Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.