Assorted Thoughts on the Implications of the Is/Ought Dichotomy for Moral Judgment
December 7, 2016
Stuart W. Mirsky

Last week I had a brief exchange with a philosopher in the Midwest, who is pursuing a project to explain why our value judgments should not be cognitively disqualified as merely emotional expressions of personal likes and dislikes. His view is that normativity, the reference we make to our valuational standards and our behavior in accordance with them, is as integrally involved in the presumably objective discourse of science as it is in our moral claims. Therefore, there is no strong reason to reject the notion that our moral claims have cognitive content just as our descriptive claims do. By showing that normativity plays an integral part in scientific (purely "descriptive") claims, he aims to show that being normative is not disqualifying for moral judgments as such.

I think he makes an interesting point although I think he errs in equating valuing (including the moral sort which is, after all, the controversial kind) with so-called normativity. So I thought I'd repeat here a few of my comments to him (though I will not include his own remarks unless and until I check with him about his willingness for me to do that).

One point I took him to be making was the claim that observations, expressed in what he calls "descriptive" statements about the world, are not only limited to the physical entities the world contains but include abstractions like relations. My initial response to him dealt with that:

I think you are right, if I am following you here, about the importance of relation as being, essentially, a referential "object" in our experience, in a way that's roughly comparable to how observable objects are referential. If I've got you right, value as such occurs along this relational vector, i.e., the one between subjects and objects (observers and observed).

I think this works to explain valuing in terms of things we think and speak about (observables), for values can be observables in at least an abstract sense. This naturalizes value by preserving referential status for these types of relation (where other relation types -- e.g., the ways in which observables sort as part of the observing experience -- offer us a different vector along which to identify and distinguish other kinds of relations). Whatever we can describe or denote we can also value. Thus, relations between subjects and objects, as well as between subjects and subjects (when other subjects are taken as referential objects, as they frequently are), constitute the domain of valuational discourse.

But how we get from recognizing the existence and particular role of valuing as such to the distinctive types of valuing we do, and what counts as what, is trickier -- and how these all fit into the continuum of valuational discourse trickier still. This is especially so when we come to moral valuation, which is the kind that really bothers us. That we value things for what they can do for us is hardly controversial but when self-interest and other-interest diverge, as they often do, the moral weight often seems to us to favor the claims of the other -- or at least to discount our own and this challenges many kinds of moral judgment, suggesting that we have no good basis for such judgments.

Given that self and other interest can conflict in this way, moral valuation seems uniquely difficult to explain within a naturalistic framework where the natural state of creatures like ourselves is to look out for their own interests. But I'm keen to see how you naturalize the subject-object relations in a way that sets these relations firmly within the natural world in order to see how that problematic sort of valuation, the moral, fits into it.

Of course, the natural world determines how any observed referent affects us in terms of what kind of inclinations it elicits from us, so that is clearly "natural" in any reasonable sense of the term. Yet, while the relations between subjects and objects have this kind of natural basis (grounded in the kinds of creatures we are and in whatever we encounter in the world in which we operate and which prompts our responses), does this imply that subject-object relations are "natural" in the same sense as we think observables (anything we can encounter through the medium of our sensory systems) are.

In a second exchange initiated by him we addressed the nature of what he called "normativity" itself, a condition he finds ubiquitous in scientific discourse. We were, I think, on the same page there, too:

I think it must be granted that truth claims rest on valuation no less than claims about beauty, goodness and rightness do. After all, what is a true sentence other than one that expresses a thought we expect to succeed in representing some aspect of the world?

A true statement is a good statement about things because it works for us in depicting some part of the world, rather than one which misses the mark and so fails to succeed. Thus true claims are the good ones we can make, false ones, the bad.

This is a fundamentally pragmatic notion of truth, a la James, and I think a right one. This puts valuing in the mix re: every descriptive claim, supporting your point that science has a normative dimension, i.e., that explaining it as pure description alone is inadequate. But there's also a problem with this approach. To describe anything, we must also be able to differentiate what's correct from what isn't, a process of valuing competing statements or elements of statements, given the presumption that truth claims are just another form of value claim.

But valuation itself cannot be effectively explained without reference to representing which, linguistically, at any rate, means either denoting or describing. So if describing (asserting truths about the world) depends on valuing, it also looks like valuing cannot, itself, occur without representing. That is, they seem to be two dimensions or vectors along which our cognitive capabilities occur. We need both to operate within the kind of conceptual space which enables us to see our world in a way that extends beyond the immediate time and place in which we stand.

You seem to be making the important point that scientific discourse is never free of the normative element and that we don't question its soundness when we encounter it in the descriptive game that characterizes the sciences, so why be concerned that the normativity of ethical judgments undermines their status as objectively supportable claims?

The assumption of many in Western Philosophy, at least since Hume, is that valuing is mainly about exercising our sensibilities which are fundamentally subjective and so valuing stands apart from the objective process of describing. But, if valuing is always a part of describing, if you can't really describe without also applying some valuational judgments, then the impetus to reject the idea that value claims lack cognitive content is diminished and maybe even obliterated. I think Hillary Putnam made this point in a rather lengthy paper whose title eludes me at the moment.

I would go further than you or Putnam do though, and offer the view that valuing and describing are intimately bound together in cognition itself, that you can never have the one without the other if you have creatures capable of conceptualizing their world (like us). It's not just that science makes use of, and even requires, a normative dimension a la Putnam. It's that our very thought processes demand it.

