14.6.09

The Is-Ought Problem: Contra Kalganov, and whoever else disagrees with me

As you all know (and by “all" I probably mean myself) my co-contributor, Arthur Kalganov, has written a post most eloquently titled "IS my bitch=logic" on this blog, where he takes issue with one of my arguments in my last post "The Is-Ought problem: Thoughts on the ought". His views are greatly mistaken, but don't blame him because it is logically impossible to NOT be mistaken when arguing against me.

Anyways, he starts out:
"God created us
God is transcendent
God says we have purpose
Therefore we ought

This is a clearly fallacious syllogism."
Clearly he did not have to point this out, as I should not have to with this. Let me continue the enlightenment of our audience by pointing out a faulty syllogism of my own making:
"I say something to you
You think this means that I trust you
You think this means that you can have my cookies
But screw you!
Therefore you cannot have ANY of my cookies!"
This is a clearly fallacious syllogism and the thing it has in common with Arthur's is that it has absolutely nothing to do with my argument. I don't write out the syllogisms for my arguments because most of them are analogical, and I think the ones that are syllogistic are easy enough to derive from my sentences.

But if we leave out the analogical parts we can construct a pseudo-syllogistic argument with some reasonable assumed premises. Note, the first premise is more difficult to assume and although I didn't provide evidence for it, let us assume it is true for the sake of argument. (my argument is a hypothetical one e.g. "if this then that") I got to first premise in my previous post through an analogical argument from the premise that God created the universe:

1:
The universe is an institutional fact (since God created it to be so)
2: Institutional facts entail oughts by their very make up
3: The oughts we may ascribe to the universe are not real, but only faultily perceived, or of our own invention (since we did not create the thing, we did not create the fact, and we could not have created its entailed oughts)
4: Therefore God created the only oughts for the universe

5: The oughts entailed by an institutional fact apply to everything that is part of that fact
6: We are part of universe
7: Therefore the oughts God created apply to us

And lastly:
8: There is nothing known, and especially, no known system of moral values outside of God and his creation
9: Therefore there is no other system that we can compare to God's
10: 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)
11: Therefore, 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.

Other than one or two extrapolations, this is the same argument I voiced in my last post. So, with which of my premises does Arthur take issue? Well, I'll save the rest of my takedown of Arthur for last; first, I would like to make a series of observations that should better set the stage for his ultimate crash through it.

O1: How do we define ought? Since the possible definitions are:
"moral obligation: duty"

As well as: "—used to express obligation (ought to pay our debts), advisability (ought to take care of yourself), natural expectation (ought to be here by now), or logical consequence (the result ought to be infinity)"

When I use "ought" I will only be using it in the sense of obligation or moral duty. The last three definitions on Merriam-Webster.com can confuse the meaning of the moral ought, but this is merely the fault of language, and can be overcome by defining it at the beginning of an essay, such as I have done. For instance when someone says “a good parent ought to take good care of their children” they mostly likely are using ought to denote natural expectation: “good parents generally do take good care of their children.” This is not what I mean by ought, I mean ought in the way it is used when saying: “ALL parents ought to take good care of their children.”

Also, we should note that I define facts as the logical descriptions -whether social or scientific- that we derive from our observations of “things” (i.e reality). I will argue that things entail facts, and that some facts entail oughts in an unbroken chain.

O2: Are oughts relative to goals? The most prominent of my assumptions for this argument is that oughts are objective, like facts, and not just relative to everyone's perception. (this is the basis of premise #5) Some may object that oughts are relative to whatever goal you are trying to attain, and that the term “ought” only makes sense when appended with a silent “in order to such and such.” So by this reasoning we “ought” to do meritorious things in order to be meritorious, but we also “ought” to do evil things in order to be evil. Yet, this is not how we define ought, “one ought to do evil things in order to be evil” sounds off. It should be “one MUST do evil things to be evil”. “Ought” (in this sense) always implies that you ought to be doing it, and doing evil is not something we think we ought to do; evil is excluded by the definition of ought.

