Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

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Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Astro Cat »

As a moral noncognitivist, my main complaint against moral realism is that I'm not sure what it would mean for an ought to be true unless that ought is couched in terms of a hypothetical imperative: for instance, "if I value x, then I ought to do y."

On my view, oughts seem to be constructed by taking values and forming hypothetical imperatives with them. "If I value life, then I ought not to murder." Or "if I value property, then I ought not to steal." This seems to explain why some people don't murder and don't steal even if doing so would benefit them in some way (because they value the compunctions against them more). If people don't hold these values, then they might murder or steal.

This of course invites the question, "ought we value life?" or "ought we value property?" Well, I don't know what it means to say that we "ought" to value something. It seems as though we just value what we value (through whatever combination of nature and nurture), and we can't make ourselves value anything other than what we value (doxastic voluntarism, or some hard version of it, is false): I can't just make myself by force of will value something that I simply don't value just by thinking and trying hard, nor can I just give up something that I value by just willing myself to.

So even if I "ought" to value this or that when I don't, or "ought not" to value this or that when I do, it doesn't seem as though I can actually do anything about that. Now, I do think that peoples' values can change over time as they're exposed to new information and new perspectives, but I don't think that they're consciously choosing to do that. For the same reason that you can't help but feel skeptical if I say I have a purple dragon in my room, you can't help but fail to pick up a value just because someone tells you to adopt it if you don't already agree with that value: doxastic voluntarism is, again, false or at least not true in some rigorous way.

All of this seems to describe reality, and that's well and good. It also explains why moral non-realists and moral anti-realists don't just descend into hedonism or whatever it is that moral realists always talk about fearing people would do if realism weren't true (because people still value things and they can't help but to value things, e.g., the nonrealist may not believe there is something about the universe that makes murder wrong, but they still generally value life because humans statistically do, again through some combination of nature -- some evolutionary advantage of altruism -- and nurture).

Now, it seems to me that the basic contention of moral realism is that there are oughts that aren't formed by hypothetical imperatives: instead of saying "if I value life, then I ought not to murder," the moral realist truncates this simply to "I ought not to murder." But what does that mean? Oughts make sense when they come from values, they have an instrumentalist function: I have a value, and to hold a value has the material implication of wanting to satisfy that value, which instrumentally means we take the actions that lead to satisfying the value.

But for an "ought" to exist without a hypothetical imperative, it would mean that something about reality, something about the universe means that we "ought" to do some things and "ought not" to do other things: it would mean that an ought is true in a non-instrumentalist, ontological way. But what does that mean? I have already hinted that I'm a moral noncognitivist: I am skeptical that there is anything that corresponds to reality about an "ought" existing ontologically, I think that's just so much noncognitive nonsense and we might as well be talking about slithey toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe.

So what would an "ought" be that we might be subject to which is not just formed by a hypothetical imperative based on values? What would it mean to have a "duty" even if we do not value the thing the duty is about? What would it mean about reality/the universe for such a thing to be the case, what is the correspondence to reality? What would make a "moral truth" correspond to reality?
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by The Beast »

Defining Moral.
The purpose of judgement based on moral realism is to assign praise or blame and this judgement is then a moral judgement. The main difference of a relative moral based on social norms with what is called moral realism is the belief in the omnipresence of God. For a relative moral what is needed is a recognized authority and a social consensus. To question shared moral understandings is a generational undertaking and a sign of good relative judgement. As for the moral realism I yield to Mother Teresa. One must consider that changing the culture is in some way changing the recognizable identity. As for a recognizable authority there are abundant judges saying “do as I say and not as I did… I was wrong”. The others (based on good and bad luck) are fewer representatives of any dying social culture. Yet fewer are the minority resisting what is judged moral debase (the departure).
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Pattern-chaser »

Astro Cat wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 6:50 am I don't know what it means to say that we "ought" to value something.
It means that I have certain values, beliefs, and opinions that I believe everyone should accept, and, on that basis, I can state that "we" ought to value that which I value. In other words, now that the unstated parts are stated, you can see that what I'm saying is that everyone ought to agree with me, because I am obviously, clearly, and indisputably right.

