05 September 2011

Where the Obligational Stance might lead

Where the Obligational Stance might lead

I've been writing about The Obligational Stance, which I earlier called The Ethical Stance. I'm writing this post to explain why I'm doing that.

It's a truism in philosophy that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is". In other words, any valid argument whose conclusion is a moral statement also has a moral statement somewhere among its premises. No valid argument starts from just observations and math and arrives at a moral conclusion.

I don't expect to derive "ought" from "is" either, but I hope to sketch some lines along which arguments could proceed from "is" to lesser normative conclusions. Such normative conclusions could not rise to the level of an objective "ought", but they might still be persuasive.

Argument from brokenness

Another basic argument, I think, will draw on the concept of "broken" entities in the stances. Just as we wouldn't want to credit a belief that could only be held by could only be held by the ignorant or the foolish, we may not want to credit an ethic that could only be held by "broken" obligational entities.

And of course "brokenness" is contingent on any number of facts in the real world. In a hypothetical world where Thomas Jefferson had discovered Newtonian Mechanics, those who believed so would not be ignorant and those who thought otherwise would be. Similarly, an obligational entity who (say) demands a service that he really paid for and was promised is probably healther as an obligational entity than one who sincerely demands a service that really did not.1

That's an intentional-level contingency. Could there be obligational level contingencies too? I think so; we might also suspect the health of an obligational entity who very strongly demands a service that was paid for at an extremely cheap rate. I don't want to go too far with this sort of example, to avoid introducing my own "oughts".

Argument from brokenness is a whole can of worms, of course. Many are the partisan arguments where one side calls the other side ethically broken - or ignorant and foolish for that matter. An ugly sight, but also one that makes me think I am on the right track. This line of argument wouldn't have the psychological power that it does, be it ever so often abused, if it was entirely invalid.

Argument from ramifications of who/whom

I said that ethoi are platonic, probably not countable, and vary across a dimensional space which is difficult to even characterize. But while ethoi are platonic, their embodiments are real and countable, and skewed in interesting ways.

In the real world, ISTM one very revealing characteristic of an ethos is the interaction of identity and obligations. Particularly when it takes the form of different rules for different entities.

In a mild form, it's unavoidable. No viable ethos could give truly equal weight to insects and people. It's more usual to completely ignore insects obligationally.

Now, that by itself doesn't demonstrate anything normative about any ethos. We need further argument for that. Our actual argument might go something like:


So ISTM the Obligational Stance gives us a tool to reason about ethics without deriving an "ought" from an "is".


1 I realize this runs the risk of appearing to introduce my own ethics. It's just an example, not a premise.


  1. I'm always looking to get broad framework straight first so I have something to hang details on; maybe that's why I'm still struggling with the relationships between the stances. Something hasn't been adding up for me, and I'm now thinking it's not about the relation between the obligational and intentional stances, but rather the relations between both of those and the design stance.

    As an alternative to a linear arrangement, suppose the design and intentional stances aren't related to each other in a simple way at all, and draw a loose analogy "physical is to design as intentional is to obligational".

    physical --> design
    intentional --> obligational

    As the analogy is vague between physical-to-design and intentional-to-obligational, it's not clear there's much of use to get out of that, and I'm doubting there is any sensible relationship design-to-obligational, let alone one that would resemble physical->intentional.

  2. I'm not sure I have a compelling argument that the hierarchy is in that order, or in that topology. But my thinking, albeit somewhat loose, is "How could stance N+1 mean anything if the machinery for stance N wasn't already in place?", for each of the 3 cases. For N = intentional, how could an entity see obligations if it didn't have beliefs about the world?

    I'm going to continue this in a full post.