The is-ought gap makes it so we can not derive an ought from an is, correct? Without teleology, how can there be such a thing as a "disorder" or "disability"? The word "disorder" means that there's something "wrong" with the way something is. Nature has no purpose, how can there be something "wrong" with something? Nature does not want something to be a certain way for it to be "wrong" if it's not that certain way. And just because it's a certain way, doesn't mean it should be (is-ought gap). What, then, is a "disorder"?

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    Do you mean disorder as in "speech disorder" or "mental disorder", not "lack of order" ?
    – armand
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 4:06
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    Nature may have no purposes but humans sure do. "Disorder" is a deviation from conditions optimal for achieving them. And even nature by itself has laws that lead to survival, thriving or extinction of organisms. You can derive plenty of specific oughts by adding just a single general one to ises. The one can be evolutionary thriving, for example.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 5:49
  • Tags added include 'philosophy-of-mind', 'philosophy-of-social-sciences', and 'normativity'.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 9:35
  • @PhilipKlöcking What's the method of conflict resolution here? Are Mr. White and I doomed to eternally tussle over rollbacks until the locking mechanism takes place, or is there a rule to handle this?
    – J D
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 15:10
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    @JD Please join this thread and refrain from overly extensive edits, especially if they touch or change the scope or tone of a question significantly, and using Wikipedia as a philosophical source for the time being
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 16:36

5 Answers 5


I'm not sure why you are disposing of teleology. We may not be able to derive an 'ought' from an 'is', but that doesn't mean that 'oughts' don't exist. If we have a car, there's nothing problematic in saying it 'ought' to run. Cars are built specifically to run in a certain way. It's not merely normative to say that a car should run that way, it's a functional condition of being a 'car'. A car that doesn't run is a couple of tons of scrap metal with no functional use, and thus not technically what we consider a 'car'.

'Is' cannot tell us what 'ought' to be. But 'ought' typically dictates and delineates 'is'. It 'is' (a fact) that we can split the atom. What we 'ought' to do with that fact is a moral choice which determines how that 'is' manifests.

Disorder and dysfunction are terms that specify something is behaving in a manner contrary to the human purpose that has been assigned to such things. A disordered or dysfunctional machine is one that cannot meet its intended task; A disordered or dysfunctional human is one who cannot meet one or more of the generally accepted goals of human existence (various manifestations of satisfaction or pleasure). It may be natural that a given person 'is' (say) miserable, depressed, anxiety-ridden, paranoid, crazed, starving, crippled, physically ill, or what-you-will. But it's still valid (and humane) to say that it 'ought' to be otherwise, and to strive to relieve those conditions. Part of being human is the recognition that we don't have to live with the helpless incapacity of animals; we can see the difference between 'is' and 'ought', and try to make the first meet the second.

  • If a car that doesn't run weren't a car, why are you calling it a car? And who said the "purpose" of a human is to pursue pleasure? I don't believe there are any innate purposes. But say I get a ton of pleasure from seeing other people starve. I'd be meeting the goal of pursuing pleasure if more and more people starved. I don't see how the goal of "pursuing pleasure" makes humans "smarter" or "better" than other animals. It's humans doing what other animals do
    – ActualCry
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 0:13
  • The subjective goal of the majority being "survival" doesn't make their opinion less of an opinion. Different goals = different values. And different values = different labels. If the goal were the end of the species, people who are not crippled and ill would be disordered for not meeting the goal
    – ActualCry
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 0:17
  • @ActualCry: A car that doesn't run cannot function as a car. It's still called a 'car' because it could (potentially) be repaired and regain its function; but that's merely usage. And you seem to have read my post extremely narrowly. This isn't trite pleasure-principle stuff; merely the recognition that humans can think beyond the day-to-day survival orientation of animals, and find satisfaction and pleasure in achieving goals and desires. Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 5:29
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    @ActualCry: I can't stop you from descending into a moral nihilist posture if you so choose, nor would I object if you decided I was 'disordered' for wanting the things I want. Those kinds of disagreements are normal, and work themselves out in the long term. Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 5:39


Your question is a good one, and you of course see the normative element inherent in using language to specify what a 'disorder' is, particularly from the domain of abnormal psychology. I'll take the tack of addressing how disorder is used in a psychological context. According to psychologists who study abnormal mental states, there are four criteria that stand as the ontological basis for the use of the label 'disorder'. From this website:

Distress This is when a behavior causes anxiety, bad feelings or other negative feelings for either the person or others who come in contact with them. Example: Mary is feeling down, doesn't feel like she can even get out of bed, hasn't bathed in four days and won't respond to texts from her friends.

Danger Behaviors are the detrimental to the person or people around them. Example: During his manic phases of bipolar disorder, Juan will often go to the casino and bet his rent money on roulette, not caring that if he loses he won't be able to pay for his apartment.

Deviance There are two different types: statistical and social. Statistical deviance means that the behavior does not occur often in society. Social deviance means that most people in the community find the behavior to be "odd". Neither of these by themself is enough for something to be abnormal.
Example: Only one out of every hundred people will get a advanced (doctoral) degree, making them statistically deviant. However, we wouldn't call that abnormal. However, one out every thousand people howl at the moon (this is made up!), and that fact would add to the abnormality.

Dysfunction This is the point at which a person has a significant impairment in a life area, such as work, home, interpersonal or social life is impaired. In the addictions world, this is often called "hitting rock bottom". A person can deal with a lot of danger and devience [sic], but once they become dysfunctional, they often see (or others can see) that they need outside help.

