Moral Foundations

There are two logical gaps that must be surmounted if moral theory is to be considered rationally founded. These are the fact/value gap, and the is/ought gap. The former regards how something moves from being a simple matter of fact to being an object of value. The latter regards how some value moves from being a simple value, to being an object of moral obligation, that which categorically ought to be done. The purpose of the present essay is to present one plausible rendition on how these gaps may be surmounted. It represents a summary of the argument presented by Alan Gewirth in his monumental work Reason And Morality.(1) The version of this argument presented here is quite summary, and deviates slightly from Gewirth in some of his phraseology and description of how these logical gaps may be bridged in the context of moral theory.

Goodness And Hypothetical Imperatives

When we experience something as pleasurable or a source of potential satisfaction, we do experience a desire for it. Thus the object of action seems good ‘to us’. Does this make it objectively good? From our perspective, this question is not immediately relevant. What we experience is a sense that the object offering the satisfaction is worth pursuing from our perspective, since we would enjoy it in some way. Subjectively, the thing is valuable to us since we find ourselves capable of valuing it. Since the object we contemplate as seeming good exists in the external world, to this extent it is an objective value. But it is only so to us, and not necessarily in any absolute sense.

So we seem to affirm to ourselves that we ‘ought’ to pursue it, but not in the sense that we must pursue it and would be wrong not to, but rather that it would be worth pursuing due to the enjoyment to be had from doing so. If we have no other reason for not pursuing it, we perceive that we ought to (that it would be good or worthwhile to). We are drawn to it, but not inevitably or necessarily. Instead, this subjective experience of value leads us to what Kant called a hypothetical imperative which in the present example would be represented by the following reasoning: ‘If you would like to experience an enjoyable experience, and have no other reason not to, you ought to pursue this.’ But here the ought is altogether conditional on our desire to do so.

‘Ought’ language is known in moral theory as deontic language. It is important to note the logical structure of this hypothetical imperative. If one is committed to the enjoyment being contemplated then one is logically required to pursue the object that will satisfy the desire. One is not logically required to pursue the desire itself, but given that prior commitment, one is as logically required to conclude one ought to do the action in question, as one is committed to doing any moral action one perceives oneself obligated to perform. The same deontic logic follows, given the commitment present at the beginning of the argument. The only difference is the conditional nature of the initial commitment itself. In normal moral discourse, when we talk of obligations, we do not perceive them to be hypothetical as in the case we have just reviewed.

This leads us to the other type of imperative Kant referred to. This is the concept of the categorical imperative. Here the ‘ought’ is not hypothetical, based on the perceived potential worth of pursuing the object desired, and conditional on whether we decide we would like to pursue it. In the case of the categorical imperative, one has no option whether or not one is ought to be committed to the pursuit. The commitment is a requirement of Reason. One perceives oneself obligated to pursue the value in question, whether one wants to or not. This is the ought of moral law.

The Asymmetry Of Value And Obligation

What is interesting about value and obligation is that they have a unique asymmetry. While every obligation pertains to some value, not every value pertains to a coincident obligation. It is this fact that every obligation represents a value that can lead us to the mistaken impression, as utilitarian theories often do, that we perceive ourselves under obligation when we perceive value. This seems clearly mistaken. Some things are perceived as valuable without being perceived as obligatory, even though all things that are perceived as obligatory represent some value.

It is this latter fact that is sometimes ignored by theories of obligation like deontological theories that suggest that obligations are right and wrong, irrespective of any good associated with them. Since every obligation represents some good, one is always obligated to will the good, and not simply what is right. What is right is to will those goods that are obligatory to will. The question for morality is, how does a value become obligatory, instead of merely a valid object of pursuit? What makes a good an obligatory good that one must pursue or one is being immoral for failing to do so?

Clearly the hypothetical imperative does not face this question. The reason I ought to pursue some value in a hypothetical imperative is because I would like to. I find it desirable. It is only natural to pursue what one enjoys. Given that I have this commitment to some enjoyment, it logically follows that I should pursue that which will produce the enjoyment. It does not matter whether I desire some good for myself, or some good for someone else. Provided I have this commitment, the logical requirement of the pursuit of the means to it follows. But why should I consider myself obligated to pursue any particular value over another such that I cannot decide whether or not to pursue it as a value personally? How could an imperative move from being a hypothetical imperative, to a categorical imperative?

Bridging The Fact/Value Gap

Before proceeding it is important to note a few things. I mentioned above there are two logical gaps that are addressed in moral theory. These are the fact/value gap, and the is/ought gap. Regarding the first, it is asked how an objective fact moves from being only a fact, to being a value? We have seen the answer from the perspective of the moral agent. It is through the agent’s emotional capacity to find something worthwhile, for whatever reason, which turns an otherwise neutral fact into a value, for the agent.

We can even talk of objective value, from the agent’s perspective, since the object perceived as worthwhile exists external to the agent himself. This also explains how deontic language (talk of ‘ought’) initially enters the otherwise value neutral landscape of facts. For given an agent’s attraction to certain activities due to their emotive generating qualities, the possibility of an ‘ought’ enters the picture. The first ought that enters is not a logically required ought, but an emotively appropriate ‘implicational’ ought. It says that since something is emotively worth pursuing, one ‘ought’ (it would be worthwhile) to pursue it. At this stage the agent is not logically committed to the pursuit, but perceives the emotional ‘suited-ness’ of the pursuit.

