified ‘should’. Let’s have another example about Racism. The following could be considered a common racist argument:

  1. There are different human races.
  2. At least one human race is superior to the others.
  3. The superior race should rule over the other races.
  4. X is the superior race.
  5. (Conclusion)
    X should rule over the other races.

We can probably guess how many ways is there to attack this moronic and yet very dangerous and horrific argument. One way is of course the Liberalistic way, but this time it is a very fundamental issue and that is ‘individualism’. A Liberal (in Nazi Germany for instance) could simply point out that the race is of no importance, and the fact that we can find many smart and intelligent people all over the world aside from their race, is proof of that itself. This is probably why Nazis were so afraid of Liberalism, and frankly fundamentalists still cannot bare the sight of liberals.

There is one more way that would refute the conclusion of that argument, and that is a scientific claim. Simply put: ‘There are NO different human races’. We are all Homo sapiens that started coming out of Africa almost two hundred thousand years ago. This claim goes against the stupid racist division of human beings based on the color of their skin and giving it made-up names like ‘Nordic race’. Of course now we can see that it is also possible to attack that argument from both sides as well. We could also refute other assumptions of that argument from the liberal and the scientific point of view.

The point that I want to make here is that changes in our scientific understanding of the world could have moral consequences. They can significantly and more importantly effectively change what we have in mind about what we think we should or should not do.

I believe that the effectiveness of science is crucial here: Although we have a variety of powerful arguments in defense of Liberalism, and I personally believe that Liberalism can triumph over fundamentalism; but if we ‘only’ had ideologies to attack ideologies, we would never have been able to progress effectively; and since in these kinds of discussions Liberalism could be taken (and dismissed) by the other side as ‘just another ideology’, it may never be as effective as scientific progress. But evidence based science cannot be dismissed as easily, not at all. Except of course, you live in the bible belt of United States!


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Dear fellow Homo sapiens, or if you prefer conscious mammals! And of course, friends nonetheless: I created my blog in order to speak my very weird mind, mostly about three subjects (as I identify myself and my state of mind with them): Atheism, as I was born in the Middle East and saw and felt the affects of Islam; Homosexuality and equal rights, as a gay man who has tasted the Homophobia and also Sexism in that society; and Liberalism and political philosophy, which I think is a good ground for secular values and criticism of fundamentalism. If you wish, visit and join your state of mind to mine. I hope they don't short circuit!

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