Ought Is Not Should …

A few years ago, I took a Linguistics course, and at one point we talked about the words “ought” and “should”, and about whether they had the same meaning. There was a comment that in some culture — I forget which — they couldn’t be used interchangeably, and I also commented that in philosophy they weren’t same word either, which the professor agreed with … mostly because “ought” had a very specific and technical meaning in philosophy.

So, fast forward to moral debates. It’s become increasingly common to see arguments like:

1) People say that you cannot get an ought from an is.
2) But I can use an “is” proposition to get to “You should X”.
C) You can get an ought from an is.

And this would work if, in fact, should and ought were the same thing. But they aren’t. While in general you can use the two mostly interchangeably, you have to be very careful when you do so because should is actually a lot weaker than oughts are intended to be. When we make a normative claim — like about morality — and say “You ought to do X”, we don’t really mean that you really should do X but, hey, if you don’t want to that’s okay. “You ought to do X” is not a suggestion about what you should do to achieve a goal. It’s an actual moral command, and so is far closer to a “must” than a “should”. Essentially, if a morality says “You ought to do X” they mean that if you don’t do X, you aren’t being moral. It’s not optional.

I think that Sam Harris makes this mistake, especially in his comparison to health. We don’t tend to use the strong “ought” when we talk about health. We say things like “To be healthy, you should drink two glasses of wine a day” or “You should avoid red meat” or “You should avoid fatty foods”, but we know that if someone doesn’t follow these suggestions they may still be healthy, and if they do they might end up unhealthy as well. These aren’t musts, but are just suggestions.

The other difference is what mandates the difference: health is mostly an instrumental value, and not an end in itself. We want to be healthy because it lets us do other things, like go out in the world or not have the unpleasantness of pain, but we don’t want to be heathy just to be healthy (generally). The same thing applies to wealth; in general, we want money to get things to increase our happiness, but we don’t — or at least shouldn’t — want money for the sake of having money. But morality isn’t that way. Being moral shouldn’t be something that you have to justify by appealing to another value, but instead should be something that’s an end in itself, and not something that’s merely instrumental. Or, at least I argue that it shouldn’t be that sort of thing.

So that’s part of the difference. There’s always going to be a case where someone will sacrifice their health for their own pleasure, because health is only of interest if it provides pleasures or abilities. That means that recommendations for health always are suggestions, not commands; ultimately, the value of following a suggestion about your health is determined by whether the loss of instrumental value to get that healthy state is overcome by the increase in instrumental value from being healthy. Science is the same way. Science is not an end in itself at all, but only has instrumental value in that it provides either knowledge or useful tools to increase well-being or whatever. So the scientific method, then, is a suggestion. If you think that what science will give you is worth any loss of instrumental value from using it, you’ll use it. Otherwise you won’t. Science is different from health in that in general if you use the scientific method you don’t actually lose anything, and the benefits are almost always worth it. But it’s still instrumental and still, then, only shoulds, not oughts.

Morality and anything normative is not that. Being moral can and ought to be an end in itself, even though it can have instrumental value. Morality and knowledge have intrinsic value, while still at least potentially being instrumentally valuable. But you can’t appeal to the instrumental value — ie that it increases happiness — to justify them and why you should seek to be moral or to gain knowledge like you can with science and health. That’s completely misunderstanding what they are, and ignoring that they can be valuable even if they don’t have any instrumental value.

We need to treat the normative as ends, not as means. Once we do that, we can see why normative principles are closer to musts than shoulds, and can understand why, when it comes to the normative, “ought” is not “should.”

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