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 comments

  1. Isn’t this trivial Dale?

    Why would we think the classification of someone as a firefighter, scientist, lifeguard, thief, rapist or lair is either a scientific or philosophical classification?

    Aren’t you bandying around these words far too loosely?

  2. Hi Ken,
    Well, to put it in terms that relate to our previous discussions about morality/ethics:
    the statement “IF a person IS sentient, intelligent or empathetic they OUGHT to be aware, think things through and empathise with others” is just like saying “IF a person IS unconscious, unintelligent or apathetic they OUGHT to not have awareness, act without consideration and without concern”.

    The ‘data’ is objective and indifferent to prescriptive ‘oughts’. Humans ‘are’:
    both firefighters and arsonists
    both considerate and rude
    both doctors and murderers
    both thoughtful and thoughtless
    both security guards and thieves
    both rational (consider their actions ahead of time) and rationalising (justify their actions after doing them)
    etc.

    these kinds of ‘is’ statements don’t get us to morality – but I’m under the impression that you think they do?

  3. As far as I can tell “oughts” as we know them need to be followed by “in x’s opinion”.

    It certainly “is” the case that people think things “ought” to be a certain way but all your work is still ahead of you to demonstrate that things “ought” to be a certain way in the absence of such thinking.

    Amusingly if it “is” the case that such “oughts” exist then “is” statements do indeed get us to morality. Ironically it seems the only way “is” statements can’t get us to “oughts” is if the “oughts” are just opinions :)

  4. yes, your notes about ‘thinking’ and ‘opinion’ highlight that this issue is really is soaking with epistemological juices. We’re really talking about how we can ‘know’ not only what something/someone ‘is’, but how we can ‘know’ what it/they ‘ought’ to do.

    I’m not sure I understand or agree with your last paragraph, though? I shouldn’t get into too long a thread, but if you want to unpack that a bit feel free?

  5. Well if there are oughts independent of thought/opinion then morality is a matter of fact, not opinion. It “is”. Therefore describing these facts actually gives us the moral framework of the world.

    The only way that this wouldn’t be true is if morality is simple opinion. Then the best you can say is that x% of people think something is right/wrong/whatever, but not that something actually is.

    Does that clarify or obscure things? lol

  6. It’s trivial because it is irrelevant – and the wrong way around.

    Better to say So and so IS fighting a fire. They OUGHT to be called a “firefighter.”

    So and so IS telling lies. They OUGHT to be called a liar.

    Seems to me the subject is too important to get into such word play.

  7. Ian,
    yes it clarifies what you’re saying :) I obviously hold that Truth (including the true human goals which underlie morality) is independent of (more than the sum of) human thought/opinion, but clearly I don’t claim to be omniscient, so to use the language of Paul’s love poem/hymn we hear all the time at weddings, “we KNOW in part”. Anyone who claims to ‘KNOW’ all of the Truth should get their head inspected. But I also would say that anyone who claims to ‘KNOW’ nothing at all about the Truth is also way off.

    Ken,
    Reversing it (which is trivial word play if anything is) doesn’t help us know that fighting fires is better or more ethical than rape. And that – you seem to forget? – is the whole point of the is/ought distinction.

  8. it was effectively agreeing with it (we cannot ‘factually’ know right/wrong – as far as ‘facts’ are concerned, it’s just opinion, etc.), and then making further comments. Do you think that morality is ‘fact’ (i was assuming you don’t) or ‘simple opinion’ (i was assuming you do)?

  9. Consider this hypothesis:

    ‘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 expand on this we can see examples of fairly straight-forward ‘oughts’ like, “you ought to pour the hot water into the tea cup” where the unspoken goal is “if you want to make a cup of tea then…”. This ‘ought’ combined with these ‘ises’ (i.e. there are ‘ises’ in that there is a cup, that there is water, that there is a creature with a goal of making a cup of tea, etc) show that it is ‘wrong’ to pour the water on the bench and ‘right’ to pour it in the cup. If the goal was to clean the dishes then the ‘ought’ would change.

    Ethical ‘oughts’ like, “you ought not steal” have unspoken goals like “if you want to avoid making others unhappy then…”. This ‘ought’ is also derived from a bunch of ‘ises’ (there are other people who are unhappy when stolen from, you are a creature with the ability to steal or not steal, you are a creature who doesn’t want others to be unhappy, etc) and shows that, within this framework, there is a ‘right’ way to act and a ‘wrong’ way to act.

