Beyond the ‘Is/Ought’ Dichotomy?

There is something seductive and captivating about Hume’s insistence that it is not logically possible to infer what ought to be the case from any amount of evidence on what is the case. Do those who dismiss his argument have axes to grind? Are they wishful thinkers who have personal convictions or philosophies to promote? In this blog I draw on the innovative philosophy of Roy Bhaskar and, even more so, the critical exposition of Sean Creaven to put a spanner in the works.

It is not appropriate to apply value-judgements to quantum phenomena. For the time being, assuming a commitment to fallibilism, ‘the facts are the facts’. But the social sciences encompass the products of intentional human agency. Societies are the historical constructions of generations of people whose actions were motivated by ideas that might or might not have been in their interests. To use Maggie Archer’s term, people’s natal or ‘involuntary placement’ in an established hierarchical order can lead them to act against their interests mistakenly or unawares. This is because those with wealth and power typically exercise decisive influence over how the world is interpreted. In these circumstances, as Creaven says:

‘powerholders and superordinate groups have both vested interests and the institutional and cultural capacities to disseminate their own self-justificatory beliefs across the rest of society, to misinterpret unegalitarian social relations as in the interests of everyone, or to justify publicly their own oppressive or exploitative institutions in the eyes of the downtrodden or subordinate’.

There are other ways in which people might get things wrong or act against their own ‘real’ interests. First, drawing on Bhaskar’s basic critical realism (see my blog on this), it is apparent that knowledge is not a mere ‘reflection’ or ‘mirror’ of the world. Second, drawing this time on Marx, it is no less apparent that certain types of social structures or relations – for example, those of generalized commodity production – ‘spontaneously generate ideological forms that mystify their real causes or conditions.

If people’s interpretations of the world are part and parcel of ‘social reality’, and thus up for analysis by sociologists; and if it is accepted that these interpretations might be partial, imprecise or simply wrong; then there is an onus on sociologists to reveal the ways in which these interpretations are problematic and to explain why this is the case. On occasions, such accounts of ‘false consciousness’ will necessarily be ‘evaluative’, ‘whether these evaluations are in terms of the ideological use of cultural resources by dominant vested interest groups to sustain their power and privileges, or in terms of Marx’s commodity fetishism sustained by capitalist institutions’. In ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’ Bhasker writes:

‘if … one is in possession of a theory which explains why false consciousness is necessary, then one can pass immediately, without the addition of any extraneous value judgements, to a negative evaluation of the object (generative structure, system of social relations or whatever) that makes that consciousness necessary (and , ceteris paribus, to a positive evaluation of action rationally directed at the removal of the courses of false consciousness’.

There is the beginnings here of a philosophical rationale for what I have elsewhere called ‘action sociology’ (again, see other blogs).

Bhaskar has more to say on is/ought. It is not for him just a matter of exposing false consciousness. Creaven uses Marx’s analysis of the wage-form under capitalist social relations as illustrative. The nature of this wage-form cannot be laid bare – that is, be truthfully accounted for – in the absence a critique of capitalism as a system of class exploitation. Why is this? Creaven:

‘a scientific diagnosis is simultaneously a politico-ethical critique, if, as Marx believes, the wage-form is a mechanism of alienation and exploitation. And if this is so, specifying the nature of ‘what is’ (capitalism as a system of class exploitation) logically entails a specification of ‘what ought’ (an alternative social system in which class exploitation is abolished). This is simply unavoidable, since capitalism is not a force of nature, is not governed by natural necessity, and so is not beyond rational criticism or the powers of human agency to ameliorate or abolish.’

In short, certain propositions in sociology, if true, deliver moral obligations ‘by force of logical necessity’.

Sociology, as a social science, must be inherently critical, at least in some of its studies (it is of course possible to take evasive action, as sometimes happens in the field of health inequalities for example). To diagnose an ‘is’ that is detrimental to human self-knowledge or self-emancipation, ‘and which is an unneeded  determination of human unenlightenment and unfreedom’, Creaven adds:

‘is necessarily to specify an ‘ought’ (a new state of affairs that replaces these unneeded determinations with needed ones). In other words, descriptive and analytic accuracy in social science is necessarily supportive of evaluative judgements about the rights and wrongs of social and cultural forms.’

To criticize the wage-form is to criticize an institution that ‘secures acquiescence to class exploitation by disseminating the false belief that wages are commensurate to the real value of the commodities that wage-labourers produce’. And, Creaven again:

‘insofar as a such a diagnosis undermines the ideology of a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, it may contribute to proletarian struggles for abolition of the wage system.’ 

Humans’ historically generated needs and interests – that is, those that underwrite an individual’s physical and psychological well-being – are not simply ‘wants’ or ‘desires’. Why? Because inasmuch as social relations are capable of sustaining a level of economic output sufficient to improve ‘the life-chance of the entire societal community’, it is ‘acceptable to regard the continuing frustration of these by vested social interest groups as a denial of real needs and interests.’ Another quotation from Creaven:

‘such constraints on human freedom would be socially and materially ‘unneeded’, because they are not determined by natural fetters (e.g. insufficiency of resources). Rather, they are determined by social structures and social practices that are organized in ways which preserve the power and privilege of superordinate classes or elites at the expense of the life-chances of subordinate groups of classes.’

Such social practices, in Creaven’s view, are morally wrong, and objectively so. It is the task of critical theory to undermine their ideological justifications and to spell out ways of accomplishing change. By contrast, ‘the social struggles of the oppressed and exploited against such structures and their beneficiaries are morally right’; they are ‘objectively, ethico-political ‘right-action.’

This, I find, sits comfortably (and helps sustain) my own interpretation of the sociological project, as well as my recent promotion of action and foresight sociologies to complement Burawoy’s professional, policy, critical and public sociologies.


Bhaskar,R (1989) The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences (2nd.Ed). Hemel Hempstead; Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Bhaskar,R (1986) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London; Verso.

Creaven,S (2007) Emergentist Marxism: Dialectical Philosophy and Social Theory. London; Routledge.

Scambler,G (1996) The ‘project of modernity’ and the parameters of a critical sociology: an argument with illustrations from medical sociology. Sociology 30: 5

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