My Problem with the ‘Is-Ought’ Problem

My thoughts concerning the is-ought fallacy are confused, because I am not sure what the content of the fallacy is supposed to be. If it is such that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a ready counterexample comes to mind:

  1. If a person sees a baby drowning and can help, that person ought to help.
  2. A person sees a baby drowning and can help.
  3. Therefore, that person ought to help.

There, I’ve done it–I’ve derived an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The argument is deductively valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. But are the premises true? While premise [2] isn’t true of me or anyone I know, it is true of someone. Thus, the soundness of the argument is not threatened by premises [2]. What about premise [1]? Ah, this is where the is-oughter can press her challenge. She can assert, “You are helping yourself to an ‘ought’ in the consequent of the conditional. What you have to do is give purely descriptive premises and then conclude with an ‘ought’ something you cannot do.” Thus, I would have to argue like so:

  1. A person sees baby drowning and can help.
  2. Therefore, that person ought to help.

Now the argument is invalid, because it assumes p and concludes q, which is a non sequitur. Thus, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

I demur. Suppose, I cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and that I see a baby drowning and I can help. Should I help? I should think so and so should you. It would be no defense to appeal to the impossibility of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ if I responded to the situation by saying, “That’s too bad,” and kept on my way. We know that such a response is wrong if we know anything is wrong (would it be wrong to punish me if my is-ought defense is legitimate? If so, then why?). But if we know this is wrong, then the problem is not with our moral knowledge, but our logical language, which does have a rule of inference that allows us to move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’ Just because the logic we are using is incomplete does not mean that there is no fact of the matter regarding what I should do.

Therefore, at best, the is-ought problem is one that besets our deontic logical languages. Perhaps there is a language that has a sound rule of inference by which we can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The is-oughter cannot assume there isn’t one without begging the question. In any event, it is far from obvious that the is-ought problem besets our moral reasoning in general. We should beware of becoming ethical methodists who require that every empirically conditioned moral claim be justified by some method of derivation. Furthermore, we should make room for our intuitive moral judgments–they cannot be ignored.


Intending and Foreseeing in Selma

I recently saw the movie Selma, and it prompted some thought about the distinction between intending to do something, and foreseeing but not intending to do something. This distinction is a controversial one. Some think it makes all the difference and allows for a variety of actions that would normally be condemned, for example diverting a runaway trolley on to the one rather than the five or bombing civilians in a raid on military targets. Proponents of the Doctrine of Double-Effect affirm this distinction–call this ‘position A.’ Others think it makes no difference; if one foresees a consequence of one’s action, and acts anyway, then one intends to bring about that consequence. Utilitarian ethicists like Henry Sidgwick deny this distinction as does the author of a book I’m reading right now, Ethics Without Intention. Call this ‘position B.’

How does this relate to Selma? Well, here’s my question: did the protesters who marched on Bloody Sunday intend to be violently repressed or did they they merely foresee, but not intend it? (Yes, I realize only a philosopher could be so irreverently pedantic to reflect on such an abstract question in the wake of such a solemn event. For what its worth I shed tears while watching the movie and gasped while reading the first-hand accounts of it afterwards–I didn’t think about this question until later.).

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The Problem of Fr** W*ll or Verbal Essentialism

At the end of February earlier this year I had the privilege of hearing Peter van Inwagen give the keynote address at the North Carolina Philosophical Society. His paper was entitled “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” which sounds a lot like “The Problem of Free Will”–more on that in a moment. What follows is taken from his handout and it is worth thinking hard about. At issue are three theses:

Thesis One: On at least some occasions when a human agent is trying to decide between two or more incompatible courses of action, that agent is able to perform each of them.

Thesis Two: If the bad consequences of a decision are ever the fault of the person who made the decision, then Thesis One is true.

Determinism: the thesis that the past and the laws of nature determine a unique future. Indeterminism is the thesis that the past and the laws of nature do not determine a unique future.

The problem: There are seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that Thesis One is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, and there are seemingly unanswerable arguments for Thesis Two. Since either determinism or indeterminism must be true, the conclusion of these arguments imply that nothing is ever anyone’s fault–and it is evident that it’s simply false that nothing is ever anyone’s fault.

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Two Wills, Yes; A Will to Damn, No: A Response to Piper

I’ve been reading Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?; here’s a way of thinking about the issues. Consider the following argument:

  1. If the doctrine of Unconditional Election is true, then God prefers that not all be saved.
  2. But the Bible says that God prefers that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of Unconditional Election is false.

How might the the defender of Unconditional Election respond? One might deny [2] by some method of interpretation that concludes that the verses in question do not really say God prefers that all be saved. Piper entertains this idea, but rejects it; perhaps he interprets things this way, but his point is that it not necessary to do so. What about [1]? Some deny it by saying things like, “God does not reject anyone; rather he passes over them in sorrow.” But this is a distinction without difference. If a President receives two petitions for pardon and only pardons one rather than both, we would not make sense of the President’s actions by saying that the one unpardoned was not rejected but only “passed over.” So what is the defender of Unconditional Election to do?

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Can Love Be Manipulated Manufactured?

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)Edit: a better title would have been: Can love potions or drugs cause real love? Or can love be manufactured? Of course, love can be manipulated! 

