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Thread: The is/ought issue.

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    The is/ought issue.

    One of the objections often raised in these forums is that one cannot derive a moral 'ought' from an 'is'. Technically that is false, because once the meaning of the words is considered, from 'It would be immoral for agent A to do X' it follows that 'Agent A ought not to do X'. But the objection remains about deriving moral conclusions from non-moral premises, i.e., deriving conclusions containing moral terms from those that do not, where 'moral terms' is defined ostensively: 'morally permissible', 'unethical', 'immoral', 'morally wrong', 'morally praiseworthy', etc., are moral terms, whereas 'cat', 'mouse', 'planet', 'car', 'table', etc., are not.

    Is this true?
    Well, sort of. We can derive anything (including moral conclusions) from a contradiction, even if the contradiction is stated without using any kind of moral term. But leaving that case aside (and perhaps other anomalous cases, like deriving a tautology involving moral terms, etc. ), it seems to me that in the sense of a deduction, one should not be able to do that. But what about probabilistic assessments? Now it might be said that we still need conditional probabilities described using moral terms or something like that. But if this is so, then it would still not be in a way that is vulnerable to the 'is-ought' objection, as usually put.

    So, to make my case, consider first not moral assessments, but color assessments. For example, how do I assess that a ball is red? One way of doing so would be to look at the apple. It looks red to me. Under ordinary light conditions. And I know from experience that our color vision is pretty ordinary for a human. Then I am justified in assessing that the apple is red, barring counterevidence. I would say that I would be assigning a very very high probability to the hypothesis that the ball in question is red. We do this intuitively, and without using numbers.

    Now suppose I do not see the ball. However, I observe that many humans who look at the ball tell me it's red. Assuming I can tell that they are being sincere (how I do that is not the issue), I also have justification to reckon that the ball is red, again with very, very high probability. Now suppose no humans look at the ball, but there is a robot with cameras for eyes and whose color vision is calibrated using the color vision of ordinary humans. The robot has been tested in thousands of experiments, and under ordinary conditions, it makes the color assessments humans ordinarily do. If I get conclusive information that the robot says the ball is red (again, ordinary light conditions), then I can use that to reckon that the ball is red.

    More to the point: if I know (I have sufficient information) that a human with ordinary color vision would reckon that the ball is red, that is very good evidence that the ball is red. And if I reckon then that the ball is red, is there a fallacy involved?

    Maybe intuitively I am making probabilistic assessment that P(A is red| ordinary human color vision detects it as red under normal light conditions) is extremely high. Or something like P(Q|ordinary human faculties say it's Q under normal circumstances) is also high, plus the assessment that color vision is an ordinary human faculty.

    At any rate, maybe there is a logical error somewhere, but if there is, it is pervasive. It's pretty much everywhere except perhaps for immediate assessments like the example in which we directly look at the ball. But maybe the problem - if there is one - happens when I try to use language, and also when I factor in the information that my color vision is ordinary. Then again, maybe I'm making intuitive probabilistic assessments with the conditional probabilities already intuitively fixed, and there is no fallacy.

    At any rate, if at some point in my probabilistic assessments, I made a logical error and as a result the assessment in question is not justified, then as they say here 'Estamos en el horno', literally 'We are in the oven', or in other words, we're screwed, because if even that sort of normal assessment fails and is not justified, very few things (if any) are.

    Perhaps, there is a logical error, but it is justified to make it? Given that - again, I know it because it's intuitively obvious!!!, and I have no good reason to doubt my intuitions on the matter -, I am justified in assessing that the ball is red, i.e., very probably red (in all of the scenarios above), then it seems to me that if there is a logical error, then there are logical errors we are regularly justified to make and this is one of them...


    Let us move to the moral case: Suppose that all people die due to a rogue biological weapon, except for Joe, who decides to pour gasoline on a cat and set her on fire, so that he has fun watching a fireball run. In fact, he does that every day, as there are plenty of cats around, and he can capture them with different traps and tactics. He is determined to do this, and has human intelligence and the tools left by the rest of humanity at his disposal, so the cats do not have a chance. Then Joe behaves unethically. How do I know? As in the color case, I use my own faculties, in this case my moral sense, instead of my color vision. So far, it seems similar.

    But can I also use the faculties of others? I do not see why not. The information that the human ordinary moral sense reckons a behavior immoral seems to provide good evidence that it is immoral. Any potential fallacy here was also there in the color case.

    My point is that from the perspective of logic, the moral case and the color case appear similar. But it's not only the moral and the color case. It's everywhere, as we rely on human faculties (we have no others) all the time. And in science too, of course. Suppose I read statements by many scientists (e.g., in textbooks) saying that water is composed of H2O. I reckon this is the case, on the basis of that evidence. But then I am of course relying on my own faculties (I can't not do that), and also using the information the reliability of science, etc.