    When you read the ethical example you are no doubt asking “well, why ‘ought’ you want others to be happy?” You could ask the same of the tea cup example; why ‘ought’ you make a cup of tea? We can step out to meta-oughts and we’ll find that the same rules apply: that even a meta-ought requires a goal of some kind and that an ethical meta-ought will involve some kind of ability to make others suffer.

    We ought to make a cup of coffee because we desire it (thirst, addiction, etc). If we are to fulfil this desire then we ‘ought’ to make a cup of coffee. It is ‘right’ in this context to boil the jug.

    We ought to want to make others happy (or, at least, not cause others to suffer) if we find ourselves in a society which returns favours or which punishes us when we cause harm. It is ‘right’ to not cause others to suffer in this context.

    What about meta-meta-oughts? The same rules apply. Each meta-ought gradually becomes more and more empirically simple, not more and more supernaturally ethereal. They fade out into ‘ises’. We eventually end up with ‘oughts’ based on how our bodies/brains work. We ought to be thirsty because our bodies trigger a thirst response when they require water to keep working. Conversely, we ought to fight this addiction (if it is one) because our brains — through gradual understanding about how the world works — informs us that even though our bodies desire and reward us for caffeine we are suffering in other ways. We ought to avoid suffering because our bodies use suffering in order to stop us harming ourselves. Our bodies ought to provide these responses if we are to survive and spread our genes. Our genes are configured in this way because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here. At the very foundation it’s simply a matter of patterns that survive.

    At some stage our ethical oughts fade into non-ethical oughts when the ‘ought’ no longer pertains to the well being of others. Even if you believe in the existence of a God who is either a punisher and rewarder (you ought to simply because God says you ought to) or a trustworthy advisor (we ought to because God knows more about how the universe works and his advice can be trusted to bring us happiness) we eventually end up with ethical oughts based on our own personal well being which, as I have shown, fade into non-ethical oughts because they don’t involve the well being of others. If you believe in a God of some kind ask yourself “why oughtn’t I murder?” and follow those meta-oughts as far as you can. I guarantee you’ll end up dealing with a non-ethical ought based on your own well being which, in turn, will end up disappointingly as a mere surviving genetic pattern. (I personally don’t find it disappointing; I think it’s one of the most wonderful things ever)

    It shouldn’t really surprise us that complexity arises from simplicity. We have first-hand experience of gradually arising from a single sperm and an egg. We know that the amazing diversity of life evolved from simple chemical reactions billions of years ago. We suspect that the universe itself came about from deep simplicity. When we examine oughts and meta-oughts it certainly feels as though the ought of “you ought not steal” should have come from on high but as with the case of the coffee-making we can see that even this arises from something as simple as looking after our own interests.

    At their very foundation, ‘oughts’ (even ethical ‘oughts’) are ‘ises’. It’s the layers of meta-oughts that trick us into thinking otherwise. It’s also the fact that some people are happy to speak the implicit “if you want to make a cup of tea then…” in common oughts but have difficulty speaking the implicit “if you want to avoid causing suffering then…” in what we term ‘ethical oughts’.

  10. @Dale:

    it was effectively agreeing with it (we cannot ‘factually’ know right/wrong – as far as ‘facts’ are concerned, it’s just opinion, etc.), and then making further comments.

    Are you saying that you believe morality is just the aggregate of opinion then?

    Do you think that morality is ‘fact’ (i was assuming you don’t) or ’simple opinion’ (i was assuming you do)?

    IMO there are no “Oughts.”, just “Oughts in x’s opinion.”

    @Damian:

    Nice post and I think your hypothesis is a useful one for understanding specific “oughts” but I would note that many people seem to hold “oughts” for no apparent reason or purpose, or even for their own purpose. You ought not kill because killing is bad actually for example.

    Also I wonder if there is always a departure point that gets you away from “oughts” because you can create a messy regress when you start saying: “I think you ought to do a to achieve b which you ought to want to achieve because of c which you ought to want to achieve because of d etc etc”.

  11. Ian,
    I think we’re in total agreement that ‘facts’ are morally indifferent, and thus we cannot ‘factually’ know right/wrong. For you that means that morality is just a matter of opinion. For me, I take a view (and again, it all goes back to one’s epistemic presuppositions) that we impartially ‘know’ what is right/wrong. We don’t know everything, but we don’t know nothing (pardon the double negative!) either.

    Damian,
    Many thanks again. Long yes, but not boring. I’ll pick up a couple points:

    First, as before (on blogs and over coffee), we agree 147% that morality is basically meaningless without the notion of a goal (a ‘telos’, purpose, intended function, ‘end’).

