Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hypothetical Imperatives: Acting For a Reason

"Originally, a 'hypo-thesis' was literally an 'under-thesis,' that is, a support for a thesis. So, in the conditional claim 'X given Y,' X is the thesis (θέσις), and Y is the under-thesis (ὑπόθεσις) or support for the thesis X. But now a 'hypothesis' is an uncertain belief under consideration, possibly true and possibly false, that will require more research and evidence to determine whether or not it or some other competing hypothesis is actually true."1
I suspect much of the resistance to the idea that morality could be a "system of hypothetical imperatives"2 is due to associating the flimsy-sounding word 'hypothetical' with the solemn topic of morality. However, as shown by the quote above, the word originally had a much stronger meaning.

Two Views of Moral Imperatives

There are different ways of characterizing the distinction between categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives. But the way I see it, a categorical 'ought' fits the pattern "One ought to X [necessarily and unconditionally]" instead of the pattern "One ought to X, given Y." So any time an imperative is expressed with an underlying reason (a hypo-thesis), I consider that imperative a member of the hypothetical camp.

In a fairly trivial way, this definition characterizes most specific moral imperatives as hypothetical, since they rely on more basic moral principles. The big question is whether fundamental imperatives are categorical or hypothetical.

Fundamentally Categorical

If the most basic moral imperatives are categorical, by stipulative definition there can't be any underlying reason why we ought to act morally. So there is literally no reason to act morally in the first place under the categorical view!

Fundamentally Hypothetical

If, on the other hand, the most basic moral imperatives are themselves hypothetical, there can be a reason to act morally in the first place.

This is a scary thought for those who want morality to be an absolutely unquestionable set of rules that must be followed because...the rules say they must be followed. But this is clearly circular! What happens when some brave soul asks why moral imperatives must be followed? Typically something like this:
  • "What? Of course you must act morally. Morality demands it!"
  • "Without morality, [terrible things] would happen!"
The first response is the only one allowed by the categorical view and is effective at converting questioners into moral skeptics. The second response implies justifying reasons for moral imperatives; simply turn these terrible consequences around to form a list of positive goals morality promotes.

So why must moral imperatives be followed? Not just because "it's the moral thing to do," but because certain actions must be done, given these underlying positive goals.3

1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 116.
2. See
3. See

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