ought thought

A quick thought about the is-ought distinction.

I still hold that you cannot derive an ethical ‘ought’ from a scientific ‘is’. I also think we cannot derive oughts from philosophical kinds of is.

Here’s what I mean. It could be suggested that an ought can simply be inferred directly from what something is. For example, it could be argued that if someone IS a firefighter, scientist or lifeguard, they OUGHT to fight fires, study nature, or guard lives. There are important and hopefully obvious problems with this, and it has everything to do with the ‘if’ at the beginning of the example.

For example, it would be just as true to say that IF someone IS a thief, rapist or a liar, they OUGHT to steal, rape or lie. (note I’m aware that I’m appealing here to popular ethical mores or the moral zeitgeist)

The first thing to observe is that the ‘oughts’ in the above examples are not prescriptive (and thus proper to the field of ethics). They are like saying that if a shape IS a polygon, it OUGHT to have multiple sides.

The other thing to observe is that the ‘is’s in the above examples are not self evident let alone ‘scientific’. What’s more, humans can possibly have multiple and even contradictory ‘is’s. I.e. A man who IS both an arsonist and a firefighter.

75 thoughts on “ought thought”

  1. Do you think it would be better for people to do away with all language of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and say instead ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I agree with that’, etc.?

  2. Yeah pretty much – I don’t think the words “good” and “bad” in the context you are using them would be missed if they never had existed – at least in the real world.

    Of course in literature good and bad are crucial to understanding the stories because they wouldn’t work if the pseudo-morality in them was more obscure/realistic. Also good (and bad) are often not used in that moral sense. For example “good” could simply mean “fit for purpose” such that a chainsaw is good for cutting down trees and I don’t mind it in that context.

  3. Again, I don’t have a logical problem with you if you were to use wording that was consistent with ultimate moral relativism. It’s just when people say we can ‘base’ morality ‘on’ facts that I can’t see it…

    Interestingly, ‘good’ as ‘fit for purpose’ is precisely how I understand ALL morality – only the question is: is there a purpose for humans beyond the multiple and often contradictory ‘purposes’ we self-determine? The abortion topic is a good test-case for this and other questions…

  4. It’s just when people say we can ‘base’ morality ‘on’ facts that I can’t see it…

    I have never said that. Sure some moral decisions are made based on facts, but people generally don’t make explicit moral choices – they work on gut feelings. That this happens is a matter of fact.

    Interestingly, ‘good’ as ‘fit for purpose’ is precisely how I understand ALL morality – only the question is: is there a purpose for humans beyond the multiple and often contradictory ‘purposes’ we self-determine?

    And that question is also matter of fact – either there is or there isn’t. I am not saying this is derived from facts, but rather that if it is true then it is a fact.

    Now all you need to do is find some reason to suppose it is actually true that goes beyond “I strongly feel it does” :)

  5. Yes – ‘strong feelings’ alone are useful, but fall short of being sufficient in my view to say that ‘it is actually true’. However, when there is coherence between feeling, reason, tradition, intuition, etc. I think we do have sufficient weight to say this. Of course, this doesn’t make us omniscient of all truth of course.

  6. Sorry Dale, I’ve been busy and still don’t have time to address the obviously massive chasm between what I am saying and what you are understanding me to be saying. :)

  7. totally understand sir – when you get time?
    or if you want to do another coffee face-to-face is often better to clarify things quasi-instantly? hope you, the misses, the garden and the microbrewery (hint hint) are well :)

  8. Ha! Yes, I’ll definitely follow this up as it’s a topic that fascinates me and the interaction is a great testing ground. I’m aware that there’s another topic a while back that we never finished too.

    And, yes, we’ll have to catch up for a coffee/beer/game-of-darts-in-the-brew-dungeon or something at some stage.

  9. I’ll have to try and make my way north – a brew dungeon! ;)

    Yes – ‘strong feelings’ alone are useful,

    In what way?

    but fall short of being sufficient in my view to say that ‘it is actually true’.

    Agreed

    However, when there is coherence between feeling, reason, tradition, intuition, etc.

    I’d say that feeling and intuition are the same thing. Tradition I suppose both a cause and effect of strong feelings. Reason is a harder one to pin down but I suppose reason should be absent of feelings.

