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Two kinds of "Ought"

Submitted by Ken Watts on Thu, 03/22/2007 - 18:18

I've been mulling over a story that appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago, titled "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior". The article begins by describing a couple of "moral" behaviors on the part of chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. In particular:

Given the chance to pull a food chain that would also deliver a shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

The article goes on to describe the work of Dr. Frans de Waal, who has argued that some primates exhibit the fundamental kinds of behavior—empathy, the ability to learn and follow rules, reciprocity, and peacemaking—which morality is based upon, and that this is a natural outcome of their , and our, evolution as social species.

There have been other, insightful, posts on this article, particularly one by Jason Rosenhouse.

My eye was caught by a quote from Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University, toward the end of the article:

You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it.

The examples in the article, and her raising of the "how do you get from is to ought" question, gave me some thoughts of my own about the nature of morality, and why it so often might seem confusing.

The first thought is that the word "ought" admits of more than one meaning.

Sometimes it has a legal meaning, as in "you ought to put all of your liquids in a plastic bag, and remove it from your suitcase, when going through airport security. The word "ought" in this case simply means there's a rule, made by some authority, that requires me to act in a certain way.

This legal ought reflects someone else's agenda for my behavior. The usual assumption that goes with it is that it is not behavior that I would naturally exhibit, if I simply pursued my own goals. I have, for example, never had a particularly compelling desire to remove all of the liquids from my suitcase while in an airport.

But sometimes "ought" has a practical meaning, as in "you really ought to apply for that job", In this case, there is usually an unspoken goal involved, such as advancing one's career.

This pragmatic ought reflects a piece of advice—given to myself or another—about the best means to achieve my own agendas. The usual assumption that goes with it is that I am already inclined in that direction—I just need to sort out the best way to get there.

Sometimes—not always—both of these are active simultaneously, as when someone takes the plastic bag out of their suitcase because it's the rule, but also because they want to avoid any hassling from getting caught.

It's interesting to me that the second, practical, sense is usually the active one when empathy is involved. If I empathize with my wife, and her love of flowers, I might think, "I ought to buy her a dozen roses," and that will meet my goal of giving her pleasure. If I empathize with a stranger trying to push a stalled car out of an intersection, I might think, "I ought to pull over and help him," and that will meet my goal of alleviating his distress.

These two kinds of oughts lead to two visions of morality. I've written on two kinds of morality recently, but I'm not sure whether this is the same distinction.

On the one hand, people often think of morality as a legal matter. According to this view there are moral laws, which must be obeyed because they are made by some authority.

Depending on who the person is who holds this view, the authority may be God, the culture as a whole, some abstract principle such as "that which causes humanity to flourish", or some combination of these. Often, but not always, this view thinks of moral rules as "objective" in some sense.

The usual assumption that goes with this view is that people are more or less naturally immoral—that moral behavior is not the behavior that they would most naturally exhibit if they pursued their own goals.

On the other hand, people can think of morality as a practical matter. According to this view morality would consist of finding the best means to live out the values of empathy, reciprocity, peacemaking, etc. which we all already possess.

The assumption that goes with this view is that people are more or less naturally moral—that the main impediments to moral behavior is ignorance of the best ways to sort out and implement their natural values.

These two approaches to morality, and consequently to moral training, have coexisted throughout history.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition—which I was raised in—they are represented in the Hebrew scriptures by the Law ("Thou shalt not kill."), on one hand, and the wisdom literature of Proverbs ("Drink and greed will end in poverty.") on the other. The early Christian church turned heavily away from the Law and embraced the wisdom tradition. The medieval church swung heavily back toward the legal model.

My own view is that the "is to ought" problem is primarily a function of the legal model. If we think of a statement like "One ought to tell the truth." as a rule to be followed, whether it fits our natural inclinations or not, because it has objective authority (either in and of itself, or because God has commanded it, or...) there is really no way to demonstrate its validity. On the other hand, we have the problem of explaining how and why there are exceptions to the rule (like lying to the Nazis at the door). Breaking the law is still breaking the law.

People brought up with the legal view tend to doubt their own moral instincts, and can be easily manipulated by false "authorities". They have a tendency to lie to themselves about their own motives—because it's a given of this view that those motives are suspect.

But if we think of it as a strategy for living well, for meeting our desires for a good life, healthy human relationships, and our empathic needs to be fair and kind to others, we move easily from "is to ought", and, as a bonus, the "exceptions" take care of themselves.

People brought up with the wisdom view tend to trust their own moral instincts, and cannot be easily manipulated by false "authorities". They have a tendency to accept, and nurture their own motives—with the result that those motives become more mature, and they have a more nuanced, flexible moral sensibility.

At least, that's what I think today.