I think that's what we mean by 'oughts'. 😉
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by The Beast »

I could supply an example: Is smoking morally wrong? Smoking at the beginning of the 19th century was considered wrong as it was practice mostly by outcasts or rebels. It is questionable whether a nominal essence could be (like today) assign to the smokers group. In this case a judgement of ignorant (bad luck good luck) could be made versus the present nominal essence (emphysema and birth defects among others). You ought to not smoke on the basis of the nominal essence assigned to smokers.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Good_Egg »

Astro Cat wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 6:50 am What would it mean to have a "duty" even if we do not value the thing the duty is about? What would it mean about reality/the universe for such a thing to be the case, what is the correspondence to reality? What would make a "moral truth" correspond to reality?
A statement like "if you value bees, you ought to plant flowers in your garden" seems to me an example of what we might call a "conditional ought". It implies no duty. You are free to value more highly some other good that you can contribute to by using your garden some other way.

Such a statement is prudent advice about how to fulfil your own ends. Not to be confused with a moral "ought".

Whereas if you have a duty to someone (for example to fulfil your promise to them) then there is no guarantee that any of your ends will be furthered by doing so. Nonetheless, you owe it to them to do so. Unless they waive their right by releasing you from your promise.

What does it mean about the universe ? That it contains other people, sentient beings who can form their own ends or purposes. ( It's not all about you and your values.)

Do only theists have to keep promises ? Obviously not. So it's not about God.

Are you morally bound to keep a promise to your dog ? Depends if you think your dog is intelligent enough to understand it as a promise. I'd suggest that perhaps it is other people's understanding of it as a promise that makes it a moral duty to fulfil it.

If you have a duty, then others have a justified expectation that you will fulfil it.

Seems to me that either you accept that words like "moral", "duty", "should", "ought", "owe", "justify" are meaningful, or you don't.

The concepts are there in the language.

Is it conceivable that there is a language with no words for any of these things ? I don't mean FORTRAN, I mean a people with no concept of "should".
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Gertie »

Astro
But for an "ought" to exist without a hypothetical imperative, it would mean that something about reality, something about the universe means that we "ought" to do some things and "ought not" to do other things: it would mean that an ought is true in a non-instrumentalist, ontological way. But what does that mean? I have already hinted that I'm a moral noncognitivist: I am skeptical that there is anything that corresponds to reality about an "ought" existing ontologically, I think that's just so much noncognitive nonsense and we might as well be talking about slithey toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe.

So what would an "ought" be that we might be subject to which is not just formed by a hypothetical imperative based on values? What would it mean to have a "duty" even if we do not value the thing the duty is about? What would it mean about reality/the universe for such a thing to be the case, what is the correspondence to reality? What would make a "moral truth" correspond to reality?

I think the Is/Ought distinction is real,  and we should give  up on the idea of 'moral truths' as 'Ises' as a category error.  Oughts are a different type of thing, and trying to cram them into a box labelled ''true'' or ''objective'' to justify oughts is a fool's errand. But that's doesn't mean there's no way of justifying oughts, or we have to give up on them, or see them as just a matter of opinion. Rather we need to consider oughts on their own terms. What are they about, why do they matter?

Oughts arise from the nature of being an experiencing subject. They don't exist independantly of subjects, waiting for us to discover them.   In a universe of rocks interacting according to physics the concept of oughts is meaningless. 

It's true that only subjects have values, but I'm making a different type of Subject-based argument.  I believe it's the qualiative, experiential nature of being a subject which is salient, and can get us to an appropriate  justification for oughts. - 

Experiencing subjects have a quality of life, it can feel wonderful or awful and everything in between to be a subject.  We can flourish and suffer, and we can have our quality of life taken away altogether through death.  So we subjects have a stake in the Is state of affairs. We have interests in what happens to us, unlike a rock, carrot or toaster.  In a nutshell,  our quality of life, our wellbeing, matters to us. 

