Posted by: Becoming Gaia | Jun 30, 2010

Mailbag 3: Definition or Proof? and Revisiting the Humean Divide


Łukasz Stafiniak commenting on Reboot: Defining Morality:

Is it a mildly normative ethics statement (a “golden commandment”), or a metaethics ground-making for a deconstructionist descriptive ethics program? I think your earlier posts point more towards “conciliatory normative” stance, and then your metaethics task is to derive that from an ought-is bridging assumption involving the concept of goals. But then your current post invokes the metaethical rhetoric that smells like “proof by assumption of thesis”.

It’s a definition.  I often refer to definitions as “stated assumptions” but in this case it is the target of an upcoming proof.

Of course, it does immediately lead to a (more than mildly) normative ethics statement.  Or, indeed, it actually is a Kantian Categorical Imperative when phrased as “Act only according to that which maximizes the long-term probability of maximal cooperation”.

As a definition, it is ground-making but my intent is not merely a “deconstructionist descriptive ethics program”.  My aim is to construct a prescriptive and proscriptive program with the widest possible applicability.

I prefer to think of my stance as more coherent and congruous with “reality” than conciliatory (since the latter term has connotations of appeasement as well as reconciliation).

I’m also not too thrilled by the phrasing “ought-is bridging ASSUMPTION”.  To me, the belief that there is an insurmountable (or even, difficult) *gap* between is and ought is an assumption itself, based upon a misinterpretation of Hume.  Hume objected to the UNSUPPORTED (and surreptitious) transition from is to ought saying:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Indeed, I would contend that it is IMPOSSIBLE for there to be a gap between ought and is because ought is DERIVED from two particular instances of is.  If you have a desire or goal (my goal or desire IS), your *ought* IS that which is most likely to fulfill that goal.  Hume’s entire (valid) objection is to the unstated introduction of an assumed goal or desire.

So let’s get rid of all assumptions.  I’m going to limit my defense of morality to those entities which have goals and/or desires and are, at least, minimally effective in fulfilling them.  It is a FACT that in order to be minimally effective at fulfilling goals and/or desires, the entity must have a goal/desire to fulfill it’s goals/desires.  Thus, that entity’s *ought* is that which is most likely to fulfill it’s goals/desires.

Or, another way to state it (with assumptions), I am assuming goal/desire-directed entities of, at least, minimal effectiveness when I talk about morality — so there is no Humean is/ought divide.

Note, however, that I do *not* believe that all oughts are moral oughts.  That would be extending the boundaries of morality far beyond the normal conception of it.  Moral oughts are those which fulfill the goal of cooperation — which is a goal because it increases the probability of fulfilling virtually any other non-conflicting goal/desire (i.e. cooperation is a “universal” subgoal).  The fact that there can be goals and desires which truly conflict with cooperation is why enlightened self-interest is not a synonym for morality (as shown in this post) although they are identical in the vast majority of cases.

I am fully aware that, clearly, I still need to show/prove that a goal of cooperation is necessary and sufficient to explain the agreed-upon conception of morality (without including too much that isn’t generally believed part of morality).  There is no attempt at “proof by assumption of thesis” here.

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Responses

  1. >>> Or, another way to state it (with assumptions), I am assuming goal/desire-directed entities of, at least, minimal effectiveness when I talk about morality — so there is no Humean is/ought divide.

    Do you assume (or define) that agents ought to seek (their) goals? (This would be the bridging assumption I had in mind.)

    >>> Note, however, that I do *not* believe that all oughts are moral oughts.

    I think it might rise some confusion in some people. I’m OK with the clear definitions that you use, but I think it is natural to treat an unconditional ought as a by definition “moral” ought (“moral” in the conservative rather than liberal sense — i.e. broader, “life-wisdom” or “goodness sake”). But personally, I don’t want to make a point 😉 (and we’re probably reiterating).

  2. >> Do you assume (or define) that agents ought to seek (their) goals? (This would be the bridging assumption I had in mind.)

    I said -> It is a FACT that in order to be minimally effective at fulfilling goals and/or desires, the entity must have a goal/desire to fulfill it’s goals/desires.