    One point I’d question is whether or not it works to speak of meta-oughts (and meta-meta-oughts, etc.), or if it might make more sense to speak of goals, meta-goals and meta-meta-goals? higher and higher over-arching goals, etc. the ‘low’ goals may be specific/local, and the higher ones transcend the lower in scope, etc.

    I.e.:
    why drink tea? – goal of satisfying thirst (scope: part of a human)
    why satisfy thirst? – overarching goal of meeting bodily needs (scope: sum of bodily needs)
    why meet bodily needs? – overarching goal of staying alive (scope: human person)
    why stay alive? – [possibly] overarching goal of contributing to society (scope: human society)
    why contribute to society? – overarching goal of sustaining earth (scope: whole earth)
    why sustain earth? – overarching goal of [insert goal of solar system here]
    etc.

    Note that every goal we might raise is not self-evident, and certainly not ’empirically’ based. In this sense, I have to disagree with your statement: “Each meta-ought gradually becomes more and more empirically simple, not more and more supernaturally ethereal.” Goals are metaphysical things, which of course are accompanied by the brain activity in the brain of whomever is thinking about them, etc. (but let’s not muddy this topic with the mind/brain question!)

    Your example of a caffeine addiction is illustrative here. There is nothing at all about the ‘facts’ of my physiological phenomena that says that the really crappy jaded coffee-addict feeling is ‘wrong’. We just choose one type of suffering for another. Our bodies tell us more than one thing. They tell us ‘mmmm coffee!!’ and ‘owww headache!’ – we choose which thing to take more seriously.

    Your (abridged) example [with notes]:

    We ought to be thirsty because our bodies trigger a thirst response when they require water to keep working. [‘we ought to be thirsty’ should probably be ‘we ought to drink’?]
    …we ought to fight this addiction …because our brains …inform[s] us that (even though our bodies desire and reward us for caffeine) we are suffering in other ways. [again, we choose one suffering for another? some choose to feed an addiction and choose not to try to fight it – examples could be multiplied, we have many addictions. I agree with the anti-suffering goal, I just don’t think it’s based in a bodily ‘is’? We have roughly just as many bodily urges that keep us addicted to things as we have urges that prompt us to break these addictions? It’s wisdom and choice that discerns the goodness of the goal (i.e. chooses that the goal of not being controlled by an addiction is better than goal of satisfying addictive urge one more time before resisting…]
    We ought to avoid suffering because our bodies use suffering in order to stop us harming ourselves. [again, our bodily urges seem to also urge us in the other direction? the real ‘ought’ here is not based on physiological phenomena, but a goal that we choose and/or judge to be good – which involves a value-judgment as well – very metaphysical – and everyday, down-to-earth, ‘spiritual’, and common to all human experience]
    Our bodies ought to provide these responses if we are to survive and spread our genes. Our genes are configured in this way because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here. At the very foundation it’s simply a matter of patterns that survive.

    It appears you’re wanting (i.e. here: “They fade out into ‘ises’. We eventually end up with ‘oughts’ based on how our bodies/brains work.”) to loop things back away from these airy-fairy ‘goals’ and root them in our bodily functions (and even in physical constants – i.e. ‘patterns’ that survive?)? But I completely miss where you leave ‘goals’ behind and then bring in bodily function? Our bodies are complex enough to send us all kinds of messages about what we desire, want, need, etc. But ‘oughts’ seem still properly tied to goals?

    I hope this critique makes sense – I’m a little tired and heading for bed. The main point is that you seem to leave the language of goals behind, and I didn’t see why/how. And secondly, I don’t think that what you leave them behind for (body/brain functions) can provide a basis for any ‘oughts’.

    I hope/trust you’ll be patient as I may have mis-read you – please do correct me if/when/where I’ve mis-understood!? thanks :)

  12. I think we’re in total agreement that ‘facts’ are morally indifferent, and thus we cannot ‘factually’ know right/wrong.

    That wasn’t quite my point. My point was that if right/wrong is somehow objective then right/wrongness is a fact and therefore we must (in principle) be able to factually know what is right and wrong.

    For you that means that morality is just a matter of opinion.

    Again not quie my point. I think that morality is just a matter of opinion, and therefore not objective, and therefore not a matter of fact in itself. The factuality is a conclusion, not a premise.

    For me, I take a view (and again, it all goes back to one’s epistemic presuppositions) that we impartially ‘know’ what is right/wrong. We don’t know everything, but we don’t know nothing (pardon the double negative!) either.

    No arguments here except to note that it equally applies to objective or relative morality.

