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