"Ought". Where I part ways with Objectivism.

August 16, 1998. First post to IOS discussion list. All "oughts" are

I do not call myself an Objectivist (large "O"), because I differ on
a number of significant points. Rather, I call myself a Secular
Humanist, and at times a Freethinker. These are broader terms,
referring to larger sets, than Objectivist. All Objectivists qualify
as Secular Humanists, and all Humanists qualify as Freethinkers, but
not vice versa.

I have learned a lot from Rand, and I would describe my ethical views
as consequentialist, Aristotelian, and (small "o") objective. But my
theory differs from hers. Let me begin with a few things about the
underlying logical structure of it, the metaethics, where I agree with
Rand, to the best of my understanding. I want to take a single point,
that "there are no unconditional shoulds" or "there are no unchosen
obligations", and point out some implications.

What does "ought" mean? The broadest meaning of "ought" is
expectation: "Ice ought to melt if you apply enough heat to it." That
is, given past experience and our present best understanding of how
the world works, ice would reasonably be expected to melt under those
circumstances. A subset of this is the hypothetical ought, the
"practical syllogism" of Aristotle: "If you want X then you ought to
do Y". That is, you would be expected to do Y, because Y is a
necessary or efficient way of achieving X. It is the "ought" of
expectation applied to human behavior. It is also a form of advice. A
subset of this is the moral ought, which addresses a particular subset
of human activities and motives.

In my understanding, all moral oughts are hypothetical. As I
understand Rand, this was her position also. Famous quote from
"Causality versus Duty", reprinted in PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT:
Reality confronts man with a great many 'musts', but all of them are
conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is "You must, if-" and
the "if" stands for man's choice: "-if you want to achieve a certain
goal." She quotes a "wise old negro woman" who said "Mister, there's
nothing I've GOT to do except die."

A consequentialist system has an ultimate goal and a lot of derivative
values, which are recommended means to that goal. The ultimate goal is
a matter of choice. This is also Rand's position, I believe.
Commenting on the above passage, Leonard Peikoff writes (OPAR, p.
244f): The "demands" of reality, however, are not commandments,
duties, or "categorical imperatives". Reality does not issue orders,
such as "You must live" or "You must think" or "You must be selfish."
The objective approach involves a relationship between existence and
consciousness; the latter has to make a contribution here, in the form
of a specific choice. ... Morality is no more than a means to an end;
it defines the causes we must enact if we are to attain a certain
effect. (end quotes.)

A consequentialist system is not necessarily an objective system. One
might, for example, adopt as a goal the attainment of some particular
subjective mental state. Historical examples include "nirvana",
"ananda", "ecstacy", "peace of mind", and "perfect submission".
Perhaps "Kohlinar" should be added, from Star Trek; perfect
rationality unaffected by emotion. Particular ways of life and
practices could be advocated as means to that end, but this could not
be objectively tested and verified. If someone claimed to achieve X by
way of Z rather than by the recommended Y, there would be no objective
measurements you could make to dispute them. Each person is the
resident expert on their own subjective mental states; an ethic with a
subjective goal would have to be created anew by each person who
followed it, testing their own subjective responses to different ways
of life. (ref. "Happiness".)

An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate
goal that is objectively measurable. It then becomes an objective
question whether a particular recommended means will in fact lead to
that goal, whether another means might be more effective. The
statement "If you want X then you ought to do Y" becomes a statement
about cause-and-effect relationships that is objectively true or
false, and can be investigated by scientific procedures.

WHY you adopt a particular ultimate goal is irrelevant to the logic
and to the objectivity of the system. It does not matter WHY you want
X, only THAT you want X. Any motivation will do. If you want X because
it will give you "a momentary relief from a state of chronic anxiety
and fear" (approximate quote from Rand), this does not affect the
logic in the slightest. If someone chooses to pursue X for duty's
sake, or to please God, or out of hatred or revenge or spite, the
logic is the same. The same recommended means will (or will not) lead
to X, whatever your ultimate motivation for seeking X.

