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Answering Seversky on whether “ought” [is] derivable from “is”

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In response to the current News post on Denton’s new book, Seversky raises the IS-OUGHT gap issue again in comment no. 2, casting it in terms of DERIVING ought from is.

I think this is worth a discussion, but that would be off topic there. So, I responded at 3 and now headline for discussion:

>> . . . Hume’s “surpriz’d” guillotine argument does establish that ought cannot be injected into the world — thus, any worldview aiming to be accurate to reality — at any level subsequent to world-root.

We also face the dilemma that conscience is deeply embedded in our inner life, urging us to the right and the truth in ways that pervade all of mindedness. So if its testimony that we are responsibly free and duty bound is delusional, as there are no firewalls in our inner life, human rationality comes under taint of general delusion. Absurdity, we cannot escape the force of ought and cannot escape the impulse of responsible rationality. Not even the hyperskeptic dismissing others as . . . in the wrong or else unable to confidently attain the right.

Credibly, we are under moral government of OUGHT, and live in a world that IS.

So, how can this be resolved at world-root level?

Not by DERIVING ought from is, but by seeing how they can be fused inextricably.

The only serious candidate for such fusion is that they are both to be found in the inherently good creator God, a necessary and maximally great being, worthy of loyalty and the reasonable, responsible service of doing the good in accord with our evident nature.

Which includes persisting in the path of the right and the true despite stumbles along the way.

Even, crawling, if we must.>>

A start point for reflection and discussion. END

13 Replies to “Answering Seversky on whether “ought” [is] derivable from “is”

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Is ought derived from is, or is it FUSED with it at the root of reality?

  2. 2
    vjtorley says:

    Hi kairosfocus,

    Good question. Personally, I believe there are non-moral “oughts” embedded in the fabric of Nature. An object behaving in accordance with a law of Nature is behaving as it ought to behave. In other words, laws of Nature are prescriptive, and not merely descriptive. Were they not so, we would have no warrant for trusting that they will hold.

    The notion of a prescription being embedded in the fabric of Nature is deeply mysterious, especially when the prescription in question relates to an entity (such as a field or a particle) which has no “good of its own” (unlike an organism). I would argue that a prescription of this sort makes no sense unless there is a Cosmic Prescriber – in other words, a Mind upholding Nature, “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

    Biological oughts are embedded in the nature of organisms; psychological oughts are embedded in the nature of sentient animals; and intellectual and moral oughts are embedded in our nature as rational beings.

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT, very significant point, if nature is run based on intelligible ordering law as a coherent whole that points to organising mind. And the logic of structure and quantity then naturally applies, i.e. mathematics. KF

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Adding to the exchange at 2-3: Teleology is inescapable. But atheists nevertheless believe they have escaped it by describing it. Chesterton’s Ethics in Elfland is key. Physical “laws” are not laws in the sense that anything or anyone is bound by them. The are mathematical models of observed regularities. And why are the observed regularities in fact regular? Materialist scientists have no clue, though they pretend they do.

    The water in a brook does not fall downstream because it is obeying the gravitational inverse square law. Indeed, the gravitational inverse square law (or Einstein’s curved space if you like) do not explain why water runs downhill. Those mathematical models merely describe the regularity that is observed. They do not even purport to explain why that regularity exists. As Chesterton said, water runs downstream because it is bewitched. How it came to be bewitched or who bewitched it are not questions science can answer.

    Failure to understand this simple and obvious point is why there is so much confusion.

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    I think we ought to be wary of applying “ought” to the manifestations of natural laws. The “ought” of moral imperatives still allows for the freedom to ignore them by those who should be subject to them. Water has no choice but to flow downhill under the influence of gravity. We, on the other hand, can walk up or down it as we choose.

    I’m quite happy to acknowledge, however, that the origin of this Universe and the laws by which it ordered are a profound mystery. I can’t rule out the possibility that some intelligent agency is behind it all but neither do I see any good reason to believe in such a being and, in any case, such a proposal raises more questions than it answers.

  7. 7
    vividbleau says:


    ‘I think we ought to be wary of applying “ought” to the manifestations of natural laws. The “ought” of moral imperatives….”

    Sheesh Sev if my memory serves me correctly over on another thread you seemed to argue that there are no oughts because one cannot get an ought from an “is” Are you the same person or am I mistaken?