“Amortenia doesn’t really create love, of course. It is impossible to manufacture or imitate love. No this will simply cause a powerful infatuation or obsession. It is probably the most dangerous and powerful potion in this room — oh yes.”

–Professor Horace Slughorn in the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (by J.K. Rowling).

“Suppose Ann causally determines you to love her by manipulating your brain so that you are oblivious to her flaws of character, and by slipping Love Potion Number 9 into your morning coffee. That would be objectionable. But imagine instead that you have a self-destructive proclivity to love people who are harmful to you, and not to love those who would benefit you, partly because you have a tendency overlook people’s valuable characteristics, such as kindness and concern for the well-being of others. Suppose Ann slips a drug into your coffee that eliminates this tendency, as a result of which you are able to fully appreciate her valuable characteristics, and as a result you are causally determined to love her. How bad would that be? It would seem that what is unacceptable is not being causally determined to love by the other party per se, but rather how one is causally determined, and that there are varieties of determination by the other party that are not objectionable.”

–Derk Pereboom from Free Will, Love, and Anger.

There are things in both of these statements I agree and disagree with. I’m with Slughorn: love potions can’t create real love in those who imbibe them, but I think it is perfectly possible to imitate love–actors do it all the time to convincing degrees. I disagree with Pereboom that Ann produces genuine love in her subject, though I agree, assuming Ann is worthy of love, that she wills the good of her subject (let’s call him Ben). My problem is this: Ben’s love for Ann does not come from Ben or through Ben in a way that befits love. How to make sense of this befitting is difficult, but I submit that Ben’s love for Ann is genuine only if Ben’s love for Ann is best explained by Ben–his nature, will, and dispositions. The reasons for loving Ann ought to be explained by Ben’s ability to find Ann lovely. This is not the case in Pereboom’s example, because Ben’s so-called “love” for Ann is best explained by a drug so that he might act in ways that imitate love for her. The reason we might not find Ann’s behavior objectionable is because she is doing something good for Ben, not because Ben is doing something good for her. Would it not be better if Ben could learn to love Ann without the aid of a drug? Surely, it would be a more valuable state of affairs for Ben to find Ann lovely by virtue of his own ability. Perhaps a drug is what is needed to get Ben habituated in the right ways so that he can develop the right character so as to love Ann. And Ann, being the kind of person who wills the best for Ben, would want Ben to come to a place where Ben could love her on his own. Everything said so far makes no claims about whether or not Ben could resist Ann after he is free of the drug or not. I only claim that genuine love cannot be so manipulated manufactured.

Must Love Be Chosen?

Love must always be chosen. Love never forces itself on someone. So says Benjamin Corey, who echos popular beliefs about the nature of love. But is it true? I think not, because in both cases there are clear counterexamples.

It is not the case that love must always be chosen. Suppose it is: then every mother had to will herself to love her newborn child when it was placed in her arms. If not, she failed to love her baby. That is very hard to believe, for in many cases such love naturally arises without a second-thought, and remains in place without interruption. Only malformed parents have to will themselves to love their child at birth. This is not the say that there are not cases where exemplary love is chosen–enemy love for example. In that case, love is not naturally determined by the nature of the beloved, and takes conscious effort of the will to bring about. Such love is admirable in its own way, but not all forms of love require such willing. From a theological point of view (a view Corey speaks from), it does not appear that the Trinitarian Persons must choose to love one another. Indeed, there would be something defective or imperfect about a love that requires such a choice, for if the beloved is worthy of love, claiming that it is up to us to bestow love on the beloved disrespects the beloved.

It is not the case that love never forces itself on someone. No doubt this is plausible, but think of a couple who adopts an orphaned infant who lives in dire poverty. It is not up to the beloved in this case to accept or reject the love of the adoptive parents: the love of the parents is related to the infant without the infant’s consent, and it would not be wrong to remain so related to the infant who might grow up and reject the love of the adoptive parents.

To be fair, Corey is talking about romantic love, the kind a man expresses to a woman in a marriage proposal: it would be unloving to override her autonomy, and that surely seems correct. It would be too much to spell out what exactly “autonomy” entails, but with respect to love, I think the intuition Corey is trying to explain is this: the beloved must not be manipulated into loving the lover. This explains why the “love” that comes from the beloved who is under the influence of a love potion concocted by the lover is a farce (see the video below). And this plausible belief underlies Corey’s objection to the Calvinist’s doctrine of irresistible grace, which implies that the love that comes from the beloved to the lover is such that it is produced by the lover. Presumably, God is interested in there being a genuine love relationship between him and his creatures, and the kind that results from irresistible grace is not it.




Causing Death and Saving Lives


In Causing Deaths and Saving Lives Jonathan Glover offers a broadly utilitarian analysis of killing. It is, however, not purely utilitarian; Glover makes room for respecting the autonomy of those who wish to go on living even if we cannot determine what it is that makes their lives worth living (perhaps, though, this grounded in some kind of rule utilitarianism). Indeed, Glover thinks that the wrongness of killing (considered apart from its side-effects on others) is explained by either the overriding of another’s autonomy or by reducing the total amount of worthwhile life that would otherwise exist if no life-thwarting action were taken. While this classic volume is easy to read, non-technical, honest, and fair, the foundational assumptions seem to me to be drastically flawed.

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