I’m currently on a quest to understand normativity, which has brought me to offer an account on Finlay’s end-relational theory to define “ought” and “good” (and their linguistic cousins) as descriptively expressing how something relates to an end. Saying “this cup is good” means, descriptively, that “this cup is good for drinking” and saying “I ought to use this cup instead of that one” means “Using this cup instead of that one is more likely to lead to me enjoying my drink“.
However, normative statements do more than just describe ends. They aren’t just descriptive statements, but also illocutionary assertive statements (“Enjoying my drink is a worthy thing for me to do”), illoctuionary expressive statements (“I like enjoying my drink”), and perlocutionary directive statements (“Self, use the good cup!”).
In this essay, I’d like to spend one last essay talking about how these ends get their normative force. Specifically, I’d like to look at a problem often raised as Hume’s Is-Ought Gap.
The Is-Ought Gap
What is Hume’s Is-Ought Gap? David Hume, writing in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), argues a famous problem for normativity that ends up like this:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, 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 surprised 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.
Put into easier-to-understand language, Hume is arguing that you cannot derive an “ought” statement from a series of statements about how things actually are — just because something is a certain way does not mean that it ought to be another way. For example, just because murder results in the reduction of well-being, a violation of a right, or the treating of a person as a means and not an end does not necessarily mean that we ought not to murder — we would first have to establish that we ought not reduce well-being, that we ought not violate rights, or that we ought not treat people as means and not ends.
In an even stronger and more compelling form, it seems we can always ask of every moral theory “Why is it that I ought to do this?” What is it about well-being that compels me to see it maximized, as utilitarians suggest that I must? What is it about rights that automatically mean that I must respect them? What is it about God’s commands that mean I must follow them?
Not Quite The Gap Anymore
However, if we take the end-relational understanding of “ought”, such a gap makes no sense. It turns out that, despite what Hume was saying, it is the case that just because something is a certain way that it ought be another way.
For instance, it ought to be that (in order we comply with the law), we ought not to cheat on our taxes. This follows purely from the facts that (1) the word “ought” expresses an end-relational probability relationship, and (2) the end in question for this normative statement was the United States legal system. Likewise, merely knowing that the end in question is epistemology, it follows that you ought not believe what you don’t have good evidence for.
Now, fans of Hume might counter this and say “Sure, it’s true that, in order to maximize happiness impartially, we ought not murder people. But why does that mean that I, fan of Hume, ought not murder?”
However, I, as a fan of Finlay, counter: “What do you mean by ‘ought’ in that second question? I notice you don’t clearly express the end in question. However, I think your context leads me to best assume a prudential end, like ‘why ought (in order that I most satisfy of my own desires) I, fan of Hume, not murder people?’”
Once the ends are put in place, it’s clearly not much of a gap to look at an ought that takes the end of an impartial maximization of happiness and notice that it doesn’t measure up with the end of your own personal desires. Yet, even if you think that (in order to most satisfy your own desires) you ought to murder, it still remains true that (in order to maximize happiness impartially) you ought not murder.
These standards are independent of your personal desires; they don’t care what you think. They’re facts about how the world works. It’s right (relative to a standard of maximizing happiness impartially) for the Hume fan to refrain from murder even it is wrong (relative to a standard of maximizing the personal desires of the Hume fan) for the Hume fan to do so. In so far as one cares about maximizing happiness impartially, they will (typically) refrain from murder.
Ends, Frameworks, Institutions, and Searle
The punchline that I’m getting at is that we can propose a certain standard, like “maximize happiness impartially” and then see what things (actions, people, desires, states of affairs, etc.) measure up to those standards, even if no one actually cares at maximizing happiness impartially at all.
Likewise, we can do this for other standards we care about. We can look to other systems of morality, like deontology, negative rights, or a handful of others. We can look to other ends we commonly care about, like etiquette, what society generally demands of us, the law, having true beliefs, or what would most satisfy our own desires.
We can even look to ends we commonly don’t care about, like what would maximize the amount of spaghetti in the universe, or what would maximize sadness impartially. These are standards that can also be used to measure things — there are facts about what is most likely to maximize the amount of spaghetti in the universe, even if we don’t care.
Thus, when saying people ought to do things, the statement is only sensical descriptively if a standard is used to measure things, and this standard could be pretty much anything coherent enough to come to the necessary conclusions. In his 1964 paper “How to Derive ‘Ought’ From ‘Is’” (JSTOR PDF), John Searle outlines this strategy as speaking within a normative institution, and others have used the phrase “normative frameworks”, “normative set of goals”, or “normative set of ends”.
Searle tried to say that if you made a promise to pay someone $5, you entered into an institution where you ought to pay that person $5. But what is really going on is that the ought is made within the institution of promise-keeping — you ought to pay that person $5 in order that you keep your promise. And even if you stopped caring about promise keeping, it still would be the case that you ought (in order that you keep your promise) pay the person $5, and it would be wrong (relative to a standard of promise keeping) not to.
A Taxonomy of Oughts
The “Is-Ought Gap” is not a gap once we define ought as a probabilistic relationship between something that is evaluated and a standard by which that thing is evaluated. Furthermore, things either measure up successfully to the standard or not as a matter of fact, independent of our actual whims on the issue. Likewise, the fact that our personal desires conflict (or at least appear to conflict) with the ends of morality, etiquette, the law, or heck — even spaghetti making — does not make those relationships false. It just makes them not pragmatically relevant to you.
I thus suggest the following terminology for ought statements:
- A true ought connects an end with the action that most effectively accomplishes that end.
- A false ought connects an end with the action that does not most effectively accomplishes that end.
- A motivating ought is either a true or false ought that has as an end the desires of the person in question. Some oughts will be motivating oughts for some person and not for others.
In the next essay, I will look to take a more specific look at all these standards — namely, the fact that there are standards and not just one standard. Is there one true standard by which we actually ought to do things?
Followed up in: Too Many Moralities
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