  8. 8
    EvilSnack says:

    Morality is a code of values to guide action.

    A guide for action is useless and irrelevant unless it takes into account the starting condition of the actor, the nature of the actor, and the actor’s desired end point.

    To draw an analogy from traveling, the directions for a journey are based on the starting point, the means of transportation, and the desired end point.

    This immediately gives two “oughts”, based on nothing more that what is: A valid system of morals must be based on our nature (ie. where we are as people), and must travel according to our means (ie., morality can demand of us only what is possible to us).

    The third determinant of our morals is the one which requires more than an “is” to obtain the “ought”: The goal we seek.

    To continue the travelling analogy, while a traveller has no choice about his starting point (because he is already there), and the means of travel (or else obtaining other means is part of the instructions), he does have a choice of destination. Instructions don’t tell us what destination to seek, only how to get to a destination that has been chosen. Furthermore, directions are impossible until the goal has been identified. If a man asks you for directions, but denies all knowledge of any particular destination (even one so vague as “how do I get out of here?”), all question of directions is pointless.

    Thus the goal of any system of morals serves as the foundation of that system of morals, but the goal is chosen and is not implicit in any fact of nature; the choice is “pre-moral”, as some philosophers have put it.

    However, even here the “is” places this constraint upon the “ought”: No system of morals can be built upon impossible goals. Directions to Arcturus are useless to us, because getting there is not possible.

    Once the goal is chosen, determining the “oughts” requires nothing more than discernment.

    So while we get some of our “oughts” from an “is”, we do not get all of the “oughts” we need to make a choice; for a complete plan of action, we need an “if” as well.

    So, for the sake of the argument, let us assume that there is a God, and furthermore let us assume that He is the God of the Christian scriptures and that He really is as described therein. That still is not enough to determine everything we ought to do. The question of whether we will serve Him, or even acknowledge His existence, are still open questions, and remain open until we consider whether we wish to pursue the goal of being pleasing to Him, or some other goal. Only when we have made this choice does the full set of “oughts” come into play. If we wish to be pleasing to Him, then we ought to act as if He were real, and serve Him; if we do not wish to be pleasing to Him, then we need not serve Him, or give him any thought at all.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:


    You have raised several interesting points.

    Now, morals and ethics (as well as principles) can be addressed at three levels; here, I cite Clark and Rakestraw:

    Principles are broad general guidelines that all persons ought to follow. Morality is the dimension of life related to right conduct. It includes virtuous character and honorable intentions as well as the decisions and actions that grow out of them. Ethics on the other hand, is the [philosophical and theological] study of morality . . . [that is,] a higher order discipline that examines moral living in all its facets . . . . on three levels. The first level, descriptive ethics, simply portrays moral actions or virtues. A second level, normative ethics (also called prescriptive ethics), examines the first level, evaluating actions or virtues as morally right or wrong. A third level, metaethics, analyses the second . . . It clarifies the meaning of ethical terms and assesses the principles of ethical argument . . . . Some think, without reflecting on it, that . . . what people actually do is the standard of what is morally right . . . [But, what] actually happens and what ought to happen are quite different . . . . A half century ago, defenders of positivism routinely argued that descriptive statements are meaningful, but prescriptive statements (including all moral claims) are meaningless . . . In other words, ethical claims give no information about the world; they only reveal something about the emotions of the speaker . . . . Yet ethical statements do seem to say something about the realities to which they point. “That’s unfair!” encourages us to attend to circumstances, events, actions, or relationships in the world. We look for a certain quality in the world (not just the speaker’s mind) that we could properly call unfair . . . .

    Many people today think relativistically. “We live in a pluralistic society,” they say, apparently thinking this proves normative ethical relativism [that is, the theory that contradictory ethical beliefs may both be right, as such beliefs are viewed as only relative to the culture, situation, or individual: perception and feeling, not objective reality]. Others hold that . . . it is necessary to a tolerant society. Absolutists, they argue, encourage intolerance of other views, and this erodes social harmony. Tolerance in society is a benefit produced when people adopt relativism.

    Is this inference right? Philosopher J. P. Moreland . . . [argues that] Relativism is true descriptively, but consistently holding to both normative and metaethical[5] relativism is difficult. [That is, it tends to fall into logical inconsistency: arguing that all people ought to become relativists!] Further . . . [true] tolerance is entirely consistent with absolutism. Those who defend tolerance hold that everyone ought to practice tolerance!
    [Clark, Davis K & Rakestraw, Robert V, Eds. Readings in Christian Ethics, Vol. 1: Theory and Method. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), pp. 18 – 19.]

