From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism October 19, 2011

In a previous post, I laid out a number of reasons that people think values cannot be grounded in naturalistic ways or that if they were they would be values which would threaten vulnerable groups.

In this post, I want to address the charge of the naturalistic fallacy: i.e., the claim that you cannot derive any normative guidance, any “ought-statements”, any orders that “you must do that” or even merely that “you should do that” merely from the consideration of natural facts.

This charge can be put as a linguistic argument as Russell Turpin attempted in the comments section of my post on the reasons people give for denying ethical naturalism:

Allow me to expand and harden that gap. It’s not just that facts and values are different kinds of “things.” I’m not sure that either is a “thing,” and phrasing it this way makes this distinction sound like a claim about the universe. As if we maybe could stumble across a value, perhaps hiding out in the unresolved tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics. Or out past the orbit of Jupiter. But just so far have not.

Rather, that distinction is a fact about language, about the meaning of “is” and “ought.” Language that is purely descriptive doesn’t hold any normative content. (Even when it is about normative content! E.g., “many moral codes include some reciprocity rule” is not a normative claim.) If you start from language that is descriptive, and end up with a normative claim, it is because you have added some normative claims along the way.

This observation doesn’t say anything about where values originate. So no normative theory is implied by the is-ought gap. Only an account of language. As you pursue your project, look to where you first start embedding normative claims. It shouldn’t be hard, for a credentialed philosopher, to identify how they don’t strictly follow from any descriptive claims prior.

Here’s how I answer such objections.

First, let me specify that there are only two connotations of the word value that I am going to refer to in what follows.

One is the verb “to value”, by which I mean an agent’s subjective behaviors or consciousness whereby she implicitly and/or explicitly desires something, prioritizes it, feels strong favorable feelings towards it, and/or promotes its flourishing, etc.

The objective sense of the word value is its sense of “valuable for“. In this way value means the indisputably factual word “effective”. When describing objective value facts, we are simply describing facts about effectiveness. “Head cold medicine is valuable” is a true statement if head cold medicine is effective at some specifiable objectives (say, clearing up cold symptoms or helping one sleep). Everything is effective at some things so everything has some value, even if the vast majority of things’ values are of total indifference to our human concerns. Our subjective valuing, our taking to be important does not give most things their values in the objective sense.

The only ways that our subjectively valuing—our preferring, desiring, wanting, prioritizing, promoting—creates objective value is that it makes some things become effective at satisfying our wishes. For example, independent of my desires, spinach is effective at being spinach and at making iron and increasing the iron in those who eat it. Those are objective values, objective kinds of effectiveness, that spinach has. And then when I also subjectively desire spinach, now spinach gains an extra effectiveness—it becomes effective at satiating my desire for it. When I love its taste (and I sure do!) it has become effective at creating pleasure sensations in me. So, these are ways that things gain kinds of effectiveness, i.e., kinds of value, even just from being liked.

Things may similarly gain objective value as irritants from the ways that they are subjectively valued. If I experienced grapefruit juice as gross (which I sure do!) then it would be effective at causing repulsion and therefore valuable for that end. (Since I would not be interested in being repulsed, I would not subjectively value it on that account, but I would recognize its objective value for grossing me out should I ever be in need of something to do the trick!)

So, when I say that values are objective, I mean value statements that can be cashed out purely in factual “effectiveness for” statements.

But where would norms come in at this point? How could norms be determined by facts? Of course the facts that any given person or people have adopted any given norms does not make them actually binding.

First, let me differ with Russell that there is an unbridgeable chasm between descriptive and normative statements. Normative statements which are true can all be rephrased as what are called “hypothetical imperatives”, which are, in effect, descriptive statements.

So, for example, here is a hypothetical imperative. “If you want to make an omelet, then you must scramble deshelled eggs and mix into the eggs at least one other food and heat it all together until the egg yolks and whites have turned firm.” This hypothetical imperative translates straight into facts. The definition of an omelet is cooked scrambled eggs with at least one other food mixed into the eggs. That is a fact. Effectively when there are cooked scrambled eggs with another food mixed in you have an omelet.

But more importantly there is a description of a value relationship. In order to have cooked eggs with another food mixed in, you must effectively scramble egg yolks and whites and mix another food in while you heat all of this together. That is how to effectively make an omelet. And it is a set of factual relationships being described. There is no sneaking in any “ought” judgments. The definition of an omelet is not even an “ought” judgment. There exists a kind of possible factual reality—cooked scrambled egg yolks and whites with other substances edible to humans mixed in. By convention we are just calling that “omelet”. The effective way to bring about “omelet” in the world is a fact.

The move to a normative statement, that you should scramble eggs, mix in another edible substance (a “food”) is a matter of norms of rational behavior. It is axiomatic that if I intend to create an x, and if I must do y to create an x, then it is irrational not to do y. So, if I intend to make an omelet, and if it is true that making an omelet involves cooking scrambled egg yolks and whites and while mixing in another food, then I must (on pain of irrationality) cook scrambled egg yolks and whites while mixing in another food.

