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“Is and Ought”

-- Dr Rajagopala Soondron

The title would remind students of philosophy and history of David Hume’s famous essay; many would have given different interpretations to his views, because ‘Is and Ought’ encompass a whole gamut of human feelings, beliefs and rationalization. ‘Be’ or ‘is’ is said to involve moral rationalism while ‘ought’ moral sentimentalism. Taken together they would influence our concept of moral judgment differently. This is further compounded by legal philosophers joining the fray. They worry over '… (1) whether legal rules belong to the "is" category or to the "ought" category, and (2) whether it is possible to distinguish between "the law as it is" and "the law as it ought to be". '

We Mauritians drive on the left. Ought it be on the right? Is it better? If at one in the morning the traffic light is red at a zebra crossing, and absolutely no pedestrian is in sight, is it alright if we drive through? Or must we obey the law and wait for the green light? Or should we change that law? Some of our politicians want to stay in power indefinitely. Ought we limit it officially to two terms? Or ought we remove them officiously from office only after 5 years?

The question of ‘ought’ is really ill-defined. To some of us it is as vast as the universe; it tends towards infinity. We ought to be broad-minded… how broad-minded? We ought to be gentle… how gentle? We ought to be loyal… how loyal? Must our kindness embrace only the human kind, or must we extend it to other living beings and to the non-living? Must we limit our feelings to our blue planet or must we extend it to the whole cosmos? In short: where is the limit? Hence, intellectuals of all hues will find ground to agree or disagree.

No wonder we come across various formulations that often get thrown at us when talking about the ‘Is-Ought Fallacy’ or ‘Hume’s Guillotine’ as someone has labelled it:

'You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an "is".

You can’t derive an imperative from an indicative.

You can’t derive value judgments from factual judgments…'

Are we falling, yet again, a prey to that tendency to see the world only in black and white, and forgetting that all our mental activities, like everything else, are always interconnected and interdependent? The question is: can we manage our world affairs and improve our lot, if we stop dreaming, if we have no ideals and no ambitions?

We can go on speculating about these two states and posit all sorts of possible views to explain what each of us understands. Or we can forget all this intellectual gymnastics and leave it to the philosophers – folk or legal -- to go on debating: 'We sometimes call men "tall" without being sure just how many inches constitute tallness, and we call men "bald" without being sure just how few hairs one must have to be bald. Why should we vary our practice where the term is "law"?'

So some clever practical person, Ray Ingles, has suggested why not limit ourselves to the ‘Ought’ versus the ‘Is + A Goal’ formula. By so doing we have a well-defined future aim.

We would have gladly forgotten Hume’s propositions and stayed in that ignorant beatitude, had it not been for our self-promise to keep the tryst with some old dormant books, and found ourselves intricately sucked into this dilemma when we pick up once again J Krishnamurthi’s 'The First and Last Freedom' of the 1950s. In fact we had tried our hand at that volume (which is a collection of Krishnamurthi’s talks) during the early years of our undergraduate days to finally scoff at the incomprehensible views that the author wanted to impose on us impatient young adults. 40 years later we are at it again. But this time after having gathered some moss on the way.


J. Krishnamurthi (JK) tries to analyze the reason for human failures and unhappiness. He treats such subjects as boredom, time, deception, desire, awareness. The mainstay of his arguments rests on “what we are” (WWA) and “what we want to be” ( WWWTB) all along making us wondering whether we are back in that “ought” and “is” controversy of Hume’s. The impression is that the latter’s ‘O/I’ has to do with broad social interactions, while JK addresses himself to the individual specifically.

So we gladly short-circuit Hume’s abstract concept, and come down to earth by adopting JK’s view: his more simple formula of WWA and WWWTB. Those simple premises look more attractive and loaded with significance. “WWA” has to do with the actual state of our feelings and reasoning – of our anger, our mood, weaknesses and past experiences, and possibly of our genetic inheritance. WWWTB has to do with our aspirations, our wish for a better future world, with possible solutions to our present problems – in fact a virtual world that does not exist yet, hence the epithet of sentimentalism tacked to it. The gap between the two is surely the gap between reality and dreaming, between the now and the future, between pragmatism and idealism. Could it be between the more physiological, anatomical and the predominantly mental?

WWWTB generally draws its inspirations from the views and influence of other people – be they parents, teachers, religious teachings and masters, from books and social media, social traditions and culture. And JK’s contention is how could the views of others become the views of a certain individual; how could their concept of the universe, of the world and of everyday life be copied by that individual? Being unique, he yet imitates others – and in so doing he is bound to discover that his life is hollow, out of his depth and bereft of meaning; no wonder he finds it difficult to discover truth and happiness. He may for a long time believe that he is his own master, but one good day he will wake up and realize that there is within him a little voice trying to make itself heard, to contradict him – telling him that he has transformed himself into someone else’s avatar, into whose steps he is trying to walk but in vain. JK suggests that an individual must be what he is – which could be achieved only by his willingness to know himself – in other words to find out with all concentration and earnestness “what is”. This empirically implies that he must first learn to live in the now.

And how to get down to that self-imposed assignment? The oft-repeated formula that the author insists upon is to understand the present, which clearly has to do with the actual core of our being, of the mind, of our feelings and beliefs; in short “what we are”.

Mr X is a successful businessman; he has everything to be happy – family, children and assets. Yet he is not, because he is always thinking of how to outdo his competitors; at the beginning he enjoyed competing, but with time he finds himself caught in an ever demanding rat race. He wants to imitate other great successful businessmen he has heard of -- to be even richer than them, but he discovers that this compulsion keeps destabilizing him. How does he get rid of that sensation? Does he go on pursuing his ideal or does he get down to the truth – that he does not have the grit to go for the kill? If he turns his gaze inwards and thinks about himself, about his weaknesses, his lack of determination, the irrationality and futility of growing richer (without ever condemning anyone or himself; if he can watch his true self (his mental working) in action, how becoming rich means ultimately the impoverishment of someone else, how his mind changes sides or becomes biased – he will discover that true self.

In short he has to contemplate himself and his weak points – with total detachment; by so doing he finds out the forces that are playing havoc with his inner life. And he would be in a better situation to make allowance for his failings.


Tags:   Dr Rajagopala Soondron   Ray Ingles   J Krishnamurthi     David Hume   Moral Rationalism   Moral Sentimentalism