Issue 11, January 1988
Moral Reasoning: A Discussion with John Searle Concerning "Is" and "Ought"
After a brief historical survey of the Is-Ought question, this paper takes issue with John Searle's important 1964 article 'How to Derive "Ought" from "Is".' Searle tries to derive
"ought" from "is" through an analysis of speech act of making a promise. Searle claims that a promise is a fact (what he calls an institutional fact), but in making a promise, a person is committed to carrying out what is promised, that is to say, he is also making an evaluation. Searle's point is that through this speech act analysis, he is able to derive an "ought" conclusion from premises which are purely factual statements. The present paper argues that whether one has to carry out what one promises depends on the content of the promise. However, in order to decide whether one should keep the promise, one has to appeal to one's own moral principles. In other words, there are evaluative elements hidden in Searle's so-called factual premises. Searle's attempt to derive "ought" from "is" is thus shown to be unsuccessful.