  13. I think the point of difference is language. I reach for the language of ‘truth’ and you use language of ‘facts’. For example, I think that rape is ‘truly’ wrong, even if I don’t have any ‘facts’ to support it being wrong. I think ‘truth’ transcends ‘facts’ – if that helps?

  14. Sort of. My point is that if rape is “truly” wrong then “that it is wrong” is a fact. This is quite different to saying it being “truly” wrong is backed up by facts. (I think fact/truth are interchangeable in this context).

    The real significance of this is that it means its wrongness is objectively verifiable.

  15. I’d say that if rape is ‘truly’ wrong, then ‘that it is wrong’ is simply ‘true’, rather than a cold, objective, indifferent, empirical ‘fact’? I still don’t see ‘wrongness/rightness’ as in the domain of ‘fact’?

  16. I really don’t see the distinction between cold, objective, indifferent, empirical fact and “true”.

    I agree that ‘wrongness/rightness’ aren’t facts, but thats because I see them as opinions of one form or another – so not quite what you meant. I guess where we differ is that it seems to me you propose a third type of non-fact, non-opinion type of knowledge/knowing/”truth” whereas I don’t think any such thing exists.

  17. ((to be grammatically picky, ‘true’ is the condition of corresponding to ‘truth’, so ‘true’ would relate to ‘factual’ as ‘fact’ relates to ‘truth’))

    And I’d want to point out that although in my view ‘truth’ is distinguished from ‘facts’, I do think that ‘truth’ is not opposed to facts (or empirical evidence, for example). To use the rape example, though the wrongness of rape is not ‘factual’, I take it to be true, nonetheless. And I also take it that the ‘truth’ of the wrongness of rape is complimentary to the ‘facts’ – though not ‘based on’ them.

  18. When you say “I take it to be true” that rape is wrong, does that mean that you take it that I also take it to be true? In other words if I took it to be fine to rape people, would you say that I am wrong? Or just that you think I am wrong?

  19. That’s a good example, Ian. I do think that I/we/humanity have sufficient knowledge of the truth to say that i/we/humanity ‘know’ that rape is wrong, so confidently that if someone disagrees, we ‘know’ that they are wrong. Arrogant, huh!? :) Effectively, this is me giving due epistemological weight to feeling, intuition, tradition, reason, etc. – and also noting that these (in the case of rape) are not against “the facts”. For me, this certainly involves me “thinking” that someone is wrong, but in some cases, I think we have sufficient knowledge of truth to have enough certainty to rightfully saw we “know” they are wrong.

  20. Sorry for the delay Dale. I’ve been a bit busy.

    Briefly, you and I agree that ‘oughts’ and ‘goals’ are bound together in that you cannot have an ‘ought’ without some ‘goal’ that can be acted on. Where I think we disagree is that I see goals and oughts arising from simplicity (i.e. atoms, when combined, can have goals and oughts) whereas you perhaps see goals and oughts as subsets of grander and more complex goals and oughts (terminating, I presume, in the will of God). Correct me if I’ve read you wrong. If I’ve got it basically correct, let me know and I’ll attempt to demonstrate how simple, goalless things can combine to create what we understand as goals and, therefore, ‘oughts’. (as and when I have time of course)

  21. I do think that I/we/humanity have sufficient knowledge of the truth to say that i/we/humanity ‘know’ that rape is wrong, so confidently that if someone disagrees, we ‘know’ that they are wrong

    I don’t really see the difference between this and emergent societal consensus so I don’t see any support for the argument that this truth is somehow objective.

  22. Damian,
    No worries, as always, with time. Yes, the goal/’ought’ link is one we share. But whilst I do talk of more ‘over-arching’ goals, I wouldn’t, however, say that the goals get more ‘complex’? And just to put a preemptive comment in there, imagining at least something of what you might say, let me say that as far as I see it, the question is not that goal-less/’ought’-less things ‘can’ combine to create goals/’oughts’, but rather, it is the question of us being able to know (or not?) whether or not the ‘oughts’ that they combine/develop/attain-to are ‘true’/’right’/’good’/’just’/’loving’/’on-the-mark’/’helpful’/etc. or not. Goal-less/’ought’-less things combine to have different (and contradictory) goals/’oughts’ – that is a descriptive analysis (of the activity of prescription – of ‘ought’-ing so to speak), but the question is can we ‘know’ that the 99% that think rape ‘ought’ to not happen are right, and that those who disagree are wrong?

    Ian,
    My comments to Damian are relevant here as well. It is entirely possible (and many would say an obvious reality) that the “societal consensus” can and does ‘get it wrong’ sometimes.