All that needs to happen to create a logically required ought is for the agent to commit to the experience of some emotive generating value, and it becomes logically required that the agent act to achieve that value. So we can speak in terms like, ‘You ought to do that.’ This can mean either that it would be good that you do that (in the initial sense of ought), or that given your commitment to experiencing this value, you are logically required to perform the actions that will produce what you have committed to (second and deontic sense of ought).

Even though we are speaking only in terms of hypothetical imperatives, this is nonetheless a real ought. The first step is the perception that something would be experienced in some sense as desirable, creating an initial inclination toward the activity. This inclination need not be strictly sensual. It could be any perception of potential fulfillment from the satisfaction of the acquirement of knowledge, to the satisfaction to be had from achieving some purposive goal, to the joy taken in seeing some other person made happy. All such perceptions produce within an agent an emotive inclination toward the activity.

Once the commitment has been voluntarily made to pursue the experience in view, the agent has become logically committed through this voluntary commitment to the actions that form the means to the envisioned experience. He ought to do the acts, given his inclination toward the experience, and given his commitment to having the experience. Such actions are means to the end chosen by the agent. Choosing the goal logically requires choosing the means to the goal.

So far so good for explaining how facts become values for an agent, and how a fact can become an ought through the way a commitment to the pursuit of such a value creates a logically required imperative to pursue the means to the enjoyment. How does this emotional/rational structure end up moving us from hypothetical imperatives to categorical imperatives? How do we move to the place where we not only are logically required to pursue the means to a goal we have voluntarily chosen, but now are logically required to choose the goal itself, in addition to the means? How does a perceived value become a morally obligatory value?

Goods And Necessary Goods

Here we must make use of the distinction between a good and a necessary good. We also need to begin distinguishing between prudential reasoning and moral reasoning.

The reason some values can come to be perceived as obligatory is because they are perceived as necessary goods. Necessary goods are those goods that must be secured if any other good desired is to be securable. They are those goods that are logically included in the pursuit of any and every value, whatever the variety of these values might be. Another way to phrase this is the difference between needs and wants. Many things I want I can do without. I am not required to pursue them. The decision to pursue them forms a hypothetical imperative. But if I am to pursue any wants at all with any hope of succeeding, there are some wants that also constitute needs. And even if I do not want them, I logically ought to want them, as necessary conditions of the pursuit of the things I actually do want. These are the values I am logically required to value, if I am to pursue any value at all.

So an agent is by definition someone with a commitment to purposes he wishes to pursue. As such, an agent is logically committed to the proposition, ‘I must obtain those goods necessary for the fulfillment of my purposes, whatever my purposes are’. This can be called a prudential obligation. Given my commitment to my purposes, I am committed to the obligation to secure the things needed to pursue my purposes. I ought to secure them.

The labels ‘freedom’ and ‘well-being’ can summarize the goods that are necessary for the pursuit of any purpose. If I am to pursue my purposes, whatever they may be, I must be able to act without being coerced. Hence I need freedom. I also need well-being, which can be defined as those physical and psychological conditions that an agent needs to be able to pursue any particular purpose. Everything from life, health, and shelter on a basic level, through to self-respect and mutual toleration at a more specific level, might come into play here.

Prudential Obligations And Rights-Claims

Since an agent, by his agency, is logically committed to affirm he must have his freedom and well-being, this constitutes a prudential deontic ‘obligation’ he has to pursue his freedom and well-being, and to see to it that others at least not interfere with his having his freedom and well-being. Note, this is not a moral affirmation in the sense of an obligation toward the securing of the freedom and well-being of others. This obligation is something he affirms, because his commitment to his own purposes, whatever they may be, require him to affirm these goods as necessary for his pursuit of his own purposes. This is all from his own perspective, given the purposes he has. The fact others have purposes they want to fulfill requires them also to affirm their own prudential obligation to pursue their own freedom and well-being, from their perspective.

So now we have a deontic ‘obligation’, but it is not a moral obligation, an obligation to respect the rights of other’s to their freedom and well-being. It is only a requirement on the agent’s part to pursue his own freedom and well-being. How does this prudential obligation on the agent’s part turn into an obligation to respect the rights of others, and of others to respect his rights? This happens as the agent follows through logically with what his own prudential obligation requires him to affirm.

He perceives that his own commitment to his purposes requires him to pursue his own freedom and well-being which entails he must affirm, ‘I must have my freedom and well-being’. This entails he must affirm, ‘Others ought not to interfere with my having my freedom and well-being’ and also, ‘Others ought to help me have my freedom and well-being, if I cannot obtain them on my own’. These affirmations require him logically to affirm, ‘I have a right to my freedom and well-being’. All these follow logically from the fact these goods are necessary if he is to pursue his purpose, which purposes he has because he is an agent. These all flow from within the standpoint of the agent’s perspective. But at this stage in his reasoning, he has need not consider that anyone else necessarily has any reason to accept he has a right to his freedom and well-being, since their pursuit of their purposes do not at this stage require them to affirm this. Their commitment to their purposes logically entails that they must claim a right to their freedom and well-being, for the same reason he does, because they also are agents with purposes they want to fulfill.

