This is the night of the office Christmas Party where I work, so I do not have much time to write. Therefore, I will spend my free time today waxing philosophically, and discuss the meaning of 'should' and 'ought'.
Assume that you are talking about Lin, and you say, "What Lin really should do is X" or "Lin really ought to do X", what are you saying?
Reasons for Action
I propose that what you are saying is that certain reasons for action exist, and those reasons for action recommend that Lin do X. If there is no reason for action, then it is not the case that Lin ought to do X. Also, if there are reasons for action that you are not considering, and those reasons for action recommend not doing X, and those reasons for action are sufficiently strong, then it is also not the case that Lin ought to do X.
The claim that "certain reasons for action exist" is a claim about the real world. It is a claim about what exists and what does not exist, and that claim is either true or false.
Some "reasons for action" clearly do exist. In the post Ethics Without God I I described an incident in which I placed my hand on a hot metal plate and instantly got a second degree burn on the palm of my hand. That was not pleasant. Clearly, I had a "reason for action" with respect to making sure that I take my hand off of that hot metal plate. I also have a "reason for action" to make sure that I do not repeat the same experience. These reasons for action are real. They exist.
Reasons for Action as Objective Fact
After having put my hand on a hot metal plate, if somebody would have come to me and said, "You shouldn't do that," I would have had to agree with him. There certainly exists a very powerful reason for action that recommends against putting my hand on a hot metal plate. If, ten seconds before I put my hand on that hot metal plate, somebody would have said, "You shouldn’t do that," he would have still been right.
If I had been totally and completely convinced that there was no reason for me not to put my hand on that metal plate, and denied that I ought not to do it, I would have been wrong. My error would become painfully evident to me as soon after I had done what I should not have done (in this case).
There is an objective fact of the matter as to what I should or should not do. I don't get to simply decide these things. I can't flip a coin and say, "Heads, I should put my hand on the plate; tails, I should not." Nature itself will show me my mistake if I leave questions of what I should and should not do up to arbitrary choice or chance.
This means that somebody else can judge the reasons for action that exist, can judge how a state can relate to those reasons for action, and come up with a right or wrong answer to the question of whether somebody else should or should not do something. People can judge what others do and, sometimes, they can be right while the people whose actions they judge are wrong.
When people make mistakes about how states relate to reasons for action, bad things happen. In fact, that is the very definition of the phrase, "bad things happen". This means, "things that there are reasons to prevent from happening, happen." They happen because we are powerless to stop them. They happen because we make mistakes and choose to do things that cause bad things to happen.
Different Reasons for Action that Exist
So far, I have talked only about pain. Avoiding pain is one of the most obvious "reasons for action" that exist. A person does not have to believe in God to know that this reason exists. Its existence is obvious.
However, avoidance of pain is not the only reason for action that exists. Pleasure is a reason for action as well. Hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex are all reasons for action that exist. Comfort exists. Curiosity exists. Compassion and concern for others exist. Parents' concern for the well-being of their children exists.
Many people also care about the well-being of total strangers. If they see a stranger in trouble, their interest in seeing that stranger safe is a reason for action that exists. It motivates that individual to help the stranger.
True and False 'Ought' Statements
Every 'should' or 'ought' statement is true if there are reasons for action that actually do recommend that action. It is false if the reasons for action that exist recommend against that action.
Because there is no God, anybody who says that "You should do X because it will please God" is making a false statement. These reasons for action do not exist, because God does not exist. There might still be other reasons for doing X. These other reasons might actually exist. When this happens, it is still the case that one should do X. However, one should not do it because it will please God, but because it is recommended by those reasons for action that are real.
Whenever somebody says, "You should do X", you need to ask, "What are the reasons for action that recommend doing X? Are they real? Are there any reasons for action against doing X? Are they real? Which are stronger?" The answers to these questions will reveal whether the statement that you should do X is true or false.
The Ambiguity of 'Ought'
'Ought' and 'should' are ambiguous terms. They have a lot of different meanings. Only one of those meanings is the moral meaning. Every other meaning is a non-moral use of the word 'ought' or 'should'.
For example, the statement, "If you do not want to be recognized on the video camera as you rob the liquor store, then you ought to wear a mask," is a non-moral use of the word 'ought'. The person saying this is not claiming, "You have a moral obligation to wear a mask." He is saying, "If you look only at the reasons for action that recommend not getting recognized while robbing a liquor store, then you ought to wear a mask."
An "ought" or a "should" statement that looks only at a subset of the reasons for action that exists yields a non-moral sense of the word 'ought'. Even if somebody had told me that I should not touch that metal plate because it was hot, he would not have been telling me about a moral obligation that I had. He was still only considering a subset of the reasons for action that actually exist -- only my reasons. Because of this, he was giving me personal advice, not moral advice.
In an email, I was asked about why it would be wrong to destroy an alien civilization that did not have anything to offer us.
The answer to this question rests in the fact that, as soon as the alien race is discovered, its "reasons for action" are then among the total reasons for action that exist. They instantly become a part of the moral community. Earthlings may still decide to wipe them out, as Europeans sought to wipe out the Native Americans. Yet, this decision, insofar as it considers only some reasons for action and not all reasons for action, cannot be considered a moral decision.
The last question that I want to address in this posting is Don Jr.'s question, "Why ought I to do that which benefits society?"
In this sentence, what does "ought" mean? As I said above, a consideration of different groups of interests yield different oughts. Only a consideration of all interests yields a moral ought. So, if this question is asking, "Why moral-ought I to consider that which benefits society," this is like asking, "Why do squares have four sides?" or "Why are there no married bachelors?" The answer is built into the meaning of the terms. The question make no sense.
If the question is, "Why should I non-moral ought to do that which benefits society," the answer is, "Maybe you non-moral ought not to do that." Just as the person who does not want to be recognized as he robs the convenience store ought (in the non-moral sense) to wear a mask, europeans ought (in the non-moral sense) to have wiped out the Native Americans. However, the action remains evil. An evil person is somebody who has non-moral 'ought' reasons to do something that he moral-ought not to do.
As I wrote in the entry, Why Be Moral?, the trick to making sure that people do the right thing is to bring their non-moral reasons for action into harmony with what morality commands.
This comes through moral education -- using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to make sure that people have non-moral reasons to do that which morality requires. Because the Europeans lacked non-moral reasons to do what morality required of them, their treatment of the Native Americans can only be considered evil -- as were the actions of the slave owners, the Nazis, and the 9-11 terrorists.
Moral education seeks to give people non-moral reasons to do what they morally ought to do. Among other things, it seeks to give them reasons such as trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, friendliness, courtesy, kindness, obedience, cheerfulness, thrift, courage, cleanliness, and a love of virtue.
Good people have no desire to make bad things happen