Is and Ought

I have been following Bill's is/ought series of posts, starting here. I suggest that the examples considered so far can be put into a common form:
1.  Action A is a necessary condition of goal G.
2.  If I want to achieve goal G, then I ought to perform action A.
I hope everybody will agree that (1) is not normative.  It merely expresses the objective fact that the situation G isn't going to happen unless A is performed.  The ought in (2) expresses the necessity of A, the obligation of A for me that arises when I desire goal G.  I think it's important to notice that the obligation is conditional on the desire.  To will the end one must will the means.   But absent the desire, absent the necessity.

So my first point is that ought expresses a species of conditional necessity.  We can rearrange the above into a syllogistic form:
1.  I want to achieve G.
2.  Action A is a necessary condition of goal G. Ergo,
3.  I ought to perform A.
This seems  a very common pattern of practical reasoning.  It's clear I think that there can be no inference of (3) from (2) alone.  An argument that claims that (3) follows from (2) is enthymematic on (1).  And we can summarise this result by a general claim that a practical ought like (3) cannot be derived from an is like (2).

What about moral oughts?  My answer is to subsume them under practical oughts.  For this,  for any action A that is morally obligatory on me, I have to find a corresponding goal G that I desire. In many cases this goal will be simply to remain accepted within my moral community.  I pay the grocer's bill because I want to continue to be supplied with groceries.  This is my 'long stop', ultimate, goal that comes into play if no other goal takes precedence.   Of course, it may be that A is not necessary for this G.  Perhaps my failure to A will go undetected and I will be tempted into moral backsliding.  Then a more proximate goal of not appearing to myself as a moral backslider may appear.  Note that I'm not giving the circular argument that moral backsliding is immoral.  I'm saying that, no doubt through my moral upbringing, I do not wish to see myself as a backslider.  I can't offer an account as to why I have such a desire---this will no doubt have to be explained in terms of evolved moral sentiments and education---but for the purposes of this argument I need only say that I may have such a wish, and this desire generates the obligation.  Or, possibly, I am at odds with my moral community over some issue.  Perhaps, because of my moral formation, my desire to conform to some principle outweighs my fear of community ostracism.  If this motivation is uppermost, and A is necessary to realise it, then I will be obliged to A.

A final point.  There are two aspects here:  the necessity of A for G and its devolving on me because G is my goal.   The necessity here is ultimately a logical matter, a perceived that without which not.  So this little theory is consistent with my wider thesis that this is the only kind of necessity there is, or at least the only kind that we can grasp or make contact with.

No comments:

Post a Comment