The Is-Ought Fallacy is Devastating to Progress in Modern Organizations

The is-ought “problem” was identified by David Hume. Also known as Hume’s Law or Hume’s Guillotine (I prefer this)— he noticed it was the logical error people would make connecting what “is” with what “ought” to be.

This conclusion starts with his belief that all knowledge is the result of two things:

  1. Logic and definitions
  2. Observation

Thus, if you start with an observation and then come up with a statement that it “ought” to be true — this is a mistake. For example, if we step back twenty years:

Gay marriage is illegal, therefore — this is the way things are meant to be

In the workplace this is closely related to the “not invented here” mindset. As someone that is always trying to question and understand a better way of doing things, I found myself incredibly frustrated when others did not always agree. However, as I learned more about the psychology around the resistance to change and phenomena like the “ought-is” fallacy I understood why progress was so hard in the workplace.

Before the creation of the internet, the ought-is fallacy was a logical way to behave in the workplace. It was hard to figure out what other firms were doing or if there was a better process. You often had to hire a consulting firm that would help you identify what other companies were doing.

As the internet has emerged, this has changed. Google is one company famous for continually experimenting and trying new ways of innovation on its people operations. It even published the information for all the world to see: Re:Work With Google.

At Basecamp, DHH and Jason Fried are constantly challenging the status quo of the working world. Here is DHH on questioning the conventional wisdom that since most startups is never-ending work that it OUGHT to be the case:

One of the most pervasive myths of startup life is that it has to be all consuming. That unless you can give your business all your thoughts and hours, you don’t deserve success. You are unworthy of the startup call.

There are many more examples. The point is that relying on ought-is thinking as a way to make sense of what is happening in your workplace is no longer ignorance, but pure ineptitude. The information is out there — and if not, we should be running experiments and making changes to figure out what the answers are. We need to start with “why” instead of accepting what was created long long ago.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.