- believe morality is concerned with hypothetical imperatives.
- accept a Humean theory of reasons, i.e. what a person has reason to do is dependent on that person's psychology.
- accept the theory of action that a rational person will always try to fulfill her highest-priority desires, according to the information she has.
- agree that science — broadly construed — is vital in finding out the rightness or wrongness of an action.
'Ought' and Internalism
When Carrier defends his view that moral imperatives are a class of hypothetical imperatives, he admits this is an unpopular view among philosophers. "But," he says, "none have ever presented any other identifiable logical relation that can ever be meant by 'ought' (or any other term or phrase semantically equivalent to it) that produces any actual claim to our obedience."1
This close association of morality, the meaning of 'ought,' and motivational internalism rests at the very beginning of Carrier's chain of deductive logic in the appendix following the chapter. Here are the first three lines, with variables expanded:
1.1 If there is <a moral system>, then <a moral system> is <a system of imperatives that supersede all other imperatives>.Throughout the chapter, Carrier uses the phrases "what we in actual fact ought to do" and "what we as a matter of actual fact ought most to do" as synonyms, and contrasts this with "other things that carry no sufficient motivating reason for us to do them instead".3 You may recognize this as a strong form of motivational internalism, i.e. recognized moral facts necessarily provide some motivation or — in strong form — overriding motivation.
1.2 If <a moral system> is <a system of imperatives that supersede all other imperatives>, then <a moral system> is <what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems (whether they are labeled moral or not)>.
1.3 <what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems (whether they are labeled moral or not)> is <that which we have a sufficiently motivating reason to obey over all other imperative systems>.2
I think Carrier has a good point that if we start by insisting on internalism, then it's hard to see how moral facts could originate from anywhere but a person's own desires; and if we insist on strong internalism, how they could originate from anywhere but what a person desires most. Or consider a reasons-based version of internalism: a person always has some reason or overriding reason to act morally. If having a reason requires having some appropriate desire — which I affirm — then we're back to the same spot.
Contrary to Carrier, I hold that sentences like "Michael ought to contribute to UNICEF" or "Josephine ought not fire her pistol into the air when she celebrates" can represent true propositions even if Michael and Josephine happen to lack appropriate desires.
This means I deny (1.3). I'll make this denial punchier: it can be true that we have no reason to do what we ought to do.
How can I get away with saying this? Because I believe the word 'ought' requires an end (or goal) to complete its meaning and make it eligible for being true or false. At the same time, it doesn't require that anyone's desires be a certain way. The logical relation signified by 'ought' works something like this:
Michael ought[some end] to contribute to UNICEF.or more specifically:
In order that [some end], it ought to be the case that Michael contributes to UNICEF.The claim being made is that — among the relevant actions open to Michael — the one most likely to precede [some end] is that he contributes to UNICEF. (The 'ought' in the more specific parsing is a non-normative probability 'ought,' like "It ought to rain before midnight." I'm following Stephen Finlay's reductive analysis of normative 'oughts' into non-normative 'oughts' plus ends, which is motivated by making sense of normative language in general.)4
Really, though, I just want to drive home the point that 'ought' claims have a gap if you listen for it.
We're normally very adept at filling the gap from context and so we don't notice there ever was a gap. For example, "You ought to eat two cups of green vegetables per week" in typical contexts would suggest a health-related end. In a conversation about minimizing risk for liver cancer, we would fill in the more specific end of minimizing risk of liver cancer. At that point, we have a quite specific claim which is open to empirical investigation.
You oughtthat you minimize your risk of liver cancer to eat two cups of green vegetables per day.or
In order that [you minimize your risk of liver cancer], it ought to be the case that you eat two cups of green vegetables per day.Notice something else: the truth or falsity of this 'ought' claim does not depend on having actual or ideal desires about minimizing the risk of liver cancer.
Laying Claim to Our Obedience
What I'm saying is that true 'ought' statements don't necessarily lay claim to a person's obedience. Some do, because they connect with a person's desires, and this makes them the only imperatives important to that person, in a relevant sense.
I understand the phrases "there is a reason" and "Josephine has a reason" to reflect this distinction. There may be a reason for Josephine to not fire her pistol in the air when she celebrates (it might cause far more suffering than the joy she gains), but if she lacks certain desires she might not have a reason to refrain from pulling the trigger.
Carrier could grant all of the above, adjust his argument a bit, and still identify moral imperatives as imperatives which are both (1) true and (2) matter to a person by virtue of that person's desires. What I'm challenging in this post is the assertion that what a person "in actual fact ought to do" necessarily corresponds with what that person has motivating reason to do.
In other words, Carrier can't simply rule out other (i.e. externalist) uses of 'ought' as invalid. He needs to show that his moral theory is a better solution to metaethics in some way other than winning by default.
I may eventually follow up this post with my take on other parts of his overall moral theory, but this will do for now.
ADDED: A followup on the same topic is here.
1. Carrier, R. (2011). Moral facts naturally exist (and science could find them). In Loftus, J.W. (Ed.), The end of christianity (pp. 333-358). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 342
2. Ibid. p. 359
3. Ibid. p. 348
4. Finlay, S. (2009). Oughts and ends. In Philosophical studies, 143(3). pp 315-340. See my post on it.