    In that context, Holmes has somewhat to say by way of summary of key issues:

    However we may define the good, however well we may calculate consequences, to whatever extent we may or may not desire certain consequences, none of this of itself implies any obligation of command. That something is or will be does not imply that we ought to seek it. We can never derive an “ought” from a premised “is” unless the ought is somehow already contained in the premise . . . .

    R. M. Hare . . . raises the same point. Most theories, he argues, simply fail to account for the ought that commands us: subjectivism reduces imperatives to statements about subjective states, egoism and utilitarianism reduce them to statements about consequences, emotivism simply rejects them because they are not empirically verifiable, and determinism reduces them to causes rather than commands . . . .

    Elizabeth Anscombe’s point is well made. We have a problem introducing the ought into ethics unless, as she argues, we are morally obligated by law – not a socially imposed law, ultimately, but divine law . . . . This is precisely the problem with modern ethical theory in the West . . . it has lost the binding force of divine commandments . . . .

    If we admit that we all equally have the right to be treated as persons, then it follows that we have the duty to respect one another accordingly. Rights bring correlative duties: my rights . . . imply that you ought to respect these rights. [Holmes, Arthur F. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: 1984, pp. 70 – 72, 81.]

    In short, principles, morality and ethics are a significant subject that cannot be seriously addressed without proper focus and effort to be clear, accurate, sober-minded and fair. All of which are absolutely riddled with moral import; indeed you will perhaps recall how Plato’s Socrates — challenged to address the seeming uselessness of philosophy and the way many who studied it (read, Alcibiades as exhibit A) turned out to be clever rogues — responded in terms of the pure hearted, diligent and virtuous effort required to be a genuine student as opposed to a dabbler who hoped to gain advantages in being a manipulator of the public.

    That’s a big clue in itself.

    As conscience tells us in urging us towards the true and the right, morality cannot be severed from our life of thought and praxis. We find ourselves inescapably under moral government, as even skeptics inadvertently manifest.

    A second clue.

    Indeed, were the testimony of conscience deemed delusional, that would at once let a bull of grand delusion lose in the china shop of our inner thought-world.

    A third clue: dismissing conscience as a delusion that works to get us to somewhat cooperate and enhance survival, ends in self referential incoherence and absurdity.

    Undermining the life of the mind.

    Impeaching and dismissing conscience as a witness fails, spectacularly.

    We have to take conscience seriously and avoid letting bulls loose in the china shop of mindedness.

    When we do so, we find a clear testimony that we are valuable, that we are owed duties of care to fairness, truth etc, and that we in turn owe such to our patent metaphysical equals. Which points to key principles such as right to life as the basis on which any other rights or value may exist. Likewise, we find the classic golden rule speaking to us in various ways: mutual responsibility of respect, cherishing, avoiding harm, fulfilling duties of care, not resorting to behaviour that is advantageous precisely because a society cannot live by generally behaving like that (e.g. lying, rubber checks), treating others as valuable in themselves not just tools, toys or means to our own ends, etc. Of which, as Locke quoteth the judicious Hooker, no man is ignorant.

    But of course the is and the ought are very different.

    How then do we come to a world-understanding in which IS and OUGHT (and our struggle betwixt the two) can be held in due, coherent balance?

    Hume gives us a clue (likely, inadvertently) in his guillotine argument:

    In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason. [Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature (London: John Noon, 1739), p. 335.]

    As Holmes, 250 years on from Hume notes: “We can never derive an “ought” from a premised “is” unless the ought is somehow already contained in the premise.”

    This instantly points to the need to trace to world-roots, and to find there an IS that is inextricably fused with the roots of OUGHT. Something that is a necessary being root of reality capable of properly bearing the weight of a manifestly evident core moral law of our nature that leaves us as responsibly and rationally free, duty-bound, and conscience guided. (Worldviews that undermine such invariably end in letting the bull of grand delusion loose in the china shop of the life of the mind.)

    After centuries of debate, there is just one serious candidate: the inherently good creator God, root of reality, a necessary and maximally great being worthy of loyalty and the reasonable responsible service of doing the good in accord with our evident nature.

