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Where Do Values Come From?

If the problem is the value of nature, the first question we face is the nature of values. In philosophy, the most compelling answer to this question comes from Hume; in the sciences, from sociobiology. Neither are necessarily incompatible with each other, and in most ways they are entirely compatible because the central contention is the same: ethics is a question of human nature.

Hume is infamous for, among other things, an idea known as the “is/ought problem,” which argues that one can never derive a justified ought merely from the way things are. For example, one cannot argue that disparities between men and women in certain career fields should be supported by policy simply because sex differences in job preference exist. A little thinking will reveal this idea to be indisputable, at least so long as we regard moral judgments abstractly.

Although it may seem an innocuous observation, the “is/ought problem” has at least one far-reaching implication: morality can never be wholly empirically and rationally derived. Instead, moral attitudes are in large part due to sentiments and feelings. Regarding things we consider wrong, Hume (1978, p. 469) writes, “You never can find [the vice], till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.”

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