So if I stamp on a rock, eat a carrot, or throw my toaster out a 6th floor window, it doesn't matter to the rock , carrot or toaster.  If I did it to a person  or my pet dog, it would matter to them. We get this, intuitively,  through empathy, and intellectually we understand it's not only ourselves who care about our own wellbeing. And most people act accordingly without giving it much thought.  We wouldn't want to be stomped on, and we know we harm others when we stomp on them.  And that's the appropriate justification for not doing it.  And for jumping in a pool and rescuing the drowning toddler  even if it means ruining our expensive shoes.  That's the appropriate, right kind of justification for Oughts.  The ''something about the universe which means that we "ought" to do some things and "ought not" to do other things:''

Now our 'natural'  values, desires, bonds of care, feelings of guilt and so on which are evolved predispositions, and the effect of culture/environment in the ways they play out,  often mirror that justification for oughts, because we're a social species.  But that's the ''Is'' of the state of affairs.  Oughts justified in the way I've outlined will sometimes conflict with our social intuitions or loyalties, and our culture's norms.  And will often conflict with our more selfish instincts which are there too.  And then that becomes a moral choice. 
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Astro Cat »

Pattern-chaser wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 11:00 am
Astro Cat wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 6:50 am I don't know what it means to say that we "ought" to value something.
It means that I have certain values, beliefs, and opinions that I believe everyone should accept, and, on that basis, I can state that "we" ought to value that which I value. In other words, now that the unstated parts are stated, you can see that what I'm saying is that everyone ought to agree with me, because I am obviously, clearly, and indisputably right.

I think that's what we mean by 'oughts'. 😉
Clearly that can't be right because I'm the one that's clearly, obviously, and indisputably right!
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Astro Cat »

Good_Egg wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 4:01 pm
Astro Cat wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 6:50 am What would it mean to have a "duty" even if we do not value the thing the duty is about? What would it mean about reality/the universe for such a thing to be the case, what is the correspondence to reality? What would make a "moral truth" correspond to reality?
A statement like "if you value bees, you ought to plant flowers in your garden" seems to me an example of what we might call a "conditional ought". It implies no duty. You are free to value more highly some other good that you can contribute to by using your garden some other way.

Such a statement is prudent advice about how to fulfil your own ends. Not to be confused with a moral "ought".

Whereas if you have a duty to someone (for example to fulfil your promise to them) then there is no guarantee that any of your ends will be furthered by doing so. Nonetheless, you owe it to them to do so. Unless they waive their right by releasing you from your promise.
My question "are there any oughts that aren't formed by hypothetical imperatives" is congruent with asking "are there duties that aren't formed by hypothetical imperatives," though: so one response I might have to this is "well, what's a duty?"

If I value x, and y gets me closer in alignment to x, then I might have a self-imposed duty to do y. For instance, if I value property more than I value my friend's purse, then even though I would get some benefit from taking it when she's not looking I would still choose not to take it (because I value not stealing). So, it still seems to operate on hypothetical imperatives.

Yet if we tried to answer, "well, ought I to value property?" I don't think we really get an answer. It seems as though I can value that or not value that and neither is correct or incorrect (there's not a truth or fact about the universe that makes it so I ought to value property). I would just either value it or I don't.
Good_Egg wrote:What does it mean about the universe ? That it contains other people, sentient beings who can form their own ends or purposes. ( It's not all about you and your values.)

Do only theists have to keep promises ? Obviously not. So it's not about God.

Are you morally bound to keep a promise to your dog ? Depends if you think your dog is intelligent enough to understand it as a promise. I'd suggest that perhaps it is other people's understanding of it as a promise that makes it a moral duty to fulfil it.

If you have a duty, then others have a justified expectation that you will fulfil it.

Seems to me that either you accept that words like "moral", "duty", "should", "ought", "owe", "justify" are meaningful, or you don't.

The concepts are there in the language.