    (If you doubt that, simply provide a serious alternative that will stand comparative difficulties analysis: ___________ )

    In that generic ethical theism context, purpose/ goal warranting ought does emerge. In a way connected to the declaration of 1776 that we have a right of pursuit of happiness. Not pleasure or amusement for the proverbially short season, but the satisfaction of stretching ourselves to fulfill our sense of calling, excelling and producing the lasting good.

    So, yes, goal-seeking does fit in, where conscience is one of the guiding-lights to those goals.

    But unfortunately, such can be warped, hence the need for moral coherence and mutuality.

    We are again back to Locke in the 2nd treatise of civil gov’t, citing Hooker who onward refers to Aristotle while pivoting on Moshe, Yeshva d’Nazaret and Paul of Tarsus:

    [2nd Treatise on Civil Gov’t, Ch 2 sec. 5:] . . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant . . . [This directly echoes St. Paul in Rom 2: “14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them . . . “ and 13: “9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law . . . “ Hooker then continues, citing Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 8:] as namely, That because we would take no harm, we must therefore do none; That since we would not be in any thing extremely dealt with, we must ourselves avoid all extremity in our dealings; That from all violence and wrong we are utterly to abstain, with such-like . . . ] [Eccl. Polity ,preface, Bk I, “ch.” 8, p.80, cf. here. Emphasis added.] [Augmented citation, Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Ch 2 Sect. 5. ]


  10. 10

    Ought can be derived from is, but only if what is referred to is agency.

    If the person has a love for the way the painting looks in his heart, then one ought to let him see the painting.

    The ought follows from the existence of the love, which love is agency. But the existence of the love is a matter of opinion, which means to say it is equally logically valid to say the love is real, as it is to say it is not real.

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    MNY: The issue is that at world-root level, ought is inextricably FUSED with IS, not DERIVED from it. That is why Holmes is so right: “We can never derive an “ought” from a premised “is” unless the ought is somehow already contained in the premise.” The problem is, that in a world where a priori Lewonin-style evolutionary materialism is imposed and it is commonly imagined by the so-called “brights” that the only plausible root that can so fuse is and ought is to be dismissed out of hand, the pivotal error in the beginning becomes a perverse yardstick that bakes in the error at the root. As a result, the whole world of moral principles is destabilised, a key component of our civilisation’s ongoing march of folly. Such will not end well. KF

  12. 12
    Seversky says:

    vividbleau @ 7


    ‘I think we ought to be wary of applying “ought” to the manifestations of natural laws. The “ought” of moral imperatives….”

    Sheesh Sev if my memory serves me correctly over on another thread you seemed to argue that there are no oughts because one cannot get an ought from an “is” Are you the same person or am I mistaken?

    I didn’t say there are no “oughts”. We can come up with all the “oughts” we like. We just can’t claim they are logically entailed by anything we see in the natural world, by what “is”.

  13. 13
    kairosfocus says:


    Pardon, but again misdirected.

    First, you are trying to impose DERIVING ought from IS and second you try to constrain this on the natural — physico-material — world.

    The place to begin is with the fact of oughtness we face as credibly responsibly and rationally free persons in a world in which we act, decide and reason. Where, absent responsible rational freedom of action, even trying to discuss matters of any consequence collapses into absurdity.

    We find ourselves under moral government attested by the urgency to the right and the truth. If that testimony of conscience is delusional, then as there are no convenient firewalls in our inner lives, that would taint all of our thought life, including attempts to reason and know.

    Absurdity would instantly follow.

    Instead, we find it more advisable to ask, what would the world have to be like for such a sense of oughtness to the right and the true not to be delusional.

    That can only be answered at world root level (on pain of the valid part of Hume’s guillotine), and the serious candidates would have to FUSE IS and OUGHT inextricably.

    That is why we see, after centuries, just one serious candidate, as has been described . . . with the challenge, put up a serious alternative.

    Namely, the inherently good creator God, root of reality, a necessary and maximally great being worthy of loyalty and the reasonable responsible service of doing the good in accord with our evident nature.

    If you dispute this, put up an alternative: ___________

    (But kindly ensure that such does not entail that the sense of being bound by ought is a subjective/ sentimental delusion or is a game we play together, or is produced by might and manipulation making ‘right’ ‘truth ‘meaning’ etc. All of these instantly end in patent absurdity.)


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