Sunday, November 26, 2017

Are you an Oughtist or a Noughtist?

People who have beliefs about the way the universe fundamentally is can be divided into two distinct groups.

The first, and by far largest, is comprised of folks who believe that the universe is organized normatively. Roughly speaking, they believe that the most comprehensive true account of why things happen the way they do will make essential reference to the way things ought to be. Call them Oughtists. The second group is composed of those who deny this. They believe that the most comprehensive true account of why things happen the way they do will tell us the way things fundamentally are, not the way they ought to be. Call these folks Noughtists.

There are different sorts of normativity, the moral sort being the most familiar. Moral Oughtists believe that the universe is organized according to principles of right and wrong. Almost all religious people are moral Oughtists, as are many others who decline to describe themselves as religious but do believe in a moral order: fate, destiny, karma, etc. Traditional religious Oughtism rests on the belief that the universe was created by a supremely good deity. But you'd be no less an Oughtist for believing that it was created by a supremely evil one.

Occidentally speaking, Oughtism can be traced to Plato. Plato developed an account of the universe according to which everything aspires to the form of the Good. Noughtism is most commonly traced to Plato’s most famous student. Aristotle argued that, as Plato’s forms do not belong to this world, they can have no explanatory significance for this world.

But Aristotle was only slightly noughty. He subscribed, e.g., to fundamentally normative principles of motion. In particular he believed that the heavens are a place of perfection and that celestial bodies move uniformly in perfect circles for eternity. They don’t just happen to do this; they do it because this is the most perfect way. Aristotle’s Oughtism persisted for 2000 years, during which time human understanding of the universe increased very little.

It would be handy to say that the death of Oughtism coincided with the birth of science. But Oughtism is not dead, so this is clearly not true. What’s truer is that the birth of science resulted from an increasing inclination on the part of a very small number of very odd ducks to inquire into the world without judging it.

People like Galileo, Kepler and Newton remained Oughtists in the sense that they sincerely believed the universe to be of divine origin. But they took an unprecedentedly noughty turn in ceasing to believe that we could come to know how the universe works by thinking about how a divine being might go about building one. This peculiar mixture of hubris and humility lit the fuse that produced the epistemic explosion that, in a few short centuries, created the modern world.

The story of the growth of scientific understanding is the story of the full retreat of Oughtism. It slinked over the scientific horizon with the general acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin expressed the vaguely oughty opinion that “there is grandeur in this view of life.” But ordinary folks see it for what it is: a ghastly story of nature “red in tooth and claw,” devoid of any overarching purpose or meaning. Indeed, it is so offensive to our moral intuitions that most moral Oughtists continue to reject it as an account of the true origin of people.

Modern scientists still sometimes speak of their theories in normative terms, especially aesthetic ones. Einstein, e.g., was not religious, but he insisted that “God does not shoot dice,” an oughty expression of his conviction that randomness is too ugly to be an essential feature of the way the world works. But Einstein didn’t arrive at the general theory of relativity by contemplating the nature of Beauty; nor did a single one of the experiments by which it was subsequently confirmed attempt to ascertain whether it is beautiful enough to be true.

So, epistemically speaking, we live in a pretty weird world. We owe it to the expulsion of Oughtism from the playground of science. If this had not occurred, we would all still believe oughty theories of reproduction, disease, poverty, war, social hierarchy, famine and natural disasters. We would still believe in witches and the efficacy of curses. We would know absolutely nothing of galaxies, germs, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, radiation, radioactivity, mutation, meiosis, or genes. Quotidian items like light bulbs, cameras, watches, automobiles, airplanes, phones, radios, computers, vaccines and antibiotics would not even exist in our imaginations. Yet knowing all of this causes very few to reject Oughtism as a general worldview.

Why is an interesting question, and not one I mean to discuss.

I conclude with the following observation: Most philosophers, even those who believe themselves to be very noughty indeed, are Oughtists at heart. This is because almost all of us, even the most “analytic,” assume that our normative intuitions are a reliable guide to the nature of reality.

There are several reasons for this, but I think the most important one is that philosophers are naturally drawn to features of the world that are normatively non-neutral. This is obvious in the case of intrinsically normative concepts like justice, virtue, responsibility and reason. But it is also true of most other traditional philosophical topics: free will, personal identity, mind, meaning, causation, consciousness, knowledge, thought, intelligence, wisdom, love, life, liberty, autonomy, happiness. All of these carry a positive valence (and their opposites a negative one) that we presume to be essential to them. Hence, we confidently evaluate any proposed theory according to whether it causes us to experience the correct level of (dis)approbation.

This is why, for example, most of us instinctively recoil from theories that propose to reduce phenomena associated with life, mind and spirit to the “merely” physical. They do not have normative implications and therefore do not satisfy the Oughtist need to understand these phenomena as exalted states of being.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. thank you, Randy, for this tasty reading on a sunday evening.
    In relation to your last paragraph: would you include materialist/physicalist theories in the philosophy of mind, as cases of those theories we recoil from?
    The majority of philosophers working on the philosophy of mind since several decades ago embrace some sort of materialism (maybe you only have in mind a rather strict reductionism, and not materialism more generally?). Just a few weeks ago Matthew Owen wrote on the APA blog about the effectiveness of neuroscience in informing us about the mind. ( )
    He started by stating the triumph of materialism, and also the perplexity that this consensus in philosophy causes on some philosophers. He quoted Laurence BonJour (2010), who wrote:

    “I have always found this situation extremely puzzling. As far as I can see, materialism is a view that has no very compelling argument in its favor and that is confronted with very powerful objections to which nothing even approaching an adequate response has been offered.”