Is it conceivable that there is a language with no words for any of these things ? I don't mean FORTRAN, I mean a people with no concept of "should".
I'm not sure if there is a language without these sorts of words or not, maybe that's a good question. However, I think that experiencing oughts is a pretty universal human (or sentient, I should say) experience because we all have values. And we're all going to build hypothetical imperatives using those values: if I value x, then I ought to do y.

But my point is that we can always ask a microcosm question: "ought I value x?" and I don't think there's an answer to that. The universe doesn't make it so I ought to value x, I just seem to value it or I don't. There are likely reasons I value x, such as nature and nurture reasons, but it doesn't seem like there is something about the universe that makes valuing x correct and not valuing x incorrect or vice versa.

Yet that's what moral realism would entail: moral realism would entail there being something about the universe that makes valuing x a duty. But what does that even mean? I don't think it's cognitive: it's not even false because it conveys no cognition to think about.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Astro Cat »

Gertie wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 7:53 pm I think the Is/Ought distinction is real,  and we should give  up on the idea of 'moral truths' as 'Ises' as a category error.  Oughts are a different type of thing, and trying to cram them into a box labelled ''true'' or ''objective'' to justify oughts is a fool's errand. But that's doesn't mean there's no way of justifying oughts, or we have to give up on them, or see them as just a matter of opinion. Rather we need to consider oughts on their own terms. What are they about, why do they matter?

Oughts arise from the nature of being an experiencing subject. They don't exist independantly of subjects, waiting for us to discover them.   In a universe of rocks interacting according to physics the concept of oughts is meaningless. 

It's true that only subjects have values, but I'm making a different type of Subject-based argument.  I believe it's the qualiative, experiential nature of being a subject which is salient, and can get us to an appropriate  justification for oughts. - 

Experiencing subjects have a quality of life, it can feel wonderful or awful and everything in between to be a subject.  We can flourish and suffer, and we can have our quality of life taken away altogether through death.  So we subjects have a stake in the Is state of affairs. We have interests in what happens to us, unlike a rock, carrot or toaster.  In a nutshell,  our quality of life, our wellbeing, matters to us. 

So if I stamp on a rock, eat a carrot, or throw my toaster out a 6th floor window, it doesn't matter to the rock , carrot or toaster.  If I did it to a person  or my pet dog, it would matter to them. We get this, intuitively,  through empathy, and intellectually we understand it's not only ourselves who care about our own wellbeing. And most people act accordingly without giving it much thought.  We wouldn't want to be stomped on, and we know we harm others when we stomp on them.  And that's the appropriate justification for not doing it.  And for jumping in a pool and rescuing the drowning toddler  even if it means ruining our expensive shoes.  That's the appropriate, right kind of justification for Oughts.  The ''something about the universe which means that we "ought" to do some things and "ought not" to do other things:''

Now our 'natural'  values, desires, bonds of care, feelings of guilt and so on which are evolved predispositions, and the effect of culture/environment in the ways they play out,  often mirror that justification for oughts, because we're a social species.  But that's the ''Is'' of the state of affairs.  Oughts justified in the way I've outlined will sometimes conflict with our social intuitions or loyalties, and our culture's norms.  And will often conflict with our more selfish instincts which are there too.  And then that becomes a moral choice. 
I agree. The way I describe this is that we have values, and we build hypothetical imperatives based on them. I think that's basically saying the same thing you're saying to an extent.

When we empathize that doing something to someone might cause them to suffer and we don't like that, I think that's really saying that we value not causing others pain, so we don't take actions that would cause them suffering (sometimes even if we might benefit from it in some other way).

