Is vs. Ought

1996-11-14

A conversation with a friend has raised the issue of the is/ought dichotomy, so I've been thinking about that of late. I guess I reject one side of this dichotomy, because I advocate letting go of ought - i.e., of imperative concepts. I suppose I would say that ethical imperatives are illegitimate so of course there is no legitimate way to get from is to ought! My focus is on what is good, better, or best in an objective way. I am a conceptual being, so independent thinking is good - or, to generalize, I have the capacity to think, choose, act, and feel, so it is good to do those things. Or to specify, there is a deep affinity between me and a friend of mine, so it is good for me to pursue our friendship, to do the things that build our friendship. And it is better for me to spend time on you than it is to spend time on an acquaintance I may have with someone who is less important to me - there is a connection here to my hierarchy of values. I think perhaps that the very existence of comparative concepts of objective value (good, better, best) conduces to the development and clarification of my hierarchy of values - but can the same be said for imperative concepts like ought? I ought to spend time on you, but I also ought to spend time on my sister or on an acquaintance - how am I supposed to choose? The only thing I can do is trump one ought with an even more imperative ought - that doesn't seem like the best way to reason about what to do. I need to think about that one some more...


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