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Hume’s Guillotine and New Year’s resolutions: How facts and values relate differentially to behaviou


The rain is here, the mornings are darker, and the days are getting cooler - the seasons are changing. The migratory animals known as “new year’s resolutioners” are beginning their journey out of the gyms into their dwellings of hibernation.

Now, it’s always fun to make light of this trend in the fitness industry (I do thoroughly enjoy the memes), however I believe that this humour needs to be somewhat tempered. We need to remember that NYR are born from the fact that people wish to make positive change in their lives, and we shouldn’t ridicule this desire out of existence. That’s what this blog is about: encouraging this positive pursuit by focusing on an element of goal setting that we are often unaware of. When you set a goal, you are making an “ought” claim (“I ought to do x”), not an “is” claim (“this is x”). Understanding this distinction is crucially important for behaviour change, which is usually the primary function of an NYR.

The is-ought distinction is a criticism of ethics articulated by Hume. Hume observed that we cannot make a normative claim based on facts about the world. "Hume's Guillotine" describes the separation of “is” statements (facts) from “ought” (should) statements (values). You undoubtedly will be asking, “how the hell is this is relevant to our NYR?” Whether we know it or not, when we set a goal we are often making normative claims (should statements). The problem is that we attempt to justify our normative claims with facts about that claim, which, as Hume determined, cannot be done.

Consider the following:

  1. John IS overweight.

  2. Being overweight DOES cause harm to John’s body.

  3. One SHOULD not cause harm to their body

  4. Therefore, John SHOULD not be overweight.

  5. John’s NYR is to lose weight.

Premises 1 and 2 are statements of fact (what is), premise 3 and conclusion 4 are normative claims (what should to be). Each of the premises is used to justify the normative claims and subsequent goal. This argument appears to be valid: it flows logically and is fact based. The problem lies with premise 3 - it’s just an opinion. Why should we not cause harm to our bodies? People do it all the time; smoking, alcohol, tattoos, scarification etc. FYI I wrote tattoos to annoy my wife (haha). I also did it to further illustrate my point. Tattoos do harm the body and yet my wife still thinks they’re morally acceptable. If a person did not agree with her, there is no fact that could convince them otherwise. There is no fact that concludes with absolute certainty that “tattoos are good/bad ethically”. Understanding this distinction is important because human behaviour is driven by values, not facts.

Facts do not drive behaviour because “is” statements are just right or wrong in a literal sense: either they exist, or they don’t. For example, my hair is black, and the Earth’s climate is changing. These two facts are both equally valid, one is not “righter” than the other. There is nothing about these facts that implies we are required to act in any specific way.

Now, you may be thinking WAIT! climate change is something we should absolutely act upon! I call BS on that!” Fair enough. BUT… A BIG BUT… I would like to point out that it’s only your desire to live on a habitable planet that drives your desire for action... If I was a suicidal nihilist, why would I care if the Earth’s climate is changing? I wouldn’t. The fact of climate change is only important to people who value the environment.

(Now, to be clear, I am not here to argue whether it is good or bad to value the environment. My point is to only highlight that facts only become important/relevant to behaviour if they relate to what we value.)

Let’s bring this back to the above-mentioned example of John’s NYR…

Being overweight is unhealthy: fact. However, being unhealthy is ONLY a problem for someone who wishes to be healthy, or reap some benefit from a healthy body. Some of you may be thinking, “Obviously! That’s why John made the NYR to begin with, he values being healthy!” Ok, I will grant you that it does appear like John values his health. BUT… A BIG BUT… if he valued it so much, why did he become overweight to begin with, or, why can’t he maintain his NYR?

The reality is that no one can answer these questions except John… and herein lies the problem: I would bet my non-existent house that even John doesn’t know. He, like many of us, has spent his time finding facts instead of exploring what he values.

You may not believe me and I understand why, as I hear, “surely people know what they value” from many of my clients (often phrased as a question rather than a statement).

Well… For 10 years 99.9% of my clients have told me they want to get healthy.

Me: “what does healthy mean to you?”

Client: *Blank expression* “It means to lose weight”, “It means to eat healthy”, “It means to do cardio” etc etc etc Me: “OK. How do these things make you healthy, by your OWN definition?”

Client: *Nervous Laughter*

Me: “I know what health means to me. Me and you are not the same, so I’m not giving you the answer

Client: *Blank expression*

Me: “Look, you actually need to know what health means to you! If you don’t, how will you get there? How will you know when you arrived? How can I help you get there? Why do you want to get there? Without answers to these questions, you will have no direction and motivation, and how can we work together to maintain change with no direction and motivation?”

Client: *Starts to look scared*

I don’t do this to torture my clients, honestly! I know that they are seeking my help to answer some of these questions. However, my role is not to answer it for them, my job is to help THEM find the answers that best suit THEM.

To change behaviour, you need to fully articulate and understand why this new behaviour is of value to YOU, specifically. Don’t tell me that you want to be healthy, tell me what healthy means to YOU and why YOU want to attain it. How does “healthy” fit with what you value and want to achieve out of life?

Does healthy mean having more energy to play with your kids?

Does healthy mean being able to stay focused longer at work?

Does healthy mean running 10 km?

Does it mean all of the above?

Then, I want you to tell me how these goals ultimately lead to your life being better. How does having more energy to play with your kids, staying focused at work, or running 10km improve your life? They may seem like obvious answers, but until you articulate them they don’t become real - and if they’re not real, you can ignore them more easily (bye bye NYR).

What better way to motivate someone to adopt a new or change an old behaviour than for them to see how this change ultimately adds value to their life, according to their OWN definitions?

Don’t focus on facts, focus on values.

Don’t tell me “being healthy is good because you live longer” tell me why it is that you want to live longer, so I can help you get there.


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