Is and Ought

This is a long topic — but to give a one line slogan, what I would say is the following:

“IS = OUGHT”

In other words, reality does not distinguish between the way we live and the way things are. While one can make a distinction between the two, the separation between what is and what one should do is an abstraction (admittedly, one with a pragmatic value) that has no ultimate truth attached to it. From this slogan, it also follows that the abstract pursuit of knowledge (that academia stands for) is based on a fundamental metaphysical flaw, the flaw of the “objective stance”, of individuals seeing the world as it supposedly is, but from afar. The obvious flaw, is that the objective stance is based on a theory of is, not what is actually IS.

To use a Clintonian phrase, it all depends on what your definition of is is. The objective conception of is is just a conception, one from which the separation of is and ought follows. Not everyone agrees with this separation. Gandhi is a famous dissenter. In his thoughful essay on Gandhi as a thinker, (available here), Akeel Bilgrami argues that Gandhi’s conception of truth involves a natural flow from the perception of truth to moral action (satyagraha) that is just another facet of the same truth. If one agrees with Bilgrami’s analysis of Gandhi’s philosophy, the conceptual separation between is and ought is unnnatural, coming from an act of suppression of the inherent connection between the two.

However, even if that is the case, you might ask, how is it possible to see something true and not be automatically driven to act in its defense? What kind of truth is it that cannot even make us act consistently? What does it say about human beings that the perception of truth does not force us to act accordingly? These are deep conundrums at the heart of our self understanding, clearly related to notions of freedom, including the freedom to lie or evade.

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