Your Opinions Requested: On Is/Ought

Posted in Ethics, Morality, Philosophy, Quickies on  | 2 minutes | 6 Comments →

A buddy of mine often reminds me of how much he likes short posts, so here's a quick one on a philosophical classic: the Is/Ought distinction.

In my experience, the person who says, "You ought to do X" in response to some desire Y is saying something that reduces to, "I believe that if you do X, you shall fulfill desire Y." Example: your desire is to go surfing, and your neighbor offers you a ride to the beach. If you take the ride (X), you'll likely fulfill the desire to go surfing (Y). One might say you ought to take the ride. This is ought in the pragmatic sense.

What would make "you ought to take the ride" true? In my opinion, it is the juxtaposition of 1) the fact of a desire to go surfing, and 2) the means of fulfilling that desire.

However, in my experience, the person who says, "You ought not X" in response to some desire Y is saying something that reduces to, "Even though it would fulfill your desire Y, X is not the right thing to do." Example: you desire your neighbor's goat, and when your mother discovers your intentions, she uses the tool of condemnation to plant within you an aversion to stealing. IOW, she says some variant of, "you ought not X." This is ought in the moral sense.

In your opinion, what would make "you ought not steal your neighbor's goat" true?


  1. Zeb


    I agree that ought refers to a known or presumed desire in the person being advised. I believe the kind of moral ought you are talking about refers to some presumed deep desire. It amounts to “if you had true beliefs about what your deepest desires are and how to fulfill them, you would/not do X”. That deepest desire might ne getting into heaven/avoiding hell, escaping the cycle of rebirth, communion with or likeness of God, harmony with all creatures, etc. People making those types of claims often refer to intrinsic value, but I think what they really have in mind is a presumed universal intrinsic desire in modal agents. So the is statement would be “You have desire X, and to fulfill that desire you must/not Y.” (The inability of desirism to make such statements is one of its weaknesses.)

  2. Dominic Saltarelli


    Given the inherent subjectivity of ‘ought’, I think simply making the statement is enough to make it true. Of course, you can argue with this by changing the scenery to include circumstantial criteria. But in the abstract, saying you “ought not X” is true by virtue of the fact that it is spoken. I put in on par with “I like X” or “I don’t like X”.
    Now, as far as which ‘oughts’ and ‘ought not’s rise to the level of being recognized as moral statements is strictly a function of their consequential effects on a culture over a period of time and how desirable or undesirable said consequences are generally found to be. It’s accurate to say moral statements a less than unanimous, but sufficiently close enough, status quo. What makes them actually true is merely the belief that it is so by at least one person.
    When people argue over morality (what all it is that one ought not to do), the argument is analogous to a disagreement over taste in clothes or music. The fact that morality exists at all is due to convergence of opinion, nothing more.

  3. tmp


    Well, since I spent a thread puzzling out Desirism, I’m going to give my best Desirist interpretation here. :)
    ‘In your opinion, what would make “you ought not steal your neighbor’s goat” true?’
    0. I desire to steal my neighbor’s goat.
    1. I’m going to enumerate all desires, that are relevant to this desire, including the desires of others. Why am I including the desires of others? Alonzo Fyfe says so. Then I’m going to somehow calculate the sum of these desires. Since I have no methods or formalism to do this, I think I just call Alonzo Fyfe(I’m going to assume, that Fyfe says that you ought not steal the goat, but I’m not sure).
    2. Imaginary Fyfe has told me, that stealing my neighbors goat is a bad desire. That translates “it thwarts more desires than it fullfills” for people who are not Desirist. This means I’m not going to steal it. Why am I not going to steal it? Well, it’s a bad desire according to Desirism and you should not act on those desires, because Alonzo Fyfe says so.
    So, in conclusion, “you ought not steal your neighbors goat” is true, because Alonzo Fyfe says so. shows, how Fyfe crosses the is-ought cap by simply stepping across. That means, that the First Principle of Derisism is “Alonzo Fyfe says so”. :)

  4. NFQ


    You say that “ought not” only prevents one from fulfilling a desire, but I think it can also satisfy a desire. I could desire to maintain a good friendship with my neighbor, so I ought not steal his goat. I could desire that people in my neighborhood not get the idea that stealing is acceptable behavior, because I don’t want my own stuff stolen — so I ought not start the stealing trend by stealing my neighbor’s goat.
    I think it’s fair to say that all people have a variety of desires, some of which are mutually exclusive (I desire a vacation, and I desire that my research get done, for example) but we also have some sort of priority ranking of those desires that help us weigh them against each other.

  5. woodchuck64


    In your opinion, what would make “you ought not steal your neighbor’s goat” true?

    I would say such a statement describes the existence of a literal or implied social contract and is true to the extent that you accept that contract.
    Literal social contract could be the laws of the land.
    Implied social contract could be the rules you’ve been taught growing up about interacting with family, friends, and people in general.
    We all know we have to give up some individual freedoms and rights to benefit others, but we also know that that benefit comes back to us either directly or in the form of sharing in other’s happiness. For the vast majority, that we desire to honor implied social contracts is a good assumption.

  6. / January 21st, 2008, 8:28 am / I understand the siccnee sucks sentiment. Religion tells you that the average Joe on the street can easily understand the deepest mysteries of the universe. Believe in Jesus, or pray 5 times a day, whatever, all well within the grasp of the everyman.Science tells you that you can spend a lifetime studying the deepest mysteries of the universe and only reach partial, tenative conclusions, none of which suggest a moral cause behind the whole scheme (i.e., the why question that so many people find important). Of course, most people (including me) lack the time and the intellect to deeply explore difficult questions of physics, comsmology, and philosophy, so the easy answer (religion) is very attractive, although it is very wrong.

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