Two Arguments for Hedonism

In value theory, or axiology, there are two kinds of theory: monistic and pluralistic. Monistic theories posit one kind of intrinsic value, whereas pluralistic theories posit more than one. Hedonism is a monistic theory of value which posits pleasure as the single kind of intrinsic value.

There are two interesting ways of arguing for hedonism that I want to explore. First, there is the argument from moral disagreement. The second one is the evolutionary debunking argument. Both strategies trade on an alleged fact about pleasure, which makes them variants on a more general kind of argumentative strategy. The alleged fact that both trade on is that we are directly acquainted with pleasurable mental states. Pleasure, on this view, is a property of mental states (I won’t go into what sort of property here). Since we are directly acquainted with at least the phenomenal qualities of our occurrent mental states, and pleasure is a phenomenal quality of mental states, we are directly acquainted with pleasure.

Direct acquaintance can be spelled out in various ways, but for now let’s just take it as a factive relation between a subject and some property. The relation is factive because the property must actually exist and be accessible to the subject for that property to be a member of an acquaintance relation. You can’t be acquainted with something that doesn’t exist. Similarly, you can’t know something that isn’t true. To be directly acquainted with some property is to have a special epistemic perspective on that property. For example, being in pain is an acquaintance relation because subjects are in pain, and a particular subject’s pain is had by that subject, which means that no other subject can have that same pain.[1] The subject in pain has a privileged epistemic perspective with respect to her pain. She is directly acquainted with her pain, which means she does not need to make an inference to know that she is in pain, having it is sufficient. Others cannot have this privileged perspective on her pains, but rather they must infer that she is in pain from her behavior.

Before unpacking the first argument for hedonism, we need to consider the argument from moral disagreement:

  1. In any moral disagreement, at least one party must be in error.
  2. There is widespread moral disagreement.
  3. If there is widespread error about a topic, we should retain only those beliefs about it formed through reliable processes.
  4. If there is widespread error about morality, there are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs.
  5. There is widespread error about morality (from 1 and 2).
  6. We should retain only those moral beliefs formed through reliable processes (from 3 and 5).
  7. There are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs (from 4 and 5).
  8. We should give up all of our moral beliefs (from 6 and 7).[2]

The hedonist responds to this argument by denying 4. There is a reliable process of forming moral beliefs, which is the process of phenomenal introspection. Engaging in phenomenal introspection reveals that we are directly acquainted with certain phenomenal properties, such as pleasure. Since we are directly acquainted with pleasure, we can see that pleasure is good. According to Neil Sinhababu, “Just as one can look inward at one’s experience of lemon yellow and appreciate its brightness, one can look inward at one’s experience of pleasure and appreciate its goodness.”[3] There is a link between the goodness of pleasure and badness of pain, and the reasons why we morally praise and blame people. When somebody tortures an innocent person, a main reason we consider the torturer bad is because we know that pain is bad, and inflicting it for no reason is also bad. We morally blame the torture for inflicting gratuitous pain, which means that there is moral disvalue in pain (and ipso facto, moral value in pleasure). So, hedonism about moral value is true.

The second argument goes like this. Our moral judgment and belief formation processes evolved under conditions which did not select for their reliability. We should not believe things produced by unreliable processes. So, we should suspend our moral beliefs and refrain from moral judgments. However, we are directly acquainted with pain and pleasure, and by virtue of that acquaintance we know that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. The origins of those beliefs do not undermine their reliability. So, pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Assuming no other kind of moral belief can be saved from debunking this way, it follows that we should be hedonists.

Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek provide a thought experiment to back up the argument:

Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized subjects to feel disgust when they read an arbitrarily chosen word – in this case, the word ‘often’. The students then read the following,

‘Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He often picks topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.’

Students who had been primed under hypnosis to feel disgust at the word ‘often’ were then asked to judge whether Dan had done something wrong. A third of them said that he had. The negative moral judgment was, of course, an illusion, created by hypnosis, and it gives us no reason at all to believe that Dan’s conduct was wrong. Presumably once the experiment was over, and the students had been debriefed, they would agree that Dan had done nothing wrong. Now suppose that the students had been hypnotized to believe that when they read the word ‘often’ they would develop a blinding headache. Soon after being given information containing the headache triggering word, they held their heads, moaned, asked for analgesics, and tried to find somewhere quiet to rest. Asked to rate how they are now feeling on a scale rating from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, they rated the experience as ‘very bad’. After the experience was over and they had been debriefed, would they change their judgment that they had a very bad experience because the judgment was induced by hypnosis? Presumably not.[4]

The point is that they were directly acquainted with the bad experience (headache pain), and regardless of the origins of the judgments made about the badness of their experiences, they were justified in believing that their experiences were very bad. Direct acquaintance is still doing the heavy lifting here, because it is by virtue of it that the students are still justified in maintaining that their judgments were reliable. In the first experiment, the students were not directly acquainted with the alleged badness of Dan’s actions, so there was nothing there to defeat the genetic defeater of their judgments (that being that they were formed by hypnosis). In the case of pain, direct acquaintance becomes a defeater-defeater, which means that it undermines the unreliable origins of judgments formed on its basis. Presumably, we can run a similar thought experiment about pleasurable experiences as well. So, the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain are not undermined by evolutionary considerations, whereas other evaluative judgments are. So, hedonism is true.

Both of these arguments are interesting in their own right. But what I find most interesting is that they rely on direct acquaintance as a means of arguing for hedonism. It seems like arguments for hedonism will typically take this form: Judgments about the value of things with which we are not acquainted are subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted are not subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments that are subject to unacceptable doubt are not justified. Hedonistic judgments are judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted. So, hedonistic judgments are justified.[5] The way I would suggest challenging this kind of argument is by questioning whether direct acquaintance is the only way to mitigate skeptical doubt. Perhaps intuitions could do the job as well, which would open up the possibility of intuitionist ethics (which tends not to be hedonistic).


[1] Sameness being numerical identity in this case.

[2] Cf. Sinhababu, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Singer and Lazari-Radek 267-268).

[5] Presumably, the hedonist’s definition of ‘pleasure’ will cover other phenomenal states, like aesthetic appreciation, otherwise there could be other phenomenal states that seem to have intrinsic value that are not hedonic.

Works Cited

Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna De., and Peter Singer. The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2014. Print.

Sinhababu, Neil, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.


A More Interesting Open Question Argument

The orthodox interpretation of G.E. Moore’s Open Question Argument (OQA) has it that Moore set out to show that no satisfactory definition of goodness (or other evaluative/deontic terms) could be given. To define goodness in terms of some other property was to commit the naturalistic fallacy. The reason why such definitions are impossible is because any competent user of the concepts being employed in the definition can sensibly ask if such and such is good. One example employed by Moore, from Bertrand Russell, is that goodness is that which we desire to desire. But any competent user of the concepts “desire” and “goodness” can sensibly ask if what we desire to desire is good, whereas we cannot sensibly ask if what we desire to desire is what we desire to desire. So, “goodness” does not mean “that which we desire to desire”. The same argument can be run in terms of pleasure, or what God wills (or anything).

What one should notice about this version of the argument is that it’s about meanings of words. The argument does not entail anything about property identities, which should provide reductionists about moral ontology some relief. A hedonist could claim that she isn’t in the business of giving analytic identity claims, but rather goodness being the same thing as pleasure is a synthetic identity claim. Synthetic identity claims carry no commitment to synonymy between the terms denoting the things that are identical. So, water is identical to H2O, but “water” doesn’t mean the same thing as “H2O”. It should be noted, however, that the proponent of the OQA explained above would take this as a concession, because the synthetic reductionist is granting her conclusion.

