The Is-Ought Problem: Thoughts on the ought

All of mankind is to be loving.
Socrates ought to be a man.

David Hume posed the is-ought problem to a world of intellectuals whom he thought had gotten too cozy with fallacious logic. Is is not to be derived from ought; ought ought not be derived from is, in the same way that you cannot use premises containing unicorns to prove things about horses; it is the classic category mistake. Let us consider the following:

All men OUGHT to be loving
Socrates OUGHT to be a man
Therefore Socrates IS loving

This syllogism fails miserably; you may as well try to prove that Socrates is a good lover from the same premises. Just because something ought to be, doesn't mean that it is; no one would claim that the world is perfect. Now let us consider:

All men ARE mortal
Socrates IS a man
Therefore Socrates OUGHT to be mortal

Just because something is doesn't mean it should be; suppose Socrates was a very good person who deserved immortality; no one would claim that the world has perfect justice.

So far so good. But was Hume entirely correct?, ought we to consider it a problem?, and can we even ask meaningful questions about oughts? The answers to the last two are unforthcoming unless we can find a bridge over the waters that rage through the is-ought chasm. Ironically our search starts with is, and I'll explain why. Certain facts are purely statements about reality and no more. However, as John Searle observes, some facts entail oughts by their very make up, and hence he calls them "institutional facts."

Suppose I point to two men sitting at a board and tell you: "That is a game of chess." Chess cannot be chess without rules and certain implications: "Once a player moves a piece and takes his hand off, that player ought not take his move back," "you ought to try to put the other player in checkmate." The description of any game is a social construct, but that does not mean that it is any less valid. Our scientific knowledge is based on the way we observe phenomena, the way we can construct theories to explain the world; so are games the same in that respect. Just like our scientific knowledge is merely the way we see observe and think, we sometimes think about chess, what else could we do? As in Le Petit Prince: "If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists."

Is the is-ought solved? Ought we to go out for tea and biscuits? The answers are no and yes respectively. The attentive will note that the aforementioned oughts
in chess are ideal and oversimplified. Suppose your three year old son is trying to learn chess: "Ought you make him stick to a move he has taken his hand off of?" "Ought you try to put him in checkmate?" Probably not. So one must add the following premise to the ought statements: "with all other things being equal." Now we ought to be getting somewhere. Let us apply that reasoning to all of morality, and we will have a universal ethical theory!

Not so slow, when you go faster and get beyond trivial things, like chess and games, stuff starts getting hairy, and people start having different definitions for certain "institutional facts." Take the institutional fact that somebody is a man, and lets say that this man is injured or made to feel ashamed in some way by another party. The fact that he is a man entails certain manly behavior of him. For some, this behavior is to "take it like a man" (not to take revenge on the injurious party) and for others, who are agents of a certain kind, in the area of Sicily: "take it to the mattresses like a man." (take revenge) And for some, there is no required behavior of a man, a man is purely a physically mature boy, and no institutional fact is entailed.

So far is's and ought's are still separated by a wide chasm when it comes to more complex issues of morality. Who's to say one's idea of a man is correct and another's isn't? Which of the many oughts ascribed to any morally related institutional fact is correct? And why should we believe any one person has any more right to ascribe oughts to those facts? In some philosophies this degenerates into the worship of force; since arguments cannot be resolved the wielder of the most power wins by causing the other side of the particular argument (and sometimes it's arguer) to be nullified.

That anyone holds to this form of ethics is a scary thought; so you might want to hold tightly onto my hand...... ok fine, but don't blame me if you fall into the chasm. I'll show you how to jump it (actually more like a way to get around it). Empiricists hold (not my hand) that in some areas (maybe this one) the only way to obtain knowledge is by observation and inferences from observation guided by logical reasoning; they discount that humans can obtain knowledge (in some areas) through innate ideas and deductive reasoning alone. However, rationalists argue for the alternative which is that we can know certain things by reasoning from innate ideas alone (I'll call this reasoning "direct reason"); if we can provide warrant for deductive reasoning by using innate ideas (intuition) about the world then why not other things? Maybe even to spite the empiricists lets say that we use intuition to "observe" certain aspects of morality. Hence, we don't need to base our morality on statements about reality (is statements). (thumbs nose at Hume while Hume promptly forgets that he is not a turtle and--mistaking my fingers for worms--gives chase)
(see Rationalism vs. Empiricism for a more specific and lengthy overview)

However, if everyone has this direct reason then why don't people agree more on things? Why do some feel strongly that alcohol and polygamy are evil while others think nothing of the sort? The fact is that even if we are capable of reasoning about morality from innate ideas, it is no where near becoming a science (at least that the majority of people can practice). So while you may freely believe that you have figured morality out, no one else is likely to listen to you. Nevertheless, few people listening hardly implies that an idea is false, and there are some interesting implications of direct reason that are worth making note of:

If we can directly reason about morality it implies a universal standard of it, like the reason math works is because there are patterns built into the universe (a universal standard of physical order). If reasoning about morality works then there must be patterns that go beyond physical organization in the universe (a universal standard of order regarding how things should be). Since we know of no unintelligent agent that has coherent and organized moral opinions then the default would be to assume that the creator of the universe must have been intelligent.

This brings me to my last ought thought: By what may be coincidence, adding an intelligent creator also provides a universal solution to the is-ought problem, this time, without having to rely on direct reason. Anyone can say “this ought to be a certain way” but if we are concerned with the way things actually ought to be from their beginning, then there is only one possible being who could say “I created this to have a certain way it should be."

