Tag Archives: hypothetical imperatives

Moral realism versus hypothetical imperatives

Moral realism is the doctrine that there are “moral facts”. Moral facts are declarations of what is or is not moral (“Stealing is morally wrong”) or what we ought or ought not do (“We ought to abolish the death penalty”). In order to be “facts”, these statement have to describe objective features of the world, and so be independent of subjective human opinion on the matter. In order to be “moral” facts (as opposed to other sorts of facts), they need to declare what, morally, we ought to do or not do.

I’m an anti-realist. As I see it, the only form of “oughtness” that actually exists, is instrumental oughtness. That is, statements of the form “If you want to attain Y, you ought to do X”. Such statements, termed hypothetical imperatives by Kant, can be objectively true descriptions of how things are. The statement “If you want to attain Y, then you ought to do X” can be re-phrased as “Doing X will attain Y”, which can indeed be a true fact about the world.

However, the oughtness, the conclusion “I ought to do X”, rests on wanting Y. And wanting Y is a human value or desire, and so is subjective. Hence, hypothetical imperatives do not amount to objective “ought” prescriptions. Thus hypothetical imperatives are generally not regarded as “moral facts” of the sort needed to establish moral realism. (Indeed, after discussing “hypothetical imperatives”, Kant then went on to try to establish “categorical imperatives” for that reason.)

Everyone who considers this topic accepts the existence of the “instrumental oughts” decreed by hypothetical imperatives, and yet only half of moral philosophers are moral realists. Moral realism is generally held to be the much stronger notion that there are “moral oughts” that hold objectively, regardless of how we feel about them; things that we “ought to do” regardless of our personal desires.

Or so I thought. But I recently read an article by Richard Carrier, the secularist blogger, author and historian best known for his work on the historicity of Jesus, in which he argues that hypothetical imperatives can indeed be objective moral facts, and thus that moral realism is true.

His argument can be summarised from the premises:

(1) There will be some outcome that John most wants.
(2) There will be some action that best attains what John most wants.

… followed by the hypothetical imperative:

(3) In order to attain that outcome, John ought to take that action.

All of the above are objective facts about the world. Carrier then reasons: Given (1), (2) and (3), we have the conclusion:

John ought to take that action. He maintains that this conclusion is also an objective fact about the world, a “moral fact” that establishes moral realism.

That argument depends on treating the English language as a formal logical system, leading to the syllogism:

(1) If A then ought-B;
(2) A;
therefore ought-B.

But common-usage languages are not formal logical systems. What is the actual content of the statement: “In order to attain that outcome, John ought to take that action”? It surely means (re-phrasing without the word “ought”): “Taking that action will attain that outcome”. Does the version including the word “ought” connote anything additional to that re-phrasing? I don’t see that it does. (And if it does, then what?)

But if it doesn’t then the phrase “… John ought to take that action” cannot be separated from the “In order to attain that outcome …”. The phrase “John ought to do X” is then an incomplete thought, inviting the question “else what?”, in the same way that “taking that action will …” is an incomplete thought. Carrier’s attempt to translate a hypothetical imperative into an objective “ought” seems to me to fail.

If a hypothetical imperative could qualify as a “moral fact” then it would have to be the case that the statement “Doing X will attain Y” could also be a moral fact, since that means the same thing. (Again, if anyone wants to argue that there is more to a hypothetical imperative than that then please elucidate.) But I doubt if philosophers generally would accept that factual statements of the form “doing X will attain Y” are “moral facts”.

Indeed, my criticism of moral realism rests on the basic question: What does “John ought to do X” even mean?

I can translate a hypothetical imperative into a different phrasing, and so I understand what an instrumental ought amounts to, but I don’t understand what an “objective ought” is even supposed to mean. And I’ve never heard a moral realist give a proper explanation; they tend to treat it as intuitively obvious and so don’t ask the question. And yet, if we’re examining the very roots of morality, we need an answer.

I read Carrier’s article since, as an anti-realist, I try to look for good arguments for moral realism. But I don’t find his argument convincing. I do think that his account of morality, as containing nothing more than human values coupled with hypothetical imperatives, is actually the correct one, but it seems to me to be better labelled “anti-realist”.

This illustrates an interesting foible of human psychology. People’s intuitive sense of moral realism is so strong that people feel that there is something badly wrong with an anti-realist conclusion, even when reason leads them that way. They really do want there to be some way in which morality can be labelled “objective”, and they are willing to try hard to construct (faulty) arguments to that end. The better conclusion is in realising that there is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!