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Thoughts on Oughts

Stephen Anderson reflects on responses to Hume’s argument that we can’t derive moral duties from facts.

It’s Christmas season again. Among the many charms of the holiday season is the proliferation of advertisements for various kinds of charitable causes. Sometimes these requests are framed gently, as requests to extend the joy of the holiday season to less fortunate others, and sometimes they’re more impassioned pleas to ‘share our bounty’ with the local needy. In a few cases, the solicitations may degenerate into a kind of poverty porn, bombarding us with pictures of the war-maimed or fly-covered faces of starving orphans. Guilt, it seems, can be good advertising.

Does it matter whether we are gently implored or violently shocked into giving? If we ought to do something for the poor, then should not their need be sufficient reason? But how do we really know what our duty is?

Charity organizations may take our duty to help others for granted, but a good many people do not. They are not at all certain that just because they have some money, they ought to be doling it out. “After all,” these people might say, “I work as hard as anyone, and I earn what I have. In any case, those people live far away, and I have neither caused their plight nor made it any worse. They are strangers to me, who have no direct connection to me one way or the other. My links to them are thin at best. What makes it my duty to pry open my own wallet and deprive myself and my family of our comforts to serve the interests of such alien others?”

“Bah humbug!” Alistair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge, suffering compassion fatigue at Christmas, again

Now before we come down on these folks as hard-hearted Scrooges, we should pause. For which of us has not asked ourselves similar questions when called upon to sacrifice in the name of some greater good? Which one of us does not walk by the occasional street-person; decline to add a dollar to our grocery bill for the food bank; or cast a skeptical eye when some pitch-person for a charity group shows up at the door? Perhaps we all have doubts. Maybe we should rather ask ourselves, What is this nebulous sense of guilt we get when we pass up a chance at giving? Or, on the other hand, What is this free-floating, undefined sense of well-being we get when we sometimes give? How legitimate is the feeling of moral obligation? How great really is our achievement when we bow to it? Whence comes the sense of duty? Generally, why is it that human beings seem to feel we ‘owe’ others certain kinds of things, and that refusal to recognize this feeling is some kind of failing? In short, how does the factual realization of other peoples’ needs get connected with the value judgment that I have obligation to do something about it? Where’s the logic here?

The question is not self-serving, nor idle. There are good philosophical reasons to be skeptical of the tendency to feel ‘oughtness’ in the face of particular kinds of facts. The hesitant charity-donor is not the only person who thinks so. Moral philosophers have really struggled with the question of whether or not empirical judgments (about facts) have any necessary connection with value judgments (about duties). In fact, W.D. Hudson has rightly called this “the central problem in moral philosophy,” (The Is-Ought Question, 1969), because if it could be solved, we could prove to be rational a host of fundamental judgments upon which our society rests, including everything from the rule of law, to medical and technological ethics, to interpersonal relations, to the justification of basic human rights. However, honest assessment forces us to admit that at present, things in this field remain pretty vexed.

Morality on the Chopping Block

Why is this? Well, this philosophical problem was first posed (although not caused) by David Hume. He did it more or less accidentally, so to speak, in a sort of ‘aside’ in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739). There he wrote,

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d 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 shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; 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.” (p.335)

Now this may be a bit tough to decode, at first, but what Hume was saying is actually pretty easy to articulate. He was pointing out that morality does not come from empirical observations. No matter that what one says is factually true about the world, that does not go one step in the direction of showing that one has any right to tell other people, or oneself, what morally ought to be the case.

He pointed this out because he didn’t like the ‘Natural Law’ moralists of his day: that is, he didn’t like people saying, “This or that seems so to me, and therefore you have a duty to see things the same way, and to act as I want you to act.” He wanted to show that even if the facts were agreed upon, there was no logical reason why these facts obliged anyone to the same moral conclusions – or, indeed, to any.