Likewise you would not have much respect for someone who came in during the middle of the interpretation of a legal contract, and without providing evidence said “it actually doesn't mean that because I don't think it should mean that." You would want to know what it actually meant from the writer of the contract (if you wanted to interpret it correctly). So if there was a creator, and it had intentions for the universe, the fact that it created the is's should imply the creator's oughts (which are entailed in those is's). This happily lets us escape from the relativism and worship of force which have menaced us up to this point in our investigation. I also think this does much to illuminate God's seemingly fallacious is-ought answer to Job. It is on this answer that Russell observers, "the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint." However, the power and understanding to create the world and our perceptions of it implies the ability to create the associated oughts. Nevertheless this doesn't answer the question of what we ought to do; for that we must know the mind of God. And there are indeterminately many more objections and questions this solution raises; the most prominent of which is the inquest: "but is this being doing what it ought?" That I do have time to answer, but the rest I must pass over in silence (for now).

If the creator created everything then it is meaningless to ask "but is this being doing what it ought?" because everything, including the person who asked the question, is encompassed by the creator's institutional fact of the universe, and there are no institutional facts outside the being itself and its designated oughts that we can compare them to. Hence, it ought what it ought, and is what it is. There is nothing more to say.

See my friend's refutation and my refutation refutation... of that


JessXe said...

"If the creator created everything then it is meaningless to ask "but is this being doing what it ought?" because everything, including the person who asked the question, is encompassed by the creator's institutional fact of the universe, and there can be no institutional facts outside the being itself and its designated oughts. Hence, it ought what it ought, and is what it is. There is nothing more to say."

I would say that this is only true if the creator also created itself. I see three possibilities:

1) If the creator was created, then only it's creator knows what the creator ought to do. This conclusion doesn't lead us anywhere and seems pretty useless to me.

2) If the creator just came to be, then it has no ought and by extension nor do we.

3) The creator created itself. In this case, if the creator created itself, then can we not assume that creation is the creator? That we are all a part of the creator?

You can only have ought, when there exists a purpose. I think that we ourselves ascribe purpose. It is we who generate the meaning in our lives. Perhaps there is some purpose to which we all are connected to. However, the important question isn't whether or not this universal purpose exists. The important question is can we find a way to identify this purpose?

If not, then both 2 and 3 bring me to the same conclusion: One must know one's purpose in order to know what one ought to do. If we cannot know our purpose or if we don't have one then individuals must decide their purpose for themselves. Individuals decide what ought.

I look forward to hear your argument!

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

I did not structure that last paragraph very well; I'll have to rewrite it.

Before I try to deal with your arguments let me restructure what I was saying, because that may do a better job of answering your questions. What I was trying to say is that if you are questioning whether the creator is doing what it ought, you have to question your own oughts as well. If the being's oughts are flawed then so probably are yours. It is like using water downstream as a control in an experiment that is trying to ascertain if water upstream is polluted. What you really need is water from a different stream.

And this brings me to what I was saying with the second part: "there can be no institution facts outside the being itself and its designated oughts."

We start with the premise that an institutional fact has be known, to actually exist (at least so that it matters) like a chess game doesn't really exist if no one knows about it, or is playing it. And we go from there:

1: There is nothing known, and especially, no known system of moral values outside of God and his creation
2: Therefore there are no outside institutional facts and there is no other system that we can compare to God's
3: Any moral ascription of value must be in relation to some other moral value (e.g. “This is good” implies that there also exists something that is not as good)
4: Therefore, since we don't have a comparison, there is no way we can reasonably say "God isn't doing what he ought"; yet we can, in a sense, say “God is doing what he ought” if he is always internally consistent, and follows the oughts he created us to be a part of.
(this is a slightly modified version of one of my arguments from the following link where I was responding to a friend)

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

Ok, so I think that is a good summary of my argument, now to yours. I think what you say is mostly correct. However, you make 2 important errors:

The first of which: "If the creator was created, then only it's creator knows what the creator ought to do."

Unless the higher creator purposely kept secret the oughts, there is no reason why the lower creator couldn't know them.

And the most important error is here: "If the creator just came to be, then it has no ought and by extension nor do we."

If the creator just came to be, or simply existed forever outside of time, it has no oughts (if oughts do not exist in the same way matter does but are instead contingent on facts). It is tempting to think that by extension we have none either but this fortunately is not the case because we are part of the institutional fact of universe.

The property of having oughts is similar to the property of being designed. If the evolutionary process had no guidance and no overall intelligence we can say that humans are undesigned. But this does not mean that everything created by humans is also undesigned. If we say that anything whose ultimate cause is unintelligent is undesigned then the term "undesigned" becomes meaningless and applicable to everything.

And as for having individuals (people) decide what ought, as I've previously argued, this leads to the worship of force because our opinions differ and there is no good way to argue that anyone has any more right to say what ought to be than anyone else. There would be a lack of a universal standard separate from physical reality that could be used to resolve moral disputes. Hence, according to you, there would be no reason for the powerful to restrain themselves in their dealings with the less powerful.

I agree that an important question is whether we can identify a universal ought, but this question is just as important as the question of that universal ought existing, because without the second being answered affirmatively the first wouldn't be applicable.

This has made me think a great deal. Thanks for commenting.