    Basically, IF someone (atheist, agnostic or otherwise) says BOTH a) that there is no objective moral truth, AND b) therefore morality is like-it-or-not, at-the-end-of-the-day, a human and very subjective thing that can never be properly prescriptive… THEN I have no logical problems with them. It’s just when some try to say that we can ‘base morality on facts’, etc. that I (and, it turns out, quite a few both theists and atheists?) just cannot see it – because of the ‘is/ought’ distinction (AND the ‘fact’/’value’ and ‘describe’/’prescribe’ distinctions, etc.).

  23. Dale, it seems that you don’t have an issue with the concept that atoms, when combined, have form entities which have goals and, therefore, ‘oughts’. Is this correct?

    If so, then I think my point is made. All ‘oughts’ eventually break down to ‘ises’.

    If an ant’s goal is to maintain the hatchery by arranging and cleaning the eggs then it ‘ought’ not eat the eggs and fight other ants committed to the same task. Ought the ant have a goal of maintaining the hatchery? Sure, if an ant’s goal (simple though that goal may be) is to survive then it ‘ought’ to behave like the other ants because the other ants will kill it when they detect it eating eggs. Ought an ant have a survival goal? Here our ‘ought’ starts to disintegrate because we start talking of a ‘goal’ which can barely be called a goal because an ant’s survival instincts just ‘are’ due to their genetic make up and perhaps environment. From here on down all we can talk about are ‘ises’: genetics, the way in which chemicals interact, atomic properties which determine the chemicals, and so on and so on.

    Because ants share many, many ‘ises’ (i.e. the way in which they are built and the environment they find themselves in) they will also share many, many ‘goals’ and, therefore, many, many ‘oughts’. But ants are so much simpler than us humans. They don’t sit around and discuss the relative merits of various goals like we do.

    So what about humans? Why do we feel that rape will always be wrong? If we were an ant capable of thinking things through, would we feel that eating the eggs will always be wrong? Undoubtedly.

    We humans also share many, many ‘ises’. We have the same genetic code as each other. We all benefit hugely by living in a society which punishes harmful acts and rewards acts that are beneficial to the survival of the society. Of course we’re going to share an ‘ought’ about rape especially when it is so demonstrably harmful to a society (and, therefore, us).

    But this is only an ‘ought’ for us and for other creatures who share similar ‘ises’. I don’t think there’s ever been a cat pregnancy that wasn’t brought about by rape. I don’t think there’s ever been a mouse caught by a cat who was killed quickly and painlessly. Are cats evil because they don’t share our ‘oughts’?

    Because we’re looking out from the inside of a body and from within a society it’s easy to imagine that the ‘oughts’ we share are universal beyond other creatures that share our particular set of ‘ises’. But they’re not.

    A point of confusion seems to be between ordinary ‘oughts’ and ‘ethical oughts’. I know that you and I agree with the first point of the hypothesis I proposed but I’m not sure the second part clicked with you:
    “‘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.”

    ‘Ethical oughts’ are based on the issue of the well being of others. We, as members of a human society, can ask “ought we not harm others?” which will step us into the goal of living in a society which steps us into the goal of personal benefit which steps us into the goal of survival which fades out into goalless ‘ises’.

  24. It is entirely possible (and many would say an obvious reality) that the “societal consensus” can and does ‘get it wrong’ sometimes.

    Wrong relative to what? I don’t think this says anything except that societal consensus changes.

    Basically, IF someone (atheist, agnostic or otherwise) says BOTH a) that there is no objective moral truth, AND b) therefore morality is like-it-or-not, at-the-end-of-the-day, a human and very subjective thing that can never be properly prescriptive… THEN I have no logical problems with them.

    That is pretty much my position.

    It’s just when some try to say that we can ‘base morality on facts’, etc. that I (and, it turns out, quite a few both theists and atheists?) just cannot see it – because of the ‘is/ought’ distinction (AND the ‘fact’/’value’ and ‘describe’/’prescribe’ distinctions, etc.).

    I think your point here is that in your view morality is different to action-consequence optimisation. I get this point, and in a limited way I agree.

    However my point is slightly more fundamental which is that if there is an objective moral truth then the existence of such a thing, and the nature of such a thing, is a matter of fact and it doesn’t get to hide away from rational enquiry.

  25. Ian,
    Thanks – I’d still say that even “action-consequence” optimisation requires a pre-determined/assumed/agreed moral/ethical goal or value-judgment that is other-than-empirically ‘based’ – in order to distinguish a good/goal-fitting consequence from a bad/goal-breaking one.

