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No 'Ought' From 'Is'. Discuss

In his essay 'How to Derive 'Ought' From 'Is'' Searle tries to prove that we can get from factual statements (which he refers to as 'Is' statements) to moral ones, which tell us how we must act - an 'ought' statement. He says that he has an example of such a derivation, but adds the caveat that you cannot refute a philosophical thesis with a single counter-example; clearly, however, you can. Very frequently philosophers use a single example which shows that a particular rule can't be correct as it stands, and only one example is necessary. The only reason that one might not want to base an entire disproof on a single example would be if it were slightly fishy, and if it will be attacked by others - in this case you might want a multi-pronged attack to ensure that simply by introducing doubt into the debate about a particular example the entire argument is not lost. Searle is, however, right that his example is probably not enough on its own, since it is indeed of this fishy and debatable type.

Searle's example is that of a promise. He says we can derive from the statement 'Jones uttered the words 'I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars'' the claim that 'Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars'. To show the truth of this he puts in three intermediary steps, and further refines these with additional conditions, none of which, he notes importantly, involved the introduction of an evaluative statement, and thus does not introduce the concept of 'ought'.

The big problem with this argument, to get straight to the point, seems to be in the very first jump. Searle seems to take it for granted that in uttering the words 'I hereby promise...' someone actually enters a promise, but this isn't in fact the case. As Hare and others point out, it could be that the words 'I hereby promise...' would be meaningless for the person that speaks it, if they do not speak English, and likewise someone might speak another language in which 'Urgle munkumph shooble...' would place them in the position of having promised something to someone. So clearly it is not the case that the simple act of muttering particular sounds can place someone under the obligation, and this must be the case whether someone speaks the language or not.

There must, therefore, be an intermediary step, whereby the words gain this additional effect of being a promise. I would say that the intermediary step is that the person must have an intention of entering an obligation - namely they must believe that if they say 'I hereby promise...' they ought to do what they say - if they say they promise something they must have done this abstract verb 'to promise'. The reason I call the verb 'abstract' is that, despite the appearance, promising does not seem to be a particularly normal action, and, in fact, is a very strange action indeed. I would argue that it isn't, in fact, possible simply to actually 'do promising', because it is not a simple act that can be performed - rather it is a compound action involving both utterances, states-of-mind and intentions.

Searle attempts to dodge this bullet by claiming 'One ought to keep one's promises' is a tautology, because the idea of promises analytically includes a notion of things that ought to be kept, in that all promises involve undertaking obligations. This is absolutely fine, but then the gap is still between the factual, 'is', statement 'Saying...' and having made a promise. It is almost as if Searle seems to believe that there is some bizarre reason that Jones is unable to utter the words 'I undertake the obligation...', but clearly there is not - it is simply that it looks more plausible that saying 'I promise...' involves actually promising, more than saying 'I undertake...' automatically, by virtue of simply speaking, involves an actual act of undertaking.

Searle claims that 'Ought one to keep one's promises?' is an obviously empty question - in that he thinks it is clear that a promise is something that should be kept (though of course it is perfectly acceptable to add conditions such that in mitigating circumstances certain promises can be broken) - but this doesn't imply that the question 'Ought one keep to things he's said he promises?' in any way equally empty; this is where the gap arises. Searle even compounds his problems by introducing a second example (presumably remembering that one example isn't enough to disprove a theory). The example he introduces, however, is even worse than the first - that of baseball. He claims that in a game of baseball if the umpire has shouted 'Out' in accordance with the rules of the game - because you have been caught out, for example - then you don't just choose to leave the pitch, but have an obligation to do so. Searle claims that from the facts of being caught out you gain a moral obligation - you ought to leave the field. The other possibility that he offers is an image of the umpire shouting 'Out' and the batsman just standing there, refusing to leave, and taking another go. Yet clearly this could be the case, and there would be no moral conflict - the only reason you would leave would be if you were committing yourself (as most surely do, before playing a game) to the rules of baseball, and deciding to act in accordance with them for the duration of that game.

It is this strange second example that probably led Hare to describe Searle's idea as 'The Promising Game'. What Hare seeks to do is similar to the objections I've raised above (though with a slightly different tactic) - he tries to show that to say you promise something only leads to any obligation to do that thing when you are playing 'The Promising Game' - i.e. when you have already agreed to the rules of 'promising'. Just the same, with baseball (as this example is even clearer) you only have an obligation to leave the field once you have committed yourself to the rules of the game. Clearly there is no major moral problem with simply staying on the field once you have been called out, and nobody is going to call you evil for doing so - they are more likely to just get very annoyed and moan about the fact that you're 'not playing by the rules'. What Hare tries to show is that if you fail to do what you've said you promise to do, rather than there being an intrinsic reason why you should have done it, it is simply a matter of 'not playing by the rules'.

What we need, Hare points out, is an addition moral element that when you say 'I promise...' you have made a promise, and will do what you say - that you will play the promising game, and commit yourself to its rules just as vigorously as you would hope someone playing baseball would commit themselves to playing that game by the rules. The problem, of course, as Hare points out, is that the verb to promise is in fact ambiguous. Whilst 'to promise' can be used in the simpler way of simply meaning to say 'I promise...', if it is to gain the sense of obligation that Searle wants it to have, it must also be used in the more complex sense of having an obligation, and playing by the rules of the game, which dictate that you must do what you say you will. This must, surely, involve an evaluative element - that one ought to do what one promises; that it is right to, and without this it cannot gain the sense of duty.