To have a conceptual life we must be able to represent our world in terms of its elements as relations between observables but we must also recognize and differentiate the relations between observables and observers, i.e., ourselves, for the observed world, considered in the abstract, is incomplete without inclusion of the observer.

It's along this vector that I think we can discern the source of normativity and come to see why it is too basic to our thought processes to just blow it off as Hume and modern expressivists seem all too ready to do.

However, it struck me after writing the above that I had not homed in on what I perceived to be a bit of a problem in his account: His reliance on the notion of normativity in lieu of something I have come to take as even more basic, valuing itself. Therefore I supplemented my second response with a third which took off from his point about scientific observations about bears:

Even though [the example of mother bears eating their young in certain situations] is entirely within the realm of scientific reasoning, it is also evaluative/normative. Bears have *normal* sets of behaviors, unless they are ill, injured, pathological, etc. These are normative judgments.

Let me suggest, I said, another possibility:

It may be better to think of these reports about mother bear behavior as judgments ABOUT norms, or about what's normal, rather than as evaluative in the sense in which valuation matters and needs to be explicated from the perspective of granting moral claims cognitive content. It might be useful, that is, to think in terms of distinguishing "normative" from "evaluative" here. In the former case, the reference seems to be to the things we do or that occur in general, as usual, i.e., the normal condition, the norm. But, in the latter case, the notion of valuing refers to the status or condition of a thing with regard to some user of it, whether it benefits the user in some way recognizable to the user or to someone else. That is, valuing, while it may underpin normativity is not just the same as that notion.

"Value" implies benefit, either direct or indirect, to some agent but the judgment about the mother bear who abruptly devours one of her three cubs while caring for the others, for instance, has nothing to do with recognized benefit on the part of the bear or of fellow bears (even if there may be some evolutionary benefit to bears as a species to be discerned by outside observers like ourselves).

Norms are best understood, I think, as those practices which users employ based on what they have learned, or are required, to do (in the bear's case, required by some evolutionary instinct or perhaps by extreme hunger). The concept of "normativity," seems to exclusively refer to the frequency of occurrence of the practice(s) in question but not to the why of doing them.

We do typically equate norms with values, of course, but these aren't the same -- even though our norms (the types of behavior we human beings typically engage in) often provide a basis for certain kinds of value claims we make. The moral kind comes most readily and obviously to mind here. If I say don't kill that person and my interlocutor asks why not, I might answer by saying "we just don't do that sort of thing" or "it's forbidden" or "it's against the law" or "it's just wrong."

I am, in essence asserting a norm in that case, albeit a norm of various different types. But the basis I'm giving for its status as a norm, as being the normal behavior (and so implicitly recommending that behavior to my interlocutor) doesn't establish, in and of itself, a reason for my interlocutor to desist. It can give him or her no more than a superficial reason which is not especially compelling if doing what others do or obeying laws is not, in itself, motivating. And these possibilities aren't sufficient to support a moral assertion.

The issue for moral judgments arises when the question of why is raised -- and answered. Moral value claims never rest on assertions of what's normal alone!

I think a big mistake in moral philosophy occurs when we equate normativity (discerning and acting according to norms) with valuing (the activity of recognizing the relationship which various things in the observed world, whether physical -- i.e., observable -- or abstract, such as possibilities, actions, etc., have to ourselves as agents). Norms are not values even if some norms ARE expressed as the values we hold so that we sometimes use the two terms interchangeably.

Of course, thinking in terms of what's normal in observed phenomena, like mother bears' behaviors towards their cubs, is not the same as studying what's normal for humans to do in particular social milieus, given that humans inhabit a richer world, one characterized by the capacity to think beyond the present moment and locale. Unlike bears, human norms consist of things we are in a position to choose to do and include such things as social mores and conventions (including ethical beliefs and practices, of course), and so studying human norms requires more than just observation and categorization of them as is the case with bears. It also requires understanding what the humans under observation are thinking about, and how they think about what they want when they act as they do.

The norms of the bears, on the other hand, as discerned by their observers, are just that: observational. We don't ask the mother bear why she did what she did, or what she was thinking when she did it!

Studying human behavior can also be merely observational, of course, as when an anthropologist visits a a new tribe and sets about recording the ways its members behave in different situations -- and this can even include collecting information about their value judgments vis a vis their fellow tribesmen, i.e., collecting reports from them about what they were thinking when they acted. But here the collection of data on the tribe's social norms is not the same as understanding why they, as human beings (or, if some extraterrestrial race, as sapient beings), acted as they did or why they value things at all, i.e., how that mechanism works in creatures with cognitive capacities like ours.

If the point is to demonstrate that the absence of objective data for arriving at valuational judgments does not dilute or remove cognitive content from such judgments, then I think a more fruitful path to pursue might be to separate the idea of values from norms by seeking to understand the valuing mechanism itself which underlies certain kinds of norms (but not others, as in the case of bears).

It's likely to be more productive, that is, to pay less attention to the similarities between norm observations, such as those made through rigorous inquiries into the natural world (the sciences) and normative assertions in our moral discourse and pay more attention to the nature and functions of the valuing mechanism itself.

Anyway, these were some of the thoughts I had which I shared with this gentleman over the course of a couple of months. Whether they were useful to him, I cannot say. But they have helped me make clear, in my own mind, some of the issues that I think need to be unpacked if we are to give an adequate account of our moral lives.

Article originally appeared on Ludwig (
See website for complete article licensing information.