Monday, 20 May 2019

The Will-Ought Distinction

David Hume, the originator of the is-ought distinction
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The is-ought distinction is a philosophical classic which lies at the core of moral philosophy. It states that one cannot derive ‘ought’ sentences from ‘is’ sentences -- in other words, one cannot derive ethics from fact. This rests in turn on the things-relations distinction. While ‘is’ describes how things are related to one another, it is unable to describe how they ought to be related.
Instead, here, I seek to introduce another distinction which, as far as I can see, is non-existent in the world of philosophy  -- yet may be more important than the is-ought distinction.  The goal here is to present a will-ought distinction. It is offered in broad outline, while acknowledging the fact that there are many nuances at play (that is, what follows is necessarily simplistic).

Now ‘is’ and ‘will’ play a large part in science.  The scientist begins with ‘is’, which is the facts -- or the pieces of what is out there -- and these facts, for a scientist, may not make much sense in the beginning.  As scientists seek to understand the facts, then, they play with them -- they rearrange them, reword them, have a few drinks together as they argue over them -- even bet on hypotheses, and so on.  In other words, the ‘is’ of the matter may be a fairly detached activity.

This is the first of the (if one so prefers) four parts of the scientific method: characterisations, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments -- and the first of these four, namely characterisations, is about observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry.  In other words, it is about establishing the facts.

Yet facts alone offer little or no explanation of phenomena.  There comes a point where these facts must be combined in such a way as to present a theory.  At this point, ‘is’ (the facts) becomes ‘will’ (the theory).  Theory is, after all, that which will happen.  Theories predict things.  If they do not predict things, they are not theories.  We now find, besides ‘is’ and ‘ought’, a third category.  In the context of science:
• ‘is’ refers to fact,
• ‘will’ refers to theory,
• while ‘ought’ refers to value
Let us now notice that ‘will’ and ‘ought’ both have to do with expectation.  Both may be defined -- at least in a great many cases -- as ‘reasoned expectation’ -- and reasoned expectation is a fairly standard definition for theory.  One cannot call theory reasoned certainty of course, as every scientist will freely point out.  Neither is this true of ‘ought’.

Further, both ‘will’ and ‘ought’ may refer both to personal and impersonal things.  This fits well with the things-relations distinction above.  They both have to do with how we expect things to be related to one another.  Things ‘will’ be so and so ordered, or they ‘ought’ to be, whether this refers to a person's behaviour (‘She will ...’ ‘He ought ...’) or to the arrangement of objects, events, or concepts (‘It ought ...’ ‘That will ...’).

How, then, should we distinguish ‘will’ from ‘ought’?

Unlike ‘will’, ‘ought’ may often be non-normative -- which means that one may not seriously, in every case, expect it to happen.  As an extreme example, someone might say, ‘There ought to be two moons orbiting the earth’ (which is impossible).  But then, too, someone might consider, ‘Crystal Palace ought to win the Premier League’ (possible, though not likely), ‘The rocket ought to land safely’ (likely), or 'This experiment ought to produce an alkali’ (all but sure).  There is a continuum of additional information, therefore.

Now I need to make a further distinction.  In that case of proposing two moons, we might really have meant, ‘There ought to have been (perfect tense) two moons.’  A great many ‘ought’ sentences may be interpreted in this way.  Subtract such examples from all examples, and this increases the number of oughts which are more seriously about the future.  ‘Ought’ now comes a lot closer to ‘will’.

Perhaps one might argue, too, that ‘ought’ may be distinguished from ‘will’ by seeing the term as applying only to ethics -- and not to such neutral subjects as those of science.  Yet how should one make such a distinction?  It is artificial -- not to speak of old-fashioned.  I have said that ‘ought’ represents the way that things ought to be related to one another, and this does not in principle separate ethics from science, or from any other activity for that matter.  This brings two important questions:
•  Is science in reality a language of ‘ought’? (Which is, all about value?)
•  Can one really separate ‘ought’ from ‘will’? (That is, to separate moral acts from any acts at all).
And one last question too:
•  Is every move we make a moral one?


Keith said...

As you suggest, Thomas, it may well be that the ‘will-ought distinction’ is “nonexistent in the world of philosophy” and may be “more important than [Hume’s] ‘is-ought’ distinction.” Well done, if so. That said, it might help me, personally, more fully understand the ‘will-ought distinction’ if you would be willing to anchor the abstractions in a concrete example from the real world. Given the essay’s emphasis on science, might you propose an instance derived from, say, one of the several branches of physics? Or from another science?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Perhaps this might help. It is what sparked the post. An editor of my magnum opus objected to my saying that Ernest Rutherford was an example of ‘ought’ in science. In his journal of 1911, Rutherford noted his astonishment at the results of his landmark gold foil experiment: ‘It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life.’ Therefore, I wrote, science is about what ought to happen. My editor said no, science abolishes the person. It studies the facts impassively, impartially, through an accumulation of ‘is’ statements, which is induction. I took a closer look. Yes, one could say so. However, both of us seemed to be confusing things. Impassivity, impartiality may apply as the scientist studies the facts, yet not when he or she is working with theory. Therefore one needs to add to ‘is’ and ‘ought’ the category ‘will’. How then does one distinguish ‘will’ from ‘ought’? Something I think has a major bearing on this is that scientific theory is never about certainty. Therefore strictly speaking, it cannot be about what ‘will’ happen when applied.

Martin Cohen said...

