Why “ought” we to do anything?

In the early chapters of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis builds up an argument for God’s existence based on our sense of morality: what Lewis calls the “Law of Human Nature”. I don’t propose to look at that argument in this post, but just at one particular point Lewis makes in response to a common objection:

Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it. Human beings, after all. have some sense; they see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they can see this that they try to behave decently.

I think an equivalent view today would be that the human moral sense has evolved; that there is (we surmise) a selection advantage in our having mechanisms that lead us to act against our immediate selfish interests.

However, Lewis argues that, while it is true that human society can indeed only exist (let alone flourish) if individuals and nations are “honest and fair and kind to each other”, this “misses the point” as an explanation for our sense of right and wrong:

If we ask: ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it is good for society’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ – which simply brings us back to where we started.

And Lewis continues:

[I]f a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, ‘in order to benefit society,’ for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for ‘society’ after all only means ‘other people’), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, ‘Men ought to be unselfish.’

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish; ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, not that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be.

It’s that word “ought” that leaps out at me; that notion of “oughtness”, that our sense of right and wrong corresponds to something external to us, something which has (in some sense) an existence independent of us and which has (in some sense) a claim upon us; that “oughtness” is in some way built into the fabric of reality. Because it’s not simply that we acknowledge that unselfishness (or honesty, or justice, or courage, or any other virtues) are beneficial, but that we experience them as having this sort of claim upon us, of being something we “ought” to do or to be.

Again, no polemics here; I am no doubt being very philosophically naive, and so I am open to enlightenment and correction; but I fail to see how an atheist (or secular humanist, or whatever term you wish to apply) can avoid admitting that “oughtness” in this sense is ultimately an illusion. That to say one “ought” to be unselfish (say) ultimately means nothing more than saying “there is a selection advantage (or some other benefit) for human beings, not only from behaving unselfishly, but from behaving as if to do so were an external moral imperative, something they ‘ought’ to do”. In which case, I don’t see how there is a way out of the circular reasoning identified by Lewis above.

Of course, if there is no external “oughtness” in this sense, then to say “nevertheless, it is beneficial for us to act as if there were” is preferable to nihilism. But in that case I think we’d need to admit that that’s the game we’re playing, and (to go back to my previous post) I think we’d need to be aware of the fact that an “oughtness” that is a useful social construct is likely to be an “oughtness” whose claims are easier to set aside when they become inconvenient to us.


13 thoughts on “Why “ought” we to do anything?”

  1. Thought-provoking post, thanks. I came up against something similar when working on a paper about the historiography of Jacobean drama in the twentieth century (honest!) I was investigating why so many accounts of The Duchess of Malfi use WWII as a defining point in its history when there isn’t enough evidence from the time to back that up (which is another story) and came across an interview with the moral philosopher Philippa Foot (by Julian Bagginni, in the book “What More Philosopher Think”).

    She explained – in the context of mentioning that several of her philosopher friends were Catholic and though she didn’t share their beliefs her work was also driven by intense personal conviction – that her moral objectivism was sparked by seeing first pictures of the concentration camps when she was a young woman in the aftermath of the war. She became convinced then that subjectivism wasn’t a possible position – it could not be the case that the only difference between Nazism and her own beliefs was that they made different ethical statements about their preferences. It had taken her most of her subsequent career to develop an objective ethical theory strong enough to satisfy her, during which time the vast majority of her colleagues were subjectivists and she felt rather out of the mainstream of philosophy. But for her – and I want to be careful here, and be clear I’m paraphrasing! – the pictures has acted as a sort of moral revelation. The way she discusses them, they weren’t evidence so much as something which convinced by by other means than argument.

    Of course that account cuts both ways (and in my own paper I’m arguing for a more sceptical approach to WWII in theatre historiography) – one could say that she was/is out of step with the field, or that she was using a subjective experience as the basis for a career of objective moral philosophy…! Or indeed that this is simply ethical theory quietly taking over the categories of theology to underpin itself. Anyway, interesting post, thanks.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for this. I’m not familiar with Philippa Foot’s work: in what sense did she consider her moral philosophy to be “objective”? What was the basis she found for it?

  2. Very interesting post. Please bear in mind the following is the work of someone whose knowledge of theology is, shall we say, incomplete….

    Could there not be a ‘middle way’ through this? It seems to me that many of the conflicts between atheism (or any other belief system lacking an ‘external guarantor of the good’, for want of a better phrase) and a theistic approach to morality take place at the margins- for example, there is a broad prohibition against taking a human life, across time and culture. The debates over life/death issues typically take place where the status of the individual as ‘having a life with meaning’ is contestable, eg in the case of abortion or euthanasia at the end of life.

