My View of Oughts


[This is an old post of mine--25 November 1995--that sketches my view of the least indefensible approach to justifying normative propositions. There was a later thread on the topic in (I think) h.p.o., where I explained my views in more detail, but I have not succeeded in locating any archive of it.]


In article <4953rh$>, (Tom Radcliffe) wrote:


> But if we are to choose ethical theories

> on the basis of our moral intution it is not clear why we need theories

> at all: we can just consult our intution. And the response of our

> intution will not tell us anything about morality in the Objectivist

> sense; it won't give us a justifiable result in terms of life as the

> standard of value and happieness as its goal. It will merely tell us

> how we feel. It is, in fact, the last word in subjectivism, and it should

> be eshewed whenever possible. There is no reason to adopt, in matters

> of morality, a standard of choice that we know would lead to

> disasterous results in all other areas of human inquiry.


Let me suggest an analogy that I find informative. Think of moral intuitions as playing the same role in our knowledge of normative propositions that sense data play in our knowledge of positive propositions.

The way we choose scientific theories is precisely by taking our sense data as input and trying to make sense of what they tell us. And it would seem very odd to argue that "it is not clear why we need theories at all: we can just consult our sense data" for understanding the world. For one thing, having formed theories, we sometimes use them to conclude that we ought not to believe particular sense data.

This approach does not seem very attractive if you believe, as Objectivists apparently do, that it is possible to derive normative conclusions from positive facts without adding much more than obvious axioms. After all, we have already made sense (more or less) out of the physical world--and, in the Objectivist account, our moral intuitions are (I think) already explained. But for those of us who find the Objectivist derivation of ethics unconvincing, it does provide an interesting approach to moral philosophy. It is "objectivist" in the sense of supposing that there really is a set of "normative facts" out there to make sense of, but not in the sense of supposing that they can be derived from the set of "positive facts" that are also out there. The epistemological status of moral philosophy is then the same as the epistemological of our knowledge of the physical world--not because one is derived from the other but because both are derived in the same way.

For me, at least, the crucial step to making this account plausible was realizing how shaky the basis is on which we accept our senses' account of the physical world (to the extent that we do). While the grounds for belief in physical objective reality--more precisely, in an objective reality reasonably close to what our senses report--are not as strong as they might at first seem, they are, in my view strong enough. The grounds for belief in a normative objective reality are not, in my view, enormously weaker.

[This is from a second post, 2/25/98, that expands on the same argument.]

 In article <>, Jaffo <> wrote:

>Churl Beck said:

>:Why do you keep talking about morality as if it was perceived through a sixth



>Because I can't think of a better analogy.

Very good. Neither can I. But you are now abandoning the "my morality is rational because it works for me" variant of rational egoism, and I am not sure you are replacing it with the individualist alternative you suggested earlier.

If you take the sixth sense analogy seriously, the next step is to ask why you believe the other five senses. The answer is not "because I understand how they work." To begin with, you probably don't, and even if you do, Aristotle certainly didn't--and none of us are willing to argue that he ought to have denied the evidence of the senses.

You believe your five senses because you have imposed on them all the consistency tests you can think of, and they have mostly passed. You see something, your eyes tell you an object is there, you reach out and sure enough you can touch it. The thing is a bell. Last time you tried hitting a bell your ears told you there was a sound; you try it again and it still works.

Occasionally there is an apparent contradiction--you can't touch a holographic image, and when you hit a holographic image of a bell it doesn't make a noise. But as you get farther and farther into the structure of the physical world revealed by your senses more and more of those contradictions turn out to make sense after all.

A second set of tests occurs to you. Your senses tell you that other people are very much like you. If so, they should perceive the same physical universe. You ask them, and sure enough they almost always do--again with very rare exceptions such as color blindness, exceptions that turn out, on further examination, to make sense.

Note, however, that what you are finding to be consistent is observation of very primitive facts--there is a table there, there is not a lion sitting on the table. About the patterns implied by those facts--for example, whether capitalism or socialism results in higher standards of living, or whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun around the earth, or whether paying enough money to the Church of Scientology will turn you into a superman--there is lots of disagreement. You conclude that your senses give you a reasonably accurate picture of the base facts of physical reality, consistent with that of almost everyone else, but that reasoning up from there is sufficiently hard, and/or depends sufficiently on the particular subset of facts observed, so that people disagree a good deal--and your confidence about your beliefs on that level should be appropriately weaker. You accordingly conclude that the physical universe is really out there, and the parts you have observed really have about the characteristics you observe. If someone tells you that there is a lion on the table you conclude he is a lunatic. If he is very convincing, you ask a few other people first and then conclude he is a lunatic.

Now apply the same approach to moral reality. Replace sense perceptions with moral judgements--not grand theories such as "you should never violate rights" but "perceptions" such as "in the following well described situation, person X acted wrongly." Checking with other people you find, pace the ethical relativists, a very high degree of agreement. The disagreement either involves the sort of situation that, on consideration, you find morally difficult or (far more often) disagreement about the assumed facts, not the judgements.

Some people will find this claim implausible. I offer as one of my reasons for it the following observation:

I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee to be was being lazy and living on what he could gather--so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction--and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts.

My (very tentative) conclusion is that the normative universe, like the physical universe, exists. Certain ought statements are true, certain ought statements are false. Torturing small children for the fun of it really is wicked. I cannot go behind that and explain "ought" as derived from "is"--or "is" from "ought." Both are undefined terms, which I am confident that normal human beings understand. I can observe "normative facts" and try to form theories about them, just as I can observe physical facts and try to form theories about them. But I should not be surprised if other people form other theories in both cases.

David Friedman
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