But Hume got more than he bargained for. As his later writing makes clear, he anticipated that skepticism about the objectivity of moral values would logically lead us to the conclusion that moral judgments are emotive: merely statements about how we feel about certain things, not statements about the independent and ultimate truth of things. He didn’t think this would prove to be any kind of problem, because he thought we all have essentially the same kinds of emotions about morality, so morality would not go awry on a social scale as a result.

Subsequently, though, emotivism did not prove very durable, partly because the range of things that people could call ‘moral’ turned out to be much greater than Hume imagined. Later moral philosophers came to see that Hume had effectively cut off the realm of empirical observation from the realm of ethical determination: there was no longer a clear way to find moral judgments in factual ones. Philosophers dubbed this realization ‘Hume’s Guillotine’, in honour of its founder.

A Persistent Problem

Today, ‘the ought-is controversy’, or the ‘fact-value distinction’ as it is also known, remains. Most simply put, it is the observation that it is utterly illogical to deduce a moral judgment from a statement of fact. That something isso is one kind of judgment; that something should be so is another – and there is no necessary link between the two, even when they refer to the same object. So for example, one may observe the fact that children around the world are starving; but the fact itself does not tell us what to do about the fact – whether to shell out our cash, campaign for economic reform, create business opportunities for the poor, depose a tyrant, or whatever. Even more significantly, it doesn’t go one step in the direction of telling us we have any duty whatsoever to do anything about the situation at all. It is merely a description. However, to say we ought to do something about the situation described requires a prescription: but there is no moral duty logically required by any purely factual statement.

Of course we are bound to feel the unfairness of this, and in the face of, say, the starvation of children, any decent person is bound to object that to do nothing is morally hideous. However, all our outrage does not take us one step in the direction of showing that this moral outrage is logically justified. Morality, according to the ought-is controversy, simply comes from a different ‘place’ than facts. Nor is it any good to argue that it is an empirical fact that people feel moral outrage; for even if that were true in every case, that observation would not tell us whether or not the outrage was justified or misguided. After all, there might be instincts which many of us have – like, say the instinct toward violence or the desire to steal from others – which we regard as retrograde impulses that civilized people do well to ignore. Add to this the difficulty that there are sophisticated rationales provided by the Nietzscheans, Randians, Social Darwinists or Amoralists, which argue that moral judgments are primitive, unnecessary, or even counterproductive to human development, and we have an increasingly impressive case undermining our instinctive belief in the objectivity of our moral judgments.

Solving ‘Oughtness’

A variety of philosophers have attempted to dispel the controversy. We can’t look at all of the strategies here, but I would like to pick a representative sampling of the very best criticisms of the Ought-Is problem, and then show why each fails. Those with which we cannot deal here generally fail in even more obvious ways, or fail in some variation of the ways explored below.

Let’s begin with one of the most famous, which was devised by John Searle in ‘How to Derive Ought from Is’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 73, No. 1 (1964). Searle’s proposed solution looks like this:

1. Jones said, “I promise to give you, Smith, $5.00.”

1a. Other things being equal

2. Jones promised to give Smith $5.00

3. Jones undertook an obligation to give Smith $5.00

3a. Other things being equal

4. Jones is under an obligation to give Smith $5.00

4a. Other things being equal

5. Jones ought to pay Smith $5.00.

Searle thinks that promising is a specific case in which ‘ought’ is both a description of what has been done and a prescription of moral duty for whomever did the promising: it is an ‘ought’ bundled together with an ‘is.’ If you promise, you place at least an ‘institutional’ duty upon yourself to keep that promise, he thinks.

But is that right? It’s hard to see why it is. If promising depends for its integrity upon a person believing in the institution or ‘word-game’ in which it is embedded, then surely its reach goes no further than the game itself. If I decide that the best way to ‘win the game’ is to be the one person left free to break my word while others think they remain bound, then there isn’t a larger set of moral rules outside of the ‘promising game’ to show that I am doing anything wrong, objectively speaking. So Searle cannot show that it is objectively wrong to break a promise. He can show it messes up the game of promising, but this is short of showing it’s wrong in a wider sense.