    Similarly, in the case of slaves in the Roman Empire, their lives were viewed as being of less worth (and therefore more casually disposable), because their ‘sum total’ of humanity was deemed to be lesser. This is obviously repugnant to us now, but at that time, in that society, it made perfect sense. I don’t think there is a danger of our reverting to those beliefs, btw, as the internal prohibition combined with the outer scaffolding of social opinion has calcified against slavery to such an extent, it’s reintroduction would be impossible.

    This suggests to me that it is an internal, evolved sense of oughtness (I’m painfully aware that I’m opening entire cases of cans of worms here) which inheres in us as humans, combined with socially defined (& therefore mutable) definitions of moral behaviour that makes up the sense of something being right/wrong we all possess.

    Apologies if I have raised more questions than I have settled, but such are my thoughts….

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for this.

      One reason I went for the slightly ugly “oughtness” was to put to one side (or perhaps sidestep) the question of differing moralities. Though I think the fact that most disputes occur in relation to “edge cases”, with a consensus on the “big issues”, in part demonstrates the point: Lewis makes the point that, while people have disagreed over the circumstances in which killing is justifiable, no system of morality worthy of the name has ever said you can kill whoever you like.

      But all that set aside, that still leaves the question of “oughtness” itself. I think we feel very deeply that some things really ought to be done, and some things ought not to be done. Even people who disagree on where those lines are drawn still act as if the lines are there. The question is whether that is anything more than an evolutionarily useful illusion – “it is beneficial for human beings to think and act as if oughtness existed” – or whether “oughtness” is, in some sense, built into the fabric of reality.

  3. It’s not naive, it’s meta-ethics! There are lots of theories of how morality might work but what makes it “moral” in the sense of being an obligation is a deeper question. How do we know that we aren’t just “programmed” and nothing is “really” right or wrong.

    The presence of God isn’t automatically helpful – if you say what is good is what God commands the question arises whether God could have said torturing innocent strangers for fun was moral. If he could, morality is arbitrary. If he couldn’t there is some other standard regulating morality.

    From a Thomist perspective God is not good in the sense of possessing goodness, he is identical with Good. Evil is a lack of Good. So doing good is in an sense getting closer to God, not breaking a command.

    Foot iirc was a virtue ethicist. This is my take on virtue ethics not necc hers. In that view you aim to “flourish”, be as fully human as possible. Part of being human is being social, interacting with others, having beliefs, standing up for them etc etc. Aristotle did the first outline of this. What is moral is what a fully flourishing person would do. This has the advantage of grounding “the right thing to do” in “what it is to flourish”. The disadvantage is that there may be no single right answer to this (though thinking of good people that seems plausible). I plan to read her so may be able to tell you specifically more.

    The Foot story reminds me of Levinas (mist of his family died in concentration camps). He talked about the deep obligation we have to each other just because we exist. We take each others space, we jostle for resources, we bear responsibility when others hurt or starve. He appeals to a deep emotional shock of encountering anothers Face (the full understanding that another is present and real and different).

    Blackburn suggested morality could start out subjective and improve over time. In that way it might approach an objective ideal, that of the ideal observer, one who has all the facts and no biases, who would judge fairly. (cf Rawl’s veil of ignorance). That in effect gives an ideal to aim at.

    There are a lot more ideas but that’s probably enough mangled for now!

    1. Thanks for this, Cathy. “Meta-ethics”: well of course, I knew that. 😉

      I agree that positing a god in itself isn’t necessarily helpful, and Lewis’s position is basically that of St Thomas (and the need otherwise for an external standard of good is key to Lewis’s argument against Dualism). And Lewis certainly doesn’t claim that his argument in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity proves the existence of anything like “the God of Christian theology” (see here).

      “What is moral is what a fully flourishing person would do.”

      Interesting. It does seem to break Lewis’s vicious circle to some extent, though equally I suppose one could say “I don’t know what ‘fully flourishing’ means, so why should I not stick to ‘sufficiently flourishing’ and do this particular thing I want to do right now?” But it still goes deeper than the basic “morality must be evolutionarily useful, or otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it” argument – even if I don’t see that it quite gets down as far as “oughtness”.

      Blackburn suggested morality could start out subjective and improve over time. In that way it might approach an objective ideal, that of the ideal observer…

      Yes, and clearly the differences between different moral views on certain issues must either means (a) that we all making different attempts to approach an “objective ideal”, some getting closer than others (which is Lewis’s view), or (b) an abandonment of the whole idea of a single “objective ideal”. Though even if we go for the latter, that still leaves us having to explain why we experience purely subjective morality as an objective “ought”.

