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I've recently met someone who identifies as an "Objectivist." I'm a moral nihilist, so naturally, I asked about the is-ought problem.

His response was frustrating.

He claims that Rand avoids the is-ought problem by recognizing that it is not a problem at all. In his view, a "normative" claim is just a description of an individual's "objective values" (by which he seems to mean "subjective preferences").

I suggested that this is a non-standard definition. At best, it seems confusing, and at worse it seems like unabashed sophistry. I also pointed out the redefining all of the words used to state an argument does not address it.

He countered by accusing me of using an intentionally deceptive definition of normative. He claims that if I were not so caught up in an irrelevant notion of normativity, I would realize that what I'm actually apologizing for is not moral nihilism but "objectivism." How convenient!

How do I go about explaining the is-ought dichotomy to someone who won't differentiate between normative claims and descriptions of desires?

Thanks!

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  • 4
    It's not that Objectivists don't recognize the gap between 'is' and 'ought', but recognize that it is easily crossable with an 'if'. 'If you want this, then you ought...' is thoroughly rational, and they will argue that your status as a man, a living being, a philosophical creature, entails that you have already accepted certain values, and hence the 'is' of reality dictates the 'ought' of behavior given those values. Sep 28, 2015 at 20:51
  • This objection is common not just from "objectivists". Propositions like, "If a man wants to live, then he must eat,” seem reasonable enough; however, they suffer from a phrasal ambiguity. If the speaker means, "The only way a man will be able to achieve his goal of living is by eating," he is making a positive claim. On the other hand, if the speaker means, "If a man wants to live, then he OUGHT to eat," the statement is a normative claim and a non-sequitur. The missing proposition usually being along the lines of, "If a man wants X, then he ought to do that which is logically entailed by X." Sep 29, 2015 at 3:44
  • In my experience, once this proposition is stated outright, few accept it, and I have yet to meet someone who does not think it requires additional justification or restriction. Sep 29, 2015 at 3:44
  • @kbelder (whoops forgot to mention you in my response) Sep 29, 2015 at 3:53
  • A value is still an "ought", and it is not a preference (you know you should be working but you prefer to go outside). So your friend is not solving the problem. Sep 29, 2015 at 13:45

7 Answers 7

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There is a quote on the Wikipedia page on Objectivism that deals with this:

"[I]t is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible," and, "the fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do." Rand writes: "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action... It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death..."

It goes on to give another quote:

If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many "must's", but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: "you must, if –" and the if stands for man's choice: "if you want to achieve a certain goal"

So, the is-ought problem isn't a problem for Objectivists, it seems, because they reject that these are really two different kinds of claims - one about reality as it is and one about how reality could be. Instead, there are claims about what is needed if one is to continue living (or whatever the particular goal might be).

I agree though, your debating partner's dismissal of "a 'normative' claim is just a description of an individual's 'objective values'" seems (1) to go against Objectivism, (2) to just be renaming things. It seems that for a moral nihilist, the best rebuttal is not just the is-ought problem but rather pointing out that the Objectivist answer to the is-ought problem doesn't just kick the can down the road - while one ought to do something if one wants to remain alive, why should one want to remain alive?

