Between IS and OUGHT

When human beings investigate their own nature, they ask two seemingly different questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Who should we be?

The first is the province of psychology, cognitive science and increasingly, biology. The second is the province of ethics, arts and philosophy. One of the most interesting developments in modern scholarship is how the two views of human nature are increasingly coming together. Cognitive scientists are now writing about how we ought to live our lives: e.g., Steven Pinker’s new book. One might disaagree with Pinker’s claims but at least he is recognizing that the old dichotomy between IS and OUGHT is breaking down. Perhaps it is time to declare a new compact:

IS = OUGHT

In other words, human reality does not distinguish between the way we live and the way things are. While one can make a distinction between the two, the separation between what is and what one should do has no ultimate truth attached to it. It might be useful to think of the two ways of looking at human natures as two stances: the objective stance and the ethical stance. There are several ways of bridging the gap between the two stances: appropriate design and emancipative politics are two important means. In his thoughful essay on Gandhi as a thinker Akeel Bilgrami argues that Gandhi’s conception of truth involves a natural flow from the perception of truth to moral action, satyagraha, that is just another facet of the same truth. While philosophers should read Pinker, it might also be useful for cognitive scientists to read Gandhi.

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