As I said in another recent response, if my friend's purse is in front of me and she's not around or not looking, and I could get away with taking what's in it, I might benefit from the act. But I choose not to because I value not stealing from people, I find the notion repugnant. However, if our "oughts" come from values like this, it means that someone with different values would form different oughts. Someone that values material wealth over friendship might take what's in the purse because they form the imperative "If I value money, then I ought to take the wallet out of the purse." And nothing about the universe would make their reasoning false. This is where I think moral realists step in and say they don't like that, so there must be something about the universe that makes that false. I just don't think any such thing exists, and I think moral realist ideas are noncognitive: when they try to express that there are moral "truths," I form no cognition of what it is they're trying to say exists.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Good_Egg »

Pattern-chaser wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 11:00 am
It means that I have certain values, beliefs, and opinions that I believe everyone should accept, and, on that basis, I can state that "we" ought to value that which I value. In other words, now that the unstated parts are stated, you can see that what I'm saying is that everyone ought to agree with me, because I am obviously, clearly, and indisputably right.
Some would think so. But many of us, in dealing with someone like this who's convinced they're right (can we call this hypothetical person Mr Conviction ?) draw a line somewhere.

Suppose for a moment that you agree that you have some moral duties to Mr Conviction, based in some way - as @Gertie suggests - on his being a person who can and will suffer negative (emotional) experiences.

Why is it then not a moral duty to do everything he wants you to ? Obey the dictates of his religion, for example...

If you reject his more unreasonable demands while acknowledging that some of what he wants of you are indeed thereby things you ought to do, then the difference between being a duty and not being a duty does not lie in his emotional response to whatever you do.

And it does not lie in your values. Deciding that you'd prefer it if he didn't exist is not a justification for murdering him.

The essence of "duty" - the difference between being a duty and not being a duty - is somehow tied up with that notion of "reasonable demands". We appeal to something outside of ourselves and outside of him when we draw our line.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Pattern-chaser »

Good_Egg wrote: August 3rd, 2022, 4:01 pm Is it conceivable that there is a language with no words for any of these things ? I don't mean FORTRAN, I mean a people with no concept of "should".
Ooo, that's an interesting thought... 🤔🤔🤔
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

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Moral realism or power? To the unreasonable understanding (or should), it should be Epictetus calming down the slaves or Marcus Aurelius trying not to get mad. Free speech from the slave or to the emperor is the variable. If the slave gives the carrot, I have an option if the emperor gives the carrot maybe no option if I see the stick I get out of Dodge unless it hits me. Live free if I can. Living with the light. Living is living. Living and suffering. And finally dying. These are stages of the usual choice. The other choice is fight until death (fastest way). In both choices of the stick the duty is to stay alive. The other duties of freedom are all yours.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Good_Egg »

Astro Cat wrote: August 4th, 2022, 3:03 am Yet if we tried to answer, "well, ought I to value property?" I don't think we really get an answer. It seems as though I can value that or not value that and neither is correct or incorrect (there's not a truth or fact about the universe that makes it so I ought to value property). I would just either value it or I don't.
I tend to agree with that. A value in that sense seems to me something like a preference. Something you don't choose, and therefore don't have an obligation about.

But you're not being asked to value my existence; you're being asked not to murder me. Which is a choice.

You may say that in being morally prohibited from murder you are being exhorted to value human life.

But I disagree. A mind engages in a process of deciding what to do. To suggest that there is a single thing called a value which explains every choice (and that conversely a person's choices reveal their values) is an over-simplification of the choice process. Preferences and desires feed into the choice that you make. But most of us are a mess of conflicting desires and uncertainties.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

Post by Gertie »

Astro
As I said in another recent response, if my friend's purse is in front of me and she's not around or not looking, and I could get away with taking what's in it, I might benefit from the act. But I choose not to because I value not stealing from people, I find the notion repugnant. However, if our "oughts" come from values like this, it means that someone with different values would form different oughts. Someone that values material wealth over friendship might take what's in the purse because they form the imperative "If I value money, then I ought to take the wallet out of the purse." And nothing about the universe would make their reasoning false. This is where I think moral realists step in and say they don't like that, so there must be something about the universe that makes that false. I just don't think any such thing exists, and I think moral realist ideas are noncognitive: when they try to express that there are moral "truths," I form no cognition of what it is they're trying to say exists.
Yes moral realism is on the wrong track, if oughts are essentially about interests, as I believe.

My argument isn't quite that we naturally have values and empathy, because I'm saying sometimes we'd be expected to go against our own intuitive values. There's a recognition that oughts are under-pinned by something more than the Is of my idiosyncratic values or yours, it's there's a foundational principle I can measure my values up against, and sometimes find I'm wrong. Not objectively wrong, morally wrong.

