Monday, May 31, 2010

Three kinds of oughts

I've been putting this blog off for a long time because there was a fourth kind of ought I wanted to talk about, but I can't remember what it was.

Anyway, there are three kinds of oughts--the rational ought, the pragmatic ought, and the moral ought. And the reason I'm telling you about this is because in a lot of discussions (especially discussions over the grounding problem in morality), I see these different kinds of oughts conflated, which results of the participants talking past each other. I thought maybe if I could get the word out about these distinctions in "oughts" that maybe the conversation could move forward a bit.

The rational ought is like when you say, "You ought to believe that two and two make four." The rational ought comes from the fact that reality is a certain way and that sometimes given certain premises, the rational thing to do is believe a certain proposition that follows from the premises. A person who believes that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man ought also to believe that Socrates is mortal.

A pragmatic ought is like when you say, "You ought to change the oil in your car." You're not doing anything immoral by not changing the oil in your car, but it's still a good idea for practical reasons. The pragmatic ought comes from the fact that some things are in your best interest or they serve your purposes. You ought, in the pragmatic sense, to save money, eat well, stay in school, etc.

A moral ought is like when you say, "You ought to be faithful to you wife." The moral ought comes from the fact that we all have obligations or imperatives that are imposed on us. We ought, in the moral sense, to be kind, generous, fair, and honest.

All of these oughts can be expressed using other words, such as good, bad, should, shouldn't, right, and wrong. Here are some examples:

The rational ought

'B' is a good answer to the question.
You should believe the man is guilty because there's good evidence for it.
That answer is not right.

The pragmatic ought

Saving money for retirement is a good idea.
You should save money for retirement.
[Hmm, maybe "right" and "wrong" don't work well with the pragmatic ought.]

The moral ought

It is good to be honest.
You should be honest with people.
Being honest is the right thing to do.

It is easy to conflate the moral ought with the pragmatic ought because most of the time, the moral thing to do is the pragmatic thing to do. If we all lived morally, the world would be a happier place. We'd all be better off.

That isn't always the case, though. It might be a good idea in the pragmatic sense to kill somebody, because it would help everybody else ought by relieving them of a burden. But it could still be wrong. And it might be right to be honest with somebody even if there are disadvantages in doing so.

In debates about the grounding question of morality, I have often seen people explain the pragmatic ought thinking they have given grounds for the moral ought. In answer to the question, "Why be moral?" atheists will sometimes answer that acting in a way that people call "moral" is in our best interest. If we don't want people to steal from us, we ought not steal from them. But, of course, that doesn't mean it's morally wrong to steal from people; it just means stealing is a bad idea in the pragmatic sense. A person who attempts to ground morality in practical advantages isn't really grounding morality at all since they are only explaining pragmatic oughts, and not moral oughts.


At 6/09/2010 9:53 PM , Blogger Possibilities, Etc. said...

Having an intelligent son is difficult. I makes me think and gives me a headache. However, I'm told that this kind of thinking, trying to keep up, will keep my mind alive.

At 6/09/2010 9:54 PM , Blogger Possibilities, Etc. said...

P.S. Where I came from, sometimes "ought" meant the number zero.


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