Moral Obligations And Rights-Claims

Where the transfer happens from a prudential imperative to the position of a categorical moral imperative is at the next stage of the argument. Here the agent recognizes that the reason he must claim he has a right to his freedom and well-being is for the specific reason that he is an agent committed to purposes he wishes to fulfill. It is not the particular purposes he has that determine his right, or that he is the particular agent he is. This requirement that he claim rights to his freedom and well-being follows logically solely from the fact he is an agent with purposes he wishes to fulfill. Freedom and well-being are the necessary conditions of agency, generically considered. Logically he now must universalize this principle. If he is logically required to affirm he has rights to freedom and well-being because he is an agent with purposes he wants to fulfill, this must entail the affirmation that all agents with purposes they want to fulfill have rights to their freedom and well-being.

Now we have moved from the logical affirmation that he has a prudential obligation to obtain his personal rights to freedom and well-being, to a true categorical moral obligation to respect the rights to freedom and well-being on the part of his recipients. If his own commitment to his purposes entails the deontic requirement that he claim rights to freedom and well-being, this logically must require him to affirm that all other agents with purposes they want to fulfill also have rights to their freedom and well-being, as entailed by their commitment to their purposes.

In this way, a true categorical imperative arises through a process of logical extrapolation. It begins with the implications of his own perception of value and commitment to the pursuit of some values. This commitment requires him to affirm his own deontic prudential obligation to pursue those goods necessary to the attainment of his purposes. This in turn entails the recognition that he must also affirm, through logical consistency, that other purposive agents also have rights to their freedom and well-being, because these are necessary goods to their purpose pursuit. His own affirmation that he has such rights, entails by universalization that he must affirm that other purposive agents also have these rights. Hence he is obligated to respect their rights by not interfering with them, and by assisting them in obtaining those goods they require, when they cannot obtain them by themselves.

Intuition And Rational Implication

Obviously agents do not normally carry on this reasoning in a conscious sense. They largely ‘intuit’ it through their experience of value. They simply recognize they have needs they must fulfill, and that others also have these needs. They believe others ought not to interfere with their own freedom and well-being, and perceive themselves obligated to respect the rights of others. But within the context of agency, where an agent is committed to purposes it wants to fulfill, the agent can be seen implicitly to be affirming the above set of propositions, and to be logically committed to the flow of reason represented.

This line of reasoning is the only presentation of the source of our moral affirmations that has appeared to me to be successful in overcoming the logical gaps normally present in moral theories. The fact/value gap is overcome through the agent’s experience of objects of potential value through emotive responsiveness to the world and its possibilities. The is/ought gap is overcome, from the perspective of the agent, through what his commitment to his purposes logically entails. Deontic logic flows naturally from the agent’s commitment to his purposes. Since it is only in the context of agency that questions of moral conduct arise, this context appears to provide the basis for a solution to these otherwise intractable problems of moral philosophy.

My presentation of this viewpoint has been very brief. Those who wish to read in depth on this line of reasoning should obtain a copy of Reason And Morality by Alan Gewirth. His presentation is very thorough, showing how his theory answers the standard questions normally challenging a sound moral theory. Much more would need to be said to present a complete viewpoint, but the above at least begins to scratch the surface of how this argument might be put forth.

Rights Derivation And The Law Of Love

A few comments in closing concerning how this theory melds with the Biblical injunction to love. Respect for people’s rights to those goods necessary for their personal agency constitutes what justice requires. Justice is minimum love. It ensures the provision of the necessary goods people need. It provides for their rights to freedom and well-being. Rather than someone’s good being defined as the highest happiness possible to them, as utilitarian style theories would define the good, the view presented in this essay would suggest that people’s basic necessary goods constitute the ‘good’ that love requires us to promote. So justice is a loving attitude and disposition. The call to love our neighbor as ourselves is a call primarily to be just.

But one can also love by performing actions of a supererogatory nature. Since the basic rights form the minimum acceptable standard of treatment toward others, they also form the baseline from which much generous action can proceed. We can love people in greater or lesser degree, above the minimum that justice entails. As Jesus said, good seed can bear fruit 30, 60, and 100 fold. None of these three fail to be loving, but a person can be more and more loving as one grows in love. Much of the call in the Bible is to be more than just. Love does no harm to its neighbor (makes sure its neighbor has his basic rights) therefore love fulfills the law. As long as we are focused on more than the minimum, the minimum will take care of itself. But it is only the minimum that is truly obligatory. The rest is valuable and good, but not required.

I have read very broadly in moral theory. This is the only one that has answered the questions the others left unanswered. That does not make it right, but it at least makes it promising. Every time I have read other works, I keep coming back to this argument as the most convincing one I have read.


1. Gewirth, Alan, Reason And Morality (University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978.)

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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