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The Journal of Philosophy

Volume 112, Issue 4, April 2015

Daniel J. Singer
Pages 193-210
DOI: 10.5840/jphil2015112412

Mind the Is-Ought Gap

The is-ought gap is Hume’s claim that we can’t get an ‘ought’ from just ‘is’s. Prior (“The Autonomy of Ethics,” 1960) showed that its most straightforward formulation, a staple of introductory philosophy classes, fails. Many authors attempt to resurrect the claim by restricting its domain syntactically or by reformulating it in terms of models of deontic logic. Those attempts prove to be complex, incomplete, or incorrect. I provide a simple reformulation of the is-ought gap that closely fits Hume’s description of it. My formulation of the gap avoids the proposed counterexamples from Prior and offers a natural explanation of why they seem compelling. Moreover, I show that my formulation of the gap is guaranteed by standard theories of the semantics of normative terms, and that provides a more general reason to accept it.