Oughts and morality

Oughts and morality February 16, 2016

In this old video I set out that intrinsic moral duties are incoherent. That is to say oughts are dependent on conditional statements. If I want my car to run well, then I ought to change the oil. But is that universally the case?

Without succeeding in satisfying the conditional statement, an ought is devoid of any real sense of duty. One is left with an empty why question.


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  • Cool shirt bro

  • Ah, Buffalo Tom!

    Thanks dude. Make sense to me!

  • Jack_Ma

    I think
    you agree that “being good” has no meaning except for a purpose.  Good for God, good for society’s smooth
    running, good for your family, good for your boss, and so on.  Is that correct?

    I also
    think you agree that the universe has no intrinsic purpose, and so no such
    thing as intrinsic good.  Yes?

    My own view is that in our
    subjective experience, from moment to moment, we each of us calculate for whom
    or for what it’s best for us to be good, and then we try our best to be
    good for that person or goal.  But what
    never changes is that all such calculations are made because we are good for ourselves
    in the sense that we are always seeking what we subjectively calculate as best
    for us.

    Here’s what
    I see as the silver lining to a universe with no intrinsic meaning or
    purpose.  We are perforce, our own
    instrumental purpose.  We are each of us
    inescapably as good for ourselves as we are able to be in any given moment, given
    our limitations in that moment.   It
    seems to me that happiness is simply the knowledge of that fact, and that
    unhappiness is some variation of a belief that we are somehow bad for ourselves.


    a joyful nihilist

    • Really interesting. The key to your theory here (and I agree with you – my theory of morality is always evolving, and I am not afraid to say so) seems to be this tiny phrase:

      “We are each of us inescapably as good for ourselves as we are able to be in any given moment, given our limitations in that moment.

      There are notions of determinism here (if so, I agree) and the idea that we are good in light of our calculations, and being good to someone else is partly determined by our innate ability to empathise. Such is the empathic inability of sociopaths and psychopaths, and some people with more extreme autistic tendencies, that empathy is hard to come by, and moral calculations are innately and intuitively difficult to the point of having to be cognitively learnt or not employed at all.

      There are many things which limit our consequentialist calculations, not least an inability to easily calculate resulting happiness on a potentially large number of people.

      And so we give ourselves rough rules of thumb (Rule Utilitarianism). I don’t know whether to call myself a moral nihilist of a moral universal subjectivist.

      It all depends how you define ‘objective’ in objective morality. Personally, given sound minds and good education and use of reasoning, we would all arrive at the same moral conclusions. This means that, though these calculations are individually conceptualised, and don’t exist in a Platonic realm, they are potentially universal to every mind. ie if we WERE all sound of mind and rational, we would ALL find action X good (or bad). Does this make it objective? Perhaps. I am happy with universally subjective as a term. But perhaps, again, since these calculations only exist in the individual conceivers’ minds, and have no objective ontology, I am a moral nihilist. What say you?

  • Jack_Ma

    You’re right, my perspective is fully deterministic.  What’s more, I more or less equate the notion of free will with the power to fail to be as good for oneself as is possible given one’s limitations in any given moment.  Another way to put it is that we are not free to do anything except that which we most want to do.  Put this way, it’s remarkable that anyone would want such freedom.

    Regarding our actions towards others, this plays out such that one can only be as good for another as one calculates it is best for one to be, by whatever values one holds, even values one may not be consciously aware of holding.  That calculation does not exclude altruistic considerations, by the way, should one value altruistic as a good way for one to be.

    I agree that one gives oneself rough rules only AFTER calculating it is good for one to have rough rules.  But you can see it makes no sense, can’t you, to blame oneself for breaking one’s own rule?  All that’s really happened is that one has made a new rule or new exception to the rule.  These rules have no life of their own.As to the evolutionary roots and broad common ground of human core morality, I highly recommend, if you haven’t already read them, Pat Churchland’s “Braintrust” and Alex Rosenburg’s “Athiest’s Guide to Reality”  

    • Thanks ever so much for that interesting comment. I concur pretty much on everything you said!

  • I have been eyeballing “Braintrust” at Barnes and Noble, so I guess I will have to get that.

  • labreuer

    One idea I’ve been playing with is:

         (1) evil eventually comes to an end
         (2) good continues forever

    Regardless of whether this is true, this is clearly a theme in the OT, and maybe less so in the NT. (I haven’t studied (1-2) specifically, so take my recollection with a grain of salt.) The interesting bit to me about (1-2) is that they get at the idea of survival. There’s both the sense of a Darwinian (Malthusian?) struggle for survival, but I’m also thinking of casua sui-type ‘survival’ in The Denial of Death, leaving legacies, etc. There seems to be some sense in which we at least want our ideas to be ‘good enough’ to last for a long time.

    There is a common trope in fiction that evil people, in trying to hold onto power, end up destroying themselves, or at least being so self-involved in maintaining their power that that is what they become all about. Power for the sake of power. Such people—at least in fiction and so far in life—always end up coming to an end, and usually an inglorious one at that.

    There is a sense in which the following words of Jesus could plausibly come true:

    Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

    If you go through life being all about yourself, merely using other people for your own ends (and doing it as surreptitiously as you can to avoid being caught/disliked), when you die, what you’re about largely dies too. Money tends not to keep a memory of where it came from. :-)

    If you go through life pouring yourself into other people such that you enhance them and help them achieve their own purposes (vs. your own), you ‘imprint’ on them. Part of what you are gets transferred to them and, hopefully, they pass that onto other people by treating others like you treated them. In this way, bits of you actually continue to live on, kind of like memes. The more a bit of you was good, the more likely it is to survive—at least through other people who value what is good.

    In a sense, it might be possible to reconstruct the bits of a person who survive through the influence they’ve had on people throughout time. Maybe I’m going full-on Caprica in suggesting this possibility (a virtual reality exists, and crawling all digital evidences of a person is used to construct digital versions of people).

    If we merely define ‘the good’ as ‘that which survives forever’, then we can start asking what survives forever. We’re used to the idea that things will end in heat death or a big crunch, but those events are so far away that it is easy for me to imagine that humans will be able to figure out some way to futz with physical reality that will help us avoid these ends.

    Anyhow, I should probably stop here before my thoughts start getting crazier. Maybe someone will do something fun with the above.

    • Even given the concepts of good and evil as coherent, there is no evidence that one continues and another eventually comes to an end. In experience, evil either through natural evil or in humanity, has not come to an end. It prevails with as much persistence as good.

      • labreuer

        Very true. We humans have to approximate. And hope, acting in that hope.