    And yes, I think that the ‘objective moral truth’ of (for example) wanton murder being wrong is well-open to “rational enquiry” (we can use plenty of useful reasoning according to ethical traditions, goals, emotions, intuitions – none of which are antithetical to reason). I just don’t think it can be “based on facts”.

    Damian,
    Sorry for gap – busy weekend :)

    it seems that you don’t have an issue with the concept that atoms, when combined, have form entities which have goals and, therefore, ‘oughts’. Is this correct?

    If so, then I think my point is made. All ‘oughts’ eventually break down to ‘ises’.

    I agree that we can objectively/indifferently describe the ‘oughts’ that atom-clusters ‘can’ have, but the question the is/ought distinction is properly related to is the question of whether the ‘is’ of what things/people are can alone dictate or prescribe what they ‘ought’ to do… more below…

    A key distinction I’d want to add would be the ‘ability’ and ‘responsibility’ one. I’m quite happy with a spectrum of both ability and responsibility from amoebas, aardvarks, apes and Adam-ites. Each is able to do more things – but (here’s the key point) more things which are in AND out of harmony with goals.

    We all benefit hugely by living in a society which punishes harmful acts and rewards acts that are beneficial to the survival of the society. Of course we’re going to share an ‘ought’ about rape especially when it is so demonstrably harmful to a society (and, therefore, us).

    The question is not about the FACT of sharing an ‘ought’ about rape, but about whether or not rape is Truly wrong – does it contradict any True goal for humans, or just ones that we humans happen to share (mostly)? I.e. is rape only ‘wrong’ “in a society which punishes harmful acts and rewards acts that are beneficial to the survival of the society”?? If so, then does this not make morality subject to the moral consensus of the current society we live in? Which brings me to your closing progression:

    We, as members of a human society, can ask “ought we not harm others?” which will step us into the goal of living in a society which steps us into the goal of personal benefit which steps us into the goal of survival which fades out into goalless ‘ises’.

    First, there are other places we can/should start from – like the question: ‘should a person rejected by their community commit suicide when depressed and tempted to?’ This person’s ‘goal’ (at least for the moment) is not to harm another, or to live in society, but to end it all. Or how about the wife who can keep her infidelity from her husband and from anyone else and therefore not ‘hurt’ him or offend anyone’s sensibilities about infidelity? Not ‘hurting’ the husband (at least biologically) – tick. Living in society – tick. Or for that matter, what about ANY private activity?

    I’ve also just seen that the key step in your attempt to base ‘ought’ on ‘is’-es is the step of getting all ‘oughts’ to the basic ‘ought’ of survival. From there, it’s all genetics.

    The problem is that the goal of survival is not self-evident (i.e. suicide and abortion grey this one up considerably), and is also possible to be attained immorally. I’m thinking here of the way-too-often-referred-to exampple of Hitler and the ‘survival’ of the pure arian race. He was trying to brainwash/intimidate/’lead’ society to have values consistent with this goal.

    For an example using your progression (for argument sake – not to pretend that you and other atheists all think Nazi’s are cool): “We, as members of a Nazi society, can ask “ought we kill Jews?” (which will step us into the goal of living in a [Nazi] society which steps us into the goal of personal benefit which steps us into the goal of [Arian] survival which fades out into goalless ‘ises’.

    What I’d want to suggest is that ‘survival’ is not the primary human goal. I believe that loving relationship is pretty damned near the ultimate goal for humans. And I know there are no ‘facts’ to support this. But we all ‘know’ it in other ways. I’m tired and going to bed now – sorry if less than wonderfully coherent… :)

  26. And yes, I think that the ‘objective moral truth’ of (for example) wanton murder being wrong is well-open to “rational enquiry” (we can use plenty of useful reasoning according to ethical traditions, goals, emotions, intuitions – none of which are antithetical to reason). I just don’t think it can be “based on facts”.

    How do we know of ethical traditions, goals, emotions and intuitions if not by observation? In other words how are they not facts?

  27. Dale,
    No problem about the delay; I understand entirely.

    When you look at the issue of rape and ask whether it is “Truly wrong”, I would suggest that there are a number of unspoken factors involved. For starters, you would appear to be talking about humans (as opposed to, say, cats). I believe that rape is not Truly wrong but that it is Ubiquitously wrong. i.e. that when we talk about rape in the context of modern humans, there is never (in normal circumstances) a case in which rape is the right thing to do. I suspect that what you are doing is taking the status quo of what you have been taught to be right, labelling that ‘Truly’ and then attempting to make that an ‘ought’ for all of creation as if it were externally imposed.