A problem here seems to me that 'ought' already contains a future-looking element. So is there a danger of redundancy? Here's an example. Sugar is fattening, so children ought not to eat too many sweets... or they WILL become fat...

Keith said...

Your intriguing closing question is this: “Is every move we make a moral one?”

Which got me to wonder, perhaps there are two corollaries to that question:

Is any move we make a moral one?

Is no move we make a moral one?

Might all three questions presuppose — hinge on — free will? That is, freely made thoughts, freely made decisions, freely made acts? As opposed to, say, some variant of determinism?

If we lack free will — there’s nothing to say categorically that neuroscientists won’t conclude as such, as some have cautiously contemplated — then might there be no sound basis, from a purist’s standpoint, on which to decide such matters of morality?

The ‘will-ought distinction’ notwithstanding.

So, for now at least, aren’t answers to the three questions above left unavoidably conditional?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Martin and Keith.

Martin, I'll highlight your 'They will become fat'. You mean, 'They ought to become fat'? How do you know that they will? Now suppose that one were to substitute a scientific theory: 'Excessive carbohydrates will convert to fat'. Or should one use an ought?

Keith: Yes, it does have to do with free will. Something related that it points to is our inability to predict what ought to be, because our theories are uncertain, incomplete. All we can say is, 'It ought to happen like this ...' Therefore we cannot prove that what is necessary for determinism (the cause and effect, or the will that we attribute to theory) exists.

Tessa den Uyl said...

To me it seems that there is an underlying question to this thought Thomas, namely WHY does human being tend to look for certainty?

The more an idea of certainty influences our lives, the smaller the cage in which moral and theoretical frameworks fit, the more soffocated we become. Instead of making the life experience large, it will be judged small. For one thought evokes another, along a chain. Then the option is to see many chains in space or tie yourself up around one, and this ought to bring the certainty to be morally safe. Now could there be any certainty in taking a little space while there is an infinite space in which to enfold life?

I wonder, if uncertainty would become the first teaching process instead of a system that tends to exclude uncertainty, would humanity change and the word ought erased from the dictionary? Are we able to be less moralistic in changing the use of language, and perhaps switch from a pretending to become? ( But see, here is the problem, is pretending not a becoming?)

How do you see the will-ought thought in regard to our essence of being?

Martin Cohen said...

My comment got lost! But I was just saying I agreed with Tessa, that 'uncertainty' or perhaps 'probablility' seems to be the key here. As Hume says himself, we humans seek to IMPOSE regularity and certainty on an unruly universe.

Thomas Scarborough said...

A good observation, Martin.

Tessa, a profound comment.

I might think of 'ought' the opposite way. If all of our thoughts are about the way things 'ought' to be, this means that all of our thoughts represent subjective judgements and not hard reality. Freedom then comes within our personal control, as it were.

It is a trade-off. If we decide that life is predictable, manage­able, and secure, through the way that we interpret it, we lose the essence of life: the wind in our hair, the smell of the rain, the chill of the evening, or the rising of the sun.

Keith said...

“WHY does human being tend to look for certainty?” Good question, Tessa. I do wonder, however, isn’t humanity’s search for certainty part of the larger yearning for understanding? Personally, I don’t blame humanity for the presence of what seems a natural instinct, as understanding — that is, getting ever closer to certainty, if only in some aspects — is perhaps more comforting than, say, still fearing that lightning and thunder are the gods’ wrath. Perhaps it’s good that we learn how to sort out reality from myth. Yet humanity’s quest will continue indefinitely, I’d propose, as there will always be plenty left unexplained or only partially explained. The so-called ‘theory of everything’ won’t be; there’ll always be yet more to explore and understand, no matter the timeframe. Besides, chaos theory adds another dimension of complexity. By way of one small aside, anytime I see or hear mention of ‘certainty’ I immediately think about the curious ‘uncertainties’ and ‘probabilities’ around matters of quantum physics.

Tessa den Uyl said...

I am trying to figure out whether I am understanding or not comprehending anything at all here! Perhaps, combining the post with all comments, what binds these together is that the question about: to be, has disappeared in the abyss of the question for identity?

Keith said...

Perhaps I’m muddled, but my concern in talking about the is-ought, fact-value, and will-ought distinctions comes down to narrowing agreed-upon definitions. More denotations and fewer connotations. That is, making as clear a distinction as possible between, perhaps, ‘is’ (narrowed to ‘matter of established fact’); ‘should’ (narrowed to ‘is likely or expected to’); ‘will’ (narrowed to ‘is definitely going to’); and ‘ought’ (narrowed to ‘is morally obligated to’). So, for instance, sometimes, though not in the discussions above, ‘should’ and ‘ought’ become conflated, resulting in ambiguity.

Thomas Scarborough said...

In response to Keith: thank you for a thoughtful comment. The classic comparison is between ought, should and must. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comments, 'We can use all three verbs to express broadly similar meanings: the main distinctions between them are related to degrees of emphasis.' I can think of further, related words or terms: you'll have to, I've got to, let us, you need to, and so on. You seem to be coming to it from a prescriptive angle: we can sort out the differences by giving it some care (the OED, I think, is descriptive). In my own scheme of things, 'is' belongs to the list of ought, should, etc. There is no dividing line. For example, 'It is like that and it ought not to be otherwise.' Applied to scientific theory (the toughest of cases), if we say that this is never sure (few would say that it is), can we ever, in principle, refer to it as 'is'? But in my post above, I refer to it as 'will'. It ought to happen as prescribed.

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