George Walford: Ought This to Be?

People interested in ethics tend to maintain that one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ The Editor of The Ethical Record, for example: ‘There is no way that, starting from an “is” or purely factual statement, one can rigorously deduce from it an “ought” statement or a moral imperative.’ A writer in the Financial Times (25 October p36) adds that neither science nor logic can deliver any ‘ought.’

If we accept this we find ourselves facing another question: If ‘ought’ cannot come from ‘is,’ not even under scientific or logical examination, where does it come from?

If there were some core, however small, of ethics to which all humans subscribed, something they all agreed ought to be done or not done, we could take this at least as a given, an ethic whose source we need not worry about. No such panhuman ethic appears. Meeting the obvious objections head-on, substantial social groups have seen both killing and stealing as acceptable, at least under certain circumstances. Suttee, judicial killings, warfare and human sacrifice have all won acceptance, somewhere and at some time, as not only correct but meritorious, while reivers, rioters and conquerors have thought it right to help themselves to other people’s property.

There is no absolute ethic, not even a universal one, and while much variation arises from merely contingent factors, the people of one area rejecting behaviour accepted by neighbours otherwise like themselves, other ethical divisions arise from differences of major ideology. According to one’s ideological attachment people of ethnic origin different from one’s own ought / ought not be treated as fully human; the poor ought / ought not receive subsistence as of right; we ought / ought not submit to established authority; the common good ought / ought not have priority over personal advantage. This ethical element produces much of the bitterness that often accompanies ideological disputes; opponents not only act differently from ourselves, they do wrong.

The ‘ought’ that does not come from ‘is’ comes, partly at least, from ideology.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.