This is part 2 of “The Is/Ought Gap.” If you don’t know anything about the is/ought gap, then you should read part 1 first.
I have already discussed how we might be able to get what morally ought to be the case from what is the case (via bridging premises). These are known as “solutions to the is/ought gap.” Even after we answer (or try to answer) how to get what morally ought to be the case from what is the case, there are more troubling questions left over. In particular:
- What does ‘ought’ mean? (What exactly does it mean for something to “ought to be the case?”)
- Does what “ought to be the case” exist?
- Assuming that something “ought to be the case,” what makes it that way?
I will briefly discuss each of these questions with the assumption that moral realism is true—that there are moral facts and some moral facts are true regardless of our beliefs, desires, or social conventions. I have discussed various moral realist solutions to the is/ought gap including the following: One, a Platonist solution—what “ought to be” exists as Platonic forms. Two, Tännsjö’s solution—what “ought to be” can be based on a preference to promote intrinsic value within a social contract. I will discuss these questions with these two perspectives in mind in particular.
What does ‘ought’ mean?
My main concern is with what “morally ought to be the case” but there are other ways we use the word ‘ought.’ The nonmoral (instrumental) use of the word ‘ought’ refers to effective ways to accomplish goals and satisfy desires. If we want to get money and we don’t have a job, we probably ought to get a job. However, there is also a sense that people who need money ought to steal, even though it’s usually immoral. We morally ought not to steal, even if it is an effective way to get money.
The nonmoral use of the world ‘ought’ seems to be about something more than merely telling us which actions are the most effective ways to achieving our goals. If we ought to get a job to get money, that doesn’t merely mean that getting a job is more effective at helping me get money than my other options (pan handling, theft, fraud, jumping up and down, etc.) There seems to be something prescriptive about saying we ought to get a job. There’s something like an endorsement.
For that reason, the following argument is logically invalid:
- If we don’t have a job, then an effective way to get money is to get a job.
- We want money and we don’t have a job.
- Therefore, we ought to get a job.
The reason this is invalid is because it’s missing the premise that “if something is an effective way to accomplish a goal, then we ought to do it.” Additionally, it’s not obvious that this premise is true because it’s not entirely clear how effective a goal has to be before we “ought to do it.” Some goals are more effective than others, even though they might be ineffective. For example, robbing a bank seems like a more effective way to get money than jumping up and down, but they are both generally ineffective ways to make money—and we probably ought not do either.
This is also true about what we morally ought to do. If we morally ought to get a job rather than steal, then we aren’t merely saying that it’s better (morally preferable) to get a job than steal. For example, it’s intuitive that we usually shouldn’t steal to get money, even though stealing might be better than kidnapping children and holding them for ransom. One act can be morally preferable to another, even if they are both morally wrong—and we morally ought not to do either.
What we morally ought to do relates to what’s morally right and wrong. An act is morally wrong if we ought not do it (it’s morally impermissible), and an act is morally right if it’s permissible (it’s false that we ought not do it).
Again, it’s not obvious how we can decide when an action is “good enough” to be something we “morally ought to do.” This question suffers from being vague, similar to how it’s not obvious how many hairs a bald person can have on their head. Some utilitarians, like Mill, have suggested that what we “ought to do” is whatever maximizes intrinsic value, and we “ought not” do anything else. (i.e. We ought to do whatever act is the most morally worthy, but nothing else.) However, there are at least three strong objections to this view:
One, it is conceivable that no matter how morally worthy an act is that we will always be able to discover an even worthier act in the future.
Two, it’s unintuitive and doesn’t seem to match how we actually use the words. There might be an ultimate sense that we “ought to do what’s best,” but we tend not to have any idea what that would be, and the idea that we “ought not do anything other than what’s best” violates the common sense notion that we can act beyond the call of duty. If I am poor and I give most of my money to charity, many people would believe my act to be “beyond the call of duty.” The idea that I alone did the “right thing” and millions of poor people who don’t give most of their money away are doing something morally wrong is counterintuitive.
Three, it seems too demanding. To say that everyone’s doing something wrong because they could be doing something “better” is to condemn just about everyone. There might not be a single person who lives their life perfectly. We use the words “ought,” “right,” and “wrong” to differentiate the virtuous from scoundrels, and the above utilitarian definition makes that impossible. Everyone would be equally wicked if we would accept such criteria.
