Objectivist MetaEthics: Three

By Jimmy Wales

Date: Fri, 2 Dec 1994 07:54:59 -0500

From: Jimmy -Jimbo- Wales jwales@indiana.edu

To: ASP-Disc lsanger@magnus.acs.ohio-state.edu

Subject: Re: Defining 'ought'?

Mike Heumer writes:

> I mean something by "ought". What I mean by saying someone 'ought' to do

> something is exactly and only this: that he ought to do it. No more and

> no less. You might think this some sort of joke, but it's not. Let me

> put the point a different way: what I mean by the word "ought" is a unique

> and simple concept. I certainly can express that concept, viz. by the words

> "ought" or "should", but I don't see why I should be expected to express it

> in some other, more complicated phrases.

I don't know what concept the word "ought" refers to, when you use it. Can you help me understand to what you are referring

Let me see if I can explain what I do understand. If I've got this much right, then you can take me to the next level of understanding by answering the few questions I have, or if not, you can show me where I've gone wrong

You claim that the word "ought" designates a concept, a simple one. I presume that this means that there are some things in reality (actions, perhaps) which are similar in some relevant way, that can be sensibly and usefully considered together. Now, if these things are in fact _similar_ in some relevant way, then surely there is some _dimension_ along which they are similar, and some means of measuring (the word 'measure' here being used broadly, to include at least partial orderings) these things along that dimension

What is that measurement? I see two possible answers for you. Either you can specify that measurement to me in words, or you can specify that measurement to me through ostension. You can specify that measurement in words if you can state explicitly the criteria you use. I think you are saying that you can't do that, or at least you can't do it as well as I can for _my_ concept of "ought"

Now, you can specify that measurement to me only through ostension, I again see two possibilities. You can hold that _in principle_ this is the only way to communicate the concept (maybe it is axiomatic) or you can hold that it is the only way to communicate the concept because you don't yet know enough about the referents to clarify for me what it is that is similar. A case like the latter would be the color "blue" before the scientific discovery of the wavelengths of light and photoreceptors. You could point at a lot of blue things, but not be able to explain the facts that make it sensible to group them together. (I.E., the wavelengths and the physiology of the brain.) If you hold that _in principle_ it is not possible to specify what measurements you are omitting in forming the concept, then I'll need some argument to explain to me why this should be the case, since I think my concept of "ought" is perfectly valid

If you hold that you simply can't specify the measurements right now, then perhaps I can help you to educate your moral sense to such a degree that you can. (This isn't an insult, it is an oblique reference to Prichard. (who likely would agree?))

Your argument appears to be an argument that everything is definable --

which thesis, as I've said in the past, is untenable, as it requires either

a circular set of definitions or an infinite regress

Not necessarily! I admit "ostensive definition" as a valid possibility, and I think that it closes things up quite nicely. I _think_ that you will answer by saying that you _can_ give an ostensive definition by pointing to examples of "oughts." If I understand you correctly, though, you'll say that you can't explain _why_ those things are "oughts" and that you'll answer any disagreements by claiming that if I can't see it, I'm a moral imbecile

(Again, a reference to Prichard!)

Anyway, I would ask you what you mean by "further" when you say that if a

person does an action, he will further his life thereby. To apply your

reasoning: if you mean anything by it, you should be able to say what it


I don't mean anything special by it, nothing secret! One furthers one's life when one makes it more secure, more comfortable, more pleasant, and longer. One hinders one's life when one does something that makes it less secure, less comfortable, less pleasant, and shorter. In all normal cases, these all amount to the same things

Notice that I'm using two different perspectives on the same thing here -- the internal and the external. We can go into great depth about all this, but I get the feeling that yet another discussion of my moral code is not what the list will be interested in. So perhaps we can just stick to your concept?




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