An interests based moral foundation for oughts would be something like To Promote the Wellbeing of Conscious Subjects. So we have a foundation which is an in principle, quasi-axiomatic morality, not relying on responding to hypotheticals. And the basis would be that wellbeing matters to experiencing subjects. And such interests are the appropriate territory of oughts.

So rather than the underlying thinking being no values = no oughts, it's no interests = no oughts.

Values are one aspect of interests in this formulation. And to say there's something about the universe which gives rise to oughts would simply be recognising that experiencing subjects have interests.

Once we have a moral foundation which appropriately captures the point of oughts by treating the concept of Oughts on its own terms (as interests/having a stake in the Is state of affairs imo), we can contextualise things like hypotheticals, or actual moral choices, as that foundation being put into practice. It gives us a rule of thumb way to approach moral choices, and a touchstone to judge the consequences of our moral choices against. We've got the basis for a moral framework of sorts, rather than having to approach every hypothetical or real choice from scratch ad hoc, depending on the values of those involved.

Deontology, virtue ethics, utilitarianism are similar attempts at such frameworks, with their own underlying justifications.
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Re: Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives

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Good_Egg wrote: August 4th, 2022, 9:28 am I tend to agree with that. A value in that sense seems to me something like a preference. Something you don't choose, and therefore don't have an obligation about.

But you're not being asked to value my existence; you're being asked not to murder me. Which is a choice.

You may say that in being morally prohibited from murder you are being exhorted to value human life.

But I disagree. A mind engages in a process of deciding what to do. To suggest that there is a single thing called a value which explains every choice (and that conversely a person's choices reveal their values) is an over-simplification of the choice process. Preferences and desires feed into the choice that you make. But most of us are a mess of conflicting desires and uncertainties.
I agree that we are a mess of conflicting desires and uncertainties, but I don't think that this is a point against a value-to-hypothetical-imperative based picture of what an "ought" is.

For instance, I value property, but I also value life. I value life more. So if I see a starving person stealing food, I might look the other way (if I can't try to satiate both of my values at once by paying for the food, for instance; say I left my purse at home or whatever). It doesn't mean I don't value property, it just means that my values form a complex hierarchy.

What I'm saying is that our oughts are formed in this way and that they are effectively arguments. This is why it's also possible for us to convince one another of something, sometimes: perhaps I have formed my hypothetical imperatives literally incorrectly through careless subconscious thought, or maybe there's some fact I didn't know about that would lead me to a different ought if I knew the fact. For instance (and I am just making this up, though I vaguely recall reading something about it maybe being true), consider that I value the environment. So I may form a hypothetical imperative that I ought to buy a car that runs on an exotic ethanol fuel to reduce my carbon footprint by not supporting drilling. But then someone points out to me, "well, actually the process by which the ethanol fuel is created is even worse for the environment." They've changed my mind, so I no longer think I ought to get the exotic car.

So I think people change their "moral" views -- their oughts -- when they are exposed to new perspectives, new information, and sometimes it might even be conceivable that they do their hierarchical calculations wrong (because it is complex): that is to say that maybe someone values x, y, and z, but maybe they value x the most. Yet they believe, by not thinking very much about some situation, that they ought to do something that favors y and z over x because "well, after all, I value y and z." But then someone might point out, "well, ought you to do that though? Because that favors y and z over x, and you favor x the most." "Oh, I didn't think of it that way," a person might say, and so their mind might be changed. If our moral beliefs are arguments (insofar as making a hypothetical imperative is an "argument"), we can sometimes do it wrong since we're fallible, so we sometimes correct ourselves. Or our values might change over time (as surely happens, we just don't control it), or we might learn a new perspective we never thought about too intensely before (e.g., anti-homosexual person whose close family member comes out, and they re-evaluate their view now that they think more about it), or we might learn a new fact that factors in to how we form our oughts.
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."
--Richard Feynman
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