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  • All I can see in Rand's texts is an normative claim being derived from a positive claim. ;) Would you mind clarifying (1) for me? You seem to have roughly restated his argument with additional support from Rand's texts, but claimed that such a redefinition of normative goes against "objectivism." Am I missing something here? Sep 29, 2015 at 3:50
  • I've also tried going down that path of questioning desires too. Again, his responses have been frustrating. He agrees that slavery is not consistent with the Objectivist ethic; however, his justification for this is that it is not in any individual's rational self-interest to be a master. I suggested that this may be the case now in light of modern technology for a subset of people living in first-world countries, but that this has always been and always will be the case is dubious, especially given the historical prevalence of slavery. Sep 29, 2015 at 4:07
  • I'm still trying to parse it all out, but my understanding of his response so far is that in the same way as the cure for cancer (if it indeed exists) is a cure regardless of if it is known, slavery is (and has always been) suboptimal precisely because mechanization is possible (regardless of if it has yet to be invented or is known by the master). All of this seems to be closely related to why he is insistent about a distinction between "objective values" and "subjective values". I'm still pondering my response. Sep 29, 2015 at 4:12
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    It isn't really about whether someone "wants" to be alive or not. It is a recognition of the fact that life is a precondition of value. Asking why one should want to remain alive ignores this and instead shifts the focus on an arbitrary whim, treating it as if it were an absolute. One reality about the natural of and healthy state of living beings, one could point out, is that the instinct for self-preservation (the choice to live) is the default, not the flaw. The question to be posed is why would a healthy organism choose self-destruction? I may formulate this into a broader reply later.
    – Lucretius
    Dec 17, 2015 at 15:24
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I think the person you were discussing this topic with did not do a very good job of explaining the Objectivist theory on the is-ought problem. This is something that Rand has written about explicitly in her essay The Objectivist Ethics, and it is also discussed in many Objectivist works, including Chapters 6-7 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Probably the most detailed reference on this topic is the book Viable Values by the philosopher Tara Smith. This work sets out the argument for the moral philosophy of Objectivism and its bridging of the is-ought gap in great detail.

Notwithstanding these excellent references, I will try my best to summarise the argument for bridging the is-ought gap in its most basic form. The argument Rand uses to bridge the is-ought gap is one of conditional reasoning that recognises that for a living being engaging in moral reasoning, certain values have already been implicitly accepted. Rand recognised that living beings have a choice of whether to live or die; she regards this as a "pre-moral choice" which occurs prior to the bridging of the is-ought gap, and for which moral philosophy does not provide assistance. She also recognised that life-vs-death in living organisms is not just a dichotomy, but a continuum from flourishing (good health, efficacy, etc.) down to non-flourishing (sick, tired, hungry, etc.) right down to death. An analogy often given in Objectivist discussions of this topic is that of the wilting flower, which is alive, but not flourishing (i.e., it is close to being dead).

Once this pre-moral choice is made, if a person choses to die then they can die, and so they don't require moral philosophy (or arguably their moral philosophy then just becomes a set of normative instructions for telling them how to die, which is not very difficult). On the other hand, if a person chooses to live then they have implicitly accepted life as the root of later values. Rand argued that this entails that they have implicitly accepted flourishing as a value, since this is the extreme of life-versus-death. Once the choice to live is made, various "oughts" follow logically as consequences of this choice (I ought to eat, I ought to go to the doctor when I am sick, etc.). This bridging of the is-ought gap is conditional on the pre-moral choice to live, and so moral philosophy is a set of logical normative consequences of the pre-moral choice to live (and any other values that are impicitly accepted by a living being engaged in moral reasoning).

Now, the above gives you an explanation of the Objectivist argument on this topic, and if you would like more detail, I highly recommend the referenced materials as a place to look. However, there is just one more point here that is useful to make, as a critique of your own position. You say that you are a "moral nihilist", but I don't believe you, because I don't think any person can really be nihilistic about moral/normative issues and function in society. It is interesting to me that whenever you meet an alleged "moral nihilist" they are always doing all the same kinds of things that a person would do if they were to adopt all the standard kinds of normative values in society, which involve actions to sustain them in the future and elevate their social status. Curiously, the "moral nihilist" is often working a job, or studying at university; he eats food; he wears clothes; he saves his money; he buys insurance; he tries to find a girlfriend; he argues with people about philosophy. Despite purportedly rejecting any moral values, he is (somehow) motivated to do all these things that advance the standard normative goals of non-nihilists. If there actually ever was a real moral nihilist, he would have no normative values at all and would consider all action arbitrary. He would basically just wander around, or do nothing, or spasm on the ground, or knock his head into a wall, or walk into fire, or a lake, etc., until he died shortly afterward.


