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The 'Is-Ought' Problem Resolved Author(s): Alan Gewirth Source: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47 (1973 1974), pp. 34-61 Published by: American Philosophical Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/02/2011 15:14Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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The 'Is-Ought' Problem Resolved*ALAN GEWIRTH When I told one of my philosophical friends the title of this paper, he suggested that I make a slight addition, so that the title would read: "The 'Is-Ought' Problem Resolved -Again?!" Indeed, I agree with his implied conviction that on certain interpretations of it the 'Is-Ought' Problem has already been resolved several times; and I wish to emphasize that these resolutions and the polemical exchanges generated by them have done much to sharpen the issues. Nevertheless, I also maintain that the real 'IsOught' Problem has not yet been resolved. I therefore want to do three main things in this paper. First, I shall present what I take to be the real 'Is-Ought' Problem and shall indicate why it is the real one. Second, I shall review the main recent attempts to resolve the Problem and shall show that none of these has succeeded so far as the real 'Is-Ought' Problem is concerned. Third, I shall give my resolution of this real Problem.I

First, then, what is the real 'Is-Ought' Problem? It will come as no surprise that the Problem is concerned with moral 'oughts'. After all, it was in the context of a discussion of the basis of"moral distinctions" that Hume wrote his famous passage about the need for explaining and justifying the transition from 'is' to 'ought' as copulas of propositions.' And in the introduction to a recent anthology devoted to the subject, the editor writes that the 'Is-Ought' Problem is "the central problem in moral philosophy."2 ITreatise of Human Nature, 111.i. I (ed. Selby-Bigge, pp. 469-470). 2W.D. Hudson, ed., The Is-Ought Question (London: Macmillan and Co., 1969), p. 11.*Presidential Address delivered before the Seventy-second Annual Western Meeting ol the American Philosophical Association, in St. Louis, April 26, 1974. 34


Now the word 'moral' is used in several different senses. While taking account of these differences, I shall focus on certain paradigm cases of what are undeniably moral 'ought'-judgments which persons have sought to derive from 'is'-statements. These judgments are of two main kinds. One kind sets forth negative moral duties to refrain from inflicting serious harm on other persons. Their paradigm uses have been of this form: "A intends to do X to B in order to gratify A's inclinations although he knows this will bring only great suffering to B; therefore, A ought not to do X to B." The other kind sets forth positive duties to perform certain actions for the benefit of other persons, especially where the latter would otherwise suffer serious harm. Their paradigm uses have been of this sort: "B is drowning and A by throwing him a rope can rescue him; therefore A ought to throw the rope to B;" or "B is starving while A has plenty of food; therefore A ought to give some food to B;"and so forth. In addition to such individual moral duties, persons have also sought to derive more specifically sociopolitical moral 'oughts' from 'is'-statements; for example, "That society is characterized by great inequalities of wealth and power; therefore it ought to be changed;" or "This state respects civil liberties; therefore we ought to that extent to support it;" and so forth. The 'oughts' presented in these judgments have five important formal and material characteristics, which will constitute five interrelated conditions or tests that must be satisfied by any solution of the real 'Is-Ought' Problem. First, the 'oughts' are moral ones in the sense that they take positive account of the interests of other persons as well as the agent or speaker, especially as regards the distribution of what is considered to be basic well-being. It is this well-being, indicated in the antecedent 'is'-statements, that provides the reasons for the actions urged in the 'ought'judgments. Second, these 'oughts' are prescriptive in that their users advocate or seek to guide or influence actions, which they set forth as required by the facts presented in the antecedents. Although not all uses of 'ought' are prescriptive, such advocacy marks the unconditional use of 'ought' as in the above cases, where the antecedent empirical statements serve not to qualify or restrict the 'oughts' but rather to indicate the facts or reasons which make them mandatory. Third, the 'oughts' are egalitarian in that they require that at least basic well-being be distributed equally as between the agent35


addressed and his potential recipients, or as among the members of a society. Although such egalitarianism is sometimes made part of the definition of'moral', and I shall myself sometimes use 'moral' to include both this and the prescriptiveness just mentioned, it seems best to distinguish these considerations, since there may, after all, be non-egalitarian moralities. A fourth important characteristic of these 'oughts' is that they are determinate. By this I mean that the actions they prescribe have definite contents such that the opposite contents cannot be obtained by the same mode of derivation. Thus, in my above examples, the 'oughts' require, respectively, rescuing, feeding, not harming; at the same time they are opposite-excluding in that one cannot, by the mode of derivation in question, obtain as conclusions 'oughts' which permit or require not rescuing, not feeding, or harming. A fifth characteristic of these 'oughts', which to some extent encompasses some of the other characteristics, is that they are categorical, not merely hypothetical. By this characteristic, which applies more directly to the individual 'ought'-judgments, I mean that the requirements set forth therein are normatively overriding and ineluctable or necessary, in that their bindingness cannot be removed by, and hence is not contingent on or determined by, variable, escapable features either of the persons addressed or of their social relations. These escapable, nondetermining features include the self-interested desires of the persons addressed, their. variable choices, opinions, and attitudes, and institutional rules whose obligatoriness may itself be doubtful or variable. Now it is with 'ought'-judgments having these five characteristics of being moral, prescriptive, egalitarian, determinate, and categorical that the real 'Is-Ought' Problem is concerned. The Problem is this: how can 'ought'-judgments having these five characteristics be logically derived from, or be justified on the basis of, premisses which state empirical facts? As this question suggests, a sixth condition which must be satisfied by any solution of the real 'Is-Ought' Problem is that of non-circularity, especially in the respect that the premisses from which the 'ought'-conclusions are derived must not themselves be moral or prescriptive. The resolution of the Problem calls not only for presenting a derivation which satisfies these six conditions but also for a theory which adequately explains why this derivation is successful and why previous attempts at derivation have been36


unsuccessful. There may indeed be problems about deriving from empirical statements 'ought'-judgments which lack one or more of these five characteristics; but they are not the real 'Is-Ought' Problem, not only because, having fewer conditions to satisfy, they are easier to resolve, but also because they necessarily fail to cope with the issue of justifying categorical moral 'ought'judgments, judgments which bear on the most basic requirements of how persons ought to live in relation to one another. It is the decisive importance of this issue of justification that makes the real 'Is-Ought' Problem at once so central and so difficult for moral philosophy. There is a familiar sequence of considerations at this point. The moral 'ought'-judgments of the sort I mentioned above are not self-evident; hence if they are to be justified at all they must be derived in some way from other statements. These other, justifying statements must themselves be either moral or non-moral (where 'moral' here includes also the characteristics of prescriptiveness and categoricalness). If the justifying statements are moral ones, then there recurs the question of how they are to be justified, since they too are not selfeviden


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