Is / Ought / Like / Want / Can

This is the ninth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series but can be read as a standalone piece.


38: Towards Ethical Naturalism

Ethical Naturalism is the idea that our ethics are derived from nature (i.e. the physical world) rather than calling upon something outside of the empirical – something ‘super-natural’ such as a god or ‘pure reason’. Central to the idea of Ethical Naturalism are:

  • A rejection of the ‘is’/’ought’ distinction so that ethical reasoning is not uniquely distinct from other reasoning.
  • That the ethical supervenes on the physical, which is to say that it is not possible for two circumstances to be identical in all natural respects but different in their ethical respects.

Before looking at Ethical Naturalism proper, I am first presenting a milder case:

  • Morality does not exist entirely within a realm separate from that of reality. Some facts do determine that we ought to or ought not to do some. This was covered in the previous section.
  • It is possible for other disciplines to claim that they operate in a realm distinct from reality, thus ethical reasoning is not uniquely separate from other reasoning. In this way, ethical reasoning is like other reasoning.


39: From Is to Like

Credit: 'Kunstkenner2305'

‘Das Mädchen mit dem Perlenohrgehänge. Selfie’, after Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’

If Ethics is thought of as about what one ought to do, Aesthetics is about what one likes. It is commonly thought that likes are distinct from facts about the world. Many people like the appearance of Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ painting, the Taj Mahal, an Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) and the physical appearance of Nicole Kidman / Tom Cruise (for which Joshua Greene considers the attractiveness to both humans and baboons) for example, although it is quite possible to not like any of these. Either way, this matter does not seem to depend in any way on objective facts (in the world):

‘You can’t go from an ‘is’ to a ‘like’.’

Yet facts do determine likes. A crude example is the fact that, since humans cannot see ultraviolet light, we cannot appreciate anything beautiful in this part of the spectrum (at least, without being aided by ultraviolet night vision goggles). There is nothing to like or not like here. If we were able to see an Evening Primrose in the same way a bee does, we might judge it to be more beautiful than how we actually do see it.

Photo Credit: Bjorn Roslett

An Evening Primrose as seen by a human (left) and a bee (right)

Incidentally, ethics and aesthetics are commonly regarded as sub-disciplines within ‘axiology’, which concerns values. For others, ethics falls entirely within aesthetics. What people should do is what we like them to do; there is something aesthetically pleasing about virtuous behaviour. Ethics is ‘moral beauty’.


40: From Is to Want

The similar cases made for ethics and aesthetics can also be applied to the issue of wants. Our wants frequently originate from physical needs:

  • I want to breathe.
  • I want food.
  • I want water.
  • I want to sleep.

But, regardless of how things actually are, we could always want something different if we chose to. For example, countering the above biological considerations, there is the case where someone wants to die.

We can claim that wants operate in a completely separate realm from that of nature:

‘You can’t go from an ‘is’ to a ‘want’.’

But this doesn’t mean they are completely separate. As has already been said, our wants frequently originate from the physical.


41: From Is to Can

Having looked at the rather obvious parallels of  ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ with respect to moral ‘oughts’, I now turn to a more obscure example of a discipline that can be considered to be operating in a wholly separate realm from that of the physical world. That discipline is engineering design (!). In the most simple of terms, this is about ‘can do’. More specifically, it is about getting from ‘can do’ to ‘is – realising a want by using the technology available to us. (Related to this is the issue of wants, discussed immediately above. We engineer when both want to solve a particular problem and additionally can solve that a particular problem.)

And yet, the realm of engineering design ‘can do’ can be considered to be completely separated from the realm of scientific ‘is’. (Contrast English ‘know how’ with ‘know what’; Old English ‘ken’ versus ‘wit’; German ‘kennen’ versus ‘wissen’.)  Just because there is a natural solution to a want, it doesn’t mean we are limited to that solution. We are completely free to choose an alternative solution.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

the Gateshead Millennium Bridge: A designed solution to crossing water

For example:

  1. An example that has been around for thousands of years: an ability to do something equivalent to walking on water in order to get access to something on the other side of the river. Whilst there are other solutions, this is generally achieved by building a bridge!
  2. A very recent example: an ability to make the blind see. The ‘BrainPort’, is one example of Tactile-Visual Sensory Substitution (described previously) that provides the blind with some visual sense, albeit a very poor substitute of the real thing.

My choice of examples here is deliberate. Engineering transforms the miraculous to the mundane – from something ‘out of this world’ (super-natural) to something ‘of the world’.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

(Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’)


Photo Credit: Daily Mail

A Water Strider (or ‘Pond Skater’): The natural, evolved solution to crossing water

Consider the first example further. In order to traverse over water, the engineering design solution of building a bridge is very different from a solution found pre-existing in nature, such as a Water Strider that is able, literally, to walk on water.  Copying nature does not necessarily lead to the best engineering solution (see below). Similarly, in the early era of manned flight, people tried to emulate the flight of birds by building ‘ornithopters’ that flapped their wings, but failed. For restoring sight, we might want to copy nature but be unable to; the BrainPort is an engineered solution based on what we can do, given our limited technology in this area.

Photo Credit: the horse's mouth

Design imitating evolution

‘Can do’ is not limited by ‘is’ but ‘is’ certainly influences ‘can do’:

  • Engineering ‘can do’ is restricted by ‘is’ facts. For example, based on our current understanding of the scientific ‘is’, it will never be possible for us to develop the technology to travel faster than the speed of light.
  • ‘Reverse engineering’ is seeing that there is something, something that some-one else has designed, examining it and determining from this how it can be done. Reverse-engineering allows the transformation from the new-found ‘can’ to a new ‘is’ in a modified (possibly better) form. It is about finding out the ‘design intent’ behind the creation of the object. This is beyond mere copying which does not provide new understanding; that is merely ‘is’ to ‘is’ without going via ‘can’).
  • Similar to reverse engineering, ‘nature-inspired’ engineering is seeing that there is something, (something that noone else has designed but has arisen/evolved in nature), examining it and determining from this how it can be done. This ‘nature-inspired’ is normally ‘bio-inspired’, drawing on our observations of biology. So we may be able to learn from Water Striders and make this a viable solution in comparison with alternative solutions that are not drawn from biology. But it is not necessarily so.

Hence it might be claimed that the realms of engineering ‘can do’ and scientific ‘is’ are separate. Yet there is a relationship between the two.

Photo Credit: the horse's mouth

Design imitating evolution 2: Edward Frost’s 1902 ornithopter


42: Likes, Wants and Cans are Like Oughts

In summary, the realms of ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ have traditionally been viewed as completely separate. But they are related. Similar arguments of separateness from the empirical world can also be made about other disciplines such as those examples I have considered here (Aesthetics, wants and Engineering Design). This is to contribute towards the argument that Ethical Reasoning is not uniquely apart from other reasoning.

It is normal for Ethical Naturalist to claim that moral reasoning is like other reasoning (such as the examples I have considered here). Instead, I have argued the same case by going in the opposite direction – that other reasoning can be considered to be aloof from the natural world just as moral reasoning frequently is.

The only difference between moral reasoning and the others considered here is that:

  • The ‘Likes’ of aesthetics, the ‘want’ desires and ‘can do’ abilities are generally about the self, whereas
  • The ‘oughts’ of ethics are necessarily about others.


Next: Ethical Naturalism

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2 Responses to Is / Ought / Like / Want / Can

  1. Pingback: Ethical Physicalism | Headbirths

  2. Pingback: Some Good Reason | Headbirths

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