    >> I think it is natural to treat an unconditional ought as a by definition “moral” ought

    Could you give an example of an unconditional ought? I’m not aware of any.

    • Would you say that a person should have terminal values, or that a person has terminal values by definition of personhood, or that it is irrelevant?

      Hypothetical unconditional oughts:
      “Thou shall not kill.”
      “I, or someone, should finish my thesis, and I really don’t care about the PhD.”
      I.e. unconditional oughts are terminal values (personal “I” oughts) or deontological “root” rules (moral “thou” oughts).

      • Note that I’m not happy with the concept of terminal values, I’m in favor of “a holistic principle that permeates a person” — but one can consider the latter as either a constellation of the former or a single source terminal value.

      • I think we’ve got some real terminology differences.

        I can think of many conditions where “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t apply.

        And why should you finish your thesis if you have no reason for doing so?

        I could see a true unconditional ought being defined as a terminal value but I still don’t see any unconditional oughts.

        Further, terminal values could be confused with my wording of terminal (i.e. end) cases where selfishness is more rational than morality.

      • I think that “there are real terminology differences” but I don’t think that I misunderstand your terminology 😉 BTW I put effort to formulate my comment the way it ended-up.

        Perhaps you should use “endgame cases” instead of “terminal cases” if you mean endgame cases.

  3. Right about Hume. Most people say he meant “no ought from is” but what he actually said was you can’t derive an “ought” type of conclusion from an “is” type of premise. If there is an “ought” type of premise, no problem. What’s needed is a moral fact. Your premises boil down to “a moral goal is a moral fact.”

    • I think that you shifted into morality mode too quickly when you are talking about an “ought” type of premise. If you are hungry and don’t want to be, you ought to eat. If you are thirsty and don’t want to be, you ought to eat. If the water is rising and you don’t want to drown, you should move (or swim). None of these are moral issues. An ought premise is merely a premise where you have a goal. Morality is a small subset of that.

  4. Luk:
    [quoting BG]>>> Note, however, that I do *not* believe that all oughts are moral oughts.

    I think it might rise some confusion in some people.

    >>>I think it is natural to treat an unconditional ought as a by definition “moral” ought

    If your car needs gas, you ought to fill it up. The distinction BG is making is appropriate because there are common meanings of ought that have nothing to do with morality.

    One philosopher I read once (can’t remember who) broke out about seven levels/meanings of “ought.” It’s useful for BG to filter out the extraneous meanings that aren’t part of the argument.

  5. It’s fascinating how language gets in our way sometimes. The everyday construction of moral statements — “If you’re hungry, then you ought to eat” — makes sense to most people. But when we analyze the statement, “and you don’t want to be hungry” makes the statement into a more logical argument, as you point out.

    The logical construction of the above “hungry > eat” argument is different from its common construction. What’s actually being argued logically is more like this:

    1. I desire not to be hungry.
    2. I ought to fulfill my desires.
    (Bracket whether the desire is good; assume it is)
    3. Eating banishes hunger.
    4. I am hungry.
    5. I ought to eat.

    In other words, to make it a logical moral argument, the form of the common statement must be transformed so that its various unexpressed assumptions (1, 2, 3) are accounted for. At that point, in the example at least, we can see an “ought” among the premises (@2), which brings validity to the “ought” in the conclusion.

    First point: Hume’s complaint was that in many moral arguments he read, premises such as #2 were missing. And if they were missing and could not be accounted for, then #5 would not be a valid conclusion.

    Second point: It takes a lot of argument to establish premise #2, which must be true to make #5 true. It is #2 which must be “proven” — that is, if we find some way to state it as a fact, it becomes a moral fact (“a fact about the world that has moral content” is my usual formulaic definition).

    What has vexed philosophers for over two centuries is this: how to establish/qualify any statement in position/premise 2 (which is itself a moral statement) as a fact about the world.

    We can get around Hume’s objection by simply “stipulating” position #2 as true, as a point of logic. But that begs the question whether it is a scientific fact — an “is” that is true enough to use as a premise with “T” as its constant value (for programmers — LOL). That turns out to be devilishly hard to do.


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