A Different Mattering-Theoretic Take on the Is-Ought Problem

Andy Norman

In “The Mattering Instinct,” I tried to show that mattering theory sheds fascinating light on both religion and humanism. Had I anticipated that Free Inquiry in putting together this special section would emphasize mattering theory’s potential to dissolve the “is-ought problem,” I would have included a few thoughts on that subject as well. I append these thoughts here.

Rebecca Goldstein argues that “We need not approach ought by way of is, because ought is embedded in the attitudes and emotions that allow us to pursue recognizably human lives . . . . We don’t have to worry about how we get can get ourselves to the banks of ought in the first place. We’re already there.” I agree that this neatly dissolves some versions of the problem, but think there are other versions it doesn’t touch. On his canonical formulation, David Hume notes that writers often cite facts about what is in support of claims about what ought to be and wonders aloud about the legitimacy of such inferences.

We can all agree, I think, that no purely deductive inference will get us from descriptive premises to a prescriptive conclusion. It doesn’t follow, though, that claims about what is can’t justify claims about what ought to be, given common (and eminently reasonable) background assumptions. In fact, it is quite common for factual statements to support normative judgments in this way. For example, “A bus is barreling down on us” typically provides excellent support for “We should retreat to the sidewalk.” Similarly, “Global warming is likely to result in massive biodiversity loss” justifies “We ought to curb fossil fuel emissions.” And so it goes, in countless cases.

Granted, normative assumptions play an unspoken role in warranting such inferences. Moreover, there is wisdom in Hume’s recommendation that we examine such assumptions with care. It doesn’t follow, though, that all normative assumptions are in need of validation, let alone simultaneously. Yes, we can indulge in radical skepticism about normative claims generally, just as we can indulge in radical skepticism about the existence of a world outside of our minds. That doesn’t make it wise to dwell at length in the resulting skeptical morass. Seek a deductive bridge out of these skeptical problems if you like, but it’s likely to prove fruitless.

Intriguingly, the notion of mattering allows us to build something darned close to a deductive bridge between “is” and “ought.” To see this, imagine gathering together all the well-evidenced facts about the world—facts about how things stand, facts about the conditions under which various creatures survive and thrive, and facts about the causal relationships that create and sustain such conditions. Call this body of facts “science” and suppose that we’re entitled to deploy these well-evidenced descriptive claims as premises. Then add to it a curiously minimal assumption, specifically: “Creaturely well-being matters.”

I see this assumption as a kind of “seed crystal”—a simple, unproblematic claim capable of imbuing the facts with normative significance. To see this, note first that “well-being matters” is almost definitionally true. Indeed, its truth is readily apparent to anyone who understands the concepts. Second, who else besides sentient creatures can experience well-being (or its lack)? If something other than sentience is the true ground of mattering, the case for this “something else” has yet to be made. (Even the idea that it’s important to please God pays silent homage to the idea that sentience grounds mattering; the only difference is that the sentient being is imaginary.) This means that “Creaturely well-being matters” enjoys a strong initial presumption.

If we can’t presume that creaturely well-being matters, what can we presume? How many of Euclid’s axioms are even that self-evident? Of course well-being matters. If some nihilist did deny this, he or she would bear an awesome burden of disproof. And the slightest effort to enhance his or her personal well-being would leave the nihilist wide open to charges of hypocrisy.

Perhaps you don’t care to presume that creaturely well-being matters. If not, think of it as an empirical hypothesis. Then ask: What would count as evidence for this hypothesis? Then pick one hundred things at random. Choose anything you like that matters to some degree (other than sentient creatures themselves1): artifacts (can openers, mobile phones); naturally occurring things (oxygen, sunlight); behaviors (kindness, a particular act of dissent); or even policies and principles (free speech, paid maternity leave). For each thing you select, assign it one value for how much you think it matters, and a second value for how much you think it contributes, or could contribute, to creaturely well-being. Then plot all one hundred points on a graph. If you’re like me, you’ll end up with a scatterplot that approximates a straight line through the origin—a strong and highly suggestive correlation. Surely that counts as very good evidence.

Now suppose we take this (admittedly normative but for all that completely unproblematic) “bridging principle,” combine it with our body of scientific facts, and begin generating responsible probabilistic inferences. What can we “derive” from such premises? Answer: a lot. In fact, we can derive pretty much the whole of secular ethics. What we get is a reality-based “map” of what matters—a guide to living well that is more objective, more stable, more universal, more humane, and more reliable than any that the world’s monotheisms have coughed up. Humanism is just such a map, and if you’re not convinced that it represents a significant moral advance over ancient dogmas, you simply haven’t looked into the matter. It isn’t even close.

Interesting problems arise, of course, when the well-being of some critters has to be traded off against that of others. These questions—questions of distributive justice—are notoriously difficult. But no one said that ethics was going to be easy. With the concept of mattering, though, we can bring the tools of responsible, objective inquiry to bear on ancient ethical conundrums. In fact, a mattering-theoretic reinterpretation of utilitarianism is a nice down-payment on a science of morals, especially if we append to it Goldstein’s (quite lovely) argument for the equality of mattering. As she puts it: if any of us “categorically” matters, then all of us do and to the exact same extent. I just take it one step further and affirm the antecedent of this conditional. I don’t think that makes me unscientific, but those allergic to prescriptive statements are free to disagree. (I’m sure that, as a practical matter, Goldstein concurs, even if she’s more cautious when speaking theoretically.)

A science of right and wrong is on our doorstep. In fact, the concept of mattering brings it within reach. Our notion of science will likely prove elastic enough to subsume ethics, and some day we will speak without apology of normative sciences. We’ll understand then what everyday speech patterns have been trying to tell us for centuries: some things really matter, some things really don’t, and in many, many cases, there are reliable ways of figuring out which is which. Such a development is likely to usher in significant moral progress—perhaps even a conceptual revolution comparable in significance to the Scientific Revolution. Theory aside, it is high time our quarrelsome species stopped pretending that morality descends from some ethereal realm. Let’s “get real” about what matters.


1. We have to set aside the creatures themselves, for technical reasons I cannot explain here.

Andy Norman

Andy Norman is professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and director of CMU’s Humanist Initiative. He is working on a book titled Unhinged: Faith, Ideology, and the Ethics of Belief, Boosting Mental Immune Response in the Ideological Animal.