So far, taking this single point by itself, ethics is engineering. It
is NOT a science, in that it is not discovering a unique "correct"
ethical system that exists in nature independently of human choice. It
is not the case that there is only one "correct" ethical system, in
the same way that it is not the case that there is only one "correct"
automobile. Likewise ethics is not art, in that it is not simply an
expression of our emotions and ideals. Engineering has elements of
both science and art, but it is distinct from each. (As I understand
it, this is what is meant by the distinction between "intrinsic",
"objective", and "subjective" ethics.)

So far, there can be a large number of objective ethical systems, one
for each coherent strategy for achieving each objectively measurable
goal. For example, one person might adopt the goal of avoiding death
for as long as possible; another might seek to maximize the number of
descendants- children, grandchildren, etc.- they had by the time they
died. Another might try to maximize the quantity of wealth they owned
at their death, another their contributions to refereed scientific
journals. Each goal will imply a somewhat different set of derivative
instrumental values.

What is the relationship of moral "oughts" with individual goals and purposes?

Human beings are social animals. Our ancestors were living in groups
for millions of years before they became human. It is part of our
characteristic means of survival, that we cooperate in groups;
attitudes and talents useful for living in groups have been bred into
us by natural selection. Ethics serves several functions, one of which
is to define the terms of peaceful cooperation (and competition) with
other people in a social setting. It is thus perfectly to be expected,
not surprising, that anthropologists and psychologists have been
finding evidence that humans are predisposed to learn ethics in
childhood, in much the same way (and for the same reason) that they are
predisposed to learn language in childhood. Moral codes vary between
societies, just as languages do, but there are some universals, because
ethics is a tool that serves a function, just as language is.

Because we learn morality in childhood, we first learn it as a set of
rules and commandments laid down by higher authority (our parents), as
something imperative that comes from outside, not as something that we
choose. In "Causality Versus Duty", Rand briefly notes that "A Kantian
sense of 'duty' is inculcated by parents whenever they declare that a
child MUST do something because he MUST. A child brought up under the
constant battering of causeless, arbitrary, inexplicable 'musts' loses
(or never acquires)... the distinction between realistic necessity and
human whims... As an adult, such a man may reject all forms of
mysticism, but his Kantian psycho-epistemology remains (unless he
corrects it)... he believes... that it is his 'duty' to be moral, and,
in extreme cases, even that it is his 'duty' to be rational."

In "The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made", she expands on that
distinction: "the crucial difference between the metaphysically given
and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.
It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be
changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically:
it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when
necessary... Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice."

In "Causality Versus Duty", she continues: "In reality and in the
Objectivist ethics... there is only choice and the full, clear
recognition of... the law of causality. The proper approach to ethics,
the start from a metaphysically clean slate... can be illustrated by...
"Mister, there's nothing I've GOT to do except die."

It is a radical approach, and it takes some getting used to. Religious
folk suffer the persistent delusion that they have the copyright on
ethics, and that atheists are necessarily without morals; for if there
is no Cosmic Parent to give us morality, where else could we get it?
Rand answers, we get it from Aristotelean Final Causation, i.e. "the
process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve
it." The rest of her essay explains the psychological differences
between the principle of duty and the principle of final causation.
"The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable claims,
unchosen burdens,... His metaphysical attitude... can best be summed
up... 'Take what you want and pay for it.' "

The idea of an ethical system made entirely, repeat, entirely, of
hypothetical oughts, "if you want X then you ought to do Y", statements
about relationships of cause and effect and nothing else, goes against
many people's intuitive feelings about what an ethical system should be
and do. They feel, there's GOT to be something obligatory in there that
is not a matter of choice. Doesn't ethics also prescribe the end toward
which the means are to be directed? If someone chose a life of
dangerous thrills, or asceticism, or martyrdom for a cause, on what
grounds would we criticize them, if each person's ultimate goal is a
matter for them to choose? If one's fundamental choice of their
ultimate goal is optional, then all of the Objectivist ethics and
politics is optional.