    You ask whether, under my hypothesis, rape is only ‘wrong’ in a society which punishes harmful acts and rewards acts that are beneficial to the survival of the society. I suspect that what you are doing here is implying that, if we can imagine a society which does not do that, then I must be saying that rape is not ‘wrong’ in those societies (i.e. a version of moral relativism). But we need to ask whether this definition of a society is, in itself, the best configuration we can imagine. If my underlying goal was to live in peace without suffering is this the ‘right’ society for me? My argument isn’t that we start with a definition of whatever a society thinks is the best way to behave and then everything that follows from there is automatically ‘right’. It’s that a society ought to be a compromise of all of its individual’s personal goals in such a way as to be of more benefit to those individuals than if it were to not exist at all.

    In my examples of how ‘ethical oughts’ step out into plain ‘oughts’ of self interest and step out to ‘ises’ based on survival, bodily responses, chemicals and atoms, I would never start with a broken definition of a society and use that as a justification for something like rape. The same applies to the Nazi example you provided; the Jews *were* a part of the German society, German society began to break down due to a number of circumstances and some Germans began to murder Jews. But the German society was part of an even larger, global society which sought to correct their mini-society’s malfunction.

    What societies think they ought to do will not necessarily be what they Truly (as you would word it) ought to do. If we want to live in a society because we want to avoid suffering and attain maximal happiness then if we find ourselves in a society which permits rape we should to ask ourselves whether this society could be configured in more effective manner.

    What I’d want to suggest is that ‘survival’ is not the primary human goal. I believe that loving relationship is pretty damned near the ultimate goal for humans.

    I agree. But I think that ‘survival’ is the base goal (and is perhaps as much as ‘is’ as it is a ‘goal/ought’) on which many other goals are built, including having a loving relationship. Why is a loving partnership and family so important to us? Why is sex so rewarding? Why is the concept of being part of a society so attractive? Why do we feel so good when eating food and so bad when we stub our toes? Etc.

  28. Ian,
    The content of these traditions/etc. may be ‘factual’, but their value/worth is not.

    Damian,
    A few thoughts:

    I’m not sure we can say that cats ‘rape’ each other? Or that apes ‘murder’. Don’t know if we want to divert conversation to those issues? so will stop there on that one…

    What about a rape that is kept private from society (as is too often the case in reality)? What if someone is drugged and raped and never finds out? What of consensual incest? What of beastiality?

    And I’d argue that history demonstrates that societies exist in all kinds of forms, with various value sets. The powerful exploit the weak continually and it ‘works’ in terms of the continuation of the existence of the society. And the survival of human society is also not a self-evident goal? It’s not based on a ‘fact’ – do you agree?

    There were ‘dissenters’ within Nazi Germany, who we assume had a superior moral view. How would we know that the Nazi mini-society was not another morally superior minority on the world scene?

    And ‘avoiding suffering’ and attaining ‘maximal happiness’ are not ‘is’-based goals. My physical reaction (recoiling and saying ‘ow’) when poked with a needle doesn’t help us to morally distinguish between needle poking as murder (lethal injection) or as medicine (vaccination).

    And again, let’s not forget that our ‘feelings’ aren’t just good, reliable, morally indicative impulses which tell us that food is good and stubbing toes is bad. They lead us into all kinds of things, like overeating and enjoying kicking someone when they are down, etc.

    Sorry if this is a bit rambly…

  29. ((a thought: I personally would find it useful if you could present a version of your position for hard-headed ole me – with reference to terms and distinctions in that pic a few comments above? A bit demanding of me, though – so feel free to tell me where to put my request!))

  30. The content of these traditions/etc. may be ‘factual’, but their value/worth is not.

    How do we know they have value if not by observation?

  31. I’m talking about ‘value’ in the philosophical/ethical sense, not the quantifiable, empirical, or ‘observational’ sense? Do you really think that the value of an idea could be ‘observed’?

  32. If an idea has value then either that value was fabricated out of thin air, or it was observed (directly or indirectly) – which was it?

  33. btw, I think that’s a false ‘either/or’? I think non-factual, non-empirical values can be ‘discerned’ or ‘known’ (not ‘observed’) through consideration of emotion, logic, reason, intuition, etc.

  34. Lets take this back a step.

    Consider the idea that life is valued as a starting point. How do we know this? Well we observe that people regularly express this idea and also behave as if they think this idea has value. In other words we can observe both that this idea exists, and that it is valued relative to other ideas – i.e. the value exists.

