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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 34, 2018

Justice: Social, Criminal, Juvenile

Matt Silliman, David K. Braden-Johnson
Pages 117-132

Doing Justice to the Is-Ought Gap

The two characters in this philosophical dialogue, Russell Steadman and Jules Govier, take up the meaning and significance of David Hume’s famous “is-ought gap”—the proscription on inferring a fully moral claim from any number of purely descriptive statements. Building on the recent work of Hilary Putnam and John F. Post (among others), Jules attempts to show that Hume’s rule is of little consequence when discussing matters related to justice or morality as we encounter them in daily life. He derives his conclusion from the observations that all nontrivial human discourse contains, however tacitly, some degree of embedded normativity, and that an overlapping continuum of different types of normativity permits reasonable inference from apparently pure descriptions to fully moral prescriptions. While Russell agrees that moral concepts inevitably make reference to empirical reality, he insists that, precisely in virtue of the tacit normativity of discourse, Hume’s gap persists, rendering fallacious any attempt to fashion an argumentative bridge between the two types of statements. Although the two do not resolve all of their differences, both of their positions shift significantly in response to the other’s insights.

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