From: "Phil Roberts, Jr." 
Date: Sun, 30 May 2004 12:17:25 -0400
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] Evolution of morality

Jeremy Bowman wrote:

> Phil Roberts Jr. suggests that
>>'Ought's are entailments or predictions
>>of causal hypotheses.

Thanks for your input Jeremy.  As usual, your comments
on philosophical matters are informed and insightful.

> -- I don't see why the hypotheses in question have to be causal, 
> but the idea that there is a special connection between hypotheses
> and "oughts" is reminiscent of Kant.

Because 'ought's refer to expectations we have for both rational
agents AND arational nature (the grass 'ought' to turn green,
etc.) and my heuristic of assuming a shared implicit theory
of rationality allows me to unify both types under a single
heading, i.e., as connectives that refer to entailments of
causal hypotheses.  From this new perspective, the sense
of prescriptiveness associated with rational 'ought's arises
from the fact that we are only quasi-rational agents and, as
such, need to be frequently reminded of the parameters of our
shared descriptive theory, e.g., as a means of persuading others
to 'do the "right" thing', etc.

It is also crashingly obvious that the benefits of many of these
rational 'ought's are not directly physical (e.g., championing
the cause of the Palestinians by flying airplanes into sky
scrapers) and, as such, seem highly maladaptive.  (If I have
to hear one more adaptive account of morality, I think I'll
puke.)  As such, it seems to me that we are in need of some
explanation for the centrality of ego-related emotion in human
affairs, e.g., an explanation of how and why motivation
associated with maintaining self-worth has become of even
greater importance than the motivation to stay alive.

The explanation I have long favored is that the persuasiveness
of moral 'ought's arises from the fact that thinking of ourselves
as rational is central to our self-esteem, which is just another
way of talking about the 'will to survive' in a species that
accomplishes its survival via long range planning employing a
representation of a causal agent (including, apparently, an
increasingly more objective representation of the worth of
that agent) in a represented world.

In other words, morality, or at least the potential to experience
the feelings of worthlessness that give moral 'ought's their
persuasive force, is actually a maladaptive by-product of the
evolution of rationality that mother nature has had to "tolerate"
in order to have a rational species to do her bidding:

    "Terrorism is the result of poverty.  Not a poverty of
     material things, but a poverty of dignity" (Egyptian

    What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war, rather
    it is a tribute to the physical and moral courage that
    makes heroes out of farm and city boys and inspires
    Americans in every generation to lay down their lives
    for people they will never meet, for ideals that make
    life itself worth living. (Bob Dole - dedication of
    W.W.II memorial)

> Philosophers since Hume have disagreed over the correct way of
> understanding "oughts", which seem to prescribe behaviour rather 
> than describe facts.
> Kant argued that most "oughts" express "hypothetical imperatives". 
> That is, they prescribe behaviour that promotes some prior,
> implicitly understood goal. IF someone has that particular goal, 
> THEN he has a reason to behave in the manner prescribed.

That's one way to look at it, for sure.  Nor does it seem
to me necessarily antithetical to my own "theory" about
'ought's.  Without looking at the matter carefully, and
just off the top of my head, I would suspect that reasons
are themselves appeals to causal hypotheses, e.g., the
reason the grass is green blah blah blah...  And the
fact that some of them apply to the achieving of goals
merely means that part of our shared implicit theory
underlying rational 'ought's has something to say about
the rational achieving of goals.

BTW, your mention of 'ought's pertaining to the achieving
of goals has made a mess of my nice simple subdivision of
rational 'ought's.  Obviously, a lot of 'ought's might not
apply to either prudence or morality, e.g., how one 'ought' to
play chess, etc.  Here's my revised version based on your

[analysis of 'ought', second iteration]

'Ought's are connectives to entailments of causal hypotheses.
These come in two basic flavors, with a subdivision in the

    1. Natural causal 'ought's: e.g., If it rains the grass
       'ought' to turn green.
    2. Rational causal 'ought's:
       a. 'ought's pertaining to the rationality of means, i.e., one
            'ought' to value means to valued ends, e.g., in chess,
             one 'ought' to protect one's king.
       b. 'ought's pertaining to the rationality of ends.

Where the rationality of ends is concerned, we are fortunate enough
to have a paradigm of sorts, i.e., the formalization of prudence in
the guise of 'the equal weight criterion':

    My feelings a year hence should be just as important to me as
    my feelings next minute, if only I could make an equally sure
    forecast of them.  Indeed this equal and impartial concern for
    all parts of one's conscious life is perhaps the most prominent
    element in the common notion of the _rational_.  (Henry
    Sidgwick, 'The Methods of Ethics').