Hare hints at other games that they are playing as well - the game of money, for example. When one person promises to pay another five dollars they almost certainly mean pieces of paper which represent a certain amount of money, and it is clear that only within a certain system, and when playing the game of money, can one person rely on the other giving them the correct pieces of paper, that really do offer an ability to buy things, rather than similarly sized worthless pieces. There is no inherent necessity for these pieces to be actual bank notes, but we can certainly expect it (and be annoyed if they aren't), when someone offers them within the game of money. This is an 'ought' that is introduced by the game, and does not exist abstractly away from it.

Hare rather ungenerously offers the example of a lying Macchiavellian politian who deliberately disembles in an attempt to sway people's views. Of course in this case the politician would go through the motions of making a promise (whether or not he actually uses the words 'I hereby promise...'), and yet he would not have an obligation to fulfil these promises which he never meant, since he was never committing to the promising game. Many might argue, however, that he does in fact have a duty to fulfil his promises, and that he deliberately abused people's belief that he was being honest to change their views and affect their actions, but I think that this is a confusion between two acts - that of not actually entering a promise, and that of deliberately lying. It was the second (I would argue) that is the worse of the two, and the first would only be bad in the context of the promising game.

Searle himself places a large number of conditions on the speaker in making a promise, but all of these seem to be addressing the actual speaking of the words that he is arguing make up a promise, and do not alude to the intentions behind them. He states that the speaker must 'know what he is doing,' and 'is not under the influence of drugs, not hypnotized or acting in a play, not telling a joke or reporting an event, and so forth', but I think this avoids the most important set of circumstances whereby someone goes through the motions of making a promise, without ever committing to the game, and not actually forming an obligation. Slightly more generous than Hare's example (and thus less caught up with other moral problems), are other examples of people saying that they will do something, even 'promising' in the speaking sense of the word, but where they know that they will not perform the intended promise.

This certainly need not be for selfish reasons, and clearly could be the right thing to do in a number of cases. Perhaps Jones is standing on the ledge of a high building, about to jump, saying that he is bankrupt and is five dollars short of that month's rent and thus eviction - he feels that there is nothing left living for. Smith feels that there is much that Jones has to live for, and that when he is thinking more clearly and rationally Jones will realise this to - so what Smith does is to say 'I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars'. I think that it is fairly clear that Jones is going with a higher moral obligation than that which states 'When you say you promise something you must enter the obligations that are usually associated with that', namely that you should preserve life, and help other people. It is not that Jones is simply failing to carry through the promise that he made - it is that he never made a promise in the first place.

Searle does mention rash promises, and those that are made mistakenly and without a full understanding of the issues involved, but I would suggest that these are not the most important kinds of promise. Whilst Chaucer or medieval writers might hold promises as inescapable, and believe that however rashly someone entered into a promise that they should be fulfilled, it is clear that many modern ethicists would deny that a promise entered into without full knowledge of the issues must be upheld. With intentional false promises, however, the moral obligations are very different. Whilst one might hold telling the truth as a moral obligation (though a system by no means has to, and it is usually held fairly lightly), I think it is clear that an intentional false promise has no power to cause obligation whatsoever. On Rosh Hashana, for example, when the majority of the service is devoted to forgiveness for sins of the year, Jews ask for a particular kind of intentional false promise to be seen as devoid - namely that if during the past year they have denounced Judaism on pain of death, they didn't mean it, and such a lie has no value or obligatory power. Clearly such a lie cannot have any power to cause a moral obligation, regardless of the words used in pronouncing it.

Mackie, however, comes up with a brilliant refutation of Searle's argument, and its simplicity earns it what I think is the last word in this debate. Mackie simply brings up the concepts of 'Bagsing'. 'Bagsing' is the system by which children acquire a right to something (a turn at a game, or a particular sweet, for example) simply by being the first to shout the words 'Bags me...'. Mackie points out, and I think that he is entirely correct in doing so, that this is exactly equivilant to the action of saying 'I hereby promise...', and we cannot say that simply by virtue of only being used by children this has a lesser moral rôle. In fact, often children respect the act of 'Bagsing' more than promising, and are more willing to fail to fulfil a promise than to fail to respect someone else's 'Bags'. This is simply because the moral line that they hold is that 'Bagsing' creates an obligation for someone, whereas the actions of promising do not.

Overall, therefore, I think it should be fairly clear that if we start from the simplest, most 'is-type' statements, such as the pure facts of what someone does; the sounds they make; the words they say, we cannot move, without some already held moral view expressed in the background, such as that if you say 'I promise...' you undertake an obligation (or if someone else says 'Bags me...') to some 'ought-type' statement, such as a moral obligation to do something. Such situations where an obligation arises do not need to be as restrictive as might seem from Hare claiming that they only arise within a particular 'game', since any personal system of morality, even if it is held by nobody else, will equally raise such obligations. We do not need to be signing a particular form, or swearing an oath, to enter an agreement (both exercises, incidently, which gain their obligations purely from an additional moral thought), and I cannot see how moral obligations can arise without some sort of context.