Bluntly, yes. As Rand says near the end of "Causality Versus Duty": "A
personal promise or agreement is the only valid, binding obligation,
without which none of the others can or do stand." My understanding of
this came after some years of reading a variety of ethical theories,
and trying to follow a very different one for awhile. Some ethical
theories, e.g. utilitarianism, are extremely demanding if you follow
them to their logical conclusion. Effectively they demand sainthood,
total dedication to improving the lives of those worse off than
yourself. There is a high rate of burnout for aspiring saints. The
question inevitably arises, "Why be ethical?" A lot of us, most of us,
want to be good and do the right thing, whatever that may be... but
really, what's the point of it all, what's it for? Rand asked, "Why
does Man need ethics?"

If I ask "Why be ethical?", to give me a meaningful answer, you have to
answer in terms of MY motivations. Why would I be expected to follow
the prescriptions of this or that ethical theory? Why this PARTICULAR
theory, rather than that one? Rules of conduct are man-made. Does this
one suit my own goals and purposes, or does it not? There is nothing
I've GOT to do except die.

Saying that all "oughts" are hypothetical does not by itself imply
egoism, because it does not say that MY motivations are entirely self-
interested, nor does it say that they should be. But as a practical
matter, it gives a strong push toward Aristoteleanism. You wish to tell
someone, an adult who thinks, that they OUGHT to do Y. If they ask why,
you have to supply the "if" clause. And what do you know about THEIR
motivations? Sometimes, all you know is that they are a human being, so
you appeal to typical human motivations, motivations that would be part
of human nature. Most people are very fond of their self-interest, so
if you can justify a rule of conduct on the basis of self-interest,
that is probably your safest bet. Or, you could appeal to other
typically human motivations, such as concern for the well-being of
their kinfolk, or their desire to maintain peaceful and cooperative
relations with their neighbors, or the desire that their lives have
some larger meaning.

Are these typically human goals themselves metaphysically given? Can we
say, "You DO want X, we know that with certainty, because you are a
human being. Therefore you OUGHT to do Y, unconditionally."? Well, no.
Natural selection will lead to the great majority of organisms having
built-in urges that lead to actions that have the result of preserving
that organism's genes. The great majority of living beings will take
their internal urges as a given, including animals who are aware but
not self-aware. But, humans are a special case in a number of ways.
Being self-aware, humans face the question, "Shall I follow this urge
or not?" They can, and sometimes do, override their internal urges by
their will. Humans in particular, of all living beings, do NOT have a
metaphysically given ultimate goal.

What is the goal of human life? We have our choice on that.

Whether we shall live is not a choice that we face; we are already living.
Whether we shall die is not a choice that we face; all the evidence we have
indicates that we shall. The choice we face is not whether we shall live
or die, but what we shall try to do while we are living. There are a million
possibilities, and none of them are obligatory.

Objectivism has an argument, known as the epistemological argument,
for narrowing the choice to a single option: pursue self-preservation. By
this argument, Rand claimed to have solved the "is-ought" problem
pointed out by Hume. I believe this argument is flawed. While it is possible
to make "arguments of persuasion" favoring one goal or another, and I
have my favorite that I will advocate, neither biology nor logic compels
any one particular choice for your ultimate goal. But that is a topic for
another essay.

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Tags: Objectivism, Ought, metaethics


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Comment by John B Hodges on March 15, 2011 at 3:54pm

Wanderer-  See the second half of this essay- 


Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 14, 2011 at 1:11pm

"I have my favorite that I will advocate"


So I'm curious,what do you advocate? What is your favorite? I plan on reading more from the links you have sent me, and though I think we are largely in agreement on many points, I think there are still some big points of contention. I'll get around to a full argument when I have time.

Comment by MCT on January 31, 2011 at 4:43pm


Very well put. First, I will address your first two paragraphs. I don't think a compassionate choice is necessarily immoral. My argument is that even if someone thoughtfully chooses to act contributing to the long-run survivability of civilization it is still on the behalf of the self. It is a self-motivated universally caused choice, like all other thought out choices. I am saying that the un-thought out choice, the emotionally over-ridden, irrational snap to action is immoral. In this way, all reasoned choice is selfish and moral.

