Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.