** Although the choice to live or die is "pre-moral", this does not preclude the use of Objectivist moral philosophy to evaluate life (according to this being a value) to make a comparison to death, to assist the person to make this pre-moral choice.

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I want to point out that the question immediately implies that Objectivists have no understanding of the Is-Ought problem. This is quite unfair as there is Objectivist literature specifically addressing the Is-Ought problem. Ayn Rand herself addressed this in "The Virtue of Selfishness." The problem is that a lot of the jargon she uses is that paragraph has to be unpacked. I've unpacked it quite well (I think) in my response to another question about Objectivism and the Is-Ought.

"objective values" (by which he seems to mean "subjective preferences").

This is one of the most common communication problems between Objectivists and non-Objectivists. This may be second only to the misunderstandings around "selfishness" (rational self-interest) and "altruism" which most people associate with a general concern for the well-being of others (but not Objectivists!). I explained a little bit about Ayn Rand's disposition as a non-native English speaker here.

It could qualify as sophistry, but there is a lot of written material on why these terms mean what they mean. No deception or "wiggling" is being attempted. Ayn Rands theory of Concept Formation doesn't accept language as necessarily valid because of common convention. It's terrible to reduce an answer down to semantics, but Ayn Rand put forth a theory of Concept Formation that was very unique in that it ascribes identity to concepts. Words mean very specific things, and if we can't agree on that we can't even communicate. Words are verbal concretes that encapsulate a vast amount of conceptual data, and there is no reason to believe all currently understood concepts (words) are valid in their meaning.

Objectivism, by means of describing an individuals value system, is able to provide context around "subjective preferences" that explains them as "objective values." Sounds like sophistry... but again, value systems, and the concept of value itself, are very specific identifications (what is a value? Why?)... but only the individual can determine their own core set of values (beyond those survival level must-have values common among all humans). In this manner, being different from person to person doesn't make them any less Objective. For example, the amount that another person values his wife, family, or job is an objective fact of reality to me... whatever it is (for whoever)... and I have no way of disputing it or contradicting it. ("No! You actually love driving way more than you think!")

someone who won't differentiate between normative claims and descriptions of desires?

Objectivists do this already, but just using different language (again, but for good reason). Rand herself even acknowledge "normative" claims, but she differentiated "Normative" from "Cognitive". She viewed Normative as being dependent on the Cognitive abstractions, i.e., things we learn about reality (including our own nature).

The distinction you're looking for is "Value" (normative) vs "Whim" (subjective preference) which again forces one to dig into each of those concepts as Objectivists understand them. How can Objectivists differentiate between values and wishes? Actions!

While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man’s choice).

So to answer the question how things "ought" to be (normative ethics) is entirely based on first learning what is (cognitive abstraction). What a person "wants" is irrelevant, what a person values is where normative ethics come into play. Ex. Since we live for ~70-80 years on average, we ought to incorporate long range planning in planning our daily activities if we value a prosperous future. The nuance of Objectivism comes in its concept of value (cognitive abstraction), which is used as a basis for all of its normative claims about what one ought do. The modifier, perceived as subjectivity, is that individual value systems give way to differences is what one ought do.

One user asked a question about delayed gratification and Objectivism that illustrates the point well. He was asking what he ought do, and I answered his question consistent with my response above.

If you value living in your home town and pursuing a teaching career more than any benefits you're currently getting in your corporate job then you are behaving irrationally. If you believe your current job is a stepping stone that is enabling you more economic freedom so that later in life (not necessarily 30 years) you can move home and pursue teaching, then you are fine where you're at.

Only you can weigh those values friend, but you don't seem happy. Perhaps you haven't explored all of the opportunities for excitement, fun, leisure, activities, etc... in your new city?

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Your friend does not want to differentiate those two claims, as this is the Objectivist solution to is–ought problem.

However, there are (at least) two issues with the Objectivist solution to is–ought dichotomy.

