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Number 96 : April 1999

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18th April 1999 : Theo Todman


Roger Farnworth (C94/25) takes exception to my defence of Malcolm Burn on the Is / Ought question. As noted in C95/34, I may have confused matters by introducing my own ideas alongside Malcolmís, and I want to avoid a "who said what when" wrangle. Also, I do think Roger deserves a response, which he didnít really get last outing. Iím not sure that what follows is it, but as itís been sitting on my PC for the last month, Iíd better issue it before we all lose the plot completely.

Roger says, and Malcolm agrees with him, that few of our moral choices are of the "what the heck" variety. Rogerís experiences are evidently different to mine. The point I was making was that there are two interesting situations when a decision has to be made. Decisions are interesting when either the outcome of the action consequent on the decision is unclear or when for other reasons the decision itself is not clear-cut.

Often, when faced with a choice, we donít know what to do for the best. Should we follow a particular course of action ? We form a picture of how things are likely to turn out, or maybe only how things might turn out given a following wind, and then "go for it".

On the other hand, sometimes weíre faced with a moral dilemma that is only such because the consequences of doing the right thing are unpleasant, either to ourselves or others. Then, if we are to follow our principles, we have to decide to follow things through irrespective of the consequences. At the point of decision, thereís no more thinking to be done, weíve just got to do it. Maybe Iíve read Hamlet too often ?

Often we wrap our decision up in more solemn and respectful language, but when it comes down to it we have to say to ourselves, no matter what the uncertainties or the consequences, weíll do it anyway. I didnít mean to imply that the whole process of arriving at moral choices was of coin-tossing, but the final decision can probably be modelled on the tossing of a biased coin. We might decide to follow through on a particular course of action - maybe more likely than not - or maybe we wonít.

The "you citizen" tenor of my example wasnít meant to sound like Big Brother, but to reflect what "society" expects. Why is there so much emphasis on maintaining face in school playgrounds, and why do the unemployed sometimes feel so undervalued ? Why do we feel like kicking the feckless "man and dog" type of beggar (if we do) rather than disposing of our loose change ?

We now turn our attention to Rogerís other point; that his beliefs are value-free, or at least donít contain surreptitiously-embedded "oughts". He states that, because he believes that individuals may benefit from mutual prosperity and because he feels compassion for the impoverished and marginalised, he therefore ought to vote in a certain way & dispose of his income in a certain manner. And not only he, but so ought I if I believe as he does.

Now, the "oughts" I was using as examples were those related to society as a whole. Rogerís refer to his own beliefs. A belief is not a fact, but let us ignore this for the moment - letís assume that, in fact, individuals may benefit from mutual prosperity, as this seems entirely plausible. If Roger had believed that society might benefit from the impoverished & marginalised being exterminated to raise the average wealth and stop them being a burden, we might not be so convinced. Unfortunately, such a view has been held this century by the citizens of arguably the most culturally sophisticated country in the world. Roger feels compassion. This is a laudable fact about Roger. Roger wants to do something about it. Another laudable fact. I would contend, though, that this unpacks to mean that Roger feels that he ought to care about such things, and if, in a fit of selfishness, he were to find himself not caring, heíd promptly berate himself for this fall from grace. There is, however, nothing in the facts of the case to constrain others to feel likewise.

Looking at things another way. From the facts that Roger adduces (his beliefs and concerns) just what ought he to do about it ? He claims that he, and anyone holding a similar view, ought to vote Labour and give to Oxfam. This is far from clear. Voting Labour involves endorsing all their policies, or at least deciding which are important & which not, and judging that their weighted average score according to oneís value judgement exceeds that of the alternative parties. This is hardly value-free. Giving to Oxfam is scarcely the automatic conclusion either. Why not World Vision ? How much should be given ? None are clear & all depend on value judgements. Would Roger acquiesce to my requesting him to "sell what he has and give to the poor" ? Maybe he would, but most people wouldnít (and, feeling so requested, havenít).

I suppose the question centres on whether beliefs count as facts. They are psychological facts, no doubt, but the is / ought distinction surely isnít about denying that if I believe I ought to do X, then I ought to do X. The predicate has an explicit "embedded ought" in it, so doesnít qualify as a counter-example. What I am saying is that, outside of some agreed-upon moral system, a fact (say, Y wants my help) neither says that I ought to do anything, let alone that I ought to do anything specific.

Theo Todman

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