YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE

One thing about Drake songs is that they always seem to feature a lot of numbers. Like, a lot.


And it’s not just titles either. The hook to ‘100’ is literally just a sum: 8+92=100. And the square root of 69 is the lyric everyone remembers from ‘What’s My Name?’ These aren’t just passing references to math-concepts. The man is laying out entire equations in his songs, repeatedly. Is Drake really this passionate about maths? It’s enough to raise suspicions.

Margaret Hamilton stands next to a stack of verses she wrote for Views.
I reckon you could create a GCSE Maths paper made up entirely of Drake references. For instance:

If Drake is 25 years old and is sitting on $25 million, invested in a mutual fund with an annual return of 2%, how much money will Drake be sitting on by the time he turns 40?


Forget that for the moment though. Instead listen carefully around the 1:33 mark. Was that a YOLO?

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As human beings, we often make claims about what people ought to do. We say things like ‘You ought to give some money to charity’ and ‘You ought to call your mother.’ If someone were to ask us why they ought to do these things, we want to be able to give them a good answer. This means backing up our claims with a good argument that’s based on facts.

The problem is, this is seriously difficult. Some philosophers even allege that it’s impossible. Facts are is-statements. They tell us something about how the world is. Moral claims are ought-statements. They tell us something about how the world ought to be. They’re fundamentally different ways of speaking, so it’s not clear how we can build a good argument to take us from is-statements to ought-statements.

David Hume identified this problem in a famous passage in his Treatise of Human Nature:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning... when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
– Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

The problem has since come to be known by many names: the is-ought problem, the fact-value distinction, Hume’s guillotine. But the idea is the same. There seems to be no way of validly arguing from facts to moral claims, from is-statements to ought-statements

The problem is an important one because people try to do this kind of thing all the time. Take an example: ‘Hitting people causes pain [is-statement] so you ought to avoid doing it unnecessarily [ought-statement].’ This argument isn’t valid. The truth of the premise doesn’t guarantee the truth of the conclusion. In order to guarantee the truth of the conclusion you need another premise to be true: ‘You ought to avoid causing unnecessary pain.’ But this is an ought-statement that isn’t supported by our original is-statement! If someone asks us why they ought to believe this ought-statement, we need to give them another good argument that’s based on is-statements. However, if you try this you’ll find it’s surprisingly difficult to do. You could perhaps point out that people don’t like suffering pain but, again, this is-statement alone can’t guarantee the truth of our ought-statement. To do that, we need another premise: ‘You ought to avoid doing things that people don’t like.’ But, this is just another ought-statement in need of support! Distressingly, there seem to be no facts about the world that entail any moral claims. There seem to be no is-statements that will justify our ought-statements.

YOLO changed all that. In that heady summer back in 2012 the entire English-speaking world was gripped by YOLO-fever and suddenly the seemingly impossible was being done with incredible ease. What philosophers failed to do in thousands of words of argument was being done by teenagers in two syllables. ‘Jump off the roof!’ ‘Why?’ ‘YOLO.’ ‘Drink an entire pint of ketchup!’ Why?’ ‘YOLO.’ ‘Kiss a car for 72 hours!’ ‘Why?’ ‘YOLO.’ People were suddenly accepting this is-statement – you only live once – as justification for all kinds of ought-statements. YOLO seemed to be the Holy Grail for ethicists everywhere. At long last, an unquestionable bedrock upon which to build our ethical theories.

 Except, of course, it didn’t work out like that. For all its early promise, YOLO turned out to be just like every other is-statement. Namely, compatible with all kinds of ought-statements. In fact, YOLO is not so much an exception to Hume’s guillotine as a perfect illustration of it. Although you can certainly argue ‘You only live once [is-statement] so you ought to seek out some wild experiences [ought-statement]’, you could equally well argue ‘You only live once [is-statement] so you ought to take no chances [ought-statement].’ The Lonely Island, Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar made exactly this case back in 2013:


So what do we do when even YOLO can’t justify our ought-statements? Well we’ve got a number of options. Firstly, we could accept that it’s simply impossible to back up ought-statements with a good argument, but this isn’t very appealing. Most people intuitively believe that some ought-statements are more defensible than others (e.g. ‘You ought to be kind’ is more defensible than ‘You ought to try and hurt everyone you encounter’). If this is the case, it seems there must a good argument that makes the first one more defensible.

Secondly, we (you, in your own time) could examine some philosophers’ attempts to bridge the gap. A.N. Prior argued that the is-statement ‘He is a sea captain’ entails the ought-statement ‘He ought to do what a sea captain ought to do.’ Alasdair MacIntyre argued that the is-statement ‘This watch is grossly inaccurate and irregular in time-keeping and too heavy to carry about comfortably’ entails the value-statement ‘This is a bad watch.’ And John Searle argued that the is-statement ‘Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars’ entails the ought-statement ‘Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.’

Thirdly, we could accept that some ought-statements are true without argument. Hume’s guillotine seems to force this option on us if we want any ought-statements to be true, and some philosophers endorse this. They’ll say things like ‘I can’t argue for it, but it’s just obviously true that you ought to do that action that will bring people the most happiness.’ The problem with this approach is that the truth of this ought-statement is not obvious to a lot of people, and without arguments there seems to be no way to convince them.

The final option is to argue that there is no clear distinction between is-statements and ought-statements. We could argue that all is-statements are inevitably tangled up with ought-statements. For example, take the is-statement ‘The theory of evolution is true.’ If someone asked us ‘Why should I believe that?’ we’d want to provide them with a good argument. We’d say things like, ‘Well the theory is simple and coherent and it explains the evidence.’ If they then said, ‘You’ve just given me more facts. I want to know why I should believe it,’ we’d be puzzled but have to say something like ‘Well, you ought to believe things that are simple and coherent and explain the evidence.’ In this way, we reveal the ought-statements hidden beneath the surface of every is-statement.

This move is, I think, the least contentious but it doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it exacerbates it, because now we need to find some way of justifying these new ought-statements. Why ought you believe things that are simple and coherent and explain the evidence? It seems obvious that you should, but it’s surprisingly difficult to give a reason why.

In this way, we can see how our Drake lyric has led us to question the foundations of all knowledge. Whether our claims are is-statements or ought-statements, we want to back them up with a good justification, but this justification itself needs a justification, and so on, and so on, and so on. If there’s no final justification that can’t be questioned, then we’ll end up going on forever.

The whole situation is often compared to an old anecdote about William James. John Ross recounts the story in his Constraints on Variables in Syntax:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,"

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down!"

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