The Ought-to-Be, the Ought-to-Do, and the Aporetics of "Be Ye Perfect"
Could one be under a moral obligation to perfect oneself?
Is there any justification for talk of the ought-to-be in cases where they are not cases of the ought-to-do?
Let's begin by noting that if I ought to do X (pay my debts, feed my kids, keep my hands off my neighbor's wife, etc.) then my doing X ought to be. For example, given that I ought to pay my debts, then my paying a certain debt on a certain date is a state of affairs that ought to be, ought to exist, ought to obtain. So it is not as if the ought-to-do and the ought-to-be form disjoint classes. For every act X that an agent A ought to do, there is a state of affairs, A's doing X, that ought to be, and a state of affairs, A's failing to do X, that ought not be. The ought-to-do, therefore, is a case of the ought-to-be.
My question, however, is whether there are states of affairs that ought to be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to bring them about, and states of affairs that ought not be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to prevent them. In other words, are there non-agential oughts? Does it make sense, and is it true, to say things like 'There ought to be fewer diseases than there are' or 'There ought to be no natural disasters' or 'There ought to be morally perfect people'? Or consider
0. I ought to be a better man that I am, indeed, I ought to be morally perfect.
(0) expresses an axiological requirement but (arguably) not a moral obligation because it is simply not in my power to perfect myself, nor is it in any finite person's power or any group of finite person's power to perfect me. Now consider the following aporetic triad:
1. I ought to be morally perfect or at least better than I am in ways over which I have no control.
2. I lack the power to be what I ought to be, and this impotence is due to no specific fault of my own. (My impotence is 'original,' part and parcel of the 'fallen' human condition, not derived from any particular act or act-omission of mine.)
3. 'Ought' implies 'Can': one can be obliged to do X only if one is able to do X.
The triad is inconsistent in that (1) & (3) entails ~(2). Indeed, any two limbs, taken together, entail the negation of the remaining one. How can the inconsistency be removed?
A. One solution is simply to deny (1) by claiming that there is no sense of 'ought' in which one ought to be morally perfect or better than one is in ways over which one has no control. This strikes me as counterintuitive. For there does seems to me to be some sense in which I ought to be perfect. I feel the force of the New Testament verse, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) I have the strong intuition that I ought to be, if not perfect, at least better in respects where I simply lack the power to bring about the improvement.
B. A second solution is to distinguish between agential and non-agential oughts. We can then maintain (1) as true by maintaining that the 'ought' in (1) is non-agential and expresses an axiological requirement as opposed to a moral obligation. So interpreted, (1) is consistent with (2) and (3).
We can then transform the above triad into an argument:
4. (1)-(3) are all true.
5. (1)-(3) would not all be true if there were no distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
6. There is a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
C. A third solution is to maintain the truth of each of (1)-(3) while also maintaining that all oughts are agential. But then how avoid inconsistency? One might maintain that, when restricted to my own resources, I lack the power to do what I ought to do; yet I am morally obliged to perfect myself; and since 'ought' implies 'can,' the power that I need must be supplied in part from a Source external to myself. "And this all men call God." So God exists!
In short, the inconsistency is avoided by bringing God into the picture as one who supplies individuals with the supplemental power to do what they are morally obliged to do when that power is insufficient from their own resources. This gives rise to an argument for the existence of an external source of moral assistance:
7. I am morally obliged (ought) to do things that I cannot do on my own.
8. 'Ought' implies 'can'.
9. I can do things that I cannot do on my own.
10. There is an external source of moral assistance that makes up the difference between what I can do on my own and what I cannot.
I have sketched two arguments which need closer scrutiny. The one based on the (B) response to the triad gives some, though not a conclusive or compelling, reason for accepting a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts. The argument based on the (C) response to the triad is also rationally uncompelling, useful though it may be in the articulation of the Christian position. For, with no breach of logical propriety, one could simply run the (7)-(10) argument in reverse by rejecting the conclusion, accepting (8) and then rejecting (7).