One solution to the vagueness problem is to admit that there are degrees that people ought to do something (or ought not to do something), and that we ought to do whatever is sufficiently worthy. There are intuitive examples of what we ought to do and ought not do, and sometimes what we ought to do is more important than other times. For example, it’s intuitive that I ought to help feed starving people given the opportunity when no one else can help; and it’s intuitive that I ought not to kill people willie nillie. Moreover, it seems intuitive that I ought to be polite to people—but it’s more important that I help feed the starving person than be polite. What I ought to do in one situation is more important than the other.
How do the two relevant realist perspectives interpret the word ‘ought?’
A Platonist solution – What “ought to be the case” is identical to the existence of abstract entities or God. These are ideals corresponding to what “ought to be.” The Platonist can then take a look at our existence (or behavior) and see if it approximates the ideals better than the alternatives. A rude person who is willing to feed the starving people is more virtuous and closer to the ideal than a polite person who is unwilling to feed the starving people.
This Platonist solution relies on the fact that some people (or actions) are better than others. We can take a look at alternative ways of life and alternative actions and decide which of the is morally preferable based on the ideals.
This Platonist solution relies on the fact that some actions (or people) are better than others. We can take a look at alternative ways of life and alternative actions and decide which of the is morally preferable based on the ideals.
This Platonistic solution leaves us with some important questions:
- How do we know the ideals?
- How much do we have to approximate ideals to do what we ought to do?
- In what sense do these ideals exist (if any)?
- Doesn’t the word ‘ought’ refer to more than that an act sufficiently approximates an ideal? That would seem to ignore that there’s something prescriptive about the word ‘ought.’
Tännsjö’s solution – What we mean by the word ‘ought’ seems to only be morally relevant if we decide that it corresponds to promoting intrinsic values. This is a utilitarian perspective, but it doesn’t necessarily require us to maximize intrinsic value. An action is right as long as it lives up to standards that we agree to within something like a social contract, and those standards must be based on intrinsic values or it’s not relevant to morality.
Killing people tends to harm people, but giving food to starving people tends to help people. Ideally, we ought to do whatever maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering, but we can agree that what we ought to do is less demanding than that through our social contract.
Unlike the Platonist solution, Tännsjö doesn’t require that the word ‘ought’ be fully understood in terms of living up to a standard. There can be a prescriptive element to the word as long as that’s how we use the word within a social contract or language.
Tännsjö’s solution leaves us with at least two important questions:
- Is it rational to accept a social contract involving ‘oughts?’
- What kind of moral standards should we agree to for our use of the word ‘ought?’
Does what “ought to be the case” exist?
Many moral realists seem to think that what “morally ought to be the case,” “morally right,” and “moral;y wrong” each refer to something that actually exists. It’s not clear what exactly it could be that they are referring to, and such a suggestion seems to require that either (a) the prescriptive nature of such words be lost or (b) the prescriptive nature of the words is somehow part of the fabric of the world. It’s not entirely clear what exactly it means for something to be “prescriptive,” but this debate over the prescriptive nature of ‘oughts’ is commonly used to refute moral realism.
First, noncognitivists argue that the fact that ought-judgments are prescriptive is somehow strong evidence that they are not statements at all (i.e. they are neither true nor false). Perhaps our endorsement of ought-judgments is evidence that (a) they are something like commandments or (b) we use ought-judgments to express our emotions—and neither of which are statements.
Second, many anti-realists argue that prescriptive facts are somehow motivational, and that a person can’t sincerely agree that something ought to be done unless they have at least some motivation to do it (when in the appropriate circumstances). For example, I can’t say that we morally ought to give to charity unless I have at least some motivation to give to charity.
Third, the notion that prescriptive “facts” could exist as part of reality seems to be unique and strange—perhaps even far-fetched. What exactly these “facts” are like and how we can know about them seems pretty mysterious.
Fourth, Hume reminded us that what “ought to be the case” doesn’t always happen. People rob banks, murder, rape, and pillage. The horrible things people do is contrary to what they ought to do. Therefore, it seem like what “is the case” is often quite different from what “ought to be the case.” Nonetheless, it seems clear that what “ought to be the case” does happen from time to time. People aren’t completely evil every second of their lives. Nonetheless, anti-realists often think that what “is the case” is somehow proven to be totally different from what “ought to be the case” since there is often a gap between the two—and that seems to suggest that what “ought to be” is unreal, fictitious, or “true by convention.”