O3: Do oughts exist? Almost everyone has a certain idea of what we ought to do; people when caught in the wrong hardly ever say “to hell with morality!”; they always try to argue that somehow they actually are doing what they ought. The fact that a small number of people don't follow this institution no more implies that ought is relative than the existence of a small number of hallucinating people implies that facts are relative. Likewise, when I see an object it is not the light that bounces off of it, or the touch of it that makes me think it is there (although those things are usually necessary); it is a certain feeling that my perceptions do indeed represent an object, and not just something I'm imagining, or not just pure sensual stimuli that happen to originate from a discrete area. There is no evidence against these latter hypotheses, yet we don't consider them. When we say “this is wrong” we are implying the existence of an ought; and we can no more reject the idea that when our intuition says “this is wrong” it is grasping at a real thing than we can reject the idea that objects actually exist. (although oughts exist in the same sense that facts exist and not in the sense that objects exist)

O4: What exactly is an ought? What exactly is an is? When asking “what is is?” or “what is ought?” a circular definition is inevitable: “Is is existence.” “Ought is what ought to be.” We could define them in a different way; we could say “Is = existence”, but equals in this case would mean “is” and existence (∃) would mean "is" as well; hence, we are left with “Is is is.” We can try something similar with ought, like “doing what you ought is doing the morally correct thing”, but isn't this circular as well? We may reduce it to “doing what you ought is to do what you ought”, since the morally correct thing is what you ought to do. However I try to define them, I run into a circle; they are so basic they cannot be reduced; therefore, in any argument they must be considered axioms. This is one way "ought" and "is" are alike.

O5: Are oughts entailed in institutional facts? To quote John Searle:
“When we assert "He made a promise" we commit our self to the proposition that he undertook an obligation. In exactly the same way, when we use the word "triangle" we commit ourself to its logical properties. So that when we say, e.g. "X is a triangle" we commit ourselves to the proposition that X has three sides. And the fact that the commitment in the first case involves the notion of obligation shows that we are able to derive from it an 'evaluative' conclusion, but it does not show that there is anything subjective (matter of opinion, not a matter of fact, or a matter of moral decision) in the statement "He made a promise", any more than the fact that the statement "X is a triangle" has logical consequences, shows that there is a moral decision involved in the committed use of the word "triangle".” - “Speech Acts” (p. 194)
To apply Searle's reasoning to my chess analogy; when people play chess, it is implied that they have undertaken an obligation to follow the rules of chess, or whatever version of chess they have decided on. No one would take someone seriously who said "I didn't loose because I didn't agree to play chess with the checkmate thing" because their rules are entailed in the very make up of the definition of their version (since their version of chess isn't their version if they play it by different rules). Now, they do not HAVE to play fairly (it may be possible that they can get away with cheating); obligation is different from logical consequence. However, this does not change the fact that they have already undertaken an obligation to play by the rules. Hence, we can no more say that their obligation (ought) isn't entailed in the institutional fact of chess, than we can say that a triangle having three sides isn't entailed in its fact.

O6: Why should we accept the way the creator defines the universe rather than our own definition? I got around this objection in my last post by arguing thusly:
“....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 know something (a fact) about an entity then who's judgment would you put more value in? Someone who declared “I know what this is”, after coming along at a random time and observing the entity, or someone who had designed that entity in the first place? If you had a choice between accepting a definition of the universe that a human gave you, and a definition that the omniscient creator of the universe gave you, you would always choose the latter (if you could assume that both weren't trying to deceive you). And if you accept the definition for the fact of the universe, you accept whatever oughts are entailed by that fact because they are part of it.

Now what is wrong with Arthur? As it turns out the source of our troubles may be merely linguistic; here he confuses the ought of natural expectation with the ought of obligation (see heading: How do we define ought?):
“The whole universe is the board, the rules, and two computers that play by the rules. Now, the rules of the game are the "institutional oughts", our universe functions based on. If I drop this apple it ought to hit the ground, if the apple doesn't hit the ground, we aren't playing chess.” (underlining is mine)
Apples certainly aren't under any obligation to hit the ground; what he really means is that “If I drop this apple it WILL hit the ground” However, maybe some apples are intelligent and potent, and have signed an agreement with the universe that they will obey gravity, and let's say that they can choose to do this, or not, of their own free will. Then those apples would have an obligation to follow the law of gravity under the institutional facts of "agreement" and "contract". Which leads to the question "Arthur, how do you like them apples!" However, there is no use in continuing my critique of Arthur's post until he and I are on the same page when it comes to the meaning of “ought” in my argument.

Now let us recap my observations:
O1: There are several things we can mean when we say "ought"; the one I am concerned with is the one that implies moral obligation.
O2: These types of oughts are not relative to goals, because to say "we ought to do evil things to be evil" doesn't make sense and should be "we MUST do evil things to be evil".
O3: Our intuition implies that oughts are real, and is the same type of intuition we must use to infer that objects actually exist.
O4: Oughts must be considered axioms of humanity, since any attempt to define them results in a circular definition.
O5: Oughts are entailed by some facts in the same way that facts entail logical properties.
O6: If there is an omniscient creator that could tell us how to define particular facts, we would always accept his definitions over others (if we assumed that neither of them were trying to deceive). Once we accept the definition of the fact we must accept whatever oughts are entailed.

Also see my previous post on the topic.

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