The lockdown and the ‘is-ought problem’

Over the course of the last week I have been reminded of a problem articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Known as the ‘is-ought problem’ it simply points out that we cannot derive ‘an ought’ from ‘an is’; that we cannot, with any justification at least, first make a positive statement about an actual state of affairs (a description of what is the case) and then, from it, make a normative statement (a prescription of what should be the case). Two things have fed my thinking here: the various reports that I’ve heard and read about concerning outbreaks of anger directed at people who appear to be flouting the rules of the lockdown, and the book that I’m currently reading – Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.

I wrote a few weeks ago about people protesting at others who appeared to be ignoring the lockdown rules by entering public spaces like parks and sunbathing. Even though no actual harm was being done by the sunbathers (provided they kept two or more meters away from anyone that they were not living with) others were angered by the thought that they were outdoors unnecessarily. There have been innumerable other examples, ranging from having parties, travelling to second homes, or simply not respecting the request to keep 2 meters away from people you are not living with. I’m not (at the moment) attempting any ethical evaluation of these examples. I simply want to point to a very much reported example of a trait of human behaviour that is not necessarily logical. Yes, it seems rational to argue that having a party could very easily help spread the virus, but it seems much more a problem to apply the same argument to sunbathing in a park whilst keeping at least 2 meters distance from others.

In the above book, Boyer draws on both anthropology and evolutionary psychology to describe how human behaviour is the result of a large number of universally evolved ‘inference systems’ that are given shape by particular cultural influences. These systems he describes as “specialised explanation-devices…each of which is adapted to particular kinds of events, and automatically suggests explanations for these events”, though, to be honest, ‘explanations’ isn’t necessarily the best word as some of the outcomes of these devices are emotions like fear or disgust. With regards to our evolution as a social animals, a large number of these systems have evolved to maintain group social cohesion and cooperation, necessary traits for group survival. One system in particular reacts to the perceived detection of another group member flouting the rules of the group by producing a feeling of anger. In evolutionary terms, such a reaction helps reduce behavioural deviance and therefore helps maintain social cohesion. My point in saying all this is that feelings of anger directed towards social others who are ‘breaking the rules’ are quite natural and to be expected. But does their being ‘natural’ make them desirable?

Human social evolution is running at a faster rate than our biological evolution. Adaptive behaviour that was effective ten thousand years ago may be less so now. For example, despite what classical economics says about our ‘rational self-interest’, we have evolved to be cooperative. Cooperating with other group members was essential to group survival. But this ‘ingroup’ cooperation did not necessarily extend to ‘inter-group’ cooperation (though sometimes it did). However, as groups of hunter gatherers have settled and merged, as our social groups have become progressively larger and more complex, we have gradually extended the boundaries of our ‘ingroups’. The desire to cooperate with group members is a naturally evolved adaptive trait. However, if things had remained this way modern social life would not be possible. Instead, contemporary cultural influences, influences derived from the experienced rationale that so much more can be achieved (and so much suffering alleviated) when we cooperate enmasse, have added an ought to this trait. The ‘ought’ has not been derived from the trait (the ‘is’), but has been added to it from a different direction.

The same applies to our feelings of anger at people who we infer are breaking the rules. We have a naturally occurring inference system that produces these feelings. This is how we feel. It’s quite natural to feel this way. But that doesn’t mean that that is how we ought to feel. Or rather, as we will be unlikely to be able to just turn off such feelings, we can allow a little rational reflection to modify any expression of anger. We can ask ourselves whether the behaviour that upsets us is really that bad? We can try to extend our feelings of empathy to those who are the source of our anger and ask ourselves how do they feel? Basically, we could stop being so instantaneously ‘judgemental’ and start trying to see the bigger picture. Ultimately, whilst the ‘is’ will be derived from the prevailing factual conditions of what is actually taking place, the ‘ought’ will be derived from our collective desired outcome – an outcome that requires more imagination and thought than the ‘is’ can supply.

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