A more interesting kind of OQA can be formulated with Leibniz’s law. Roughly, Leibniz’s law says that it is necessarily true that for any A and any B, A is identical to B iff every property that A has, B also has. And any property that B has, A also has. It seems like a relatively uncontroversial principle, until we get into the quantum domain, which doesn’t concern us here. So, bracketing any quantum concerns, we can formulate the new OQA using this principle. Let’s take goodness and happiness. It seems like we could sensibly doubt whether happiness is good, but we cannot sensibly doubt whether goodness is good. So, happiness has a property that goodness lacks, which is that happiness is such that we can sensibly doubt whether it is good. By Leibniz’s law, goodness and happiness are not identical, because happiness has a property that goodness lacks. What’s interesting about this argument is it gets you a metaphysical conclusion, unlike the OQA discussed before, which gets you a semantic conclusion. The OQA employing Leibniz’s law is more worrisome for synthetic reductionists, as it has to do with properties rather than meanings.

The OQA employing Leibniz’s law is not obviously unsound, and figuring out where it goes wrong is challenging. Personally, I think it goes wrong somewhere, but it isn’t obvious to me where exactly that is.


Further Reading:

Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction by Mark van Roojen (Chapter 2)

An Argument Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral intuitionism is usually characterized as the thesis that we have non-inferential moral knowledge. Any epistemological theory that posits non-inferential knowledge is a form of foundationalism, so moral intuitionism is a form of foundationalism. The thesis is usually accompanied by a description of the faculty of moral intuition. Sometimes moral intuition is considered a faculty of judgment that produces non-inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, some of which are true. Another characterization of moral intuition is as a special faculty of moral perception, analogous to vision (how far that analogy can be pushed depends on who you ask). All of these ways of describing moral intuition have their respective strengths and weaknesses, which is a topic for another time. In this post, I’m going to present an argument against moral intuitionism that does not assume any robust account of the faculty of moral intuition. All that is assumed for the sake of this argument regarding intuitionism is that it is a form of foundationalism; whether it’s internalist or externalist is immaterial to the thrust of the argument.

Now for the argument: There appear to be good reasons to think that our moral beliefs are formed under less-than epistemically appropriate conditions. Moral belief formation is supposedly subject to various cognitive biases and emotional influences. These various psychological phenomena, compounded by facts such as massive moral disagreement among seemingly rational people present us with good reason to think that many of our moral beliefs are probably false, or at the very least, unjustified/unwarranted.

Assuming that there is good evidence of these cognitive biases and emotional influences coming out of psychology and cognitive science, the moral intuitionist is presented with a dilemma. She is presented with a defeater for her moral beliefs in the form of evidence of the unreliable conditions under which they are formed. Either she can defeat this defeater or she cannot. If she cannot defeat the defeater, then she does not have non-inferential moral knowledge, which means some form of moral skepticism is true. If she attempts to defeat the defeater, then she must provide good reasons to think that her moral beliefs are formed under conditions conducive to their reliability. Let’s say she succeeds at defeating the defeater, and has given good reasons to think her moral beliefs are reliably formed. She has now provided a justificatory basis for her moral beliefs that renders her moral justification inferential. So, she does not have non-inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, but rather her moral beliefs are inferentially justified. So, either moral skepticism is the case or moral justification is inferential.

The intuitionist appears to be backed into a corner. However, things aren’t as they seem; she has two ways to resist the dilemma. The first way to avoid the conclusion is by challenging the principle that the defeater defeater must come in the form of evidence of the reliability of moral belief formation. Perhaps the defeater defeater could be evidence that moral belief formation is not influenced by the cognitive biases and emotional influences mentioned above. Note that that evidence is not evidence for the reliability of moral belief formation, but merely evidence against the case for their unreliability; so, the intuitionist using this strategy isn’t committed to the no non-inferential moral knowledge horn of the dilemma.

The second way to avoid the dilemma is by allowing for epistemically overdetermined beliefs; such beliefs gain justification/warrant from non-inferential and inferential sources. The intuitionist can allow for a defeater defeater that generates inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, while also claiming that such a defeater defeater restored non-inferential justification/warrant as well.

One may wonder what part the internalism/externalism distinction plays in this discussion. The argument appears to be neutral about whether or not justification/warrant/knowledge is extended. Even if some sort of reliabilism is true, the alleged evidence from psychology and cognitive science presents a potential defeater to one’s moral beliefs. So, it really doesn’t matter if one adopts internalism or externalism about moral knowledge.


Further Reading:

For some of the alleged evidence against moral intuitionism and various formulations of the argument presented above, see Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book Moral Skepticisms, and his papers, An Empirical Challenge to Moral Intuitionism, Framing Moral Intuitions, and Moral Intuitionism Meets Moral Psychology.

For a more developed response to Armstrong’s argument along the lines of the critiques I explored above, see Moral Intuitionism Defeated? by Nathan Ballantyne and Joshua Thurow.


Why I’m No Longer A Constructivist

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I found metaethical constructivism to be an attractive position. Unfortunately, I’ve come to find the position less plausible over the past few months. There are several reasons why I no longer find constructivism very plausible. In this post, I’ll explore the problem metaethical constructivism has with moral semantics.

Any metaethical theory has to have a plausible account of moral semantics. Moral semantics deals with the meaning of moral terms and sentences in which they are embedded. Metaethical constructivism needs to provide a plausible semantics of moral terms to be considered theoretically virtuous. Unfortunately, it seems as though the constructivist only has two options, and neither are particularly attractive.

The constructivist gives an analysis of moral terms while employing moral terms. The typical constructivist analysis goes like this:

The fact that P is a reason for agent A to Q is constituted by the fact that the judgment that P is a reason for agent A to Q withstands critical scrutiny from the evaluative point of view.

The evaluative point of view is the perspective from which an agent makes evaluative and deontic judgments. The constructivist will typically take, “withstands critical scrutiny” to mean that the judgment is found in the agent’s belief set after it has reached reflective equilibrium. The problem with this analysis is that it employs normative terms to analyze normative terms, and the same will hold for a more specific analysis that deals with moral terms. The constructivist cannot give a non-circular semantics of “reason for”/”reason in favor of” without employing the term being analyzed, since the term will be analyzed in terms of agents’ judgments about whether something is a reason in favor of something.

The problem cannot be avoided by claiming that the constructivist isn’t really engaged in a circular analysis because she uses the notion of an agent judging that P is a reason to analyze the notion of P being a reason. This merely avoids the problem temporarily, as the constructivist now must explain what it is for a judgment or other cognitive/doxastic act/state to be about a reason in favor of something. Ultimately, the constructivist must employ the notion of a reason in the analysis of normative notions, including reasons.

The constructivist has two options available to her. The first is to employ a primitivist semantics of some basic normative notions like “reasons”. A primitivist semantics takes certain words’ meanings to be unanalyzable in other terms. The primitivist move allows the constructivist to maintain a truth-conditional account of the meanings of normative terms, which is a plus. However, claiming that some concept at the center of an active philosophical debate is primitive in a move to save your theory tends to come off as a bit ad hoc. However, it should be noted that the charge of being ad hoc isn’t necessarily a fatal blow to a theory, as that theory could still be the most virtuous of all competitors, regardless.

The second option available to the constructivist is to disavow the need for a truth-conditional semantics (of at least normative terms), and instead opt for an inferential role semantics. Inferential role semantics takes the meanings of terms to be constituted by the role they play in inferences people make. There are various other kinds of “role semantics” that aim to replace traditional, truth-conditional versions, but their differences aren’t relevant to this post. Suffice it to say that they are all kinds of use-based theories of content or meaning.

The constructivist can say that normative terms are meaningful by virtue of the roles they play in various inferences we make when engaging in moral reasoning. What the constructivist needs to do, if she adopts this strategy, is provide an account of the truth-preserving nature of deductive inferences employing normative terms, as the typical story is parasitic on some sort of truth-conditional account. She must also give a plausible account of the phenomenon of compositionality. Compositionality is the idea that the meaning of a sentence is a function of its syntactic structure and the meanings of the words constituting that sentence. Since the inferentialist takes meaning to be defined in terms of inferential role, she must take sentence meaning as primary, which seems to get things backwards given compositionality. She must give an account of the phenomena that are typically employed in defense of compositional semantics.