However, Searle’s is not the only game in town. We get another from Joseph Margolis. He writes,

“I cannot see how anyone can deny this who reflects on the significance of what is common (in the copula ‘ought’) in saying to a morning angler, ‘The sun ought to rise before six this morning,’ and saying to a penitent gambler, ‘You ought to pay back the money you’ve taken…’”
(Life Without Principles, 1996, p.77.)

But in this the mistake is even more obvious. If a fisherman supposes that the sun will rise, this does not even impinge on the moral world. He’s not saying, “The sun is morally obligated to rise for me,” but rather, “It is very likely that the sun will rise before six, since it did that yesterday,” or something like that. This is not the same meaning as the moral sense of ‘ought’. The case of the gambler is even more confused, for it is not at all clear that a gambler has any moral duty at all to repay his winnings. Although gambling itself is often regarded as a morally dubious activity (Margolis clearly thinks it is, if his gambler is ‘penitent’), it is totally unclear what would back up such a duty. It’s not enough if the gambler fears being barred from the table, or if he fears his kneecaps being broken by a thug, for these are not moral considerations, only practical ones. Margolis needs to show that even if the casino had lost track of the money altogether, the gambler would remain under some kind of obligation to square up with his fellows – and there’s nothing in his cases that shows why there would be. Margolis is simply bluffing.

Finally, let us look at a more winsome solution, proposed by R.S. Peters. Peters thought that maybe there is something intrinsic to the way people talk to each other that binds us to an ‘ought’. He said that a person who asks ‘What ought I to do?’ is asking for reasons to adopt one alternative or another. He explains,

“A person who uses the discourse of practical reason seriously is committed to choosing rather than plumping, the notion ‘ought’ being more or less equivalent to the notion of there being reasons for something. Basic, therefore, to the notion of acting with reason is the very formal principle of no distinctions without differences…to use practical discourse seriously is to be committed to the search for such reasons… without this presupposition the discourse would lack point.” (Ethics and Education, 1966, p.121.)

Peters is essentially arguing that anyone who even poses the question ‘What ought I to do?’ has already joined a language game in which reasons are expected to be supplied. Such a person is then ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’: she has to accept that certain courses of action will turn out to be ‘better’ than others according to moral reasons, and hence, she somehow ought to conform her behavior to one of these courses of action.

Peters’ key line is: “the notion ‘ought’ being more or less equivalent to the notion of there being reasons for something.” Yes, but ‘What ought I to do?’ can be read two ways: it can be read as a moral question (as in, ‘What is the morally best choice of action here?’) or it can be read merely as a practical question about how to get what one wants. There may indeed be reasons in both cases, but they are reasons of very different kinds: the former prescriptive of moral behavior, the latter descriptive of the most practical route to some goal. By failing to distinguish the two, Peters has simply begged the essential question.

Because it is Christmas, let us be charitable, and grant that Peters is right to think that the person who asks, ‘What ought I to do?’ is asking for moral rather than merely practical reasons. In some cases, that will doubtless be true. But still there’s nothing in the fact that a person expresses a desire for moral reasons to guarantee that reality is able to provide them. We may ask for unicorns too; that does not mean we shall have them.

All these thinkers have missed a very important point: ‘ought’ isn’t one word, but several. On the one hand, there is the prudential ‘ought’, as in, ‘You ought to move your chess piece here, if you want to win’. Then there is the probabilistic ‘ought,’ as in ‘The sun ought to rise tomorrow’, or ‘You ought not to expect to win the lottery’. There is the moral ‘ought’ of course, as in ‘You ought to love your neighbour’, but this is decidedly not the same as the other two. It does not come close to meaning, ‘If you treat your neighbour well, things will work out well for you’ or ‘You will probably come to treat your neighbour well’ or even ‘Now that you have joined the ‘neighbourhood’ game, you are committed to treating your neighbour well’. The moral ‘ought’ is stronger than that. It implies, ‘Whether or not it seems likely you will do x or y, whether or not you think some rules of the game require you to do x or y, and whether or not you stand to gain some advantage from your actions, still you ought to do x or y – because in some much more ultimate and conclusive sense, it simply is the right thing to do.’

