Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Meaning of 'Ought'

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.

Moral 'Ought'

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


Christopher J. said...

You seem in you model to rely a great deal on empirical senses to justify what is ethical. Essentially for you, you will have to correct me if I'm misreading you, but it seems that for you ethics are subject to your pre-theoretical-grid. I don't want to come off on this topic the wrong way, but isn't that model a little ethno-centric, or in the least very subjective? Your model of ethics place the self sense at the centre of your interpretive grid, yet earlier you said that you exist to serve other humans, doesn't this displace your foundation?
Seeking understanding
Justin M

Shmanky said...

Good read. Thought you would be speaking about the is/ought thing.

Also, would it be possible to utilize a different anecdote besides the stove thing? I cringe everytime you mention it.

Anonymous said...

From "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins I got this idea. How about it benefits 'me' to have a moral society.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous: You did not get that idea from Richard Dawkins.

First, because "The Selfish Gene" would imply, "it would benefit my genes to have a moral society." The theory allows that an individual will sacrifice his life to save its genes -- which will live on in the lives of others.

Second, because Dawkins himself asserts (correctly) that it is a mistake to infer any moral (ought) principle from his theory. For example, some have used it to defend racism (obviously, I should be favoring my genes -- my race -- over others). The idea that we should "destroy those who are genetically different from ourselves in order to make more room for those who are genetically like ourselves," is not what morality requires. It is something that morality condemns.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Justin m: The article specifies that morality is concerned with all reasons for action that exist. It is not limited only to my reasons for action. Therefore, I do not see any foundation for you claim that this is self-centered or subjective. In fact, it does the opposite. It denies self-centered and subjectivity in ethics, and makes ethics substantially other-centered (since almost all reasons for action that exist belong to others) and objective (since what the speaker believes or wants is substantially irrelevant to moral value.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr: First, thanks for the corrections. I posted this while half asleep after getting home from the Christmas party. I guess I should have waited until morning.

As for your other issues, I will repeat -- I do not believe that one ought to do that which benefits society. There are a number of things that one ought to do, and benefitting society may be one of them. However, it is not the only thing, nor is it the most important. When I was at the Christmas Party, I was not benefitting society. I would not argue that everybody there ought to have been benefitting society instead.

My claim is that 'ought' refers to what people generally have a reason to praise, condemn, reward, or punish. It is not what the child rapist has reason to praise or condemn. It is not what Fred the Butcher has reason to condemn. It is what people generally have reason to praise and condemn.

You can, if you wish, give this entity a name other than 'morality' if you wish. Yet, there will still be things that people in general have reason to praise and condemn whatever it is called.

Now, you state that "What I am about to say has nothing to do with want or desire, but with ought, whereas I say that there is no ought that has nothing to do with want or desire. It always has to do with want or desire.

It is simply nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that nobody has any reason to do. If you say that there is a reason to do that thing, then what is that reason? Show it to me. Give me reason to believe in it. If there is none, then your 'reason' is fiction.

Can you show that such a reason for action exists? I answer 'yes' -- but only for reasons that have to do with want and desire. No other reasons exist.

Now, if you state that a non-theist cannot account for an ought that is independent of want and desire, I agree with you. However, the problem here is that there is no ought to account for. The inability to account for things that do not exist is not a problem. That which does not exist does not have to be accounted for.

When I say, "you moral-ought to do X", I am saying "society has a reason to use praise and condemnation to make people want to do X." If you ask, I am saying no more and no less than this. I can say that child-rape is wrong becaues child-rape is something that society has a reason to make people not want to do. You want to assert that I also need to do "something else." There is no "something else" that I need to do. I have captured everything we need in a moral-ought statement with this claim, it is something that society has reason to want people not to want to do.

Your argument here is like debating what caused a noise in the attic. You say it was ghosts, while I say it was wind blowing through the rafters. You then object, "The problem with your claim that it is wind blowing through the rafters is that it doesn't say anything about the ghosts." My answer: "This is not a problem with the theory. The noise is, in fact, being caused by wind blowing through the rafters. The problem is with your claim that I need to account for ghosts that do not exist."

Christopher J. said...

You say that almost all reasons for action belong to others, you'll have to pardon my foundationalism, but at what point do you actually 'know the other'. I think my issue is more for your basis of the other, you rely on the emperical senses and I'm wondering since we know that often our senses milead us and your claiming that on the basis of our senses we are reactionary to it... in that sense I am not talking about any one specifically, rather I am talking about thia as a working model of Ethics. I take issue with the ability to claim with such resoluteness, 'I'm being objective' when in what way have you transcended your own pre-theoretical-grid? because you are being add hoc in your ethical model and you are ultimately being add hoc to your own senses in what way do you know that what you are doing is correct? All reason for action as it seems belongs to the individual because individuals are always in living in different paradigms in understanding. In this sense how is this model of understanding not subjective? aside from this how do I know I am doing the right thing until after I have already done it, ie. Reasons for objective fact.
Thanks for this dialogue though, I'm really finding this facinating
Seeking Understanding
Justin M

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The statement, "It is simply nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that nobody has any reason to do," was not attributed to you. It is a basic fact -- a premise for the argument that I built.

