This was not originally written for an Objectivist audience; I was arguing with a Kantian on an Atheist list. -JBH


March 7, 2001; Is and Ought.

We begin with one of the most famous quotes in moral philosophy:

"In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs. When [all] of a sudden I am surprised to find that, instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and isnít, I meet with no proposition that isnít connected with an ought or an ought not. The change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last [and greatest] consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained. And at the same time, [it is necessary] 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."

-- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature


What does "ought" mean? The broadest meaning of "ought" is expectation: "Ice ought to melt if you apply enough heat to it." That is, given past experience and our present best understanding of how the world works, ice would reasonably be expected to melt under those circumstances. A subset of this is the hypothetical ought, the "practical syllogism" of Aristotle: "If you want X then you ought to do Y". That is, you would be expected to do Y, because Y is a necessary or efficient way of achieving X. It is the "ought" of expectation applied to human behavior. It is also a form of advice.

Neither of these, the ought of expectation, nor the hypothetical ought, are in any way mysterious. At least, they are no more mysterious than induction, which we use all the time. We expect ice to melt when raised above zero degrees centigrade, at sea-level atmospheric pressure, because it has regularly done so in the past. We form a mental model of the cause-and-effect relationships that operate in the world, and use it to form expectations of what will happen if we try various actions. So, based on what we believe about cause-and-effect, we say "if you want X, then you ought to do Y".

David Hume was speaking about the moral "ought", which seemed to be different because it did not have any "if" clause attached; it was not hypothetical but categorical. It was supposed to exist independently of any human desires or choices and apply to all of us whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. This sort of "categorical ought" was mysterious. What did it mean, and how could one tell if a particular statement using a categorical "ought" was true? Are there any categorical oughts, really?

Lots of people believe in categorical oughts, but THAT is not hard to explain; they believe because it is what they were taught as children. Because we learn morality in childhood, we first learn it as a set of rules and commandments laid down by higher authority (our parents), as something imperative that comes from outside, not as something that we choose. In her essay "Causality Versus Duty", reprinted in PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT, Ayn Rand briefly notes that "A Kantian sense of 'duty' is inculcated by parents whenever they declare that a child MUST do something because he MUST. A child brought up under the constant battering of causeless, arbitrary, inexplicable 'musts' loses (or never acquires)... the distinction between realistic necessity and human whims... As an adult, such a man may reject all forms of mysticism, but his Kantian psycho-epistemology remains (unless he corrects it)... he believes... that it is his 'duty' to be moral, and, in extreme cases, even that it is his 'duty' to be rational."

In "Causality Versus Duty", Rand continues (begin extended quote): In reality and in the Objectivist ethics, there is no such thing as 'duty'. There is only choice and the full, clear recognition of... the law of causality. The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any trace of Kantianism, can be illustrated by the following story. In answer to a man who was telling her that she's GOT to do something or other, a wise old Negro woman said: "Mister, there's nothing I've GOT to do except die." ... Reality confronts man with a great many 'musts', but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is "You must, if-" and the "if" stands for man's choice: "-if you want to achieve a certain goal." .... In a rational ethics, it is causality - not "duty" - that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating, and choosing one's actions. (end quote)

So, what is being proposed here? That we construct an ethical system entirely, repeat, entirely, out of hypothetical oughts, of the form "If you want X, then you ought to do Y". Hypothetical oughts describe a causal relation between means and ends that is objectively true or false, and can be investigated by scientific procedures. An ethic made of hypothetical oughts is called a "consequentialist" ethic. An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. There is some desired goal specified; whether an action is right or wrong, good or bad, is determined by the objective consequences of the act FOR the ultimate goal of the ethic. In the case of social-contract morality, "If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements." As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this."

By avoiding the use of categorical oughts, we avoid the problem pointed out by David Hume. Anyone who claims that there ARE categorical oughts will have to explain where they come from, but we do not.

Constructing such "consequentialist" ethical systems is engineering. It is NOT a science, in that it is not discovering a unique "correct" ethical system that exists in nature independently of human choice. It is not the case that there is only one "correct" ethical system, in the same way that it is not the case that there is only one "correct" automobile. Likewise ethics is not art, in that it is not simply an expression of our emotions and ideals. Engineering has elements of both science and art, but it is distinct from each. (As I understand it, this is what Rand meant by the distinction between "intrinsic", "objective", and "subjective" ethics.)

There can be a large number of objective ethical systems, one for each coherent strategy for achieving each objectively measurable goal. For example, one person might adopt the goal of avoiding death for as long as possible; another might seek to maximize the number of descendants- children, grandchildren, etc.- they had by the time they died. Another might try to maximize the quantity of wealth they owned at their death, another their contributions to refereed scientific journals. Each goal will imply a somewhat different set of derivative instrumental values.

Suppose I ask "Why would I be expected to care about your constructed ethical system? Why should I be ethical, by that definition?" To give me a meaningful answer, you have to answer in terms of MY motivations. Why would I be expected to follow the prescriptions of this or that ethical theory? Why this PARTICULAR theory, rather than that one? Rules of conduct are man-made. Does this one suit my own goals and purposes, or does it not? There is nothing I've GOT to do except die.

Saying that all "oughts" are hypothetical does not by itself imply egoism, because it does not say that MY motivations are entirely self-interested, nor does it say that they should be. But as a practical matter, it gives a strong push toward Aristoteleanism. You wish to tell someone, an adult who thinks, that they OUGHT to do Y. If they ask why, you have to supply the "if" clause. And what do you know about THEIR motivations? Sometimes, all you know is that they are a human being, so you appeal to typical human motivations, motivations that would be part of human nature. Most people are very fond of their self-interest, so if you can justify a rule of conduct on the basis of self-interest, that is probably your safest bet. Or, you could appeal to other typically human motivations, such as concern for the well-being of their kinfolk, or their desire to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with their neighbors, or the desire that their lives have some larger meaning.

Given that humans are biological beings evolved by natural selection, who normally survive by cooperating in groups, we would expect the vast majority of them to desire the health (defined as the ABILITY to survive) of their families and the peace of their communities. This gives us a "natural" standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, The Right is that which leads to peace. This standard would be expected to be popular and persuasive across all human cultures, because it is based on universal human nature.

... John B Hodges

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Tags: Is, Objectivism, Ought, Rand, and, ethics, metaethics, objective


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Comment by Jaume on April 15, 2010 at 10:46am
I'm no Rand fan (quite the opposite, actually) but once in a year she could spit tiny bits of wisdom. This is one of my favorite Rand quotes:

There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist.

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