Even back in the ’70s when I was studying philosophy, the sentence “You can’t get oughts from ises,” was drummed into me. It was an axiom. No one can observe things as they are and validly infer things as they ought to be. You cannot rationally conclude an “ought” from an “is.” It’s a different and more memorable way of affirming the fact/value dichotomy. We have factual propositions and we have value propositions; there’s no logical link between them.
“You can’t get oughts from ises” is an axiom only of modern philosophy. Aristotle, for example, and other pagan philosophers from the golden age of Athens, believed that every creature had its final cause, the purpose for which it exists, which is discoverable by reason and empirical observation. Any ideology which is teleological, such as Marxism or evolutionism, must violate this axiom to some extent, though evolutionists would never admit to it.
Too often, Protestant thinkers, having an aversion to natural theology, affirm this axiom by default. However, I would challenge them to return to their bibles to see just how often Paul, or Jesus indirectly through his parables, says “nature teaches us,” or what amounts to the same thing, asks the rhetorical question “doesn’t nature teach us?”
According to Romans 1:18 to the end of the chapter, “ises” do entail “oughts,” even to such a degree that no human being has any excuse for failing to do what ought to be done before God since what is is universal. I have probably read this chapter of Scripture more than any other because it turned my worldview upside-down, and I needed it to continue maintaining that new worldview.
First, what is teaches us not only that God exists, but His invisible attributes are inferrable also. It does not require the intelligence of a Thomas Aquinas to draw these inferences; otherwise, people may fail to draw the proper conclusions, but “that which is known about God is evident among them, for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:19) Surely God cannot fail to do what He set out to do. Among those invisible attributes that Paul says are inferrable from what is are God’s “eternal power and divine nature,” (Rom 1:20). It’s easy to see that God’s eternality, His existence apart from, and throughout, created space-time, and His omnipotent power may be derived from God’s creation. Other attributes, such as omniscient knowledge and wisdom, might be added to our list of invisible divine attributes, but Paul leaves “divine nature” undefined. I believe that Paul had in mind something like some of the attributes that the best pagan Greek and Roman philosophers assigned to the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:18,23,28).
Second, what is constrains us to honor God as God, as He reveals Himself to be rather than as we wish Him to be, and to give thanks to Him. We are to worship Him and be grateful, and give frequent voice to our gratitude. (Rom 1:21) The verse I semi-quoted in the previous sentence and the two verses that follow, are the ones that most disturbed my view of the world. Before this, I believed, along with most people I knew, that all religious people sincerely sought after god in their own way. I did believe that some ways were better than others: I had seen people worshiping rocks in the hills outside of Chichicastenango in Guatemala. I suspect they performed these rites to get money from gullible tourists. I thought Judaism or Christianity, were superior to rank idolatry. (I studied Shinto closely. Though it includes ancestor worship and the belief in spirits in inanimate objects, I would not have included it with the idolatry I saw in Guatemala.) But this passage told me that the seemingly sincere pursuit of god, and its accompanying intellectual speculations, was a means to suppressing the true knowledge of God. We would prefer to worship a god made after our image than to be the worshiping image of God we ought to be.
Third what is reveals incredibly detailed moral demands, such as heterosexual sex; the prohibition of greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slandering, boasting, insolence, dishonoring parents, and so on. (Rom 1:24-31) The list is incredibly long. Many systematic theologies assign this moral knowledge to our consciences. This moral knowledge is somehow innate according to them. I’m a bit more of an empiricist. Romans chapter 2 does talk about the human conscience, but it does not tell us how that conscience is formed. I believe that even if this knowledge is somehow innate, it is triggered and at least partially formed by our experience of what is. This is the best explanation I have for the perverted, or even overly-scrupulous, consciences people have as a result of nurture. Many philosophers of the 18th century believed in a moral sentiment similar to our other senses applied to moral good and evil.
Finally, and most incredibly, what is teaches us the penalty that attaches to violations of the detailed list of moral demands. “And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same but give hearty approval to those who practice them,” (Rom 1:32). Some of us are very concerned about our society where the cheerful acceptance of sex outside of marriage and other forms of immorality has come to be defined as love, and moral discrimination of nearly any type is now equated with hate. We live in interesting times!
Although it may not seem it, this post is of a piece with my post on natural law and natural rights. We Protestants need to learn more from our Catholic friends about these two subjects. I am very eager to get my hands on the legal reasoning of John Finnis, but his books, even used, remain too expensive.