My answer is a summary (with small additions) of Ayn Rand and the Is-Ought Problem by Patrick M.O'Neil

1. Misunderstanding of Humean problem

Ayn Rand held that:

organism's life [is] its standard of value

And called life:

the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action.

Later on, she says:

an animal has no choice in the standard of value directing its actions: its senses provide it with an automatic code of values. an automatic knowledge of what is good for it or evil, what benefits or endangers its life. An animal has no power to extend its knowledge or to evade it.

Human beings choose X because X belongs to life-sustaining values. So, a definition of morally Good for Rand is:

life-sustaining [thing or activity] freely chosen on account of that standard.

It is clear that when Ayn Rand takes aim at Humean is–ought problem, she misunderstands it, as she states that:

The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between 'is' and 'ought.'

Ayn Rand thinks that Hume denies the connection of facts and systems of moral values. But Hume does no such thing. In Hume's framework, it is possible to derive conclusions from values as such:

  • It is wrong to murder children. Joe is a child. Therefore, it is wrong to murder Joe.*

But not like this:

  • Human life produces values. Joe is a human being. Therefore, Joe should aim at self-sustainment of his life.

The problem is specifically a derivation of values from facts as in the latter example. Rand does nothing to address this, she merely restates the problem with:

  • Man is, therefore man ought to X.

This obviously cannot and does not work for the solution of the problem. For example, the above claim is an open question and is indeed question-begging. For one can always ask "Why?" to which there is no satisfactory answer apart from restatement of the premise that "[because] Man is".

Not only does Rand fail to bridge the is–ought gap, but she makes it even more pronounced. (Mainly due to her ignorance.)

*- (Of course, this syllogism can too create infinite regress as "It is wrong to murder children" is a Moorean open question. But this is beside the example.)

2. Reasons and Rationality

Through John Galt, Rand states that:

Man has to be man-by choice; he has to hold his life as a value-by choice; he has to learn to sustain it-by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues-by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.

But since only rationally sound (according to Rand) choice is to choose anything which is morally life-sustaining, the "choice" here makes little to no sense. If for any good reason there appears a "choice" to either obey or disobey this foundational maxim, then we end up with the assertion that:

- If I want Y, then I ought to do X. I want Y. Therefore, I ought to do X.

Which is a purely subjectivist account of ethics. If I don't do X and don't want Y, then I can just simply claim that maybe I did not want it hard enough, or it wasn't necessary, but it has little to do with objective morality; it merely indicates a "whim".

Besides, are there good reasons for not choosing life-sustaining action? There are. Suppose we are faced with the trolley problem:

- I stand next to the two levers of the trolley track. The leftmost lever will kill all of my family, my kids and my wife. The rightmost lever kills only me but saves my family.

Now, it is perfectly rational to pull the lever on the right. It is even a necessity on the consequentialist account. For one thing, to live in the alternative situation would mean to suffer most of one's life in misery, guilt and the inescapable negative feeling of being a murder of one's own children. Life would be pain; it would have no sense if I committed such an act; it would be torture.

However, Ayn Rand would not allow for such a choice. In fact, she would call this act an irrational one, even though there were much better reasons for pulling the rightmost lever. Yet, it is clearly perfectly rational to save the family and the beloved.

By the way, if Rand insisted that in some circumstances it is fine to sacrifice oneself for rational reasons, then again the Objectivist claim is:

  • If one wishes to survive, one ought to X.

And this, again, makes Objectivism a subjective account for ethics, something contradictory to what Rand says, quoted earlier on.

But Rand would obviously have none of that sort of leeway because she adamantly states that:

Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival.

And:

No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is.

So:

The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.

For Rand, it is irrational to act otherwise, because:

man must act for his own rational self-interest

So, the only rational action is the action of self-interest, even if there are better reasons not to do it. But we have just shown that it is perfectly rational and reasonable to act otherwise, in some circumstances.

Conclusion

No philosophy to date has successfully solved the is–ought problem, including Objectivism.