    You might argue that an individual doesn’t form their values entirely from observing other people. However all that an individual can really say is that they observe themself thinking about and valuing the idea.

    For some ideas/values, we have explicitly reasoned (rational) values and for others we have entirely unreasoned (instinctive or irrational) values.

    In other words our experience of ideas and values is entirely experiential, or based on observable facts.

  35. Ian,
    We can observe that people act in ‘x’ way according to ‘x’ ideas they have, and thus objectively/indifferently (and indirectly) ‘observe’ (in this sense) the ideas/values people have. But the question of the is/ought distinction is concerned with distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or true/false) ideas.

    As for what point you’re trying to make, I think you’ll have to ground this in a concrete example? I always find abortion to be a helpful one, because IF we can derive an ought from an is, then I’m dying to see this played out in the discussion on abortion.

  36. But the question of the is/ought distinction is concerned with distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or true/false) ideas.

    People certainly do that. What else is there to know?

  37. Yes, *descriptively* speaking, people ‘do’ distinguish between good/bad ideas. But what’s left to know is whether or not people are correctly identifying good as good – and bad as bad.

    There is the quantitative assessment (x number of people say (i.e.) abortion is right, and y number of people say that abortion is wrong); and there is the qualitative judgment (abortion – in a given place, time, circumstances, and according to this/that goal – is either right or wrong).

  38. what’s left to know is whether or not people are correctly identifying good as good – and bad as bad.

    This re-raises the core problem: the question of whether or not there is such a thing as good and bad beyond the opinions we observe people to have.

    Everything we know about decisions of good and bad can be traced back to observations of others and ourselves. Therefore it stands to reason that if there is some external nature to these discussions that this should be reflected in what we observe around us. It isn’t very interesting if it isn’t.

    I’m happy to dive into a real example if you want but it might take some substantial effort to find an example that is simple enough to make any ground with?

  39. Everything we know about decisions of good and bad can be traced back to observations of others and ourselves.

    I think you’ll have to unpack that one for me? It seems central to your point, and I don’t get what you mean?

  40. I think the best way to explain this is to ask a question:

    What do we know of the goodness or badness of something that doesn’t trace itself back to an observation of thought or behaviour of people?

  41. I’m still not understanding?

    we have:
    a) observing thoughts/behaviours of people
    b) judgments of the goodness/badness of things

    how is b ‘traced’ to a? example please?

  42. We observe that people/we judge good and bad things, and we observe relationships between making those decisions and a variety of factors. There isn’t anything else, at least not that I can think of.

    You talk about judging goodness and badness, but you don’t back this up with any reason to suppose such a thing is possible beyind individuals doing just that.

  43. yes, we observe people making all manner of judgments – but the question is whether or not these judgments are ‘good’ or ‘true’, and not only the sum of individual, subjective and contradictory judgments.

  44. (Damian – still would love to carry on our discussion – i’m sure you’ve got time constraints, so no worries)

  45. yes, we observe people making all manner of judgments – but the question is whether or not these judgments are ‘good’ or ‘true’, and not only the sum of individual, subjective and contradictory judgments.

    This begs the more fundamental question which is whether or not judgements actually are ‘good’ and ‘true’… and it is this that leaves all your work ahead of you.

    Also it occurs to me there is another potential regress here – how do we know if the judgement of goodness and trueness is actually good and true?

  46. as I’ve always said, this is all about epistemology – how we can know anything, for certain – knowledge we can trust.

    It occurs to me that all facts have a potentially infinite regress of more facts lying behind them, which may make the ‘facts’ that we assert now to be less than perfect – all this to say that I don’t think we ‘know’ anything with 100% factual certainty, so we have to ‘trust’ even with scientific knowledge.

    When it comes to morality/ethics and ‘knowing’ something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you’re correct that there is a kind of regress there as well. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t put sufficient confidence/trust in our current knowledge of moral ‘truth’ – even if it (like our ‘factual’ knowledge of the natural world) is unquestionably imperfect.

    We don’t know everything – but we don’t know nothing either.

  47. I agree we don’t (and quite possibly can’t) know everything. It is in circumstances like this that we need to be very realisitic about what we do know.

    We do know (i.e. have observed) that people make moral judgements. We also know that people judge other people’s judgements.

    We do not know if there is an external goodness/badness to these judgements. If there is, and this is knowable, then we will eventually be able to say we know this because we have observed it (directly or indirectly). Otherwise we have no basis to say it at all. This was really my original point.

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