    Owen then mentions Searle’s diagnosis: the reason why so many philosophers endorse materialism is because that is the only scientific option.

    Putting Owen’s piece in conversation with your piece, and specifically your last paragraph about how we recoil from theories that present our precious attributes as “merely” physical, I wonder if materialist philosophers embrace materialism not only without a good argument for it (let’s assume BonJour is above is right), but also in spite of their humanly oughtist feelings of rejection. Moreover, I wonder if we could say that materialism, in principle a noughtist attitude per excellence, is ultimately the result of a fiercely held oughtism, that is, of how philosophers think the world ought to be: explainable by science.

  2. Hi Saray, really nice observation.

    I am inclined to think that we do accept materialism against our oughtist feelings of rejection. Speaking for myself, I always feel a little cruel when I give what I take to be excellent arguments against, say, a dualist theory of mind. If I am honest, there really is an emotional part of me that wants to believe that the mind is metaphysically distinct from the body. I feel that I take actual pleasure in that cruelty and that is what helps me to get over the hump. I think it is the same with people who enjoy disabusing people of their belief in altruism or free will. They are cruelly exterminating the romantic illusions of others. (I don't believe either of these are illusions, though. I think the exterminators are confused in these cases.)

    I think all of this is easy to overdo, though. Lots of beliefs give us pleasure, but we manage to get past them simply because the evidence against them is so strong. The problem with philosophical method, at least the one we call reflective equilibrium, is that there isn't anything playing the role of objective evidence. Our intuitions are the evidence.

    I also like your idea that materialists are oughty about the scientific explainability of the world. The only thing is that's more of an instrumentalist ought, i.e., given that the world is, say, law-like, it ought to be scientifically explainable. But I don't think it makes materialists oughtists in the sense of subscribing to the view that the most comprehensive account of the way things are will make reference to normative principles.

  3. Randy, thanks for this provocative piece. As I read your telling of the history of science here, I feel like you would be open to the idea that the way things actually transpired followed a pattern something like this:

    For a while, there was an overarching Ought-i-ness to the way humans approached the world, but this ought-i-ness also permeated many, or most, of our explanations of things at every level.

    Then, fairly quickly (with Galileo, Kepler, and Newton), the over-arching Ought-i-ness remained, but was tweaked in such a way to permit and indeed encourage far more Nought-i-ness in the explanations of things at other levels.

    Then, eventually, the Nought-i-ness worked its way upwards to even the overarching structure, so that some now view an overarching Nought-i-ness that governs (or "should" govern--wink, wink, nod, nod) the explanations at the lower levels.

    (I debated whether to put in that attempted humorous jab in the parenthetical of the last paragraph--but it is not essential to the point I'm trying to make here.)

    The point I'm trying to make here is that Noughtiness or Oughtiness might operate at different levels, and its operation might depend on what's in place at the overarching level.

    And, I guess a related point: the way that Noughtiness caught on, during the period in which it did, had a lot to do with the sorts of overarching Oughtiness that was in place during that period.

    Perhaps not all ought-i-ness is created equal. Perhaps some types of ought-i-ness are more conducive for giving birth to the sorts of nought-i-ness that we celebrate in Galileo and company…even if they turn out to be the sorts of nought-i-ness that go far beyond merely biting the ought-y hand that feeds them, and full-on cannibalizing their own ought-y parents.

    Anyhow, while this next point is a big conjecture, I'm inclined to think that what you see as a historical curiosity may reflect something deeper, and something that connects with your observation that even the Noughtiest among us today can't quite shake some sense of Oughtiness.

    Call it the principle of No Free Noughty Lunch. Lots of ways to formulate it, but here are 3 as appetizers:

    1. a metaphysical version is that unless there is Oughtiness somewhere, then there is not even any Noughtiness anywhere.

    2. an epistemic version is that unless we believe there is Oughtiness somewhere, then we won't believe there is Noughtiness anywhere…because we won't have the necessary intellectual tools (e.g. optimism that rational methods of investigation can deliver epistemic goods like truth) for discovering the nought-i-ness.

    3. a psychological version is that unless we are a little bit Oughty we will not even bother to be Noughty. We will do something else with our precious time besides thinking of scientific explanations, like other living organisms have done for a very long time indeed. Alas, "all men by nature desire to know" and all that…but part of our "natural" wiring may be an persistent ought-i-ness.

    (By the way, my auto-adjust feature is curious: every time I try to type "ought-i-ness" without the hyphens it converts to "doughtiness" and every time I try to type "nought-i-ness" without hyphens it converts to "naughtiness"…)

    1. Russell, thanks for these thoughts. This is really the kind of defense of Oughtism that I meant to leave as a wide open possibility, and I thought I could rely on you to step into the breach to provide one. I especially like your idea that a belief in some kind of oughtiness is the very thing that drives our noughtiness, or, put less idiosyncratically, some kind of faith in the fundamental goodness of the world is what drives our desire to know it at all. Of course, that could be faith in a useful falsehood, but that doesn't undermine your point, at least the psychological version.

      The inductive case against Oughtism, suggested but not defended in the post, is that if major advances in our understanding of the world have, in the past, typically resulted from replacing a normative theory with a non normative one (you'll detect that I have assiduously avoided using the word 'naturalism' here) perhaps that means that the world is just not built on normative principles at all. Since it is an inductive argument, the possibilities you mention remain. And then it is up to us to judge whether these are plausible or more similar to desperate ad hoc rationalizations that we produce when we know something is deeply amiss but can't quite bring ourselves to face it.