David Hume

The Pandemic And The Is-Ought Problem

Let’s re-think it all, while we can.

Clark Boyd
8 min readJul 22, 2020


The philosopher David Hume wrote of the ‘Is-ought problem’.

He found that writers tie positive statements (what is) to normative statements (what ought to be).

In Hume’s opinion, these are potentially two separate worlds.

We can only change our reality if we create a gap between them.

Otherwise, we accept that what is, ought to be, and nothing ever changes.

If we choose, we are right now in a prime moment to address our own is-ought problems.

We are experiencing a number of crises in:

  • Health
  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Civil rights

With quite a bit of pain to share around yet, no doubt.

In an interview with Le Monde last week, Emmanuel Macron identified another significant crisis: the crise de confiance (confidence crisis) that underpins all of the other quandaries we are in.

In the past few months, we have ‘realised’ a few things we already knew:

  • The truly important jobs are underpaid.
  • Most jobs are a bit of a nonsense.
  • Labour, wages, and capital are too loosely related.
  • Computers can’t take over our work. We need people.
  • The economy doesn’t work if we aren’t buying bad sandwiches and watered-down pints.
  • Governments have no idea how to track citizens. Big tech knows a lot more about our movements than governments do.
  • Ordinary people can affect change.

That’s the easy bit.

These truths have been laid bare and we know that how it is, is not how it ought to be.

But how could it be different?

How can business, technology, and nature fit together?

In this series of hi, tech. editions, we want to share and discuss the new ideas that have emerged recently, and some older ideas that have been dusted down again.



Clark Boyd

Tech/business writer, lecturer (Columbia), and data analyst. >500k views on Medium. I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.