Robert Brandom has probably done the most to make inferentialist semantics seem plausible, and he has provided resources that a committed constructivist can draw on to account for compositionality-like phenomena, and truth-preserving inferences. All of this is not to say that constructivism is definitely false, or completely implausible. I just no longer find it plausible in light of the challenge laid out above. Constructivism’s implausibility, to me, derives from the difficulties plaguing the options available to its defenders in light of the problem of giving a plausible moral semantics.


Further Reading:

Dale Dorsey: Truth and Error in Morality

Ned Block: Conceptual Role Semantics

Robert Brandom: Articulating Reasons (An Introduction to Inferentialism)


Two Kinds of Subjectivism

When discussing subjectivism in philosophy, it should be noted that the term denotes a plethora of positions in a variety of fields. Subjectivist theories in meta-ethics are about the metaphysics of morality, and sometimes about moral semantics as well. In popular circles, subjectivism is often brought up as a single position, usually about what constitutes values and duties .1 However, the idea of a unified position called “subjectivism” is quite misleading. Not only are there many incompatible positions that are all called subjectivist, but the basic notion of subjectivism actually breaks down into two distinct theories.

To understand the two distinct kinds of subjectivism, take a particular proposition whose subject matter is moral:

“One ought to help the Syrian refugees in some way.”

This moral proposition is obviously subject to various provisos.2 Let’s set aside the ways one could quibble about the proposition I chose, and look at what could make it true, given subjectivism about morality.

Agent Subjectivism:

Agent subjectivism would identify the truth-maker(s) of the moral proposition above with facts about the agent to whom it is applied. So, if one claims that Hans needs to take in some Syrian refugees or financially help them, what makes that claim true is some fact about Hans; hence the term “agent subjectivism.” In particular, the facts about Hans that would make the moral proposition true would be about his psychology. For instance, if Hans believes that he ought to take in Syrian refugees, and he desires to do so, that would make the moral proposition true given a simple agent subjectivism. A more complicated version may involve an ideally rational Hans and what he would desire or value.

Subjectivism of the agent-centered variety may commit one to various internalist theses. Agent subjectivism can easily be a form of existence internalism that connects moral facts/truths with reasons. If moral facts/truths are connected to Hans’s psychological makeup, and some sort of Humean theory of reasons is assumed, then moral facts/truths are necessarily reasons. Hans’s reasons are constituted by his desire-set, and moral facts/truths are constituted by Hans’s psychological makeup (his desire-set, among other things), so moral facts/truths and reasons are either identical, or one is constituted by the other. Obviously, then, Hans’s reasons and moral facts/truths are necessarily connected in some way.

If one adds a Humean conception of motivation, then agent subjectivism also entails a version of internalism about moral facts/truths and motivation. Aspects of the psychological makeup of Hans constitute moral facts/truths, and if those aspects are also what motivate Hans to act, then moral facts/truths are necessarily connected to motivation. The Humean conception of motivation says that desires are the impetus of moral motivation, and if those desires form a subset of the constitutive base of moral facts/truths for Hans, then moral facts/truths necessarily have some motivating force. So, this sort of subjectivism entails internalism about motivation and moral/facts truths, given a few supplemental theses.

Agent subjectivism also entails internalism about reasons and motivation, given both of the assumptions made above. If one grants that Humean theories of motivation and reasons are true, then reasons would be necessarily connected to motivation on agent subjectivism. The reasons of the subject of the proposition mentioned above are identical to, or constituted by, the truth-maker of that proposition, and the truth-maker also constitutes the impetus of the subject’s motivation, so the subject’s reasons are necessarily connected to what motivates him.

One interesting thing to note is that agent subjectivism does not obviously entail judgment internalism. Since the subject of the proposition is where the truth-makers lie, the proposition isn’t always about the speaker, but the agent. 3 There will be circumstances where a person sincerely makes a moral judgment but is not motivated, because the judgment isn’t about her. If Hannah makes the sincere moral judgment that Hans ought to help Syrian refugees, what makes that true is something about Hans, not Hannah. Hannah’s own psychological makeup may make a similar proposition about her false, even though it’s true when it’s said about Hans.

Speaker Subjectivism:

Speaker subjectivism identifies the truth-maker(s) of moral propositions with facts about the speaker who expresses the proposition. In the example used above, Hannah’s claim that Hans ought to help Syrian refugees would be made true by virtue of some fact(s) about Hannah’s psychological makeup.

Judgment internalism is more suited to speaker subjectivism, given some background assumptions. If we take for granted a theory of motivation that says a subject S is motivated to do X just if doing X falls within S’s set of desires 4. Assuming that the truth-maker for Hannah’s claim is some fact(s) about her psychology, including her desires, she would be necessarily motivated to act on her sincere moral judgments. 5

Existence internalism would also be entailed by speaker subjectivism, given similar assumptions as those made above. Given a narrow Humean theory reasons which identifies reasons with desires, or requires some looser but still necessary connection between the two, reasons would be necessarily connected to moral facts/truths. Moral facts/truths are just some (sub)set of facts about a speaker’s psychological makeup, and one’s reasons consist in a similar (sub)set, so the two are going to be quite tightly connected. The same goes for existence internalism about motivation and moral facts/truths, and about motivation and reasons. 6


Speaker subjectivism and agent subjectivism are two distinct theories, but in popular circles it seems as though “subjectivism” is taken to denote one particular position. In my experience, folks who either endorse or attack this simplified conception of subjectivism shift back and forth between formulations, and end up defending or criticizing something of their own making. Sometimes the way it’s described makes it sound like facts about the speaker make their moral judgments true or false, but other times facts about the agent who is the subject of such judgments are the truth-makers.

I would like to see some empirical work done in this area, because I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. The implications of the “folk notion” of subjectivism being incoherent are unclear to me, but if it’s established that it isn’t coherent, perhaps it could call into question certain assumptions about other alleged folk theories. Maybe the notion of people being pre-theoretical realists would become suspect, since ascribing determinate theories to “the folk” wouldn’t best explain the data. I don’t have access to any data of the kind discussed here, and I doubt that any serious work has been done in this area, but it could prove to be quite illuminating.

If any readers are aware of some work done in experimental philosophy that deals with folk theories of morality, let me know in the comments below.


An Introduction to Internalism in Meta-Ethics

When somebody recognizes that some action is morally wrong, that person is usually motivated to avoid engaging in that action. The same thing seems to be true for people recognizing that something is morally obligatory and being motivated to pursue it. It’s a phenomenon that we are probably all familiar with: Morality and motivation to act or avoid acting are closely connected. In contemporary meta-ethics, the nature of the connection between morality and motivation is a hotly debated subject. Internalists view it as necessary, while externalists view it as contingent. What’s even more interesting, however, is that this same debate strongly resembles other debates in meta-ethics; and because of this, all of those debates can rightfully be lumped together under the label of “internalism vs. externalism.” In this post, I will explore these various debates, and give examples of views that fall under various internalist labels.

Relevant Definitions:

The internalism vs. externalism debates in contemporary meta-ethics concern the nature of the connection between reasons, motivation, moral truths and/or facts, and moral judgment [1]. Internalism in meta-ethics, broadly construed, takes the nature of the connection between these various things to be necessary. As we’ll see, however, when we combine these things, very different kinds of connections emerge. Before creating the taxonomy, then, we should define the various relata.

Motivation in meta-ethics concerns being moved to act or avoid. On one hand, a person is motivated to avoid X if that person is usually moved to act in a way that is not X. Being motivated to avoid cigarette smoking is to usually be moved to do something other than smoking cigarettes in situations where one has the opportunity to smoke cigarettes. On the other hand, one is motivated to do something if one is usually moved to do it. Usually, motivation comes with the experience of feeling “pulled towards” something one desires or one believes they ought to pursue. With avoidance, one tends to have the experience of feeling “repelled from” something that one does not desire or believes they ought not to pursue. It’s best to add the “usually” clause, because sometimes I can be motivated to do something yet not do it due to weakness of the will [2]. I may be motivated to quit smoking cigarettes, but other factors outweigh the motivating force of quitting such that I don’t actually quit. So, at least in some standard cases that don’t involve morality, motivation is what’s called defeasible [3]. To be defeasibly motivated is to be moved to act in normal circumstances, but in circumstances like suffering from akrasia, one can lose motivational force.