    Someone might say that science is more reliable in than human faculties (to which I would reply that that depends on the faculty, but that's a matter for another debate), but at any rate, a key point is that making an assessment that something is blue or morally wrong using as evidence that ordinary human faculties say it is relevantly similar from making an assessment that water is composed of H2O using as evidence that scientists say it is, and the relevant part is that one of them always involves the fallacy moral assessment and/or statements are usually charged with if and only if all of them do.

    In particular, just as it does not logically follow from the fact that the ordinary human moral sense says a behavior is morally wrong that it actually is, it also does not logically follow from the fact that scientists say that water is composed of H2O that it actually is so (and the same for color).
    Last edited by Angra Mainyu; 09-06-2020 at 02:46 PM.

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    Can you make the same argument using other assessments such as gustatory and aesthetic judgements?

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    Veteran Member Wiploc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Angra Mainyu View Post
    One of the objections often raised in these forums is that one cannot derive a moral 'ought' from an 'is'.
    Right.




    Technically that is false, because once the meaning of the words is considered, from 'It would be immoral for agent A to do X' it follows that 'Agent A ought not to do X'.
    You've got the word "immoral" in there, so you are already dealing with oughts rather than is's.

    At least that's how I define morality: Something like, "Morality is what one ought to do." So the move from X is immoral to one ought-not do X is not a deduction but a mere rephrasing.




    But the objection remains about deriving moral conclusions from non-moral premises,
    Yes.




    More to the point: if I know (I have sufficient information) that a human with ordinary color vision would reckon that the ball is red, that is very good evidence that the ball is red. And if I reckon then that the ball is red, is there a fallacy involved?
    An apt analogy even if I don't agree with your conclusion.

    People argue that the ball isn't really red. Their point is that redness exists in the mind rather than in the ball. But the ball has some physical characteristic that is associated with redness-in-the-mind. And balls with that characteristic have historically been called "red." Now that we know the balls aren't "really" red, that usage remains a convenient shorthand.

    If pressed, we can defend, "The ball is red," by claiming it is a figure of speech, metonymy.

    -

    Rape is wrong because it has a strong tendency to decrease the world's happiness.

    I see this with my own eyes, so to speak. I believe it with the same confidence that I believe yonder ball is red.

    And I have to rely on my own eyes. You may be willing to agree on a scientific consensus about the color of the ball, but I am not willing to rely on a moral consensus about the morality of rape. Wasn't there a recent moral consensus that premarital sex was immoral? And that not being religious was immoral?

    Relying on a consensus of moralists to judge that rape is wrong would be like relying on a consensus of astrologers to judge whether a Taurus is headstrong. Not useful.

    -

    Rape is wrong because it decreases happiness. That's what's wrong with rape. Decreasing happiness is bad. One ought not decrease happiness.

    That's my starting place. That's my definition of "immoral," of what one ought not do.

    -

    The is claim is that rape has a strong tendency to decrease happiness.

    The ought claim is something I bring with me: One ought not to decrease happiness.

    Any moral realist will bring some such ought with her. If she's talking about morality at all, she's already talking about what one ought--for some reason--to do.

    -

    Therefore, we don't have to get from is to ought. Which is handy, because we can't.

    We don't need to get from is to ought because to talk about morality is to already talk about what we ought to do. Moral realists don't start at is, so we don't have to worry about getting to ought.

    Rest assured, there are plenty of moral questions left to dispute.

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    Quote Originally Posted by The AntiChris View Post
    Can you make the same argument using other assessments such as gustatory and aesthetic judgements?
    As a comparison with morality?

    Yes, I could, but it would be considerably less effective in a 'partners in innocence' type of argument, for several reasons, for example some differences in which our intuitions usually tell us, or the dependence on the speaker, etc. But I think one of the main difficulties is the 'So what?' objection: people might reply that yes, using evidence from our faculties (my own or that of humans in general) in order to support such assessments also involves a fallacy and because of that they are not warranted, and so on. Color and science are examples meant to make that sort of reply much less likely.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc

    You've got the word "immoral" in there, so you are already dealing with oughts rather than is's.
    The point is that the statement does not contain an 'ought', but 'is immoral', which is an 'is'.


    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc
    So the move from X is immoral to one ought-not do X is not a deduction but a mere rephrasing.
    Exactly (or very close; there are subleties that might be raised, but generally yes), which is why an 'ought' and an 'is' may imply each other, which is why one can derive an 'ought' from an 'is', which is why I point out that the question is not ought/is but rather statements containing moral terms/statements not containing moral terms, regadless of whether those statements contain 'oughts' (and by the way, there are also nonmoral 'oughts').