    I think we do have sufficient weight to say this.

    I think we also need some external confirmation of feelings and reason to really say this. A body of observations is one way to get here.

    Of course, this doesn’t make us omniscient of all truth of course.

    I’m not even sure what that would mean :)

  10. Ian,
    I agree that ‘facts’ (or ‘external confirmation’ or ‘body of observations’) need to be part of the picture. But facts, like feelings, are unable on their own to inform us of a ‘true goal’ and thus enable us to morally/ethically evaluating our actions in relation to such a goal.

    Like distinct lines of evidence converging and confirming a hypothesis (a process that still leaves us with less than perfect knowledge), the combined agreement of intuition, emotion, reason, tradition, ‘observations’/’facts’, etc. provide sufficient justification to speak of real (though never exhaustive) knowledge of truth.

    And I’ll be provocative and say that whilst the advances of science are invaluable, purely scientific (metrical, objective-and-thus-ethically-indifferent) knowledge is only able to contribute to ethical discussions in the service of reason, intuition, emotion. In other words, science merely helps us make the same moral judgments we’ve always made with greater detail. I note that sometimes ‘too much information’ can even cloud what was otherwise a simple judgment.

  11. I agree that ‘facts’ (or ‘external confirmation’ or ‘body of observations’) need to be part of the picture. But facts, like feelings, are unable on their own to inform us of a ‘true goal’ and thus enable us to morally/ethically evaluating our actions in relation to such a goal.

    I agree here. Where we differ is that I don’t see any reason to suppose such a ‘true goal’ exists in the first place and this is where the facts come in. I don’t grant this premise.

    Like distinct lines of evidence converging and confirming a hypothesis (a process that still leaves us with less than perfect knowledge), the combined agreement of intuition, emotion, reason, tradition, ‘observations’/’facts’, etc. provide sufficient justification to speak of real (though never exhaustive) knowledge of truth.

    Probably an unnecessary tangent but what happens when observations and intuition/emotion disagree?

    And I’ll be provocative and say that whilst the advances of science are invaluable, purely scientific (metrical, objective-and-thus-ethically-indifferent) knowledge is only able to contribute to ethical discussions in the service of reason, intuition, emotion. In other words, science merely helps us make the same moral judgments we’ve always made with greater detail.

    I think this is a point where we might be talking past each other. I agree that science can’t say much about what we should do, but it can describe the patterns in these things, help us to elicit the mechanisms behind them, and to understand them. I accept we all ascribe “oughts” to things, sometimes without conscious thought, and that science/knowing in general doesn’t really have much to say when it comes to choosing the content of those “oughts” (although it can help). But when one says “I think rape is bad because it is just bad”, where is the justification to look beyond that person for some external explanation? It is this that interests me.

    I note that sometimes ‘too much information’ can even cloud what was otherwise a simple judgment.

    Surely the simplicity of the original judgement was misplaced if further information makes it more complex? It is a bit like saying “person a killed someone so thats bad… oh it was self defence? thats clouding the issue”. I realise that is a crude example but I can’t think of another that doesn’t boil down to that? Anyway thats a bit of a distraction lol.

  12. Ian,
    I think belief in ‘true goals’ is properly basic, and we lock people up for not assuming rape to be bad. There are some things that are just that simple :)
    Not sure how much further we want to go here, but let me know – I think we’ve both expressed our views fairly fully?

  13. I think belief in ‘true goals’ is properly basic,

    I don’t follow what you mean by “properly basic”?

    and we lock people up for not assuming rape to be bad. There are some things that are just that simple

    Despite the bulk of history where rape the norm? It is easy to judge it as wrong in modern eyes but if the time you live dictates what is morally acceptable then it is not “properly basic” nor is it “that simple”. In fact I don’t think anything is really that simple :)

    Not sure how much further we want to go here, but let me know – I think we’ve both expressed our views fairly fully?