Reasons can be understood as things that explain intentional action, and subsequently makes it rational. To say that I intentionally went to my car and started it up is to commit one to the claim that I had some reason(s) to go to my car and start it up. Another way of understanding this is by examining unintentional results of action. If I intentionally reach my arm across the table to grab the salt, and in the process I knock my wine glass over, I did not intentionally knock over my wine glass. My unintentional knocking over of the wine glass does not require reasons to explain it; instead, it can be explained by my clumsiness. Like motivation, reasons can be defeasible or indefeasible. A defeasible reason for action may be defeated by other reasons. So, I may have a reason to buy cigarettes, but it’s defeasible insofar as I have a better reason not to smoke.

Moral truth can be understood as truth-bearers with moral content having obtaining truth conditions. Propositions about moral facts, for instance, corresponding to actual states of affairs involving obtaining moral facts would constitute moral truth. Moral facts, then, are obtaining states of affairs involving moral properties like goodness, badness, rightness, and wrongness [4].

Judgment is fairly straightforward. To judge that something is the case is to sincerely commit oneself to some state of affairs obtaining by virtue of expressing a proposition that represents that state of affairs. So, to judge that it’s raining outside is to sincerely assert that it’s raining outside. It’s a bit more tricky in moral cases. If I said that moral judgment is just sincerely asserting that something obtains, then I would be committed to non-cognitivism entailing that one doesn’t make moral judgments [5]. Since that seems false, a more neutral definition should be developed. Let’s just say that a moral judgment is some sort of psychological state that either commits one to some obtaining moral state of affairs or expresses some pro or con attitude towards some state of affairs, or expresses a commitment to some plan of action or set of norms. While that’s a cumbersome and unwieldy sentence, it characterizes moral judgment such that it begs no questions against various forms of non-cognitivism.

Judgment Internalism:

So, with our terminology in hand, let’s explore judgment internalism. Since internalism in meta-ethics involves a necessary connection between various relata, Judgment Internalism will be a thesis about the necessary connection between moral judgment and reasons or motivation.

Motivational Judgment Internalism (MJI) locates the connection between moral judgment and motivation. MJI asserts that sincere moral judgment is necessarily connected to motivation. A sincere moral judgment entails that the person making it is motivated in some sense.

There are two kinds of MJI: defeasible and indefeasible. Indefeasible MJI says that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is motivated to do P [6]. On this formulation, any person who sincerely judges that they ought to do something, or that something is good, bad, right, or wrong, then that person is either motivated to pursue it or avoid it. Unlike the cigarettes example, though, Indefeasible MJI says that if one makes a moral judgment, then one is necessarily moved to act or avoid.

An example of Indefeasible MJI is any version of simple subjectivism that identifies moral properties with approval or disapproval of a particular agent. An agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S approves of X, and if S approves of X then S is motivated to do X [7]. This is a form of Indefeasible MJI because any time that S judges that X is obligatory, that is the same as S approving of X. There is no clause that limits the set of sincere judgments that are necessarily connected to motivation like defeasible versions of judgment internalism.

Other examples of Indefeasible MJI are versions of non-cognitivism that analyze moral judgments as utterances that express certain pro or con attitudes towards certain actions and/or states of affairs. On those versions of non-cognitivism, for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X has expressed a pro or con attitude towards P. Pro or con attitudes are just attitudes of approval or disapproval, so any person who sincerely expresses such an attitude is going to be motivated to avoid or pursue some state of affairs. Again, there is no defeasibility clause, so this is a form of Indefeasible MJI.

Defeasible MJI asserts that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is usually motivated to do P. This version of MJI includes the “usually” clause found in the cigarettes example. The “usually” clause in this definition typically encodes a condition that requires X to be rational at the time of judging that P to be motivated to do P. The defeasibility of Defeasible MJI involves the possibility of sincere moral judgment without motivation, but they qualify cases like that with some sort of non-moral evaluative concept like rationality. So a person who makes such a judgment but isn’t moved to act is irrational; if she were rational, she would’ve been moved.

An example of Defeasible MJI is a form of group subjectivism that identifies moral properties with what a particular society or culture approves or disapproves of [8]. Since a particular member of a society may make a sincere moral judgment that doesn’t actually reflect what her society approves or disapproves of, she may not be motivated to act or avoid. The defeasibility is due to the possibility of any particular person being wrong about what her society approves or disapproves of. Any person can be misinformed about their society’s moral beliefs due to irrationality, bias, or just ignorance. So, on this view, an agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S believes that her society approves of X. However, since S can be wrong about what her society approves of, it generates Defeasible MJI: If an agent S sincerely judges that P is morally wrong, and S knows that her society disapproves of P, then S is motivated to avoid P [9].

Reasons Judgment Internalism (RJI) is a less well explored topic. The position seems to be that if a person makes a sincere moral judgment that X is morally obligatory, then that person must have a reason to do X. So, if some particular person S has no reason to do X, then S cannot sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory. RJI could be motivated by adopting a narrow Humean view of reasons, where a person has a reason to do X just if she desires to do X. Combine narrow Humeanism about reasons with simple subjectivism, and you get Indefeasible RJI. S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory just if S has a reason to do X. S desires to X, so S has a reason to do X. So, S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory. Simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons is just to identify moral properties with reasons. Since moral properties are constituted by what a particular person approves or disapproves of, and approval and disapproval can be thought of as constituted by desire to pursue or avoid, then it follows that moral properties are constituted by a particular person’s desire to avoid or pursue some action or state of affairs. Narrow Humeanism about reasons caps it off by identifying desires with reasons, creating a position that entails Indefeasible RJI. To generate a version of Defeasible RJI, replace “simple subjectivism” with “group subjectivism,” and mention that a particular member of a group could be wrong about what a group collectively desires.

Existence Internalism:

Existence Internalism (EI) concerns the necessary connection between the existence of moral facts/truths, reasons, and motivation. Combining these relata generates three connections: moral facts/truths are connected to reasons, moral facts/truths are connected to motivation, and reasons are connected to motivation.

EI about moral facts/truths and reasons says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about reasons. So, for instance, if X is a moral fact, then X is also a reason for action. A version of this view is entailed by simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons. In short, if moral facts are constituted by a particular person’s attitudes towards certain states of affairs, and those relevant attitudes are constituted by desires, then moral facts are constituted by desires. Combine that with Humeanism to generate EI about moral facts and reasons, since moral facts are constituted by desires, and reasons are desires. You get a view that entails moral facts just are reasons. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and reasons adds the proviso that moral facts always entail facts about reasons. So, if X is a moral fact, then X is a reason for S, no matter what. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, entails that X may fail or cease to be a reason for S, even if X is a moral fact.

EI about moral facts/truths and motivation says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about motivation. If X is a moral fact, and S recognizes it as such, then S is motivated to do X. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and motivation adds that whenever S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is motivated to do X [10]. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, says that if S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is usually motivated to do X. The “usually” clause could be related to the rationality of S. So, if S is rational, S will do X is S recognizes it as a moral fact. The kinds of properties that this view would postulate are the ones targeted in one of Mackie’s Arguments from Queerness. One of the examples that Mackie used was Plato’s notion of The Good. The Good is the highest of all the forms in Plato’s system, and the philosopher who recognizes it through the use of reason will necessarily be motivated to act in accordance with it. In short, the philosopher will be motivated to bring about states of affairs in the world that participate or partake in The Good.

