Wednesday, December 14, 2016

All About Oughts

'Every ought simply has no sense and meaning except in relation to threatened punishment or promised reward ... Thus every ought is necessarily conditioned through punishment or reward, hence, to put it in Kant's terms, essentially and inevitably hypothetical and never, as he maintains categorical ... Therefore an absolute ought is simply a contradictio in adjecto." —Schopenhauer (On the Basis of Morals, §4).

Imperatives (oughts) are directives; they command us to perform or abstain from certain behaviors. The philosopher Immanuel Kant split imperatives into 2 types; Hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives (aka rational oughts) instruct what actions to perform in order to achieve a particular goal. Example: “If you want to lose weight you ought to diet and exercise."
Hypothetical imperatives are only applicable to persons who want to achieve a particular goal.
If you don’t care about losing weight the  “you ought to diet and exercise" isn't applicable to you as there would be no motivating reason to diet and exercise.

According to Kant, moral oughts (categorical imperatives) are not of this sort. Categorical imperatives have nothing to do with achieving goals, losing weight, or avoiding pain etc.

For Kant Moral behaviors aren't about staying out of prison, or avoiding certain social consequences. Unlike hypothetical imperatives, categorical imperatives (purportedly) instruct us how to behave irrespective of our desires, whims, preferences, and goals.
Morality doesn’t state “If you want to achieve X you ought to do Y."
Rather, it says "Thou shalt not commit murder!" regardless of whether you are concerned about facing the death penalty or not! It is this kind of imperative the moral skeptic rejects because outside of the context of punishment and reward there can be no motivating force to propel one to act in a certain manner.
After all, if I want to do X and can get away with performing X without consequence why ought I not do so? Because it's 'wrong'? What does 'wrong' even mean? Hence the nihilist contends that only hypothetical imperatives are tenable. The categorical imperative is nothing but the ethical woo of moralizing sophists!
A prescription by itself (a non hypothetical imperative) is neither true or false as it lacks true or false conditions. Consider the prescription "Thou shalt not steal". If there is no assumed if clause (goal) it is merely a command. It is expressing a desire for persons not to engage in a particular activity. 
It isn't a proposition. In philosophy a proposition is the content of a sentence which asserts or denies a certain state of affairs. "John is not a female" for example is a proposition because it is asserting something about empirical reality. 
It is either describing reality accurately or it isn't. But under what conditions can an isolated "ought" or "ought not" be rendered true or false? 

Now, I would like to point out that while it is true that in everyday speech the if clause (the goal) is often omitted—it is still implied. 
For example a father may tell his son "You ought to brush your teeth". In such an instance the if clause (goal) is implied and is something akin to "so that you can keep your teeth healthy". 
It may be uttered in a forceful authoritative tone and thus acting both as a command and a description of what must be done in order to maintain dental health. 
In this case the "ought" is used both as an expression of desire and a description of what must be done to attain a certain end. 

Moral prescriptions are not like this. They do not depict reality, they are expressions of desire, and attempts to motivate and influence others. 

With that said, there are those who may believe that their prescriptions refer to some kind of normative fact about the world. In such cases I believe the "ought" indicative of mistaken belief rather than a mere expression of attitude.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Moral Error Theory


Moral Error Theory is a cognitivist position in irrealist meta ethics which contends that:

1. All moral claims are false.

2. That we have reason to believe all moral claims ere false.

3. No moral features exist; Existence is neither intrinsically good or evil.

4. Moral value judgments attempt, but fail, to refer to moral features in the world (because there are none).

In other words, on this view moral terms and sentences attempt to state facts but always fail as they are merely communicating falsities (mistaken belief).

Perhaps the most well known moral error theorist is J. L. Mackie, who defended this meta-ethical view in his book 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong'.

Mackie clearly distinguished himself from non cognitivists and logical positivists when he wrote: 'Although logical positivism with its verifiability theory of descriptive meaning gave an impetus to non-cognitive accounts of ethics, it is not only logical positivists but also empiricists of a much more liberal sort who should find objective values hard to accommodate. Indeed, I would not only reject the verifiability principle but also deny the conclusion commonly drawn from it, that moral judgements lack descriptive meaning. The assertion that there are objective values or intrinsically prescriptive entities or features of some kind, which ordinary moral judgements presuppose, is, I hold, not meaningless but false.'

Mackie put forth 2 main arguments in support of error theory.


On page 37 of his book (mentioned above) he states that "If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. These points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists in their talk about a ‘faculty of moral intuition’. Intuitionism has long been out of favour, and it is indeed easy to point out its implausibilities." And thus he claims there is sufficient reason to doubt the existence of 'objective values'.

To put it another way: the 'objective moral values' view (moral realism) would have us believe that moral prescription somehow motivates (magically?) and provides reasons for action independent of our subjective, desires, and aversions. However such a claim seems totally detached from reality and our experience of it, and thus can be reasonably rejected.


The Argument from Relativity (or the Argument from Disagreement) makes an empirical observation. It points to the fact of wide spread disagreement concerning what is purportedly 'morally acceptable'. In his book Mackie argues that this phenomena (moral disagreement) is more reasonably explained by moral irrealism rather than moral realism. That is, given the fact of widespread moral disagreement it seems more plausible that morality is a human convention and far less likely that there exists some meta physical realm of 'objective values' to which (apparently) some cultures have flawed epistemic access.

Concerning this Mackie wrote: 'Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way round: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy.
Of course, the standards may be an idealization of the way of life from which they arise: the monogamy in which people participate may be less complete, less rigid, than that of which it leads them to approve. This is not to say that moral judgements are purely conventional. Of course there have been and are moral heretics and moral reformers, people who have turned against the established rules and practices of their own communities for moral reasons, and often for moral reasons that we would endorse. But this can usually be understood as the extension, in ways which, though new and unconventional, seemed to them to be required for consistency, of rules to which they already adhered as arising out of an existing way of life. In short, the argument from relativity has some force simply because the actual variations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.'