The “Ought” Problem

In discussions on morality the conversation often stagnates around David Hume’s Is-Ought dilemma. The dilemma is that you cannot get from a truth claim about how something is to a values claim about what you should do about it. The problem is often plugged with more “is” claims—like the nature of God—in order to tell what we ought to do. After defining the terms I hope to move on to explain how secular ideas can also plug this gap, and why they may be better than ones that call on religious ideas.

I must start with defining my terms here for two reasons. Firstly, “is” and “ought” are difficult words when used the way David Hume used them. Secondly, I have at least 5 English language students who follow me (two invited and three found their own way here; Googling my name I discovered this blog comes back) as well as a few followers to who English is not a first language (I’m considerate like that).

“Is” is a seemingly easy word. In fact, I can’t seem to write a paragraph without some variety of the word “is” in it. To show how abstract the word is can be, I want to share a quote from the comedian Louis C.K.

Some things are and some things are not. “Why?” Because things that aren’t can’t be! “Why?” Because then nothing would be aren’t; there wouldn’t be any not things “Why?” SHUT UP AND EAT YOUR FRIES [sic].

– Louis C.K.

Something that is is something that exists or which is true. For example, I am i.e. I exist; I am at my computer i.e. I exist at my computer. If you are in pain, then you exist in pain

“Ought” is more difficult. Both Google and dictionaries define the word “ought” with words like “duty” and “desire”. For example, “you ought to obey the law” is the same as “it is your duty to obey the law”. Alternatively, if “you ought to be able to have a holiday”, then “it is desirable to have a holiday”. “I really ought to stop this definition stuff and move on to the main point” means “it would be desirable if I could now move on to the main point”, so I shall.

(The TEFL lesson is free of charge)

The challenge, as Hume rightly pointed out, is how to get from a truth (an is) to a duty (an ought); if I know everything about the universe, how does that tell me what I should do? Hume says that we cannot, and to fix this problem many theologians have said that we must fill the gap between what is and what ought to be with God. The idea is that God’s nature is morally good, and if we attempt to reflect God’s nature we also will be morally good.

I'm apparently blind to how another step in the chain makes this more sensible.
I’m apparently blind to how another step in the chain makes this more sensible.

There is an obvious problem here. God’s nature is supposedly a truth; an is; God’s nature is… whatever God’s nature is. This does not help us with Hume’s dilemma; Hume doubts that a truth can tell us what we should do. Giving another is doesn’t help. But there is another problem: we don’t know what God’s nature is. From the Bible we know God is rather unkind, and we seem to know that that is not at all moral. All the religious Books are like this. So we are guessing at what God’s nature is. The third problem is, assuming a God and that we can know God’s nature, there is no reason to assume God’s nature is good. God could be evil, and we couldn’t tell the difference because we guessed He was good. God’s nature doesn’t give us an ought, just a new is; we don’t know what that nature is; and we even knew what the nature was, we can’t know that it is good.

Somewhere on a lost clip on Youtube I heard Daniel Dennett utter the words “if you can’t get an ought from an is, what can you get an ought from?” The sentiment, even if I have misattributed it or made it up, is a good one. Where does an ought come from? I suggest that an ought comes from making a path from what is to an idealised is. If someone is down a well but your late for a dinner reservation there are lots of decisions you can make on how to deal with that situation, and you will base each decision on the consequences or your values. If you are a selfish person the decision is clearly to make your dinner reservations and as the person down the well is not you, don’t worry about him. This is what you ought to do. An atheist, perhaps, is in a pickle here, without Godly guidance.

Forgive the Microsoft paint rendition.
Forgive the Microsoft paint rendition.

Instead, consider the picture above. In it there is an is. Sprouting from that a series of potential states of the universe (is “are” the plural of “is”? Am I trying to pluralise a verb?). A different value defines each new state of the universe (preferred is). Each line connecting the state of the universe to a future one is an ought. The preferred are going from left to right are as follows: economic, selfish, lazy, moral (this is the one I’ll debate in a second), religious. There, we now have oughts. Oughts are grey lines that connect what is to what we would prefer there to be.

So, now we come up against the question: is ‘looking after the wellbeing of conscious creatures’ really the moral value? I have argued before that this is exactly what we talk about when we talk about moral decisions; if a religious Book doesn’t have a clear answer to a moral dilemma this is exactly what people try to do. But I’m willing to go one further: people who claim that their religious oughts are based in love and compassion, then I’m hard-pushed to see how they aren’t identical.

The difference is that I’m doing it because of the wellbeing of conscious things, where the religious are doing it because of God. And if you’re doing it because of God your ‘morality’ is easily hijacked and pulled astray. This isn’t to say that religious people can’t be moral, of course, but it is to say that it is purer to act for secularly moral reasons.

3 thoughts on “The “Ought” Problem”

  1. A great article, thanks.

    Are the five types of oughts your own? Are there more?

    I like the way it’s presented, I’ve never thought about it this way. With all the options on the table, we can compare benefits and drawbacks to each.

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