Now, the question stands as to why distress, danger, deviance, and dysfunction are used to characterize psychological disorders. Simply put, for psychological disorders, these four labels constitutes a culturally neutral way to assess whether or not someone is likely to be integrated and well-adjusted to a society, and the primary measure neurotypicality is somewhat nebulous; these four characteristics are broad enough to allow for flexible interpretation of the patient, but meaningful enough to sort out factors that contribute to harmful or counterproductive behavior.


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an interesting article on what mental health, including a sections dealing with what "disorder" means. It is definitely worth a careful read since it offer many different accounts of how various philosophers and psychologists have tried to define "disorder" without appealing to moral values. These accounts all have 1 of these 2 criteria:

1: A disorder causes irrationality/ suffering/ evils/ reduced fitness*.

2: A person with a disorder is abnormal [i.e. far from their population's average].

The problem with the first criteria is that is assumes that irrationality/ suffering/ evils/ reduced fitness are bad, which is a moral judgement. Some could try to solve this problem by saying that irrationality/ suffering/ evils/ reduced fitness is undesirable, but then you have to explain who determines what is desirable and how do they make this decision without morality.

The problem with the second criteria is that is asserts that unhealthy individuals are far populations' average and health individual are close to the average, but it needs to give a cut-off for where that switch happens and then justify that cut-off without appealing to morality.

*What is really strange to me is that appeals to fitness are particular are common, even though the fitness is an individual who does not have children is 0.

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    "Doctor! It hurts when I do this!" "Well, don't do that!!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 18:37

Disclaimer: this follows the perspective of the Systems Theory, and this is a personal interpretation I use, which shows useful in some systemic applications.

Before: remark that a system is a set of interrelated parts (von Bertalanffy et.al.). So, a system is not only a set, but a set which members exhibit relations or interactions (I'll use those words as synonymous here, although they are not). Moreover, any part of a set is a system, and a system is itself the part of other systems, so, the definition is in part recursive, and in addition, fractal. Systems are subjective qualia (e.g. you see a house made of rooms, I see a house made of surfaces, none is right or wrong, it all depends on the goal).

{1, 2, 3} are in order NOT because they exhibit a pattern. Patterns exist as subjective perceptions. Although order would be subjective, the association of something with a pattern is subjective and informal. Order as adjustment to a pattern is not bad for informal considerations, but it's too loose for systemic applications.

The way of formalizing order, which I find the most precise, is this: a subset of parts of a system are in order if they exhibit an specific type of interaction. So, those numbers can be in order from one perspective, and disorder from another.

So, {1, 2, 3} are in order because all possible contiguous pairs ({1, 2}, {2, 3}) describe a precise interaction: x[n+1]=x[n]+1. Or, x[n+1]>x[n]+1. A set of spheres is in spatial order because each one is located in a precise position to another. A group of black circles is in order in relation to a mass of multicolored circles because its distance to the other black circles does not exceed a threshold, or that they have contact between them, etc.

Therefore, from this perspective, disorder is the lack of interaction.

This applies in any context (remember that everything is a system). Consider a thermodynamic system, a container with hot gas on the left side and cold gas on the right side separated by a wall, is in a form of what can be called thermal order because the molecules (the parts of the thermodynamic system) interact in a precise form: molecules with the larger energy average in a period of time are located in a specific volume position inside the container. Entropy (which is a macroscopic quantity) would have its lowest value in this case. Open the wall, energy dispersal occurs, and now, there is no order: the statistical kinetic energy value of each molecule is the same in the whole container. Entropy has its largest value here. Evidently, this is an statistical mechanics interpretation of a thermodynamic phenomenon, and it is quite precise. In this example, disorder is effectively equivalent to entropy (it is not always so).

And you have a point there: how can 'disorder be a thing'? The set of molecules in the container are in thermal disorder because of the lack of the interaction described above. But 'they are a thing' because they still exhibit another precise form of interaction: they all belong to the interior of the thermodynamic system. They are in disorder in some sense (interaction between thermal features vs. spatial position), but they are in order --they are a system-- in other (they are all confined inside the thermodynamic system). So, the set {1, 3, 2} can be in "disorder" because they lack of the interaction described above, but they are anyway in some form of order: they belong to the set.

Regarding any teleological argument, pi=4.9 will be always true for some specific goal (e.g. calculating why we can't see the sun in the night in a flat-world model). The teleological problem is not circumscribed to the issue of order, but to the whole structure of logical truth.

And this definition of goes along the pejorative characterization of something in disorder: of course. Here, disorder essentially means "lack".


The is-ought gap describes that moral rules cannot be inferred from natural states. As an example, homosexuality cannot be considered immoral just because it is a property of a minority and does not help with procreation.

The is-ought gap however does not prevent to derive a typical or even evolutionary determined property to be absent as an example. Being born blind, deaf or mute as examples. Those are not immoral, but still not the state of the body that humans genetics would strive to produce. While nature has no purpose, evolution still leads to the emergence of traits for fitness in a species, and a degradation of a trait in individuals that reduces fitness can thus be called an evolutionary disorder.

Also note that positive mutations that increase the fitness of an individual compared to their species would not be called a disorder, even if it was a difference. As such, something that is a disorder at one time can also become in theory a non-disorder mutation in different environments. Like if a bird is born with a twisted beak, but that allows the bird to eat special fruits.

Note that disorders can also affect majorities, like diabetes or allergies, so the concept of disorders is not even always based on what is the case, but rather on what possible state is optimal for the individual in terms of potential capabilities.

When people want to express that something is immoral because it is different, they would usually use the word "perversion" instead of "disorder".

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