Second, the hypothetical stranded pilot would be committing an immoral act if he both valued his life and in an emotional moment, blew his brains out. I would call that immoral. If he would rather not live and thought it out and weighed his options and the total state of his life was his top priority and he thinks that living more will decrease this, he could make a rational moral choice to blow his brains out. Physician assisted suicide can be moral and should be legal, imo. Stupid and unwise, I see as mistakes, which might be honest, but irrationality, the denial of reason and reality, I believe is immoral.

Comment by John B Hodges on January 31, 2011 at 4:11pm

R to MT-

No, not all motivated behavior is selfish. You can be motivated by other goals than self-interest. 

If you "thoughtfully choose" an action aiming at the goal of, for example, contributing to the long-run survivability of civilization, I fail to see how that is "irrational and immoral". 

At the risk of opening another line of argument, I will mention FYI that IMHO morality is about how you deal with other people. Suppose, hypothetically, the pilot of an interstellar scout ship has engine trouble and is thus stranded on a lifeless rock in a distant star system. His ship has power, life support, lots of room and recreational facilities, a copy of the entire Library of Humanity, a "holodeck", and so forth; he can live comfortably until he dies of old age, but he is alone and out of communication for the rest of his life. Further assume that the guy is grumpy, wasteful, cowardly, dirty, and otherwise imprudent in a number of ways. We can agree that he can do things that are stupid, unwise, irrational; but is there anything he can do that would be immoral? I don't think there is. 

Comment by MCT on January 31, 2011 at 5:23am
I never said that all purposeful behavior is motivated. That is redundant. All motivated behavior is selfish, though. How could it not be? "Self-interested" is a narrower concept than "thoughtfully chosen", yes, but the fact remains, something is either "thoughtfully chosen" on the behalf of the self, or it is irrational and immoral. Says nature. No contradiction. Sans tautology. I don't think AR has made her case well either, she, NB and you frame the issue improperly with this supposed dichotomy. She can keep her "self-preservation".
Comment by John B Hodges on January 31, 2011 at 3:43am

Reply to Michael Tricoci-

See the essay "Isn't Everyone Selfish?" by Nathaniel Branden, which is chapter 5 in Rand's THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS. It is a tautology to say that all purposeful behavior is motivated; but not all motivated behavior is selfish. "Self-interested" is a narrower concept than "thoughtfully chosen". My point is that Rand argues that one morally OUGHT to choose to pursue one's own self-interest, defined as self-preservation, and I don't think she has made that case. 


Comment by MCT on January 30, 2011 at 7:09pm


In my so called tautolgic description of the egoistic nature of choice, where is the both A and non-A? If a person is to make a moral decision, he must choose what is in his or her perceived rational self-interest. This necessity is not tautology. Is it tautological that balloons filled with helium will always go up in this atmosphere? This is simply a description of how the brain works. It is an example of the necessary egoistic nature of choice. One can only think with their own brain and hence every decision must be in the interest of the chooser, even if it looks like an altruistic one, to someone who doesn't get that when a mother gives her child the last bit of bread it is to satisfy her personal goals. Under no circumstance can someone choose something other than they choose. If a person decides to choose their 2nd top priority, it becomes their first. For one will always be the final arbiter of choice. Rational self-interest means what can reasonably, through the use of noncontradictory integration of percepts and concepts, be properly thought to result in the fullfillment of one's goals. This is not satisfied under every circumstance. If one sticks a knife in their leg, it is moral only if it is a logical means to another higher valued goal, which must always be the goal of the self. If they do it out of frusatration or anger or another irrational cause, it is immoral. As far as happiness is concerned, I don't remember defining it. It is simply an emotion that follows from reality matching what one wants it to be. I am less concerned as to whether one can objectively describe or define happiness, after all I think it is an emotion, like a primary, a qualia. If someone really thinks that cocaine is good for them, after intellectually honest contemplation, then it is moral to do it. They may be wrong, but correctness is not an essential quality of morality. It seems to me that you are mixing up the objectivity nature of reality and the subjective nature of perspective. How could I know what to tell someone as far as what will be in their rational self-interest? I don't know their top values that would make the world more closely matched to the world that they want. I would tell them to consult reality. Not to do something specific (other than consulting reality). Morality cannot be reduced to commandements, like your X and Y.

