What Is and What Ought

It is a primary principle of logic that what is, that is to say what actually exists, should not be confused with what ought, in other words what we intend or believe should be the case. In particular the danger is to assume that because we take something to be the case then in some sense it ought to be the case. I was reminded of this whilst reading Stephen Jay Gould during my annual bath, annual because that’s how long my children claim it takes me. Anyway, whilst partially submerged I passed the hours reading Gould’s article ‘William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign’ in the book Bully for Brontosaurus.

William Jennings Bryan was a successful politician and orator, three times candidate for the Presidency and a champion of reform and a champion of reform, particularly favouring the poor and rural communities. However his life and his memory has been forever dominated by an event right at its end, his involvement in the Scopes Trial. It was the Scopes Trial which proved a decisive turning point in the debates about the teaching of evolution and creationism in United States schools. Bryan appeared as an attorney defending Tennessee States right to ban the teaching of evolution as anti-Christian. Gould, who was a leading expert on Darwin and critic of creationism, considered why such a prominant reformer and progressive as Bryan should attack teh teaching of evolution.

The conclusion Gould comes to is that Bryan was not, actually, attacking Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he didn’t really understand, but rather the interpretation and application of it by certain forms of Social Darwinism. In particular, Bryan had come to recognise, quite correctly, that Darwin’s theory had influenced the militaristic and Germanic superiority of the German military leadership before the First World War, indeed Social Darwinism acted as a vindication to the German’s in 1914 inĀ  much the same way that Hitler saw himself prophesied by Nostradamus and occult theory justified the German military in the 1930s. Moreover Bryan also regarded Social Darwinists as advocating individual competition and self-interest in opposition to what he saw as the Christian values of society and community. Unknown to Bryan a healthy Darwin influenced copllectivist movement had existed in the 19th Century led by the likes of Prince Peter Kropotkin, himself analysed by Gould in the same book in his essay ‘Kropotkin was No Crackpot‘.

As Gould points out Bryan was quite legitimately, and with some force, railing not against Darwin himself, who Gould argues as being morally neutral as Darwin is concerned with what is not what ought, but rather those who read a morality, an ought, into their particular interpretations of Darwin, such as the 1914 German high command, or elements of the US power elite. Indeed the text which was used to teach evolution and which Bryan was fighting for Tennesee’s right to stop being taught in their schools, saw the por as parasites on society and has the following paasage which Gould quotes:

Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality and crime in all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely from them the poorhouse and asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not aloow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. [G W Hunter A Civic Biology (1914), quoted in Gould, p.429]

Of course such ideas have long thought to be extinct and discarded, but today we seem to be creating a new ought from an is with our view that what markets provide should be seen as an inevitability and a moral good. That the social inequalities we have developed over the past 30 years and from which we now suffer are both inevitable and moraaly justified, but the market is just a mechanism, something which exists in our economy, in other words an is, in just the same way that Darwin’s theory of evolution and the mechanisms which support it are. We can be right or wrong about the operations of evolution, and of markets, but neither evolution nor markets can impart moral necessity, and to regard them as doing so can lead us down dangerous pathways. How far separated, after all, are Hunter’s attitudes above from those expressed by some in the wake of teh summer’s riots? Markets exist, as does evolution, to teh best of our understanding. How we interprete them and how we react to their consequences is not a moral given but a matter of social choice, for us to make.

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