Moral realists often remind us that what we ought to do in the nonmoral sense (to accomplish goals) isn’t so strange or difficult to understand. We can simply look at what courses of action are open to us and decide which one would accomplish our goals well. Eating food helps accomplish our goals of feeling pleasure, staying alive, and avoiding hunger. It accomplishes those goals amazingly well and it seems clear that we ought to eat food in order to accomplish those goals. But do such nonmoral ‘oughts’ exist? Are they strange entities in reality? That isn’t obvious, even though reality itself plays a role in what we ought to do insofar as it determines how effective each course of action is. The problem is that reality doesn’t seem to determine how effective an action has to be before we “ought to do it.”
Again, it seems clear that what we ‘ought to do’ sometimes is the case because we do eat food, as we should. Some people don’t eat food, but that is unusual. Of course, when some people don’t eat food, they might be failing to do something they ought to do, so what we ought to do doesn’t happen every time. Nonetheless, we can compare our options and decide which ones are better than others, and we somehow decide when one course of action is one we “ought to do.”
Finally, the fact that nonmoral oughts aren’t so mysterious could indicate that what morally ought to be the case isn’t mysterious either—but it’s not clear that either form of ‘ought’ exists in some realist sense. Anti-realists will claim that what we ‘ought to do’ is merely based on our attitudes, interests, endorsements, and/or social contract.
A Platonist solution – We can agree that what “ought to be the case” really does exist in the realm of the forms as abstract entities. It’s not entirely clear that such entities are really prescriptive, but they might be. J.L. Mackie argued that the forms would have to be prescriptive in the sense that they somehow cause motivation to do what we ought to do. The Platonist solution is vulnerable to the four objections described above.
Tännsjö’s solution – We can argue that the anti-realists are right that what ‘ought to be the case’ doesn’t really exist. We can compare our options and decide that some actions are morally preferable to others insofar as they promote intrinsic values better.
Tännsjö’s solution seems to avoid the four anti-realist objections seen above. He can agree with everything they say without becoming an anti-realist. Why is he not an anti-realist? Because he believes in moral facts that aren’t completely based on our beliefs, desires, or a social contract. These moral facts involve intrinsic values—pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad.
Assuming that something “ought to be the case,” what makes it that way?
A Platonist can agree with Tännsjö that what we ought to do is whatever is sufficiently morally worthy and we can look at alternate courses of actions to see which actions are better than others. However, it’s not obvious what would make an action something we ought to do rather than something we ought not do—what makes an action sufficiently worthy in a prescriptive sense?
A Platonist solution – It’s not clear that a Platonist can give an intuitive answer to this question. Perhaps she could just say that we ought to do something insofar as it approximates the ideals, but there might be no way to officially “draw the line” and say that something is what ought to be done once and for all (or ought not be done once and for all).
Tännsjö’s solution – We could agree that what ought to be the case should be based on whatever criteria seems to help us be moral beings the best. One intuitive way to do so that seems to match the way we use language is that what we ought to do is whatever we can do to promote intrinsic values best given that it’s sufficiently easy to do it. For example, doctors ought to help patients with their medical needs because it’s sufficiently easy for them to do so, but non-doctors usually ought not to help patients because it would be too hard for them. Some people might be more virtuous or skillful than others and what they do with their virtues and skills should be based on how they could be used to help people (and animals) compared to others. What’s too hard for one person isn’t too hard for another. What’s sufficiently easy to do for one person isn’t for another.
If there were no restrictions to what we ought to do, then someone should all cure cancer, save the whales, eliminate corruption from politics, feed all starving people, and so on. However, this is much too hard for one person to accomplish, and that’s why it’s inappropriate to make such demands on a single person. Instead, we each need to find our unique way to help people based on our unique abilities, skills, talents, and virtues.
Anti-realists have raised powerful objections to the Platonistic form of moral realism because it seems to ignore the prescriptive nature of ought-judgments or places the prescriptive element into the fabric of reality itself. The anti-realists seem right that there’s something perscriptiv happening when we make ought-judgments. Nonetheless, the anti-realist objections seem compatible with Tännsjö’s moral realist solution, and he makes it clear that we could base our understanding of what ought to be the case on intrinsic values to assure us that they have moral relevance. I agree that intrinsic values seem important and many people would like to help others based on an understanding of intrinsic values.