Comment by John B Hodges on January 29, 2011 at 5:03am

Reply to Michael Tricoci-

I think you have a tautological (and therefore practically meaningless) definition of "happiness". Whatever any person does, whatever motives they may profess for what they do, you would argue that they are in fact pursuing happiness. Further, since happiness is a subjective mental state, you could never advise anyone to do X and not Y, if they claimed they were happier doing Y than X, since they would have firsthand knowledge of what made them "happy" and you would not. 


Further I wonder what you mean by "rational self interest"? I think I know what Rand meant, survival as long as possible BY using "man's characteristic means of survival", which she took to be using one's mind to produce and sell things in the marketplace. (And I think she was mistaken.) But I don't know what you mean by it. What is the "self", and what interests does the "self" have? Humans have lived in a great variety of ways, and many have chosen to live shorter and/or riskier lives to no obvious benefit for themselves. 


When Rand was a teenager, the Bolsheviks confiscated her father's business and made for themselves a lifelong enemy. She spent a few decades constructing a philosophy antithetical to theirs, directly reactionary to theirs. I think along the way she made a few unjustified steps, because they were necessary to reach the conclusion she wanted (that capitalist businessmen were the best of men, the moral ideal to which everyone should aspire). I think her definition of "man's nature" and "man's rational self-interest" were some of these unjustified steps. 


FYI I recommend a book, GOOD AND EVIL, A New Direction, by Richard Taylor. 

Comment by MCT on January 29, 2011 at 3:33am
So, JBH, I take it then that where you differ from O'ists here is simply that you do not believe that happiness is the one value all others are pursued for? I still think it is the final goal. A person will always do what they think is in their rational best interest, or to maximize their happiness, whether they want kinship, reciprocity, compassion, and the desire to have and preserve a larger meaning for their lives, money, to live as long as they can, protect their family or find meaning or whatever, if they think it will make them happy, as long as they are being moral. Obviously, people often don't think much, let alone rationally and can be wrong about what is in their best interest. But, egoism, must be the final arbiter. By the nature of the human mind. A person will never purposefully decide to do something they do not want to do. For, if they do it, it is because they chose to. I believe this and the fact that to find out what to do you must consult nature and obey it, if you wish to command it (AR) are why morality is egoistic and objective, respectively. I believe also that there is no metaphysical imperative. Every moral choice begins with if. But, it is metaphysically imperative that if you wish to be happy, you must act in your rational self-interest. I believe nature dictates this. It is the same for all of us humans. And our moral automobiles, as you described the metaphor, and moral houses, as I like to, are different yes, each person's morality is not identical any more than their lives are identical, but the rules of meandering through reality are the same, just like the essential qualities of all automobiles and houses are the same. Retain the essentials and omit the measurements of those essentials. The essential aspects of our moralities are the same, only the particular measurements of these essentials are subjective and arbitrary.
Comment by Gary Connolly on August 2, 2010 at 5:08pm
I enjoyed this. I always become wary when someone uses the word "objective" in the same sentence as the word "morals" :P

What Rand and the "ultimate" value idea seems to overlook is that the vast majority or actions that are either moral or immoral occur at the juntion of one or more of a person's motivations. Condider theft for instance. If my goal was exclusively to increase the amount of my possesions, then theft is fine. If I also have a goal of not causing harm to other people where I can avoid it, then theft becomes a more complex issue for me. In order to achieve one goal more efficiently I would have to take an action with goes against another chosen goal. When the issue is not theft but perhaps the sale of an item you have billed as being a little better than it really is, the judgement call becomes more difficult. Most of the really tough moral decisions that people have to make are made difficult by the fact that they throw our wants and aims into opposition.

Rand had a habit of trying to slave emotions to reason but in my experience the opposite is almost always true. Morals are a luxury that we can only indulge in when our instincts (emotions) are relaxed enough to allow it.

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