Introduction: From an Unlikely Quarter, a New View of the Is-Ought Problem

Tom Flynn

Mattering theory, perhaps Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy, came into the world in a most unlikely way. Renee Feuer, the lead character of her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem, ruminated at some length on the importance of mattering—of feeling that one matters—and speculated that the “will to matter” was a principal human motivation. That digression aside, Goldstein completed her witty, insightful first novel and got on with a stellar career. It was only years later that she discovered, quite by accident, that a coterie of philosophers had discovered the will to matter and were building a serious body of work on the foundations it offered. Goldstein joined that dialogue with belated enthusiasm and has since taken her character’s wry notion in unexpected directions.

In this cover feature, Free Inquiry presents essays by Goldstein and by philosopher Andy Norman showcasing the profound ways in which mattering theory (as the discipline is now known) can inform our understanding of secular humanism.

When teasing out the implications of humanism or engaging in debate with religious believers, secular humanists often speak of the meaning of life: whether a life stance such as humanism that includes no locus of cosmic intent can provide such meaning and whether (as I have sometimes written) religion’s promise of meaning in life is a cruel illusion, a simple category error that we secular humanists, as realists, would be better off without. Yet mattering theory suggests that these lines of inquiry may be misdirected. Norman observes, “The real existential question is not ‘What gives life meaning?’ but ‘Do I matter?’” The subjective sense of mattering may be the reality toward which all those sterile controversies about an objective meaning in life were pointing all along. An orthogonal shift—from the vocabulary of meaning to that of mattering—offers us far greater clarity.

Norman offers a definition of humanism with mattering theory at its core: “At bottom, humanism is a commitment to developing a shared, responsible, reality-based understanding of what matters: a worldview that also happens to immunize its adherents against the worst forms of ideological derangement.” For Norman, that makes humanism “a blueprint for moral progress” that “affords us our best shot at living a significant, difference-making life. Why? Because understanding what truly matters and acting accordingly is the surest path to a life rich in meaning and purpose.”

Goldstein’s essay “Mattering Matters,” which opens this section, adds another remarkable insight to the dialogue: mattering theory as it is taking shape today may offer an unexpected solution to an important philosophical problem that has long divided the secular humanist community. I refer to the “is-ought problem,” David Hume’s skeptical insight that normative statements—prescriptions of how things ought to be—cannot legitimately be derived from our contemplation of what is.

Hume’s dictum—particularly as philosopher G. E. Moore reframed it early in the twentieth century, rejecting all efforts to derive ought statements from is statements as instances of the “naturalistic fallacy”—enjoys a wide if puzzling acceptance in philosophical circles. Undergraduates, in particular, tend to embrace it like dogma, quickly concluding that if you can’t derive any oughts from the is, morality is, therefore, arbitrary and subjective—ultimately, a matter of taste. Down this road lies either a cynical moral relativism or an argument popular among religious apologists that because morality cannot be derived from the contemplation of reality, God must be its source.

This is troubling for secular humanist thinkers who reject supernaturalism but are unwilling to dismiss the possibility of moral knowledge. For Council for Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz, morality proceeded from no cosmic lawgiver, yet it was nonetheless objective. (His book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism contains his best treatment of this subject.) Kurtz was solidly within an ethical naturalist tradition that included such thinkers as (among others) Alasdair MacIntyre, John Searle, and Phillippa Foot. Ethical naturalism holds that morality is objective after all, that is, that moral truths exist and that their truth-value can be deduced from study of the physical world. If there is no supernatural realm in which moral truths may be grounded, a precondition of naturalism, then the world of consensus reality is all we have to work with. Therefore, if we maintain that moral truths exist, we have no alternative: we must be able to derive our oughts from what is, if only because there is nowhere else from which to derive them.

In Goldstein’s hands, mattering theory works yet another orthogonal shift, unexpectedly (perhaps!) solving the is-ought controversy by simply subsuming it into the more powerful discourse of mattering: “We need not approach ought at all,” she writes, “because ought is embedded in the attitudes and emotions that allow us to pursue recognizably human lives.” For her, “The very best of our species, and the very worst, is to be found in the diversity of responses to the mattering instinct, which means that, yes, not all ways of responding are equally good, neither psychologically—in terms of the sense of happiness and wellbeing they provide—nor ethically.” On this view, moral objectivity need neither be argued for nor defended against accusations of the naturalistic fallacy. Rather it emerges, a necessary entailment of the way human beings engage, intellectually and emotionally, with the universe.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


“The subjective sense of mattering
may be the reality toward which all those sterile controversies about an objective meaning in life were
ointing all along.”

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