The Is-Ought Gap, Post-Modernism and the French Facelift

by Richard Butrick (January 2014)

Basically, the empiricist criterion of truth is that a statement is empirically true if and only if (1) it implies at least one observation statement or its negation and (2) it does not imply any false observation statements. The first clause rules out any logically true statements, “a rose is a rose” or metaphorically “true” statements, “life is a dome of many colored glass.” The second clause rules out empirical falsification. Now this seems circular but actually it does explicate the general notion of empirical truth in terms of the presumably simpler notion of observable truth. The latter, of course, requires further explication. But as in all cases of definition, at some point one must begin with a base of concepts taken as given. But these problems aside, what of interest here is to compare the empiricist approach with the post-modernist approach in which truth is taken to be a social construct. What is true for a given cohort (society, culture, tribe, institution, sect, religion, nation) is what is held to be true by that cohort. This relativizes truth to what is perceived to be true by a given cohort. There are no absolute truths. [And that’s the absolute truth?!]

Relativistic versions of truth have been around since the dawn of philosophy and were certainly operative in ancient Greek philosophy.

Here is a doctored and condensed version of the refutation of relativism based on Socrates’ encounter with Thrasymachus. The latter maintained that truth is merely the interest of the stronger.

If, as you say, Thrasymachus, truth is merely the interest of the stronger then we must consider the following. The stronger being men are fallible. If they are fallible then they may lay down truths which are not in their best interest. If they may lay down truths which prove not to be in their best interest then truth is not merely the interest of the stronger. Realizing he has lost his case, Thrasymachus becomes enraged and departs in a huff.

Relativism has morphed, lost and regained status many times since the time of Socrates. The Marxian version makes truth the result of social conditioning and preservation of class domination structures. The Marxian version lost it’s cachet by the fifties but it morphed and regained prominence again in the writings of the French post-modern deconstructionists such as Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. By the time the then president-to-be, Obama, charmed his way through the halls of ivy it was firmly entrenched, especially in disciplines related to the social sciences. The motto for universities from Yale to Columbia to Stanford might as well have been:

What is really true is what people need to believe for their own good.

According to V. D. Hanson, the post-modern approach to truth which has permeated academe since what Hanson calls its French “facelift”  accounts for President Obama’s noblesse oblige attitude toward empirically based truth. He treats such truth as one of superior birth and social standing would treat those of less fortunate standing when under the obligation to nurture and help. One listens politely to what they say and believe but one nudges them along the better path. Tell the little dears what they need to believe to nudge them along the path to the greater truths which only those of us of superior vision and intelligence are able to grasp. Here is V. D. Hanson:

By the 1980s, in law schools, university social-science departments, and the humanities in general, the old relativist idea of Plato’s noble lies was given a new French facelift. Traditional morality and ethics were dismissed as arbitrary constructs, predicated on privileged notions of race, class, and gender. The new moral architecture did not rely on archaic abidance by the niceties of “truth,” which simply reinforced traditional oppressive hierarchies.

In the postmodern world of the New York Times and Barack Obama, again, “truth” is a relative concept. For reactionaries stuck in ossified notions of absolute truth, perhaps indeed Obama did “misspeak.” But for progressives of our brave new world, Obama was all along speaking truth to power merely by using linguistic gymnastics to advance a larger good — the idea that the privileged who had managed to acquire good health insurance should at last pay more in order to cover those who in the past undeservedly had been deprived of commensurate coverage.

Worrying whether Barack Obama lied about the implementation of Obamacare or about Benghazi, or for that matter about closing Guantanamo, halving the deficit, ending the revolving door, or reducing unemployment, is a fruitless exercise. Obama says what he must to advance the cause of social justice, and he leaves the less enlightened to argue over whether his advocacy conforms to their own ossified standards of truth — oblivious that the president has long ago left them far behind in his quest for a larger justice. [link]

Well, the problem here is what the English analysts  contemporaries to the French post-modernists — call the is-ought gap. No matter how many declarative/empirical is's one piles up they will not effect the implication to an ought. The moral universe of right-and-wrong and should-and-shouldn’t floats above the world of empirical truth and falsity. It has its own inner logic or dynamic  the latter perhaps being the better word. It is a world full of tropes and hopes and identity-projections and visions of the future and, alternatively, edicts from a God.

The godless Stalin, for example, committed his atrocities in the name of a future world of harmony and shared prosperity. How could a man starve millions of Ukrainian people to achieve obedience to his will? Ostensibly, it was for the future of humanity  the sacrifice of the present generation for the well-being of future generations. Or was it all just a smoke screen for his lust for power?

For Stalin the criterion of goodness was not morality but effectiveness. … Furthermore, the fact that the characteristics despised by Stalin were weakness, idleness and stupidity is revealing. Stalin the killer slept easily at night.” (Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 342) 

The is-ought gap. Seemingly just an academic nicety but in reality it means that competing schemes of right and wrong and visions for the future of humanity are ultimately not subject to scientific or empirical verification/refutation. In that sense the relativists have a point. But the erroneous inference that is being made by PC-minded relativists is that therefore ideological schemes for social organization must all be equally tolerated. No such inference follows from the recognition that ideologically based schemes for social organization are not fully adjudicable by empirical truth. This baseless inference is compounded in the PC-relativists camp by the fatal conceit that tolerance begets tolerance. The irony is stunning. Iron-fisted enforcement of tolerance in one’s own culture to tolerate cultures which have no tolerance for other cultures.

Enter Islam stage right.

Islam is in total agreement that right and wrong are not supported or refuted by empirical studies. Right and wrong is what Allah says it is and the Koran is the word of God. Period. No other code or ethic is its equal. All other codes are inferior. They can be tolerated only by admission of inferiority and adherents of such inferior codes must live the life of second class citizens. Islam does not make the faulty inference that because the world of oughts and shoulds and musts cannot be proved scientifically that therefore the edicts of the Koran must be seen as no better than other codes of behavior and social organization. Quite the contrary. Since empirical evidence does not do the trick, Islam must be made dominant by force. That force can be by stealth, deception and infiltration in the case that overt force is not feasible. Otherwise, Islam has the right to use all manner of brutal overt force. Unless the leadership of Dar al-Harb wakes up from their relativist slumbers and faulty inference and fatal conceit, Dar al-Harb and its denizens will go the way of the Dodo bird.

One is temped here to invoke Dawkins’ culture-bearing memes and see the struggle between Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam as a Darwinian struggle between the independence-responsibility meme of Western Enlightenment lineage vs. the submission-domination meme of Eastern Absolutist lineage — with the PC-relativist meme being some strange mutant of the former. With Western democracies increasingly under the leadership of the PC-mutant of the freedom-responsibility meme, typified by such stalwarts as Obama, it does not bode well. From North Korea to Dar al-Islam, the submission-domination meme seems to have found fertile breeding ground. As long as the freedom-responsibility meme of Enlightenment lineage is out-replicated by its mutant, both memes will lose their hosts and their future will be the barren breeding ground of fossildom.

Perhaps the denizens of Dar al-Harb need to take heed of the version of cultural relativism promulgated by General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India from 1859 to 1861. When Hindu priests complained to him about the prohibition of sati by British authorities, General Napier replied,

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”



Dr. Richard Butrick is an American writer who has published in Mind, Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, International Journal of Computer Mathematics among others.


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