Is there an Is/Ought Distinction?

No. Sorry, Hume. Why? Let’s examine the types of things we’re looking at:

Is: Facts, truths, things we know about the world, the positive, the descriptive
Ought: Things we ought to do, things we should do, the normative, the prescriptive

If we’re not Bill Clinton, when we talk about what is, we can point to things. We can show the results of scientific testing, the pictures taken with the Hubble telescope, the flower, the tree, the book, whatever. Even if the subject of discussion isn’t physically tangible, there is a referent for that which is.

The definitions I have of ought, though, are kind of useless. They’re basically just synonyms, dancing around each other without telling us anything new about the concept of ‘ought.’ That’s a big red flag for there being nothing behind all the language, and I hold that there isn’t. If ‘ought’ existed somewhere out there, it would be a different kind of thing than anything we’ve ever seen or studied. What do normative statements look like, anyway? Unconditional imperatives, those statements that call us to take action based on no particular condition aside from perhaps existence, are based on lies. There are no ‘shoulds’ floating around in the universe. Atoms don’t come with <good> and <bad> xml tags. There are no goodons, or categorical imperatives.

That doesn’t mean that what is, is good, nor does it mean that all morality relative. It only means that the only things in the entire world that give humans reasons for doing things are our values,  those things we want and desire. We take action because we want to. Living is valuable because we want to live. Happiness is valuable because we want to be happy. There’s nothing else to base ‘shoulds’ on. There is only merely real desires. And those desires are ‘is’s. We can study them, we can count them, we can in theory measure them. They live inside our brains, we experience them as attractions and repulsions, we can reason about them, change them and explain them. From this we can construct theories of objective morality and plans for the future of robot morality.

[Added later for clarity:] It may still be useful to make a conceptual distinction between those things which are facts about the world  and those things which are facts about how we would like the world to be. But there isn’t a rigorous philosophical distinction.

Is there an Is/Ought Distinction? No, because Ought is merely a type of Is.

This has been Post the Ninth of Blogathon

16 thoughts on “Is there an Is/Ought Distinction?

  1. Jay Feldman says:

    I’m a little bit hesitant to completely throw out the word ought. Yes, desires entirely define what “ought” is, but there has to be something connecting “I desire the world to be this way” and actually making the world a certain way.

    So, the word ought could be translating desires to actions.

  2. Michael says:

    If “ought” is merely a type of “is” the desire to get ahead at others’ expense (for one example) “is”, and one cannot say it “ought” or “ought not” to be according to what you said. I do not think this is something you desire. How do you deal with say the desire to rob that “is” versus the desire not to be robbed that “is” too? If “ought” is a kind of “is” where does that leave us?

    • You’re right that acknowledging that values are things that exist in the world make most of our moral theories warp and even fall apart. You should check out the link to Desirism I put above. It’s also here:

      • Michael says:

        I meant to check it out, thanks. After having done so, I must say it hardly strikes me as moral realism. Desires would be about the most mind-dependent things you can base a moral theory on. The heart of his theory, if I have read him correctly, is “A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires.” That’s completely subjective by definition, and thus little help in establishing objective morality. Unless of course this is meant to be a moral subjectivist theory, though I assume from your link with it that’s not so.If it is a subjective theory, it’s no worse than many, and better than some by far.

        • The entire point of this post is that mind-dependent and subjective are not the same thing. We can objectively determine, at least in theory, other people’s thoughts, opinions and desires. That makes it an objective theory.

          • Michael says:

            To that extent, perhaps. It still does not show how some desires can be held as objectively better than others that I’ve seen however.

          • But this would mean that, say, your preference for a particular flavour of ice cream would be considered “objective” by the same criteria, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that is considered paradigmatically subjective for cases like this. Thus, it seems that two senses of “objective” are being used here, and so you won’t really get far with this. Yes, in the sense you’re using objective, perhaps mind-dependent things aren’t really subjective, but the fear of subjectivity in the is/ought cases is really about mind-dependence, and not that sort of subjectivity at al.

  3. The big issue is that in your list of definitions, you leave out one for the oughts that’s really important. The three big ways of talking about the is/ought distinction are: is/ought (you have it), descriptive/normative (you have it) and … fact/value, and while you have fact in the “is” column you left “value” out of the “ought’ column. And then as you go on to talk about values all the time, the reply to your whole post is that the instant you bring in “value”, you’ve moved to the “ought” side, and so using them to argue that there is no distinction basically misrepresents what the whole debate is over.

    • Michael says:

      Well put. I concur.

    • That’s a great point. I could have put value in the definitions for Ought and restructured the argument so that I argued that value in fact was in the Is section, but I think in the end I’m making the same point. Values are a type of thing that exists in the world. If Ought refers to values, Ought is a subset of is.

      • verbosestoic says:

        The problem here is that all moral realists think that moral values, at least, are things in the world, but many deny that they are facts in the sense of the fact/value distinction. “Fact” isn’t quite being used in that distinction in the way you’re using it here, and so there’s a big risk of equivocation on that.

        A way to put it might be this: you talk about things being decided by our wants, or our desires. Most people will agree that our actions are determined by our beliefs and our desires. No problem there. The issue, though, is that people do argue that just because you DO want to do something doesn’t mean that you OUGHT to want to do it, and the claim then is that the “is” part is what you want but the “ought” part is what you, well, ought to want. There is a difference between describing your desires and prescribing them. Yes, in some sense it is a fact — meaning a true statement about the world — that one ought to want X instead of Y, but it isn’t simply a fact describing a specific position. And that, then, is the is/ought distinction in a nutshell.

  4. drakvl says:

    I see the difference as a different distinction: one of scientific problems versus engineering problems (phrases used somewhat figuratively). By scientific problem, I mean one with a single solution; by engineering problem, I mean one with many different possible solutions. (If there is some better terminology, I would love to hear it.) Thus, I see is as a solution to a scientific problem, and an ought being a rationale for choosing among the solutions to an engineering problem.

    Aside from that, I would like to say that I’m responding to a year-old post because I find your blog engrossing and thought-provoking. Please keep up the good work!

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