Now, where would objective values come in for us? How can they guide our lives beyond just showing us what we ought to do if we want to make omelets? How can they create moral oughts for us? How can they, for example, tell us which ends which we should set for ourselves in the first place, i.e., what we ought to be concerned with? Sure, the hypothetical imperative for those looking to make omelets can be recast in descriptive terms, but can a statement like “You ought to make an omelet” be factually grounded? Or, since this is about morality, can “You ought not murder” be factually grounded?

Yes, it can. To give an account of how, we must first specify what human natures, in the loose sense of the phrase, are and what effectively humans (and our subcomponents) must do in order to fulfill our natures. Then we must show the connection between practical rationality and our objective value conditions. So, let me do both of those things now.

So to be objectively valuable means to be in an effectiveness relationship. This means either that what is objectively valuable is effective at bringing about another thing, or state of affairs, outside of itself or that what is objectively valuable is effective at bringing itself about. In other words, effectiveness can be both in creating or changing things outside an effective being or the activities by which the effective being maintains its own existence or grows its existence.

What is most objectively valuable to any given thing, as the kind of being it is, is what is most objectively effective at making it realize its own effectiveness as the kind of being it is. So, to go back to our simple, non-controversial example, what is valuable (i.e., factually effective) for omelets, as omelets, is the effective combination of cooked scrambled egg yolks and whites and other foods because that is what effectively makes omelets come into being at all.

What is most objectively valuable to humans are the physical and mental processes by which we are constituted. We exist only through the myriad biological and psychological processes that make up our bodies and our minds. We can only be rational agents, for example, through the effective operations of various regions of our brains, which in turn are dependent on countless effective organic processes throughout our bodies.

If we are to be at all, we must exist through the functionalities through which we exist. If we are to increase our being, we must increase the functional power of those constitutive parts of our bodies and minds through which we exist. These are facts about how we effectively can be what we are. And effectively being what we are is the same thing as being “objectively valuable” for us.

Now the move from objective values to norms comes in on the level of psychology. It is objectively valuable, in neutral descriptive terms of our natures as specific humans, that we flourish according to our unique capacities through which we have our being and can maximize our being. But how do we turn these reflections on what is objectively valuable (objectively effective at bringing us most powerfully into being) into normative oughts.

The implicit ought premise that Russell keeps asking me to make explicit is not a specifically moral one or one that reflects any idiosyncratic feelings of my own. It is simply this: it is a practical contradiction for a being to reduce or destroy its own net functional effectiveness. It is simply illogical. If any of our actions are to make sense and if any of our actions are to be rational, we must determine their sensibleness and their rationality via standards of logical consistency and avoidance of contradiction. If what the opponents of all normative objectivity mean is that they are against even logic itself, then they are against reason itself and might as well also start tearing down whatever allegiances they have to science and math if they are going to trash morality as lacking objectivity.

Since most beings are non-mental beings this is irrelevant to anything they will ever do. But for us rational beings, it is irrational to reduce or destroy our own net functional effectiveness in the world. From our perspectives as beings who inescapably are afflicted with and responsive to desires in order ever to act, it is the precondition of fulfilling any desire whatsoever that we exist. And we only exist through our functional powers or through their functional effects and so these are the fundamental goods which should determine what we ought to do and be. It is only rationally consistent to treat the functional powers, and their effects, through which we exist as objectively effective for us in the highest degree (i.e., as maximally valuable and worth subjectively valuing the most).

Even when we benefit others at the expense of some of our pleasures or desires, we should be sure to compensate on net by gaining in functional power through the benefits we are responsible for in those we have aided. In other words, the reason it is good for me to do for you is that I effectively function well as one who enhances things for you and, so, help realize some of my characteristic effective functionalities through which I realize and maximize my own being.

With the one principle of practical reasoning assumed, we can set about looking at how all the facts of the world which relate to our own objective value/effectiveness relationships and figure out how objectively to relate to them such as to maximize our own ultimate net effectiveness. Of course we must do many careful (frequently imprecise) estimations of which effectiveness according to which functional power is of greater ultimate effectiveness to our full realization of our total power than which other functional power which competes with it for our energies. While effectiveness relationships are always matters of fact, they do not always admit of exact scientific measurement, by any means. We must employ a good deal of philosophical judgment in assessing relative effectiveness. But it objectively exists and is what “objective value” should be understood to mean.

Having explained how values can be found in nature (as facts about effectiveness), I can turn soon to answering the rest of the objections to naturalism and then I can explain how the goodness of homosexuality can be assessed naturalistically. Since I wrote this piece, Russell has challenged my notion of a practical contradiction in an interesting way which will merit its own post, probably to be posted next week.

I have written a few posts already fleshing out answers to various common objections to these positions (including the charge that it is impossible to rank competing functions to see which is a better and which is a worse one to fulfill and also the charge that this account might wrongly sanction bad things, like murdering, since they too are forms of effectiveness).

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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