I’m going to try to describe a relation between is and ought. I was introduced
to these two creatures by alex karan and I have done cursory reading of what ye
interwebbe has to say on the subject, so please forgive my possibly naive
My eventual goal is to describe a heuristic for comparing moral systems, so
maybe that will make this bother a little more interesting.
The is is what is, independent of any judgement or morality. Science is a
process of studying what is. With a reasonably accurate understanding of what
is, you can make limited predictions about what will be; if this ball is
unsupported and four meters above the ground, its future will include
accelerating at 9.8m/sec^2.
The ought is what should be; a moral rule or system. They are beliefs that
provide rules for action and judgment. Within a moral system, or with a moral
rule, you can make prescriptions or proscriptions about future behaviour; given
the moral rule “Thou shalt not kill”, someone who kills has violated the rule.
People talking about morals have talked about deontological vs.
consequentialist theories. The latter argue that a moral rule can only be
judged by its consequences; the former say that consequences alone don’t
determine the morality of an action.
I’m taking something of a pragmatic consequentialist approach. As someone who
is observing a moral rule in others, I can only be aware of its existence to
the extent that it affects someone’s behaviour (which includes self-reporting).
There might be more to the rule than the behaviour I observe, but if I can
observe no behavioural effects of a moral rule I can’t evaluate it.
I’m going to go a little out on a limb and suggest that even within a group of
people who all purport to adhere to the same moral rules, these moral rules
have to be identified by their effects; i.e. I know that my god-fearing neighbor
Bob believes in christian charity because I see him giving money to the
For the purposes of discussion, I’d like to delineate three general classes of
moral rules: moral rules that are being fulfilled, moral rules that can be
fulfilled, and moral rules that are impossible to fulfill.
In some sense you could consider this a scale of “isness”; a moral rule that is
being perfectly adhered to has the property of being both an ought and an is,
and on the other end a moral rule that’s completely impossible has hardly a
whiff of isness.
One can, of course, take an impossible moral rule and bring it as close to
reality as possible. A good example of this is jain monks; their rule to kill
no life is impossible, but they do bring it admirably close to fulfillment at
rather extensive personal cost.
We’ve established two things; that a moral rule may be expressed to a greater
or lesser degree, and that an observer can only identify a moral rule to the
extent that it is expressed.
As identification is a prerequisite to comparison, the only moral rules that we
can hope to compare are those that find expression