Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Mysterious Case of the Prescriptive Ought

A while ago I had a very pleasant debate on the moral argument with a person named Wade who blogs under the nickname Maverick Christian.   He’s been commenting on the Real Atheology Facebook post I made regarding my new video series, and I wanted to write a post explaining the problems I see with his views. 

During the debate we didn’t at all cover the usual ground when it comes to the moral argument as Wade has (what seems to me) a very odd defense of the moral argument.  Wade argues that a “prescriptive ought” is what a theistic or Platonistic meta-ethical theory would get us, but he doesn’t think the Platonic option is available for atheists to believe in for a variety of reasons (we disagree there too, but it’s certainly a novel approach). 

Wade holds that a prescriptive ought is different from a descriptive ought, where a descriptive ought is in reference to some kind of value or goal.  Like “if you don’t want to starve, you ought to eat”.

Wade accuses me of being a “stealth moral nihilist”, alleging that I’m using an unconscious cognitive defense mechanism when I deny that most people are talking about a “prescriptive ought” when they’re talking about morality. 

My response is that I think Wade’s conception of a “prescriptive, unconditional ought” is confused.  It’s not what apologists and philosophers talk about when they discuss “objective moral duties”, in William Lane Craig’s case he explicitly defines objective as “mind independently true”.

If moral duties are grounded in natural facts about human nature and universal human desires, then those duties will be objectively true in the sense Craig defines them.  This also doesn’t entail making some grand metaphysical commitment, morality becomes as real as the economy.

But one doesn’t have to be a moral naturalist to think that the idea of a “prescriptive, unconditional ought” as Wade conceives of it is nonsensical – in fact even theists like Craig think so!

This is because it doesn’t make any sense to conceive of an “ought” without referencing some kind of underlying desire, value, or reason for action – even on theism. The problem for Wade is that once you reference an “ought” to an underlying desire or reason it becomes what he calls a “descriptive ought”.

In fact I think that if one does not reference an “ought” with respect to some kind of underlying desire, they undercut our deeply held moral intuitions – the very thing that justifies our belief that objective moral values and duties exist in the first place!

We can see this via a thought experiment:
“Consider two men, Bret and Chet who are on different seemingly deserted streets in different parts of the country. 

While walking down the street and contemplating how they are in some dire financial straits, a woman wearing a rather large diamond ring  is going for her daily run and is coming up the sidewalk behind them (assume we have parallel women to go with our two subjects).  The woman is momentarily distracted by something, lets say an expensive Italian sports car just drove by, and she accidentally bangs her hand into Bret/Chet.  After quickly apologizing to our subject, she continues her run.
Unknown to her, she’s knocked the rather large diamond off of its setting in her ring, and it falls to the ground right in front of Bret/Chet who notice the diamond and realize how such a gem could really help them out of their financial problems.
As both men reach down to pick up the gem, they consider that by simply taking the diamond they’d be doing something morally wrong – they ought to call out to the woman and return her property.
As Bret stands up with the diamond, he considers how he’d feel if he lost something so valuable and that he wants to do the right thing - so calls out to the woman and returns the gem.

However as Chet stands up he’s still considering what he is going to do when he notices in his peripheral vision a police officer on the corner is watching him as he picks up the gem.  All moral deliberation stops as Chet realizes that he simply doesn’t want to be arrested for theft, and so he immediately calls out to the woman and returns the gem.”

Bret and Chet both fulfilled their moral obligation: they called out to the woman and returned the diamond. 

However in this situation our moral intuitions tell us that Bret is the only moral one out of the two – because he gave the gem back because he desired to do good!  His desire to do good may be grounded in his empathy, but in the end that was his desire and so he did what he ought to have done and returned the gem.

Conversely Chet’s moral deliberation was cut off before he made his decision, and his motivation to return the gem was purely pragmatic in nature – he simply didn’t want to get arrested and go to jail.  While Chet may have done what he ought to do morally speaking, we don’t consider what he did to be a moral decision so much as a pragmatic one. 

Notice that if we don’t make any link between ones desires or reasons for action and what one ought to do, then moral duties are “free floating” – and there’s no way to say that there was a moral difference between Bret and Chet since they both did the same action and their motivations can’t be factored in to our moral judgement. 

As a moral naturalist, I believe that the brute facts about our nature as biological conscious creatures dictate a set of universal desires that each of us will have – and that is an objective fact about reality. 
Those desires then perform the grounding work as the basis for our moral duties.

Note that this is very analogous to how apologists and theistic philosophers typically ground moral values and duties with Modified Divine Command Theory:

Moral Values are ontologically grounded by facts about god’s nature.

Moral Duties are ontologically grounded by god’s commands – which is why William Lane Craig says that MDCT derives an ought from an is. 

He explicitly either grounds the obligation to follow god’s commands in either the nature of authority OR by accepting an infinite regress of divine commands.  In either case it’s descriptive, or at least not any less descriptive than grounding moral duties on the brute facts of universal desires rooted in biology. 

Theists consider one to be moral if they obey god’s commands because they love god and want to do good. They wouldn’t consider it a moral decision if someone disagreed with god’s commands but obeyed god anyway because they wanted to avoid divine punishment.  So ones desires are a factor in the morality of ones actions even on Modified Divine Command Theory!

That is why I reject the idea of a “prescriptive ought” being appreciably different than what Wade calls a “descriptive ought”. An ought is an ought, and it’s always rooted in some kind of value or desire – it simply doesn’t make sense otherwise.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. How can Craig even believe in the possibility of an infinite regress of divine commands, given that he thinks infinite regresses are impossible?

  3. First, let's start with what my views actually are, since they weren't represented all that well in the blog post (the casual reader might still be fuzzy on what a "prescriptive ought" is). By “descriptive ought” I mean any type of ought that is nothing more than some purely descriptive state of affairs, e.g. “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study” meaning something like “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school.” By “prescriptive ought” I mean that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought; it prescribes and is not purely descriptive, e.g. “You should not to torture infants just for fun.” My view is that when people speak of moral oughts, they typically have in mind the prescriptive ought.

    But one doesn’t have to be a moral naturalist to think that the idea of a “prescriptive, unconditional ought” as Wade conceives of it is nonsensical – in fact even theists like Craig think so!

    I see no evidence of this. Where does Craig say or imply he doesn't have the prescriptive ought in mind vis-à-vis moral obligations?

    The problem for Wade is that once you reference an “ought” to an underlying desire or reason it becomes what he calls a “descriptive ought”.

    This is false; a descriptive ought is just any type of ought that has no other properties besides purely descriptive ones. Prescriptive oughts cannot be purely descriptive but they can have at least some descriptive characteristics, such as being ontologically grounded in God's divine commands or providing reasons for action.

    Indeed, the prescriptive ought supplies what is sometimes called the categoricity of morality, and is thus reason-giving. Philosopher Matthew Jordan describes this categoricity like this: "Moral reasons are reasons for all human persons, regardless of what goals or desires they may have." The prescriptive ought would do this, and is of course is different from the conditional ought (also called the hypothetical ought), i.e. the ought of hypothetical imperatives, which describes what to do to help accomplish a particular goal. An example of a hypothetical imperative is “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study.” (Note: all hypothetical oughts are descriptive oughts, but not all descriptive oughts are hypothetical oughts.)

    You might still think that prescriptive oughts do not exist, but that would be a different objection from what I'm addressing here. I'm posting this mainly to clear up some misunderstandings.