    I’m enjoying the discussion but I think our difference mostly boils down to your reason for believing in some external source of morals. I don’t find your argument sufficient to warrant belief in it and since I don’t think it should be personal choice whether or not morals are absolute or not I feel like there is something one of us is missing :)

  14. properly basic = justifiable, ‘basic’, ‘human’, at the fundamental (basic) intersection of normative human thinking/acting existence

    ‘bulk of history where rape is the norm’ – I don’t accept that on historical grounds :) I do accept that the frequency and modes of reaction to the act of rape have (and will) varied in human history, but I don’t think we can say that at any point in human history it was morally ‘norm’-al? Not only would the women (by definition) oppose it, nearly all of the most ancient law codes from various cultures forbid it.

    on discussion – I enjoy it too, but wonder if we’ve arrived at that fundamental epistemic point of departure? You don’t seem able/willing to accept other-than-factual things (i.e. intuition, tradition, emotion, reason/logic) as being proper sources for moral truth or goals, AND you seem to not be too bothered about denying that your approach does (more or less) equate to relativism. So, I’m not sure what else we can address? That’s not me pulling the plug on this conversation, just saying how I see it?

  15. Oh yeah – I saw this and couldn’t resist (because not pointing it out would break an immutable law of nature):
    “I don’t think it should ought to be personal choice whether or not morals are absolute or not”
    :)

  16. You don’t seem able/willing to accept other-than-factual things (i.e. intuition, tradition, emotion, reason/logic) as being proper sources for moral truth or goals,

    Its not so much that I won’t accept it, I literally don’t understand what it means and I cannot imagine how such a thing would work. I can accept that people have intuitions, traditions, emotions, reason and logic and I can accept that taking these en masse tells us fascinating things about the way humans operate, but I don’t think that is entirely what you mean?

    AND you seem to not be too bothered about denying that your approach does (more or less) equate to relativism.

    Should I be bothered? I’m quite happy to call myself a relativist although (like atheism) I think that term has some undeserved baggage tagging along for the ride.

    Oh yeah – I saw this and couldn’t resist (because not pointing it out would break an immutable law of nature):
    “I don’t think it should ought to be personal choice whether or not morals are absolute or not”

    I said “I don’t think it…” not “the universe doesn’t think…” ;)

  17. Right, I’ve finally got some time.

    To refresh what my argument is regarding deriving ‘oughts’ from ‘ises’:

    ‘Oughts’ must always be accompanied by a goal of some kind. ‘Ethical oughts’ are a subset in which the goal is in some way related to degrees of pleasure or suffering of others.

    If you can agree with these two statements (and I think that you do?) and if you can agree that atoms can combine to form molecules which can combine to form cells which can combine to form creatures who can have various degrees of goal-making abilities (i.e. evolution — which you do?), then you will see that goals are merely the results of a whole bunch of ‘ises’ and that therefore ‘oughts’ (how best to achieve those goals) are tied to them.

    IF your goal is to achieve X THEN you ought to do Y.

    I don’t believe that there are any ‘oughts’ that do not implicitly or explicitly fit this pattern. The question often becomes “Ought you have a goal to achieve X?” and my answer is the same, you just take it back a step.

    An example:

    IF your goal is to make a cup of coffee THEN you ought to pour boiling water into the cup as opposed to pouring it into the sink.

    “Ought you want to make a cup of coffee?”

    IF your goal is to perk yourself up by way of a drink of some kind THEN you ought to want to make a cup of coffee and not a cup of milk.

    “Ought you want to perk yourself up?”

    IF your goal is to avoid sleepiness while driving THEN you ought to want to perk yourself up somehow and not drift off to sleep.

    “Ought you want to avoid sleepiness while driving?”

    IF your goal is to not crash your car, risking death or injury THEN you ought to avoid being sleepy whilst driving.

    “Ought you want to avoid death?”

    Here we begin to fade off into just plain goalless ‘ises’. Although we sometimes have goals to survive we, like all successfully living creatures, have a deep instinct to survive and reproduce. It’s not really a goal. It’s more just a fact of what living things are and what they are driven to do. From here on in we struggle to deal with ‘oughts’ because we end up dealing with nonsensical questions like “ought a β-amylase enzyme attach to the end of a chain of starch and break bits of maltose off?”. They are nonsensical questions because enzymes don’t really have goals. They don’t make choices, they just do what they do.

