Can we derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’?

I recall that fatefull day in 1959 when I was told in Grade 11 physics class, by our single-world-view, subject-incompetent, and gender-biased  teacher, “Hill, stand up! What are the three states of matter?”

I slowly stood up in front of all my classmates, though briefly, and replied: “It matters. It doesn’t matter. And, what difference does it make?” I received two weeks’ detention.

Of course the answer he was looking for was “solids, liquids, and gases”, but since I didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual, I thought I’d have my ‘moment in the sun’. My parents weren’t pleased. But I went on to pass the course reasonably well anyway.

“Mattering theory”, espoused by Rebecca Goldstein (2017; Free Inquiry, 37,2) is another matter. “…ought is embedded in the attitudes and emotions that allow us to pursue recognizably human lives.” It as nothing to do with material things as a verb; rather, it’s a position taken within the broad spectrum of ‘morality’ that holds that ‘if it matters to me/us, I/we should do it’. In other words, if an existing state of affairs in human society suggests a moral imperative to act is contained within it, such that a) doing nothing will bring about bad or worse consequences, or b) doing something will bring about good or better consequences – we should opt automatically for doing something. Even if doing something is sacrificial of our own interests.

Situations in which weighed consequences drive actions toward the common good (Kant), matter. Altruism matters. Self-sacrifice, matters. Social movements, matter for the participants, even if violence is sometimes necessary (French Revolution, Communist Revolution, Irish Rebellion, Women’s Rights, etc.).

To the extent that neuroscience and philosophy can converge around ‘free will’ (Free Inquiry, 37, 5), we are able to say that individuals can freely choose from among alternative courses of action. We can derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ because our actions are the best (in our minds, rightly or wrongly) for all intents and purposes. Since the ‘gap’ between the physiology of our synaptic prods and responses, and what we think and say, is not fully understood, this (as yet) non-determinism leaves us with the social efficacy of talking about ‘free will.’

So, as in my introductory example, choosing to say the wrong thing, that got me into trouble, was a price I was willing to pay for ‘higher’ ends, i.e., ridicule, and classroom levity. I felt I ‘ought’ to have been sarcastic in that time, place and circumstance. It was indeed a golden opportunity. I had derived ought from is, and it made me feel better. I momentarily escaped the social norms of classroom behaviour of my own free will. It mattered to me, and later to my classmates, that I did it.

Deriving ought from is, is a exclusively human experience that couples instinct with intuition, to create moral and practical outcomes that for the most part (so far) act to enhance or preserve the species. Ignorance is the arch-enemy of such derivations.


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