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Person A says "I want A, therefor it ought to be A."

Person B says "I want B, therefor it ought to be B."

Let's say A and B are not compatible and the statement A xor B must remain true.

Let us also say that both people are "Objectivists" and so both will act in their best interest to strive for their own goal.

One, both, or neither will succeed. But who wins out is irrelevant.

Neither one will be able to convince the other that there goal ought to be the case. Both goals cannot be an ought, only one, as the two goals are not compatible.

That "is" defines "ought," or "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do," is clearly circular. Rand confuses this situation with her theory of moral choice which leaves the "ought" to choice and not to "is." This is the problem of pre-moral choice which has stymied Objectivist ethics for decades now.

So really your acquaintance almost hit the nail on the head when they claimed you were describing "objective values" except what he REALLY meant was "subjective values" as you pointed out.

The "Objectivist" is not arguing from an "Is" to an "Ought" but from an "I want" to an "ought" and as such, they really have an even bigger gap to close, if they want to provide a gap closing rationale.

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    I completely agree with your analysis; however, it's worth noting that the "I want"-ought gap is just a special case of the is-ought gap where the positive claim is a description of an individual's desires. Regardless, all of the words I would use to explain this idea have been systematically redefined. Do you have any idea how I might go about explaining this to someone who does not recognize the distinction between normative and positive claims? Paradoxically, he seems to make the former quite frequently. Sep 29, 2015 at 4:21
  • @Alec normally when 2 people are talking past each other the debate will go nowhere until one of the underlying premises that cause the difference in views can be resolved. My view on the difference between the "is" and the "I-want" is that the "I-want" is only a small fraction of the "is" The "is" being the totality of reality is so much larger than the "I-want"
    – hellyale
    Sep 29, 2015 at 4:54
  • @Alec maybe make him watch this? youtube.com/watch?v=AV_p_QntywA
    – hellyale
    Sep 29, 2015 at 4:55
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Caveat

How do I go about explaining the is-ought dichotomy to someone who won't differentiate between normative claims and descriptions of desires?

Many of these responses address the Humean Is-Ought distinction or some of the arguments of Objectivism; I read this question more as one about rhetorical technique and will answer that aspect.

Short Answer

First, it's generally difficult to conduct genuine argumentation with ideologues who behave disingenuously as they reason from conclusion to facts, but if an opponent is genuinely open to reason (most claims are disingenuous in my experience) the answer is to digress into the general ideas they hold that lead them to their conclusions. This means exploring questions about fact and value. This is made clear in this circumstance because you said:

He countered by accusing me of using an intentionally deceptive definition of normative. He claims that if I were not so caught up in an irrelevant notion of normativity,

Since you both have a disagreement in what might be termed first principles, you won't be able to dissolve derivate problems until you come to an agreement on these principles. I wouldn't hold my breath, however, because science suggests that our first principles are generally correlated to the emotional structures of our brains. An increasing body of evidence suggests that our values are correlated to our emotional dispositions (Discovery Magazine).

Long Answer

There are several forms of argumentation, and since you haven't cited any ad hominens, I'll presume there is some semblance of shared intention. From The Aims of Argument, four types of argumentation are claimed:

  • Argumentation as Inquiry
  • Argumentation as Convincing
  • Argumentation as Persuasion
  • Argumentation as Negotiation

It sounds like you might be involved in the third sort given the sort of emotion that might be attached to a debate of Ayn Rand since her movement has been derided for having a substandard philosophy and being little more than a cult of personality. If you aren't aware, some people are 'true believers' and experience shows that they have little preference for their doctrine and look instead to live in a state of doubtlessness. Such people often will switch from radically opposed doctrines with any hint of irony. In regards to Rand, the WP article 'Objectivist movement':

Over the years, some critics have accused the Objectivist movement of being a cult or cult-like, and Rand of being a cult figure. The term 'Randroid' (a portmanteau of 'Rand' and 'android') has been used to evoke the image of "the Galt-imitating robots produced by the cult".