    Now, the thing with the above long-winded example is that it is massively simplified. We seldom make an ‘ought’ from a single goal. We often have multiple goals and often need to compromise our oughts to best achieve as many of those goals as possible. You may have a past history of coffee addiction in which case you might have a goal to avoid lapsing back into a dependency on coffee but you also might have a goal to get to your destination in time and you are sleepy. Tricky.

    Ethical oughts — according to my hypothesis — are exactly the same as other kinds of oughts but they impact on the well-being of others. If something negatively impacts on another person we call this morally wrong. Similarly, we could invent a word for oughts that relate to eating and call them ‘Nutritional oughts’. The word ‘ethical’ relates to goals and actions that affect other people’s well-being.

    But even ethical oughts reduce down to personal well-being eventually which, in turn, reduces down to mere goalless ‘ises’ as I have shown above. Why ought we not murder our neighbour? Because we will likely be punished by our society. Why ought our society punish murderers? Because the members of our society are beings who desire not to be murdered. Why ought we desire not to be murdered… (now we’re back to non-ethical oughts and quickly approaching non-goal-driven facts of our existence).

    I’m not claiming that we got to ethics by way of reason. Just as I wouldn’t claim that we got to ‘nutrition’ by way of reason. We’ve been doing all kinds of ‘oughts’ for many millions of years. We sometimes do ‘ethics’ in a beneficial way and we sometimes do ‘nutrition’ in a beneficial way. We can identify flaws in our base nutritional desires (such as the desire for fatty foods) and we can identify flaws in our ethical desires (such as the desire to kill a person who has killed another).

    And I’m not claiming that ethical oughts are just a matter of opinion (i.e. moral relativism). I think we can find common ground in who we are and how we are configured to discover sufficient reason for many of our goals. You and I both don’t want to live in a society where it’s ok to murder people? Let’s fund a police force to discourage murder then. Bob over there is one of the 2% who have antisocial personality disorder. People like Bob are usually unable to be reasoned with and we simply use force to curb his antisocial desires. The 98% of us have found that we thrive better in a society that acts to ensure the maximal goal achievement of it’s members. If we were able to reason with Bob we surely should be able to illustrate that, if we were to permit his antisocial behaviour, he would ultimately be less happy because others would be free to be equally antisocial to him. Or perhaps Bob really does have a convincing reason for why society would be better if we were all allowed to harm each other — well, let him present his reasons to us.

    There are many, many areas where there is room for improvement in our own society where we should be able to use reason to illustrate how we would all benefit if we were to change certain social rules. I should be able to show that if two people of the same sex find each other attractive it does more harm than good to penalise them by way of our laws. We did just this with the homosexual law reform back in the 80s. Some people came to the table with arguments based on the decrees and writings of their particular holy book. Understandably, the rest of us didn’t find this argument convincing and the law change went ahead anyway. Most original objectors now would be quite hesitant to advocate for the reinstatement of those particular laws but we now face off once again over the issue of who has the right to marry and who has the right to adopt. If we want to convince each other we need to base our arguments on reason and common understanding of how the world really works.

    It seems to me that most of society instinctively understands that ethics are related to well-being but that no one has really defined it yet. When I look in the dictionary all I see are circular definitions for words such as ‘ethical’, ‘moral’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

    My key claim is:
    ‘Oughts’ must always be accompanied by a goal of some kind. ‘Ethical oughts’ are a subset in which the goal is in some way related to degrees of pleasure or suffering of others.

    If we believe that ‘nutritional’ oughts can be derived from ‘ises’ then I believe that ‘ethical’ oughts can be also.

    (I realise this is ridiculously long. It is only out of a personal respect for you that I have made the effort but I do feel that without addressing our presuppositions there is unlikely to be any agreement on topics like this. Much as you might struggle to convince a YEC on the truth of evolution without addressing his presuppositions.)

  18. That is a mammoth post – but I agree the length is to be expected in this case. I have read it and appreciate the time/thinking you’ve put in. I hope you’ll not be offended for me not doing a line-by-line response! (my guess is you’ll be relieved!?) :)

    I still (don’t hate me!) see your treatment as an essentially descriptive one, however? What I’d really be curious to see are (at least) two things:
    1 – a statement of your hypothesis which interacts with the terms here?
    2 – an example of how moral choices are arrived at in ‘prescriptive’ terms. Why ought conclusion ‘a’ is better or more ethical than ought conclusion ‘b’, etc.

