The Is-Altruism Dichotomy - The Objective Standard

Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at

A dichotomy is thwarting moral thought. Call it the “is-altruism dichotomy.”

You’ve probably heard of the “is-ought dichotomy” or the “is-ought gap”—the idea that you cannot derive moral principles (principles regarding how people “ought” to act) from facts of reality (from what “is”). This idea originated with the Sophists of ancient Greece, who held that all moral views and values are subjective or mere opinions.1 It was later popularized in terms of “is” and “ought” by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.2 Today the idea is widely regarded as a fact beyond question. Outspoken scientist and atheist Sean Carroll sums up the view: “Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.”3

The “is-ought dichotomy” is now affirmed, implicitly if not explicitly, by virtually all intellectuals; and taught, in some form or other, to practically all college students.4 This is why so many educated people subscribe to moral relativism. If morality can’t be grounded in reality, who’s to say what’s right?

Widespread acceptance of the “is-ought gap” not only breeds moral relativism; it also lends credence to claims that in order for objective morality to exist, there must be a divine lawmaker, a “God,” who issues objective moral laws or commandments. “If moral standards are not rooted in God,” says popular talk show host Dennis Prager, “they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky.’ They are simply a matter of personal preference.”5

But the idea that we can’t derive moral standards from observable reality is demonstrably false. . . .


1 See Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, trans. Kathleen Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 125; and Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), vol. I, pp. 91–94.

2 See David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Appendix I, esp. pp. 287–89, 292–94; and Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Book III, esp. pp. 457–59, 462–70.

3 Sean Carroll, “The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate,” Discover, March 24, 2010,

4 Although some contemporary intellectuals are open to the possibility that moral principles can be derived from facts of reality, to my knowledge none (other than Ayn Rand) has shown how this can be done. In the absence of specific knowledge of how it can be done, intellectuals are effectively in the position of conceding that it can’t be done. The “is-ought dichotomy” goes by other names as well, including the “fact-value dichotomy” (the notion that you can’t derive values from facts) and the “naturalistic fallacy” (the notion that you can’t define “good” in terms of natural properties). There are trivial differences among the variations, but they’re essentially the same problem. Below I explain a major cause of the widespread confusion.

5 Dennis Prager, “Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally,” September 20, 2011,

6 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), pp. 13–16.

7 Of course, people have free will and thus can pursue values that are contrary to the requirements of their life, but the fact remains that they don’t need to pursue such values. If they don’t want to live, they can simply stop acting and they will soon die. For more on this point, see Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1982), pp. 95–101; and Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), pp. 43–52.

8 See Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 94.

9 The error of equating morality with altruism is not the original reason philosophers had trouble deriving morality from reality; the original reason is that philosophers observed correctly that we can’t perceive “value” or “moral principle” or “ought,” and they assumed that these things must therefore just be ideas detached from any fact in reality. (I address this aspect of the problem in a chapter titled “The Is–Ought Gap: Subjectivism’s Technical Retreat” in Loving Life.) But the idea that we can’t derive morality from reality persists in large part because people equate morality with altruism. Observe that few people doubt the existence of “precision” or “ambiguity” or “religion” or “economics” or the principles of physics or those of medicine or countless other things we can’t see. The principles of morality remain elusive today largely because of the widespread practice of freezing the broad abstraction “morality” at the level of the narrow, concrete morality “altruism.”

10 Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 79.

11 Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 56.

12 Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 50.

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