Socrates had a trying habit of asking people exactly what they meant by a particular word, or particular claim. The analysis would swiftly expose whether his opponent knew what he was talking about. It may not have got him many friends, but perhaps it got everyone a little closer to the truth. So today I suggest that we explore the word “ought”. I use it in the moral sense: I ought not to steal, rather than: I ought to have my car serviced.
Morality is a subject which has fascinated many philosophers over the centuries, and they must forgive me for converting their hard work into a few sentences. I start with utilitarianism. This is expressed as: the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s easy to understand. Although putting it into practice can be quite complex. While we associate it with philosphers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill, there have been several others (going back to the Greeks) who would be described as consequentialists, and so belong to the same family.
Immanuel Kant, starting from a basis of reason, taught the principle that we should “Act only on a maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law.” For example if we claimed that people should be free to tell lies how would we react if others told lies to us – and what would be the effect on communication in our society?
The evolutionary approach holds that ‘good’ behaviour, such as communication and working together (as we find in some of the lower animals, but to a lesser extent) leads to success and so to successful breeding.
Natural Law theory – which was influenced by Greek Stoicism and taken up by the Romans, was adopted by Xtianity (involving God as creator). It remains the basis of Catholic moral principles. By observing natural law we flourish, by ignoring it we decline. Humans acting in accordance with their nature sounds commonsense but conclusions such as the prohibition of artificial contraception, or the condemnation of homosexual activity might raise an eyebrow.
David Hume taught that our choice of moral rules is the expression of our dispositions and our emotions. Words like ‘ought’ or ‘morally wrong’ do not add any information to the facts. Similarly, A. J. Ayer, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. They are expressions of approval or disapproval, not assertions. This is sometimes called the Boo Hurrah theory.
But the main drift of philosophy has been to distinguish between right and wrong actions. Christian morality, if you hold it, does provide an ‘ought’ by involving God as creator. The sceptics follow the solution of removing any force from such an ‘ought’. But what meaning does ‘ought’ carry in the minds of others?
I discussed this question with the philosophy group which I run. Mainly agnostic but including two Catholics and an atheist. It took us an hour and a half, but right at the end someone concluded that the objective of morals was to benefit others, but including ourselves. Immediately, and without the help of the New Testament, everyone agreed that it was this concern which was common to all moral questions. We finished happily. But I was left thinking about the next question: where does this love come from? And why should we respond to it? I will bring that up on another occasion – but perhaps you have some ideas.