Is and Ought


A slightly edited version of the original of a letter sent to and in abridged form published in Philosophy Now  Issue 111, December-January under my pseudonym 'Jack Jones'.  I based it on the article 'Ought'.

I am continually surprised to learn that there is still a debate in philosophical circles as to the source of supposed moral obligation – the view that we ought to behave in a particular way. Obviously science cannot tell us what to do because, as David Hume pointed out long ago, “is” cannot imply “ought”. And all that science can tell us is how things are.

However surely the same difficulty applies to philosophical strictures. Socrates told us that the good life – the one to which we apparently ought to aspire – was one in which we strive to make both ourselves and those around us happier and better off. He told us that the only way to achieve this is to pursue wisdom and self-knowledge.  Now it may be that being happier is very nice, but I'm not sure why that entails having a duty to try to produce happiness all around us. Neither am I sure that research shows that the pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge actually beats other ways of increasing the sum total of happiness.

'Ought' certainly makes sense for those who are subscribed to one of the many religions. Indeed, religion is probably the source of such an idea.  The rules for living are intrinsic to each religion and are subject to sanctions temporal and eternal for those not following the true way.

For the rest of us, however, 'ought', if it has any meaning, has a somewhat different connotation. I ask myself what I want to do on this occasion or, more generally, with my life and then how best I can achieve it. At a group level we ask ourselves similar questions, but may arrive at different answers – in which case we as individuals have to decide whether to subsume our individual wishes in order to remain in good standing with the group.  At national level, we take this further and rely on one of the various democratic systems to decide how our laws will be framed and so how we can be compelled to act.  None of these things imply an ought in the sense that any such decision is somehow intrinsically 'right'.  It may or may not achieve the desired object, and the objective once attained may prove not to be what we would have wanted after all had we thought it through more carefully or been in possession of more facts.  In this context, 'ought' is simply a short-hand way of saying that that's what we think we need to do in order to meet our self-imposed aims.

Science is beginning to be able to tell us how our decisions can be arrived at in a more rational way, by highlighting the numerous biases to which our thinking is subject.  It can also confirm, for example, that we have an innate tendency to cooperate and an inbuilt sense of empathy.  Philosophy can tell us how to reason and can encourage us to think more clearly.  Neither philosophy nor science though in themselves can tell us what we ought to do.  Neither can I see how they can somehow be combined to produce what neither can produce on its own - a binding moral code.  In the absence of a divine being insisting on a particular type of action, there is no 'ought' or 'should'.

I may of course confuse my habitual way of thinking as to how I normally react to situations with a moral imperative to act in that way, but ultimately what I do is my decision.  How I try to achieve my aim is also my decision -“is” after all cannot produce “ought”.  The same is true at group level and at national level.  And all this explains why it is that so-called moral codes change with time, I'm pleased to say.  We have seen the results of previous versions of these various codes and decided that they are wanting.

A slightly edited version of the orignal of a letter sent to and published in Philosophy Now  Issue 111, December-January under my pseudonym 'Jack Jones'.

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