Obviously, if you are debating a "Randroid", I'd reconsider. However, there are certainly many bright individuals who admire Rand and her philosophy and might be open to persuasion. This means, rhetorically, that logos is still a factor. If that's so, where the battle is won is the competing definitions of normativity.

First, see if your partner is willing to have that discussion, and draw out their definition of normativity more fully. You cannot persuade that person if you do not listen to them. Try to understand their definition not just in terms of the language, but in terms of the emotional commitment to it. In contemporary rhetoric and cognitive science, Antonio Damaso's somatic marker hypothesis contains the interesting idea that a person's value-centric decision-making is subject to emotional forces. In essence, psychologically, normativity is not based on the force of logical propositions, but on emotional consequences of the data. This is related to a two-systems approach to understanding how people suffer from cognitive bias as covered by Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Don't try to draw logical blood from the stone of emotion.

But, should you partner entertain that they might be wrong (and their claim of this is not necessarily accurate), then find where you disagree on the distinction between positive and descriptive claims. Philosophically, there's a lot of confusion and disagreement over the topics of subjectivity, objectivity, and intersubjectivity. If you don't know what the hell you're talking about, you'll have no chance of persuading them they're mistaken. Note that these questions go to the fundamental philosophical problems in some fields. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions riled up scientists and defenders of moderate scientism when they attempted to rebut the claim that political forces were a major factor in the acceptance of the scientific theory. Karl Popper's followers did not have it, and the conversation stimulated a lot of theorizing. There is a general standoff though, that there is no such thing as objective observation in science and therefore all theory is laden with normativity.

To reiterate in rhetoric, it is not a radical claim to insist that logic is subject to fallacy and bias and that science is often political.

Also, try to examine your own beliefs about normativity and positive claims. Would you believe that all standards are normative? In Lawrence Busch's Standards: Recipes for Reality, he makes a very compelling argument that like Protagoras said man is indeed the measure of all things. Are you aware of your own subjectivity? Can you spot your own bias? Do you know your own fallacies? If you can't, perhaps your claims to a superior definition of normativity are flawed by virtue of the normativity inherent in your claims. Perhaps you're hiding your values as claims of objectivity. Often fraudsters will peddle subjective claims as a bastion of "objectivity". True believers usually have the objective, indisputable argument, after all (if you believe them).

Lastly, educate yourself in philosophy. If you have some fluency in the domain, head on over the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and read up on the epistemology of modality. While cognitive dissonance is an intuitive measure of bad justification, it's not the only one. One can justify confidence through arguments of justification. If you are going to stand any chance of out-maneuvering the rationalization of a debate partner, it helps to have conceptual muscles to see attitudinal propositions, theories of truth, and informal argumentation for what it is, a manifestation of psychology.

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I'm going to play devil's advocate/invoke the principle of linguistic charity and argue that Objectivism doesn't need to claim an immediate transition from is to ought. Instead, Objectivism can be interpreted as encoding a hidden general ought that can be conjoined with any is to yield a particular ought. And this unstated precept would be something like, "One ought to act in accordance with the law of identity." Now, we might think that this is silly, eventually; that there is no such thing as acting according or contrary to that law. However, if you read through John Galt's most epic speech, you see that Objectivism claims that there are people who really are acting in such a way that they are mentally violating the law of identity.

To put it more precisely: from the Objectivist point of view, not only is there such a thing as what an ought-thought itself is, but then there is supposed to be a way to go from the is-facts about what ought-thoughts are, to oughts proper. You might think of it in terms of going from, "There is an obligation to do X," to, "X ought to be done." (Of course, even then, you need a basic obligation-thought in place; you can't infer, "X is obligatory," just from, "X is [add in some non-normative description]." But again, it seems like Objectivism involves claiming that there is a deontic form of the law of identity itself, and that the "rationality of accepting the law of identity" provides the rational support for Objectivist morality as such.)

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