    And a note: quite apart from this discussion related to how we can know what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I’d want to state that whilst I do support the basic order-preserving function of ‘law and order’, government, etc. I do not think that laws change people’s ‘hearts’ (see other post) and lives.

    It is probably best to avoid legislative notions when discussing this issue? The is/ought distinction is not concerned (directly) with the question of ‘how do we get people to DO what is [or isn’t] agreed that ought to do?’ (a very good question, however!) The question is how do we make ‘good’, ‘right’ or ‘true’ moral judgments – as opposed to making poor ones?

    I understand (descriptively) the progression from amoeba to antelope to adam in terms of capacity of goal-making. That’s fine. With more ability comes more ‘response-ability’. This progression doesn’t help us with discerning a good goal from a bad one (or a ‘higher’ from ‘lower’ goal).

    I’ll leave it there – forgive me for lack of quality of engagement – point out any places I’ve misunderstood (as always)?

  19. quick add: I don’t think the goal of being ‘healthy’ or a ‘successful living organism’ is at all based on ‘is’. We skip over this all the time because we (in my view) rightly just ‘know’ it to be a good goal. But it’s not based on any ‘facts’. We can describe lifespan, movement ability, reproductive rates, etc. but this is entirely descriptive. Longer lives are not ‘factually’ better (at any level of goal-making) than short ones. Choking on your own vomit from overeating or getting way too drunk is not ‘factually’ worse (at any level of goal-making) than… well… the opposite of that. :)

  20. Sorry Dale but I lack the will to go over it again suffice to say that I’ve outlined a number of times that you *can* get ‘oughts’ from ‘ises’ when the ‘ises’ combine to make a creature capable of setting goals. That you *can* get ‘prescriptive’ from ‘descriptive’.

    Goalless parts (cells, atoms, hearts, lungs, neurons) are ‘ises’. A creature made up of goalless parts can have goals. A creature with goals will generate ‘oughts’ depending on the actions available to it. Creatures with goals and oughts who attempt to live and communicate with each other will generate ‘ethical oughts’ which relate to how their actions affect the well-being of each other.

  21. I can imagine it’s frustrating, so I can understand not wanting to (or not feeling you need to) say much more. In addition to the condition of ‘well-being’ not being self-explanatory, I wonder if it comes down to different senses of what is meant by ‘getting to’ oughts?

    To paraphrase/comment on your wording: a creature made up of goalless parts can ‘get to’ or ‘have’ goals (of various kinds, which we see as both good/bad). A creature with goals ‘gets to’ or ‘generates’ oughts (which may or may not be good). Then the ‘attempt to live/communicate with others’ (which is not a universally realised action, nor automatically ‘good’) ‘gets to’ or ‘generates’ ethical oughts relating to effects of actions on well-being of others (which is again not universal or automatically ‘good’).

    So then (and I hope this says it most clearly?), one can (here’s where the wording gets tricky) give a descriptive account even of the activity of making prescriptive statements. We can describe how people a) gain cognitive ability to make prescriptions and b) the good/bad/high/low goals which underlie their prescriptions.

    But the choice of ‘this’ or ‘that’ moral prescription (i.e. abortion is OK in this situation v. NOT OK in this situation) would still be subject and relative to each individual prescrib-er, and the good/bad goals and values they have (i.e. life is so valuable that it is a good goal to protect it v. freedom of choice is so valuable that it is a good goal to protect it).

    Both the goal to protect life and to protect freedom are goals that fit well under the larger goal of increasing well-being (however that is defined). But ‘oughts’ based on these goals can be contradictory. Which signals that a value judgment is missing from the hypothesis.

    Indeed, the term ‘well being’ assumes what it means to ‘be’ in a ‘well’ or ‘good’ way. A value-judgment is skipped over.

  22. Damian,
    If you’ve time/energy/will, I’d appreciate your sharpening on my latest post, is-for-ought-law, which in a very qualified sense does agree that you get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Two key points though will be the need to distinguish between good/bad at every level, and that value-judgments are tied up with the ‘is’-ness relevant to moral/ethical issues.

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