Whether or not the defeasible/indefeasible distinction makes sense given Platonism is complicated. Since the philosopher is using reason to recognize The Good, she is going to be rational insofar as she recognizes it, so it seems as though it’s a form of indefeasible EI, since one cannot recognize The Good and fail to be motivated. Perhaps a defeasible form of EI could be some kind of moral non-naturalism that takes moral properties to be sui generis, motivating properties. If a person recognizes a moral fact, given that form of non-naturalism, she would be motivated to act just if she is rational. So, a person could recognize a moral fact yet fail to be motivated due to some sort of irrationality.

The last kind of internalism we’ll discuss is EI about reasons and motivation. This version of EI says that facts about reasons entail facts about motivation. If S has a reason to do X, then S is motivated to do X [11]. A classic form of this kind of EI is narrow Humeanism about reasons. Narrow Humeans identify reasons with some subclass of psychological states, such as desires. If somebody desires to do X, then that person has a reason to do X. Further, if one desires to do X, then one is motivated to do X. But if reasons just are desires, then if S has a reason to do X, S is motivated to do X. Identifying reasons with conative states is a simple way to generate EI about reasons and motivation. To generate an indefeasible version, one would need to add the clause that S’s conative states are transparent to her. To make it defeasible EI about reasons and motivation, eschew the transparency clause and allow for the possibility of irrationality. Perhaps S is unaware of her true desires, and is fooling herself about what she really wants. Maybe she thinks what she really wants out of life is to be rich, due to social pressures from her family, but what she really wants is to alleviate as much human suffering as she can. So, she may think she has good reasons to pursue a career in entertainment law or investment banking, but she really desires to do as much good as possible, so she actually has good reasons to become a civil rights attorney [12].


We’ve examined several versions of internalism in meta-ethics. Some may be wondering why externalism wasn’t explained in this post. My reasons for not going into externalism here are i) I didn’t want to make an unwieldy, cumbersome post, and ii) externalism is the negation of internalism, so the varieties of externalism consist in negating everything I listed and replacing the necessary connections with a contingent ones. Explaining the different kinds of connections externalists posit would require unpacking their views on the metaphysics of morality, and that would lead us too far astray. I’ll go further in depth about externalism as it relates to various positions like Cornell Realism in future posts.

In my next post, I will go into a specific debate between internalists and externalists: the possibility of amoralists. Whether or not amoralists are possible is a key point of contention between externalists and internalists about moral judgment. We’ll examine why such a possibility is taken to be a threat to judgment internalism, and how internalists defend their positions.


Further Reading:

  1. SEP entry on moral motivation.
  2. Alex Miller (Intro): Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction. 
  3. W.D. Falk (History of the distinction): Obligation and Rightness
  4. W.D. Falk (History of the distinction): “Ought” and Motivation.
  5. William Frankena (History of the distinction): Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy.
  6. Philippa Foot (Classic statement of externalism): Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives
  7. Michael Smith (Contemporary internalism): The Moral Problem
  8. David O. Brink (Contemporary externalism): Moral Realism and the Foundations of Philosophy.
  9. Ralph Wedgewood (Contemporary internalism): Internalism Explained & The Nature of Normativity.
  10. Jonathan Dancy (Against Humeanism about reasons): Practical Reality.



[1]. Facts and truth are different things, but for the purposes of this post the conflation is innocent. For those interested, an easy way to see the distinction is between ontology and semantics; facts are things that can appear in an ontology, whereas truth is a semantic notion about sentences and/or propositions.

[2]. The same holds for motivation to avoid something. Sometimes, in a situation where one has the opportunity to smoke a cigarette, one gives in to the temptation to smoke.

[3]. To assume that moral motivation is defeasible like motivation to quit smoking is to beg the question against various forms of indefeasible motivational internalism. So let’s stick to non-moral examples to illustrate the defeasible/indefeasible distinction.

[4]. Those properties could be non-moral yet still normative in other contexts, but for lack of a good shorthand, just imagine that when I speak of moral properties I mean something like moral goodness, moral badness, moral rightness, and moral wrongness.

[5]. Unless it’s a hybrid theory or a form of non-cognitivism that allows for a secondary function of moral judgment to be assertion.

[6]. Let P represent a generic “ought” claim like, “you ought to do X, and doing X won’t instantiate any moral badness that outweighs X’s goodness.”

[7]. As long as you add a clause that states that the relevant mental states are transparent to S.

[8]. Societies or cultures can’t approve or disapprove of anything; the people that constitute the societies or cultures do the approving and disapproving.

[9]. And condemn P, and condemn people that engage in P, etc.

[10]. A distinction should be made between versions that link belief about moral facts/truths, and true belief. One view could have any belief that X is good would motivate, and the other would restrict it to true beliefs that X is good.

[11]. If S recognizes that reason to do X.

[12]. Assuming she knows the best career path for her that could alleviate as much suffering as possible. Maybe she researched websites about altruistic career choice.

An Introduction to the Is-Ought Problem

Of all the dialectical bludgeons, the alleged inferential gap between “ought” and “is” is ubiquitous. The thesis is used to rebut numerous normative claims, but few in popular circles are aware of its pedigree, and because of that, they’re prone to misunderstanding its significance and meaning. Usually, those who employ the is-ought problem in its orthodox guise don’t realize that it’s a double edged sword. If the thesis is true, its undermining effects do not discriminate.

Historical Background:

The is-ought problem can be traced back to A Treatise on Human Nature. There are several interpretations of Hume’s words, and some others will be investigated in future posts, but for now the dominant 20th century interpretation will be explored. The passage in which the is-ought problem makes its appearance goes as follow,

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason” (Hume 302).

The orthodox interpretation is that Hume believes that no evaluative judgment may be the conclusion of a valid deductive argument that only has non-evaluative premises. For any set of descriptive or factual premises, no evaluative conclusion can follow without additional evaluative premises or some inferential rule that is essentially evaluative in content. Another way of putting the thesis is that there is no rule of deductive inference that licenses the move from factual or descriptive premises to evaluative conclusions.

The dominant interpretation of the 20th century aligns Hume’s is-ought thesis with non-cognitivism. Since evaluative claims are distinct in kind (“ought”) from factual/descriptive claims (“is”), it seems natural to embrace some form of non-cognitivism. Statements of fact are truth evaluable, whereas other kinds of utterances don’t seem to be. Examples of such utterances are expressions of fright, such as screaming, and expressions of pain, such as saying “ouch” and groaning. These utterances express non-cognitive attitudes through such phrases or noises. The attitudes are distinct from propositional attitudes due to the fact that the latter are truth-conducive (your beliefs may be true or false).

The orthodox interpreters tend to point to Hume’s motivation arguments to establish the non-cognitivist reading. Given Hume’s non-cognitivism being established by such arguments, the standard reading of the is-ought problem makes more sense; it would just be an entailment of Hume’s anti-rationalism about morality.

A brief statement of the more well known argument is that reason alone cannot motivate action (given the soundness of Hume’s first anti-rationalist argument), but morality can, so morality cannot be grounded in reason alone (Cohon 2010). If the dominant 20th century interpretation of Hume is correct, then this argument aimed to establish some form of non-cognitivism, which, in essence, would carve an ontological gap between fact and value. So, on the non-cognitivist reading, there are facts, which are those things that our beliefs aim to represent in some way, and there are values, which are products of our faculty of moral sentiment.

It should be noted, however, that the non-cognitivist reading of Hume is something that is no longer taken for granted, given recent Hume scholarship (Radcliffe 2006).

In essence, this would carve an ontological gap between fact and value. So, on the non-cognitivist reading, there are facts, which are those things that our beliefs aim to represent in some way, and there are values, which are products of our faculty of moral sentiment.

The problem for people who employ this interpretation of the is-ought problem as an argument against evaluative positions they disagree with is that it is embedded in an interpretive framework that includes a non-cognitivist element as an overarching theme. For the most part, the people in popular circles that I’ve encountered using this argumentative strategy tend to have cognitivist sympathies, and with such sympathies come evaluative claims that are believed to be truth evaluable. Insofar as their opponents’ arguments are supposed to fall prey to this problem, so will theirs.

