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“Ought” and “Is”1

  • R. F. Atkinson (a1) and A. C. Montefiore


There is probably no student of modern philosophy, and certainly no listener to the Third Programme, who has never received the warning that he must on no account deduce an “ought” from an “is.” This prohibition, it is claimed, is securely based in established and unchallengeable principles of logic. Professor Flew was speaking for many others when he said, in the course of a broadcast entitled “Problems of Perspectives”, “I think it is very important indeed to make as clear as we can and to underline with all possible emphasis that this is a point of inexorable logic”. And Professor Popper, to take but one other example, has expressed himself no less trenchantly: “Perhaps the simplest and most important point about ethics is purely logical, I mean the impossibility to derive nontautological ethical rules—imperatives, principles of policy, aims or however we may describe them—from statements of fact”—a view that is fully endorsed by Mr. Hare in his Language of Morals.



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page 29 note 2 “What can logic do for philosophy?” Arist. Soc. Supp., Vol. XXII, 1948, p. 154.

page 29 note 3 Oxford, 1952, p. 31.

page 32 note 1 This phrase was, I believe, coined by Mr, Nowell-Smith in his Ethics (Pelican Books, 1954). I think some such concept indispensable to any investigation of the “logic” of ordinary language. I do not, however, wish to give the impression that I think Nowell-Smith would approve of all or any of the uses to which I put it.

page 33 note 1 This is not to say that a hearer would necessarily experience difficulty in Understanding it. It is often quite clear what people mean, even when they have not said what they mean, i.e. even when they have used a form of words which taken at its face value does not express their meaning.

page 33 note 2 Op. Cit.

page 37 note 1 See, for example, the beginning of Ernest Gellner's article “Morality and Je ne sais quoi concepts”, in Analysis, April 1956.

page 38 note 1 Atkinson takes as his example the sentence “You ought to do X, but do not do it”. In my example the speaker refuses to enjoin one way or the other; this is certainly a much more common case than that where the speaker positively enjoins his audience to act in a way opposite to that of which he approves, which provides consequently a much less plausible example. But both possibilities are excluded by the practical import criterion. It should be noticed, too, that the word “enjoin” is subject to ambiguities similar to those noted by Atkinson with regard to the word “choose”.

page 41 note 1 “Ethical Intuitionism”, Philosophy, Vol. 24, 1949.

page 44 note 1 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1954–55.

page 47 note 1 And perhaps also a thorough-going liberal democratic outlook. Since this outlook is founded on the notion of individual responsibility, it cannot admit that obligations binding the individual should be validly derivable from any set of facts about the community without the individual's own decision or consent.

1 This is a very much revised version of a discussion originally given before a meeting of the Northern Universities Philosophical Society at Attingham Park, April 1956.


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