An Informal Introduction to Covenantal Apologetics: Part 31 – Is and ought.

By C.L. Bolt

In terms of ethics and morality, people are obligated to persons, not to impersonal objects. It is problematic to try and get moral principles from impersonal objects. Some have even called this attempt a violation of logic. According to the Christian worldview God is personal, and moral principles are derived from the revelation of His nature to us. In the non-Christian worldview there is no such personal and absolute source of morality to appeal to, but only the impersonal and non-absolute or relative. Forced accounts of ethics in an ultimately impersonal universe run into a serious problem when it comes to attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is.” It is impossible to deduce ought from is.

By “is” we are simply referring to factual observations. Of course we have noted many problems with the non-Christian account of factual observations already, but assuming that there are such things which correspond to the world, etc. we merely get an account of the world as it is. We get a descriptive account of the universe. But the way that the universe is tells us nothing about what the world ought to be. A description of the universe does not tell us anything prescriptive about it. Starting with premises concerning what the world is like, we cannot deduce conclusions concerning what people ought to do.

By “ought” we are alluding to an overarching metaethical scheme; a scheme that tells us what is right and wrong and how people should think and behave in accordance with the principles of that scheme. We can derive no such system of obligatory principles or laws from mere observations of facts about the world. For example, seeing a man murdering another man might be something which we can factually report, but this fact tells us nothing about whether this man ought or ought not to have murdered the other. We cannot move from description to prescription or confuse the two. When we go to speak about what someone ought or ought not to do we are bringing something new into the discussion. This new element is not derived from an impersonal state of affairs. It is difficult to see how we might justify this new element in the context of an ultimately impersonal universe. It is arbitrary and inconsistent. Ought cannot be a deduction from the is which is wholly different from it. To call attention to this point is to address a non-Christian account of ethics and morality. The distinction between what is right and wrong is not something we can gather from our experience of the impersonal universe.

< Previous | Next >

One Comment


“It is impossible to deduce ought from is.”

I recognize in context you are speaking of a natural “is,” but I wonder if a statement like the one above may be overdone, given that in Christian ethics it is Christ’s indicative (is) which is the foundation for all biblical imperatives (ought).

Two more cents… 🙂

Leave a Comment