Logical Maneuvers:

There are various ways to respond to the orthodox version of the is-ought problem. The first way involves what could be deemed logical tricks. The first trick, originally from Arthur Prior, goes as follows:

P1. It’s raining outside.


C. Either it’s raining outside or you ought not to steal.

This is a valid deductive argument that employs disjunction introduction. Now, if you claim that this isn’t really getting an ought from an is because the conclusion isn’t really an statement with evaluative content, then this example will evade your concern,

P1*. It isn’t raining outside.

P2*. Either it isn’t raining outside or you ought not to steal.


C*. You ought not to steal.

If you claim that the conclusion of the first argument lacks evaluative content, then the second argument only employs non-evaluative premises (since P2* is assumed to be non-evaluative for the sake of argument) and gets you to the evaluative conclusion C*.

The second trick goes like this,

P1$. It is raining outside and it is not raining outside.


C$. You ought not to steal.

This is also a valid deductive argument that employs the principle that from a contradiction, anything follows. Start with (i) P and not-P, simplify to (ii) P, (iii) not-P. Apply disjunctive addition to (ii) and you can deduce (iv) P or Q. Disjunction elimination on (iii) and (iv) gets the conclusion Q (Joyce 153).

Another logical trick involves an appeal to authority, but it raises issues about what constitutes evaluative content. If you’re interested in that, you can read chapter seven of Armstrong’s book, Moral Skepticisms.

There are other, more complicated, attempts at bridging the inferential gap between is and ought, such as Toomas Karmo’s proof. Unfortunately, there is no space to give a sufficient explanation of his argument.

Robust Bridges:

A different sort of attempt at bridging the alleged gap involves more than just logical trickery. One problem people may raise about the previous solutions is that they don’t involve deductions from non-evaluative premises that produce genuine moral knowledge or justification. Mere disjunction introduction and explosion aren’t sufficient because one could replace the evaluative disjunct with any other evaluative disjunct without affecting the argument. So, a more robust inference from is to ought needs to be explored.

It could be useful to step back and rethink the framework in which we’re trying to understand the is-ought problem. If we think of the regress problem in the context of moral justification, then there are only a few non-skeptical solutions: (i) foundationalism, (ii) coherentism, (iii) infinitism, and (iv) inference from non-evaluative knowledge. Granting for the sake of argument that i-iii all fail to secure moral justification, we need to evaluative our fourth option. So, we can think of the is-ought gap as epistemic rather than ontic.

So, the problem becomes finding a way to make an inference from a body of non-evaluative knowledge to an evaluative conclusion such that the inference transfers justification or warrant from the body of knowledge to the evaluative conclusion.

There are quite a few attempts in the literature to provide such an inferential link, so the selection of views here is going to be, to some extent, arbitrary.

Searle’s Metalinguistic Argument:

The first attempt, a metalinguistic strategy, is found in the work of John Searle:

P1. Jones utters the words, “I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars.”

P2. Jones promised to pay smith five dollars.

P3. Jones placed himself under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

P4. Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.


C. Jones ought to pay smith five dollars (Searle 1964).

Searle’s argument aims to bridge Hume’s chasm by employing what he calls, “institutional facts,” and other things being equal, it is an institutional fact that the utterance of, “I hereby promise to . . .” is a performative by virtue of which the utterer undertakes an obligation (Searle 1964). So, it seems as though the gap between is and ought is bridged by institutional facts. It also seems as though the moral regress problem is solved by the fourth option alluded to in the last section. We could infer evaluative conclusions with robust content from non-evaluative premises.

The main issue is that the argument fails to rule out moral skepticism and the error theory, so it fails as a means of obtaining moral knowledge and justification. To see how Searle’s argument fails, notice the distinction between purporting to undertake an obligation and actually undertaking an obligation. An illuminating analogy comes from Michael Huemer,

“. . . suppose you call me collect, and I agree to accept the charges, but due to a mistake, the phone company never actually charges me. My having “accepted” these charges does not entail that I ever actually receive the charges. In a similar sense, a person might conceivably “accept” an obligation without ever actually having the obligation” (Huemer 75).

Somebody may undertake an obligation in the weaker sense of just purporting to if there are no actual obligations or if nobody is ever actually obligated to do anything. In other words, if the error theory is true, then Jones only purports to undertake an obligation. The problem arises, then, because the argument fails to rule out that possibility; and any argument employed to vindicate moral knowledge that fails to rule out the possibility that we lack moral knowledge is a dialectical failure.

If one introduces additional premises to the effect that the argument rules out error theory and moral skepticism, then those premises will have evaluative content, which means that they must be justified, which then reintroduces the moral regress problem. The evaluative premises would also need to be justified by virtue of inference from some body of evaluative knowledge, given our rejection of the other non-skeptical solutions.

A second problem with Searle’s argument is the inference from P1 to P2. Such an inference presupposes a large body of background knowledge about the norms of the social context in which Jones is embedded (Huemer 75). On one reading, the constitutive facts of that knowledge would all be non-evaluative, but on another reading, they would not be.

There are two ways to understand the move from P1 to P2: the evaluative (internal) sense, and a non-evaluative (external) sense (Mackie 66-72). The external sense merely takes the move to be a descriptive account of a rule governing  Jone’s speech act under a linguistic institution. It would be as if an alien was evaluating the argument from outside the linguistic institution of promising. Such an alien would require an additional premise that says, if person utters, “I promise to X” within a particular linguistic institution, then that person has made a promise within that linguistic institution (James 154). But that rule would teach the alien a fact about the rules of a particular institution, such as a rule for moving chess pieces across a board. It becomes a description of what Jones ought to do within that particular institution, not what Jones ought to do, full stop (James 154-155).

Viewed from the inside, Jones is surely obligated to pay his debt, but from the outside, it’s merely a statement of fact about particular linguistic conventions. The problem is, though, that when viewed from inside the institution of promising, the argument requires an additional inferential rule to secure the conclusion.

In other words, there is a dilemma for Searle’s argument. If we view it from the outside, then the conclusion is merely a brute fact, and we haven’t really gotten an ought from an is. If we view it from inside the institution, then the argument requires an additional premise in the form of an inference rule that says if one utters, “I promise to do X,” then one ought to conclude that that person promised to do X (James 157). But that is a rule which tells us what we ought to do, and as such is subject to the same requirement of justification as any other normative statement, thus restarting the regress. Evaluating the argument from within the institution, then, requires accepting particular normative statements (James 157). So, on the internal reading, Searle’s argument fails to solve the moral regress problem, and the external reading doesn’t even interact with it.

So, we’ve gone over Searle’s argument and found that it doesn’t provide a means to end the regress problem; but that doesn’t render the entire strategy bankrupt, as there are more promising metalinguistic arguments, such as Jesse Prinz’s. Also, it should be noted that Searle did not intend for the argument to be employed as a solution to the moral regress problem. Searle saw his argument as an example of how one might bridge the deductive is-ought gap by way of institutional facts and the notion of speech acts (Searle 1964). I merely used it as a means of illustrating one way the metalinguistic strategy for ending the regress problem for moral justification may be developed.

Geach’s Attempt:

The next argument is from Peter Geach,

P1. If Evan were to promise to adopt some practice he would adopt it.

P2. If Evan were to utter sentence W, he would be promising to adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.

P3. Nobody should adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.


C1. If Evan were to utter W, he would adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.


C2. Evan should not utter W (Geach 1977; Huemer 2005).

The first thing to note about this argument is that premise three has evaluative content. Geach claims that the third premise is analytically true (Geach 1977). So, if the argument was successful, it would bridge the is-ought gap by virtue of an analytic truth that would be known by grasping the content of the proposition being expressed; in other words, understanding the content would just be acquaintance with its truth conditions.

The problem is that this would be to smuggle in a moral epistemology insofar as there is some account of grasping the content of the analytic moral proposition that doesn’t rely on the fourth solution to the moral regress problem. If it relied on the fourth account of the structure of moral justification, then it would merely push the problem back a step.