      The identity of the “ideal observer … who has all the facts and no biases, who would judge fairly” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

      1. Heh, cheeky! An ideal observer could be entirely theoretical! But I did like Blackburn’s book “Being Good”, easy to read and an interesting exploration of ethics from a starting point of no ethics “given”. It does also mean that ethics will change, that we are called on to improve and have a commitment to truth (the one virtue Nietzsche kept 🙂

        Re “fully flourishing”, if you say that you’ll just go with sufficiently flourishing, you are obviously putting your current desire above the aim of fully flourishing. So you are doing the wrong thing, just as surely as if you measured against some transcendent code of conduct. This desire might be to conform, as railed against by Nietzsche as “herd morality”. AIUI the modern virtue ethicists are as influenced by Nietzsche as Aristotle.

        Re God as the Good, it’s a widespread position but one that seems ignored or misunderstood nowadays. At least, I’m not sure how someone believing it can say to an atheist, “you have no source of morals”. If you believe it, the atheist has a source of morals but doesn’t know what it is, just like most people in the history of the world.

      2. If you believe it, the atheist has a source of morals but doesn’t know what it is, just like most people in the history of the world.

        Exactly! And I think that’s what Lewis is doing in Mere Christianity. He’s saying: “Come on, in your heart of hearts you know that ‘right and wrong’ really exist; you just don’t know why. Well, let me tell you… though you’re probably not going to like my answer…”

        (As an aside, I wonder if a similar point can be made about the “five ways”? That where they fall down is not that people today don’t believe in an “unmoved mover” or “uncaused cause” and so on – that is, a fundamental ground of being and causation of some type – but that it is no longer the case that “everyone [it] gives the name of God”, and it is very, very far from the case that people see any reason to identify it with the Christian God.)

        Re “fully flourishing”, if you say that you’ll just go with sufficiently flourishing, you are obviously putting your current desire above the aim of fully flourishing. So you are doing the wrong thing, just as surely as if you measured against some transcendent code of conduct. This desire might be to conform, as railed against by Nietzsche as “herd morality”.

        At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, though, why should I care if I’m following a “herd morality”? Which isn’t intended as a “yah, boo!” point: rather, I can see in principle how a morality can be based on the notion of “fully flourishing”, and how it can make sense to talk about putting my current desire above that aim as being “the wrong thing”. I just think that the notion of rightness and wrongness involved in that conception of morality is something different (and, I’d say, lesser) than a transcendent “oughtness”.

      3. Oops, rogue enter.

        any way, re Lewis, yes. I don’t know if he was a Thomist but the bits of Plato he mentions fit with Aquinas.

        Re Five Ways, some are based on Aristotlean physics. If you think something will keep moving in a direction if pushed once (assuming no friction or other forces acting on it) you don’t “need” God to keep it moving.

        The Fifth Way is different. It suggests the universe needs to be sustained in some way. All the way this universe works depends on it being sustained; if that support vanished the universe would not exist. But the question remains, MUST the universe be this way? I think it is equally plausible that it isn’t. So you end up with some people pointing at the universe saying it’s wonderful and evidence for God, others saying it’s wonderful but um, no it absolutely isn’t and some saying, guys, we can never know 🙂

        Re ethics, why would you care if you are not fully flourishing? Because the alternative is not fully flourishing, being a pale shadow of what you might be. In existentialist terms, you would be living an inauthentic life – perhaps hardly living at all, like the nightmare of the unborn in “I am not yet born” – “Let them not make me a stone”. Or, in Lewis’ terms, you walk through the Door and there is nothing there to be heightened in you, your face does not grow noble but foolish like the talking beasts who went into the shadow. Or another way, you have to answer, what did you do with my talents? by saying, I buried them.

  4. I meant to comment here earlier. I’m an atheist, a scientist, a pragmatist and a simple soul. I have read very little philosophy and next to no theology. I did car-share for several years with a good friend who is a committed Christian. We discussed many things on our many car journeys.
    The conclusion we came to was that he would not be able to convince me to believe in God but our world view and moral stance were similar in many ways. I have not felt the need to have a reason to do what is “right”, it being right is enough. I accept there are grey areas and some I reserve judgement on. I would undoubtedly put my family above others I do not know. I am happy to have no further explanation of it than this. Is this a cop out?

    1. Not a cop out at all, no. In the end our “meta-ethics” (i.e. our understanding of what the nature of ethics is, and its basis) is less important than the actual content of our ethics, let alone how well we actually live up to them.

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