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Decisions, decisions!

29 September, 2015 - 14:49

There are two very important questions of "ought" that come up in thinking about politics:

  1. What ought to be?
  2. What ought to be done?

Unfortunately, these questions are frequently confused with each other. It is very important that we recognize them as separate, even though they are often closely related.

What ought to be? refers to states of affairs, to arrangements, institutions, organizations. Which is the better way to arrange a legislature, unicameral or bicameral? Should there be an Eminent Domain clause in the US Constitution? Is poverty bad? Should the US be in the United Nations? These are all questions about what ought to be.

What ought to be done? refers to present or future actions. Should we try to send another man to the moon? Should we convict the defendant? For whom should I vote?

The difference between what ought to be and what ought to be done can be graphically illustrated by imagining that you have been shipwrecked on a small island. The island is one on which you can survive, but not much more than that. Not far away, however, is another island. Studying it with binoculars, you conclude that it would be a much better place to live. Therefore, you ought to be on the other island.

But what ought to be done? Consider the following possible facts: First, you cannot swim. Second, there is nothing on your present island with which to construct a boat. Third, the waters between the islands are teeming with sharks. Under these circumstances, it is quite reasonable to say both:

  1. What ought to be? I ought to be on the other island.
  2. What ought to be done? I ought to stay right where I am.

In terms of our analysis of decision and action, A\rightarrow X+Y , the only immediate actions that could deliver the goal X (being on the other island) are either unavailable or are likely to produce unacceptable side effects Y. You would rather be on your present island and in good health than to drown or be devoured trying to get to the other one. And this is in spite of the fact that the other island is a much better place to be. Although the two questions appear to be very similar, deciding what ought to be does not tell us what ought to be done.