If premise three requires an account of content-grasping for its justification that makes use of moral foundationalism, infinitism, or coherentism, then it merely assumes that there is no gap by virtue of adopting a solution in which it cannot be formulated.  In other words, the epistemic gap only makes sense given the fourth solution to the regress problem, so adopting another solution changes the subject.

Another problem is that the argument is invalid. The inference from P3 to C1 is valid just if,

P1*. S ought not to do A.

P2. If S did B, S would do A.


C*. S ought not to do B.

is a valid form of inference (Huemer 77). An example that illustrates the invalidity of the above inference form is provided by Huemer,

“John is a judge about to pass sentence on Mary, a convicted marijuana dealer. Mary’s crime is minor at worst; John, however, has an intense, irrational hatred for all drug users, as a result of which he is determined to sentence Mary to either life imprisonment or death. He could sentence Mary to only a brief prison term, but he would not in fact do so. Now consider the following inference:

P1$. John ought not to sentence Mary to life imprisonment.

P2$. If John were to refrain from sentencing Mary to death, then he would sentence Mary to life imprisonment.


C$. John ought not to refrain from sentencing Mary to death” (Huemer 77).

It seems obvious that P1$ is true given the fact that John could sentence her to a minor term, assuming we put aside the regress problem for the sake of argument. P2$ is stipulated as a fact about John’s psychology. However, the conclusion is clearly false (Huemer 77). So, the argument form is invalid.

A third problem with the argument is that P1 is evaluative (Huemer 77). The premise goes like this,

(∀x) (Evan promises to do x > Evan does x)

The evaluative nature of the premise can be revealed by substituting “act wrongly” for x.

Evan promises to act wrongly > Evan acts wrongly

Once more, I’ll draw from Huemer to illustrate this point,

“. . . once we fix the natural facts about how Evan would behave upon making such a promise, whether the whole sentence is true then depends on whether the behavior would be wrong” (Huemer 78).

Let’s say that if Evan promised to act wrongly, he would rob a bank and go for a walk. The facts about what Evan would do are fixed, but the whole sentence is true just if the things he would do if he made such a promise are actually wrong (Huemer 78). So, the truth conditions for P1 are such that P1 is true if and only if some evaluative state of affairs obtains.

It seems as though Geach’s argument fails to provide a means of overcoming the regress problem due to the problems explored above.

The Naturalist’s Alternative:

The next attempt at providing a means of making the fourth solution to the regress problem work is more indirect. So far, we’ve only looked at attempts that aimed at establishing evaluative knowledge through deduction from non-evaluative premises. But what if being unable to establish an ought by deducing it from non-evaluative premises isn’t that interesting? For instance,

P1. My glass contains the liquid H2O.

P2. I am about to drink the liquid in my glass.


C. I am about to drink water.

This argument is invalid by Tarskian standards because a translation of the argument into predicate calculus would allow for models where P1 and P2 are true but C is false (Joyce 154).

However, we don’t deny that we can have knowledge of the molecular structure of the liquid in my glass, despite the invalidity of such arguments. Perhaps something analogous holds for the nature of normativity. To further illustrate the point, the worldview that physics gives us clearly allows for biological facts without the need for us to be able to deduce such facts from propositions about fundamental particles, fields, and the laws of nature (Joyce 154). So, a moral naturalist who is of the non-reductivist or synthetic reductivist stripe has room to maneuver insofar as she can show that the is-ought gap is as uninteresting as the H2O-water gap and the physics-biology gap.

One avenue for the moral naturalist is inference to the best explanation. For example, perhaps the best explanation for Hitler’s behaviors during WW2 and prior is that Hitler had a morally depraved character. The fact that Hitler was morally depraved or vicious (along with non-evaluative background knowledge) best explains his actions, or so this form of reasoning goes. So, the explanation of Hitler’s actions makes them more probable than without the explanation, or with an alternative explanation.

Another way to think about it is in terms of a hypothesis making certain observations more expected than they otherwise would be. Some thinkers such as Nick Sturgeon adopt this strategy. The merits of abduction applied to evaluative knowledge cannot be assessed here, since the post would become too lengthy and disjointed. Suffice it to say, however, that the Sturgeon strategy involves conceptions of explanation that are controversial.


There are several other attempts to bridge the is-ought gap that were not explored here. I will assess them over the course of several future posts. Also, the Sturgeon explanatory strategy will be explored in the future, as will alternative ways to interpret Hume’s is-ought thesis, and my own solution to the moral regress problem. So far, the prospects for the fourth solution to the regress problem seem dim. However, there may be options for those who wish to endorse the fourth solution that are more satisfactory than the ones explored here.

Works Cited:

Cohon, Rachel, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Geach, P. T. “Again the Logic of ‘Ought’.” Philosophy: 473. Print.

Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Hume, David, and Mary J. Norton. A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007. Print.

James, Scott M. An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Joyce, Richard. The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2006. Print.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.

Radcliffe, Elizabeth S. “Moral Internalism and Moral Cognitivism in Hume’s Metaethics.” Synthese (2006): 353-70. Print.

Searle, John R. “How to Derive “Ought” From “Is”” The Philosophical Review: 43. Print.

Open Question Arguments

In online discussions about meta-ethics, terms like, “open question argument” are tossed around a lot. In this post, I’ll discuss open question arguments in detail.

One common misconception about open question arguments is that they are only directed at ethical naturalism; this is false. Open question arguments are supposed to be problems for any kind of analytic reductionism. G.E. Moore used the naturalistic fallacy and open question argument as ammunition against any reductive accounts of moral predicates and properties.

Before getting deeper into these topics, a few things need to be explained. Analytic and synthetic reductionism are two kinds of meta-ethical reductionism. The former not only aims to reduce normative properties to non-normative properties, but also to analyze normative predicates (or concepts) in terms of non-normative predicates (or concepts). The latter merely aims to reduce normative properties to non-normative properties, while maintaining that no analysis can be given that entirely eliminates normative predicates. In this post, I’ll be dealing primarily with analytic reductionism.

The open question argument is intended to support the charge that it is fallacious to give a conceptual analysis of normative predicates in terms of non-normative predicates (the naturalistic fallacy). Here is a reconstruction of the classic version of the argument (Miller 12-13):

1a. Suppose the predicate ‘good’ is synonymous with, or analytically equivalent to the naturalistic predicate ‘N’.


2a. It is part of the meaning of the claim ‘x is N’ that ‘x is good’.


3a. Someone who seriously asked ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ would betray some conceptual confusion.


4a. For any given natural property N it is always an open question whether an x which is N is good. That is to say, it is always a significant question, of any x which is N, whether it is good: asking the question ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ betrays no conceptual confusion.

5a. It cannot be the case that ‘good’ is synonymous with, or analytically equivalent to ‘N’.


6a. The property of being good cannot as a matter of conceptual necessity be identical to the property of being N.

For any non-normative predicate ‘N’, it is always an open question whether or not anything possessing such a property also falls within the extension of ‘is good’. The reason this isn’t a problem just for ethical naturalists is that predicates like ‘is commanded by God’ and ‘would be assented to by an ideal observer’ can be substituted for the same result.

What are the responses to this argument? One famous reply was made by William Frankena, The basic objection is that the argument is question-begging due to premise 4a (Miller 14-15). Our belief that any statement leaves an open question can only be employed against a reductionist if it is justified, which is the very issue at hand. However, this objection employs a conception of question-begging that is far too liberal. Imagine a philosopher who holds to the justified true belief analysis of ‘knowledge’. She hears a Gettier counterexample and responds by saying that Gettier has begged the question, since if JTB is true, Jones does know that P, whereas if Gettier claims otherwise, he is assuming that JTB is false. Clearly something has gone wrong here. Providing a counterexample against an analysis that directly contradicts its central thesis is not begging the question. The JTB theorist is not entitled to directly appeal to her own theory as support against counterexamples. She must find flaws in the counterexamples, or ways to neutralize the intuitions elicited by them. Their dialectical force is not deflected by digging in your heels and claiming that they only disprove your theory if your theory is false. Analogously, contra Frankena, the analytic reductionist’s charge of question-begging is dialectically inappropriate (Huemer 69-70).

