Consider this hypothesis:
‘Oughts’ must always be accompanied by a goal of some kind. ‘Ethical oughts’ are a subset in which the goal is in some way related to degrees of pleasure or suffering of others.
If we expand on this we can see examples of fairly straight-forward ‘oughts’ like, “you ought to pour the hot water into the tea cup” where the unspoken goal is “if you want to make a cup of tea then…”. This ‘ought’ combined with these ‘ises’ (i.e. there are ‘ises’ in that there is a cup, that there is water, that there is a creature with a goal of making a cup of tea, etc) show that it is ‘wrong’ to pour the water on the bench and ‘right’ to pour it in the cup. If the goal was to clean the dishes then the ‘ought’ would change.
Ethical ‘oughts’ like, “you ought not steal” have unspoken goals like “if you want to avoid making others unhappy then…”. This ‘ought’ is also derived from a bunch of ‘ises’ (there are other people who are unhappy when stolen from, you are a creature with the ability to steal or not steal, you are a creature who doesn’t want others to be unhappy, etc) and shows that, within this framework, there is a ‘right’ way to act and a ‘wrong’ way to act.
When you read the ethical example you are no doubt asking “well, why ‘ought’ you want others to be happy?” You could ask the same of the tea cup example; why ‘ought’ you make a cup of tea? We can step out to meta-oughts and we’ll find that the same rules apply: that even a meta-ought requires a goal of some kind and that an ethical meta-ought will involve some kind of ability to make others suffer.
We ought to make a cup of coffee because we desire it (thirst, addiction, etc). If we are to fulfil this desire then we ‘ought’ to make a cup of coffee. It is ‘right’ in this context to boil the jug.
We ought to want to make others happy (or, at least, not cause others to suffer) if we find ourselves in a society which returns favours or which punishes us when we cause harm. It is ‘right’ to not cause others to suffer in this context.
What about meta-meta-oughts? The same rules apply. Each meta-ought gradually becomes more and more empirically simple, not more and more supernaturally ethereal. They fade out into ‘ises’. We eventually end up with ‘oughts’ based on how our bodies/brains work. We ought to be thirsty because our bodies trigger a thirst response when they require water to keep working. Conversely, we ought to fight this addiction (if it is one) because our brains — through gradual understanding about how the world works — informs us that even though our bodies desire and reward us for caffeine we are suffering in other ways. We ought to avoid suffering because our bodies use suffering in order to stop us harming ourselves. Our bodies ought to provide these responses if we are to survive and spread our genes. Our genes are configured in this way because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here. At the very foundation it’s simply a matter of patterns that survive.
At some stage our ethical oughts fade into non-ethical oughts when the ‘ought’ no longer pertains to the well being of others. Even if you believe in the existence of a God who is either a punisher and rewarder (you ought to simply because God says you ought to) or a trustworthy advisor (we ought to because God knows more about how the universe works and his advice can be trusted to bring us happiness) we eventually end up with ethical oughts based on our own personal well being which, as I have shown, fade into non-ethical oughts because they don’t involve the well being of others. If you believe in a God of some kind ask yourself “why oughtn’t I murder?” and follow those meta-oughts as far as you can. I guarantee you’ll end up dealing with a non-ethical ought based on your own well being which, in turn, will end up disappointingly as a mere surviving genetic pattern. (I personally don’t find it disappointing; I think it’s one of the most wonderful things ever. I used to though.)
It shouldn’t really surprise us that complexity arises from simplicity. We have first-hand experience of gradually arising from a single sperm and an egg. We know that the amazing diversity of life evolved from simple chemical reactions billions of years ago. We suspect that the universe itself came about from deep simplicity. When we examine oughts and meta-oughts it certainly feels as though the ought of “you ought not steal” should have come from on high but as with the case of the coffee-making we can see that even this arises from something as simple as looking after our own interests.
At their very foundation, ‘oughts’ (even ethical ‘oughts’) are ‘ises’. It’s the layers of meta-oughts that trick us into thinking otherwise. It’s also the fact that some people are happy to speak the implicit “if you want to make a cup of tea then…” in common oughts but have difficulty speaking the implicit “if you want to avoid causing suffering then…” in what we term ‘ethical oughts’.
(This was originally posted as a comment over at FruitfulFaith and it was only after seeing how monstrously huge it was that I realised it was suitable as a post in itself. I’ve had a lot of different thoughts on morality and the issues that surround it and this is a good distillation of my latest thinking. And like all my previous thoughts this will likely change too — but right now I can’t see any gaping holes and it seems a fairly robust hypothesis capable of explaining a lot.)