‘Ought’ By Force

The aforementioned ‘oughts’ are the major kinds used in attempts to respond to Hume’s problem. But maybe there is one more kind of ‘ought’ that is being challenged by Hume’s Guillotine. Unlike the earlier alternatives, this kind isn’t in any sense a rational ‘ought’; but we can hardly avoid mentioning it, because it is so influential. It appears when people start to think that just because some particular group of people (read ‘our society’, ‘our laws’, ‘our traditions’, ‘civilization’, ‘sane people like us’, and so forth) do factually believe something, then, magically it becomes an ‘ought’ simply by virtue of that belief. I call this the power ‘ought’, because ultimately it rests on the raw power of a majority or an authority of some kind. It just assumes an easy link between the ‘is’ fact of some agreement that holds among some set of people, and an obligation for dissenting voices to knuckle under to the claimed ‘oughtness’ of their agreement.

The power ought has no rational or moral justification, but unlike the prudential or probabilistic oughts, the power ought is not benign, for since it appeals to no coherent rationale, it is not open to critique by reason, and indeed, ordinarily eschews the exchange of reasons in favour of force. Because of this, it is also blind to its own unjustifiability, and lacks any incentive to be self-critical. Often (as in the case of moral pragmatism, for instance) it simply takes for granted its own particular conception of human flourishing, and attributes irrationality or perversity to anyone who fails to agree with its concept. However, it is important to realize that practitioners of such a position have not solved the ought-is problem. In fact, they have mistaken the fact of popularity or power for the moral justification of pronouncements made by that power.

What ‘Ought’ We to Think?

Demonstrating the moral oughtness of things on the basis of impartial empirical or rational judgments remains the major task, and the major problem, of modern moral philosophy. The truth of the matter, it seems to me, is that Hume was right: factual judgments by themselves do not justify moral ones. Morality does not emerge logically from empirical observations; nor even from sociological and anthropological studies; nor from historical characterizations of what has been believed and done in the past; nor even from modern-day opinion polls. It certainly does not appear hand-in-hand with observations of what seems to work for some arbitrary social purpose, as moral pragmatists seem to vainly hope.

In contrast to all this, as Joseph Kaipuyil has observed, “always, ontology precedes ethics, both in theory and in practice.” (Critical Ontology, 2002, p.28.) What he is saying is that morality is based not on just any kind of neutral observations, but rather on what we believe to be true about the basic nature of reality. Moral conclusions begin with fundamental premises about existence. For example, if we believe in the existence of some kind of Supreme Being (and most particularly, one concerned with morality) then it becomes reasonable to speak of a supreme moral order reflecting this Being’s identity, character and expressed wishes, or perhaps with natural laws established by that Being. Not only so, but on this basis appeals may be made by individuals and minorities for concessions against the majority, and talk of things like natural rights and moral duties becomes possible. On the other hand, if we believe in no such thing – that is, if we believe that physics is all there is – then all we can do is describe the features of various kinds of morality sociologically – as things that different groups of people happen to have done, in different periods of history. But then the problem is that we have no basis to say whether or not they should continue to do those things. There’s nothing inherent in a description of a historical phenomenon that magically converts it into an ethical imperative.

In the absence of any ultimate Guarantor, then, morality itself becomes permanently provisional and dependent on the coercive force available to arbitrary authorities or majorities. They can, and will, continue to command the sort of force to control others that is denied to individuals and minorities. What ought to disturb us even more, is the realization that there is no longer a basis for a moral appeal outside of these arbitrary power-brokers, given that the ultimate truth of morality is now simply power. Then it would be just as Nietzsche maintained: all morality is simply a play for power, disguised in self-interested language games. Life’s ‘winners’ then make all the rules. And no examination of the facts will ever give us any reason to believe it ought to be otherwise.

Obviously, the matter cannot rest here. And so the philosophical quest for an incontestable link between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ continues.

© Stephen L. Anderson, 2013

Stephen Anderson does what he ought to do by teaching high school philosophy classes in London, Ontario.


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