Another response is that ‘N and ‘goodness’ may have the same reference but they have different senses (Miller 16). The fact that the two terms have different senses, modes of presentation, or rules of use that determine their referents doesn’t preclude the fact that their referents are identical. This is a lesson learned from Frege’s example of the names “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” referring to the same planet through different senses or modes of presentation [1]. I can refer to something by virtue of one mode of presentation without being aware of the fact that another mode of presentation determines the same referent as well. An example is, “John wants to read a book by Mark Twain” but, “John doesn’t want to read a book by Samuel Clemens,” because John believes that Mark Twain is a famous author who wrote ‘Huck Finn’ but he has never heard of Samuel Clemens.

One issue with the Fregean response is that it actually concedes that the two predicates aren’t conceptually identical. That would mean that this response is just a move from analytic to synthetic reductionism. So, it seems to just be an admission of defeat if the reductionist shifts from an analytic to a synthetic slant because of the classic open question argument. After reflecting on this objection, it should become clear why open question tests are still used for concept identity, but not property identity. We could mistake one referent for two when we employ two different senses to identify it (as is the case with ‘water’ and ‘H2O’), but when it comes to cases conceptual or definitional identity, competent speakers of the language thinking that it’s an open question that concept X and concept Y are identical is prima facie evidence that they are not identical. This is clear in cases of analytic or conceptual truths, such as bachelors are unmarried men. How else would we test supposed cases of analytic or conceptual truths?

The last response is that the argument presupposes that any true conceptual analysis will  be uninteresting and uninformative. But surely this isn’t true; mathematical analysis uncovers interesting and informative truths. So there must be something wrong here (Miller 15). Moore could answer that he is merely exploiting the paradox of analysis, where for any predicate ‘N’, it’s impossible to give an informative and true conceptual analysis of it; if the contents of ‘N’ are analyzed in terms of ‘N*’, and we already understand the contents of ‘N’ by virtue of being able to competently use it in our conceptual repertoire, then we must already know that ‘N’ is equivalent to ‘N*’. This generalizes to any instance of conceptual analysis, and therefore it applies to analytic reductionism about moral properties.

The paradox can be answered by making a distinction between ‘knowledge that’ and ‘knowledge how’. To know about a true analysis of ‘N’ is to possess propositional knowledge (knowledge that), and to grasp a concept such that one can competently use it is to possess know-how. One can know how to use concepts without possessing propositional knowledge of the means by which one does so and the ways in which it can be analyzed into simpler concepts. It is possible to gain knowledge upon hearing about a true reductive analysis of ‘goodness’ in terms of ‘N’ even if one already knows how to employ these predicates in ordinary circumstances (Miller 15-16). Another example is learning that ‘water’ is identical to ‘H2O’. One can know how to use ‘water’ but also gain knowledge upon reading a science textbook about the molecular composition of water. So the analytic reductionist can maintain that premise 4a may be true, but 5a doesn’t follow.

While it may seem as though the last objection is decisive against the argument, there are other versions which do appear to be more successful, but at the cost of narrowing the argument’s scope.

A way to avoid the last objection is to add an extra clause to what qualifies as properly seeing an open question (Miller 18-19):

1b. If ‘good’ and ‘N’ are analytically equivalent, then ceteris paribus competent speakers should, after conceptual reflection, come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis.

2b. After conceptual reflection, the conviction that ‘Is an x which is N also good?’ is an open question persists among competent speakers. So after conceptual analysis they don’t come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis of ‘good’ in terms of ‘N’.


3b. We can conclude that ‘good’ and ‘N’ are not analytically equivalent, unless ceteris aren’t paribus (i.e. there is some explanation of why competent speakers do not come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgments by the analysis).

This is not as ambitious an argument as the classic version. All this argument establishes is a shift of the dialectical burden unto the analytic reductionist to provide an explanation of why, on conscious reflection, people don’t find it natural to be guided by whatever analysis the reductionist puts forward.

The analytic reductionist could reply by saying that if somebody doesn’t grasp the conceptual connection between ‘good’ and ‘N’, then she is the victim of some sort of confusion (Miller 19). However, if the analytic reductionist has no other reason to think a normally competent speaker is displaying such confusion, then this response seems ad hoc at best, and question-begging at worst (if there’s no other evidence of linguistic/conceptual confusion in other areas).

So, without a viable explanation from the analytic reductionist that neutralizes premise 1b, the reconstructed open question argument can be regarded as successful. Even if we embrace the paradox of analysis objection, there would still be a problem, since this argument takes the distinction into account by virtue of the ‘conceptual reflection’ clause. The paradox merely maintains that one can be ignorant of a proper analysis of ‘N’ while being a competent user of ‘N’. The ‘conceptual reflection’ clause takes the proper analysis into account, so the paradox objection has no force.

One response to this argument is to deny judgment internalism. The argument presupposes that judgment internalism is true, since the ‘conceptual reflection’ clause maintains that because somebody still finds it unnatural to guide their behavior by a given reductive analysis, there must be a gap between the two predicates. On judgment externalism, one can recognize and genuinely make normative judgments without being motivated to guide her actions by them (amoralists aren’t conceptual impossibilities).

Another reconstruction of the open question argument that wears its internalism on its sleeves goes like this (Miller 19-20):

1c. There is a conceptual or internal link between making a moral judgment and being motivated, ceteris paribus, to act as that judgment prescribes. Absent some weakness of the will or other psychological affliction, judging that a type of action is morally good entails being motivated to perform actions of that type. Someone with no psychological afflictions who apparently judges that a type of action is morally good but consistently claims that he sees no reason to perform actions of this type doesn’t grasp the concept of ‘moral goodness’.

2c. Competent and reflect speakers are convinced that they are able to imagine clear-headed (and otherwise psychologically healthy) beings who judge that ‘N’ obtains but who fail to find appropriate reason or motive to act in accordance with that judgment.

3c. If there were a conceptual link between judging that ‘N’ obtains and being motivated to act accordingly, we would expect competent and reflective speakers of English to have some conviction described in 2c.


4c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that there is no conceptual link between judging that ‘N’ obtains and being motivated to act accordingly.


5c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction described in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that the judgment that ‘N’ obtains isn’t a moral judgment (from 1c).


6c. Unless there is some other explanation of the conviction mentioned in 2c, we are entitled to conclude that the property of being morally good is not identical or reducible to the property of being N as a matter of conceptual necessity.

Just like the prior reconstruction, this one escapes the charge of question-begging (if it was legitimate to begin with) and the paradox of analysis objection.

How can an analytic reductionist reply? One way is to deny judgment internalism, as mentioned above. This is a plausible move if one finds amoralists conceptually possible. However, this move may also qualify as a concession that analytic reductionists can’t be judgment internalists, thus narrowing the conceptual space amenable to analytic reductionism.

A second move is simply to adopt synthetic reductionism, which is basically just the sense-reference objection. The issue with this is that it isn’t an objection an analytic reductionist can make, as it constitutes an admission that their thesis is false. This may be attractive, though, to people who find judgment externalism unattractive, and are more willing to give up analytic reductionism than judgment internalism.

While the open question argument is clearly not a knockdown argument against analytic reductionists, it does establish a strong presumption against analytic reductionist theories that include judgment internalism as a component. While there are ways for the analytic reductionist to respond, most moves constitute an abandonment of the very thesis being defended.



[1]. Senses and modes of presentation are distinct but related concepts in Frege’s philosophy of language. The theoretical differences between the two ideas are immaterial to my point in this section, but ought to be taken into account if one wants to understand Frege’s theory of meaning.

Works cited:

Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Miller, Alexander. Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction. Second ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. Print.