    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc
    People argue that the ball isn't really red. Their point is that redness exists in the mind rather than in the ball. But the ball has some physical characteristic that is associated with redness-in-the-mind. And balls with that characteristic have historically been called "red." Now that we know the balls aren't "really" red, that usage remains a convenient shorthand.
    I disagree that the balls are not red. But leave that aside: would it involve a fallacy to argue that they are red in the manner I did?


    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc
    Rape is wrong because it decreases happiness.
    I disagree.


    Quote Originally Posted by Wiploc
    That's my starting place. That's my definition of "immoral," of what one ought not do.
    Words have meanings that are given by usage in a linguistic community. The meaning of 'immoral' is not 'that which decreases happiness'.

    But also, suppose others - like me - disagree with your definition. How would you go about figuring out that evidence or arguments to support it?

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    Super Moderator ruby sparks's Avatar
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    I see two issues with this thread.

    First, the comparison with colour (and indeed water) are problematical because there are, it seems, independent, objective facts about both. This may not be the case with morality and I would claim that it is not the case.

    Second, there seems to be an underlying assumption that morality is logical, or amenable to it. Logic can be useful in almost every sphere of inquiry, but arguments about morality are not in the end about or resolved by logic. The variegated psychologies, emotions and values of capricious humans are involved for starters. As such, I wonder if Angra's theories are not just convoluted attempts to try to fit a very complicatedly-shaped peg into a neat round hole.
    "Let us hope that it is not so. Or if it is, let us pray that the fact does not become generally known."

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    Super Moderator ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Angra Mainyu View Post
    Someone might say that science is more reliable in than human faculties (to which I would reply that that depends on the faculty, but that's a matter for another debate)....
    It's not really a matter for another debate. Science is generally more reliable than human faculties and intuitions and that is exactly why the scientific method has been so incredibly productive. This is not quite so true of the soft sciences, obviously.

    The nearest science to the study of morality is, I would say, psychology. Good luck trying to pin down or sort out human psychology with logic.
    "Let us hope that it is not so. Or if it is, let us pray that the fact does not become generally known."

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    Quote Originally Posted by ruby spark
    First, the comparison with colour (and indeed water) are problematical because there are, it seems, independent, objective facts about both. This may not be the case with morality and I would claim that it is not the case.
    Whatever you mean by 'independent', that the point of the comparison is to show that there is no fallacy or else the fallacy is also in color assessment, scientific assessments, and pretty much everywhere. Those who raise the is/ought objection in the moral case face the same objection in the color case, or others. You might say that in the case of color there are "independent, objective facts" (whatever the former means), but then for that matter, someone else could just deny that (Wiploc did above).

    Regardless of who denies what (that is not relevant here), the point is that in re: fallacy, the situation is the same. One is making color assessments using the human visual system (one's own, or that of other humans) and the same for moral assessments and the human moral faculty. For example, one repeated objection is that even if the human moral sense says torturing cats for fun is immoral, that does not imply it is so. But the reply here is that if that is the case, even if the human visual system says that some object is red (or light with certain frequency properties), that does not imply that it is so.

    In other words, no matter how you make the is/ought objection, one can mirror it for the color case, or the illness case, or the science case, and so on.



    Quote Originally Posted by ruby spark
    Second, there seems to be an underlying assumption that morality is logical, or amenable to it. Logic can be useful in almost every sphere of inquiry, but arguments about morality are not in the end about or resolved by logic. The variegated psychologies, emotions and values of capricious humans are involved for starters. As such, I wonder if Angra's theories are not just convoluted attempts to try to fit a very complicatedly-shaped peg into a neat round hole.
    Well, of course I can properly use logic in my arguments against the is/ought objection! Illogical arguments would be, well, bad.

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    Super Moderator ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Angra Mainyu View Post
    Well, of course I can properly use logic in my arguments against the is/ought objection! Illogical arguments would be, well, bad.
    Sure, but what I said was that you will not in the end sort out such things using it. You might find a fallacy here or a proof there, but that is about it.
    "Let us hope that it is not so. Or if it is, let us pray that the fact does not become generally known."

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    Super Moderator ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Angra Mainyu View Post
    In other words, no matter how you make the is/ought objection, one can mirror it for the color case, or the illness case, or the science case, and so on.
    But not other human value judgements such as aesthetics. I see. You are sticking to conveniently dodgy comparisons instead. Why not do aesthetic beauty?

    Put it this way, surely human moral judgements are value judgements. It would therefore seem most appropriate to compare them with other human value judgements, rather than something else.

    Who knows, perhaps there are what you would call independent, objective facts about beauty, in the terms that you mean and use. I would not be surprised. Perhaps if we discussed that, we might see better the limitations of it, chiefly that, as with gustatory taste, even if there are, it will not sort out the majority of cases where humans disagree, because there will be no right answers no matter what amount of information is provided and we will be in relativistic territory.
    "Let us hope that it is not so. Or if it is, let us pray that the fact does not become generally known."

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