    All these theories [of rational self-interest] also claim that,
    in deciding what would be best for someone, we should give equal
    weight to all the parts of this person's future.  Later events
    may be less predictable; and a predictable event should count
    for less if it is less likely to happen.  But it should not
    count for less merely because, if it happens, it will happen
    later (Derek Parfit, 'Reasons and Persons').

Converting this paradigm to one more compatible with the moral
maxim, 'Love (intrinsically value) your neighbor as you love
(intrinsically value) yourself' is a simple matter of abandoning
the self-interest component of the formalism:

   Special concern for one's own future would be selected by
   evolution: Animals without such concern would be more likely
   to die before passing on their genes.  Such concern would
   remain, as a natural fact, even if we decided that it was not
   justified.  By thinking hard about the arguments, we might
   be able briefly to stun this natural concern.  But it would
   soon revive...  The fact that we have this attitude cannot
   therefore be a reason for thinking it justified.  Whether
   it is justified [i.e. rational] is an open question, waiting
   to be answered (Derek Parfit, 'Reasons and Persons').

What you are left with is a "theory" of rationality in which
the rationality of ends is simply a matter of 'being objective'
plain and simple, not only cognitively, BUT VALUATIVELY AS WELL,
and with no fixed perimeter for where that objectivity should

[analysis of 'ought', third iteration]

'Ought's are connectives to entailments of causal hypotheses.
These come in two basic flavors, with a subdivision in the

    1. Natural causal 'ought's: e.g., If it rains the grass
       'ought' to turn green.
    2. Rational causal 'ought's:
       a. 'ought's pertaining to the rationality of means, i.e., with
             respect to instrumental values, one 'ought' to value
             means to valued ends, e.g., in chess, one 'ought' to
             protect one's king.
       b. 'ought's pertaining to the rationality of ends, i.e., with
             respect to intrinsic values, one 'ought' to be as
             comprehensively objective as possible, e.g., one 'ought'
             to "Love (intrinsically value) one's neighbor as one
             loves (intrinsically values) one's self".

In other words, if indeed our moral 'ought's reference an implicit
shared theory of rationality, its a pretty damn good one, and
probably one that is considerably better than the one that seems
to make the most sense to us at conscious levels, i.e., the one that
assumes rationality must entail self-interest, and as such that
rationality and morality are conceptually distinct.

> Kant seems to have called this sort of imperative "hypothetical" because of
> its "if-then" justification. The idea is that "on the hypothesis that an
> agent wants to achieve such-and-such, then he ought to behave thus". Kant
> contrasted these situation-dependent "oughts" with the supposedly absolute
> MORAL "ought", which is non-hypothetical in the sense that it is binding on
> everyone no matter what.

Except that Kant's categorical imperative is actually a hypothetical
imperative with both a cognitive and a valuative premise, i.e., the
cognitive premise that Kant's view of rationality is "true" (which
I doubt) and the valuative premise that the agent in question
values rationality.

> Personally, I think that is very confusing terminology. Various sorts of
> "ought" can emerge from conditional ("if-then") statements, but we're not
> interested in most of them. The "ought" we can get from a causal law (such
> as "what goes up must come down") is not an "ought" prescribing behaviour,
> but rather an "ought" expressing what we are warranted in believing.

Since reasons can be unwarranted and irrational, I think you are in
danger of muddying the waters here.  'Ought' merely points to what
is expected, warranted or not.  The issue of whether the theory
it points to is warranted is another matter entirely, IMHO.  Of
course, you could introduce a distinction between "good" and "bad"
reasons, but I still think you are in danger of mixing in some
apples with our oranges, at least at this stage of the conversation.

> For
> example, suppose we throw a ball up into the air, and then apply the law
> "what goes up must come down". We might SAY "the ball ought to come down",
> but we do NOT mean that the ball is OBLIGED to come down, morally,
> prudentially, or in any other way. We mean that we are entitled to EXPECT
> it to come down -- i.e. we had better believe that it will come down.

I think you've just given a pretty good sales pitch for adopting my
heuristic, Jeremy.   :)

> I would argue that the "oughts" we are interested in do not have much to do
> with conditional (i.e. "if-then") statements, or hypotheses, or causal
> laws, but rather that they have an intimate connection with GOALS.

They have an intimate connection with the RATIONAL ACHIEVING of goals,
as I have explained above.

> For example, games have an "object" or main goal, and "oughts" prescribe
> what players of the game must do to win. For example, chess involves trying
> to corner the opponent's king, and players of chess are bound by that
> "ought" -- otherwise, they are not really playing chess. As far as I can
> see, that "ought" is paradigmatic, yet it has nothing to do with any casual
> hypothesis. (If you like, consider the "ought" expressing the object of a
> wholly imaginary game.)

see above

Once again.  Thanks so much for your input.



                   Phil Roberts, Jr.

                       Rationology 101:
            How the Author of Genesis Got It Rignt
             (and 'The Golden Rule' Got It Wrong)