(1) It is nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that there is no reason to do.

(2) Desires provide the only reasons to do (or refrain) from action.

(3) Therefore, it is nonsense to say that a person ought to do something that is not ultimately traced to some desire.

That's the point.

Morality is not a majority vote. Morality is concerned with that which will tend to fulfill all desires, not just those of the majority.

"How many desires would be thwarted if everybody had a desire to rape children? How many would be thwarted if nobody had a desire to rape children?" Only the second option lends itself to the possibility of no desires being thwarted. Thus, morality aims to the second option. No child rapist can change this fact, no matter what he believes, and no matter what he wants. No matter how many child rapists there are, only the second option lends itself to the possibility of no desires being thwarted.

Note: This follows the Kantian principle, "Do that which you can will to be a universal law." It makes only a minor modification, "Desire that which you can will to be a universal desire."

As for your "euthyphro dilemma", I offer you a question in return. Is a man unmarried because he is a bachelor? Or is he a bachelor because he is unmarried? Or, Is a shape a circle because it is round? Or is it round because it is a circle?

You should have difficulty answering this question because they refer to the same thing.

'Good', like 'ought', means that there is a reason to bring about or preserve a certain state of affairs.

The question, "Is a state of affairs good because (and to the degree that) there reason to bring about or preserve that state, or is it the case that there a reason to bring about a certain state because it is good" is as empty a question as the bachelor and circle examples that I gave above.

I also hold that the only reasons that exist are desires. I also hold that my desires are not the only desires that exist -- so my reasons are not the only reasons that exist. The term 'morality' refers to all of the reasons that exist, so it is substantially independent of what I want or do not want. Nobody can find the answer to moral questions by looking solely at what I want or believe, or solely at what they want and believe.

Finally, my analogy is apt if you are asking me how it can be the case that X 'ought' to do Y without making any reference to want or desire. The existence of desire-independent 'ought' statements is like that of ghosts. I do not need to account for either of them, because neither of them exist.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr: Oh, yes. I forgot to address the "morality is not subject to reason" issue.

My statement was that a person's moral character is not subject to reason. You can use reason to determine what a person's moral character ought to be. Yet, once you reach that conclusion, there is still work to do to actually get it to be that way.

It is like, you can use reason to determine what a bike should look like after you put it together, but reason alone will not put the bike together. That takes effort. This does not mean that 'bike repair is not subject to reason.' Of course it is. But, reason alone will not repair a bike.

Reason alone can tell us what a good person is like, but reason alone will not make any person good.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

We know of the desires of others the same way we know of atoms, black holes, quazars, and other phenomena. We observe the behavior of others and, from this, we infer a set of beliefs and desires.

You assert that our senses mislead us. This is certainly true. Yet, a good theory also explains how our senses can be misled. We see a stick sticking out of the surface of a pond at it appears bent. Yet, we pull the stick out and it is not bent. Does the surface of the water bend the stick, or does it merely appear to be bent? Our best theory states that the bend in the stick is mere appearance, caused by the fact that the path that light takes bends slightly when it goes from a medium of one density to a medium of a different density.

Which also explains the apparent twinkling of stars which, in fact, do not twinkle. It is the different densities of the atmosphere bending the light back and forth.

As for objectivity, the only thing that I care to establish with respect to ethics is that moral statements are just as objective as scientific statements -- statements like "I am sitting at a computer typing" or "I am taller than my wife". If somebody finds a reason to question the objectivity of science, that is fine with me -- as long as morality and science continue to have the same level of objectivity.

Scientific facts are possibly wrong. It may ultimately turn out that atomic theory is wrong, and everything scientists have said about atoms is mistaken. It is possible. Yet, we have no reason to believe that this is the case. Your knowing that an action is right is like knowing that things are made up of atoms -- possibly wrong, but something you can still assert with confidence.

If it is something that a person with good desires (desires that society has reason to promote with praise and reward) would do.

Christopher J. said...

Thanks Don Jr.
I was confused too, only I didn't know what about; now I know what I don't get, that helps me map it out a little more:P
By the way, Kant's categorical imperitive was a model of doing what one is 'rationally' able; Kant would likely say that desire has nothing to do with it and if you are being immoral it's because you were simply irrational.
Justin M

Kristopher said...

don jr. i have been reading your on going comment discussion with alonzo for some time and it seems as every time alonzo adequetly answers you questions you willfully misinterpret what he says.

i get the impression that you are more concerned with poking holes in his argument than you are about true discussion. and this clouds your ability to accept answers that truly answer your objections.

your conversation has created many interesting discussions and prompted many interesting posts. so i am not adverse to its continuation but if you still read this blog and find this message i think you need to examine if the reasons from which you object are a search for the truth that you have not yet found or a desire that alonzo be wrong to reinforce a proposition that you want to believe.