Deontic Introduction: A Theory of Inference from Is to Ought




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Humans have a unique ability to generate novel norms. Faced with the knowledge that there are hungry children in Somalia, we easily and naturally infer that we ought to donate to famine relief charities. Although a contentious and lively issue in metaethics, such inference from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ has not been systematically studied in the psychology of reasoning. We propose that deontic introduction is the result of a rich chain of pragmatic inference, most of it implicit; specifically, when an action is causally linked to a valenced goal, valence transfers to the action and bridges into a deontic conclusion. Participants in five experiments were presented with utility conditionals in which an action results in a benefit, a cost, or neutral outcome (If Lisa buys the booklet, she will pass the exam), and asked to evaluate how strongly deontic conclusions (Lisa should buy the booklet) follow from the premises. Findings show that the direction of the conclusions was determined by outcome valence (Experiment 1a, 1b), whereas their strength was determined by the strength of the causal link between action and outcome (Experiments 1, 2a and 2b). We also found that deontic introduction is defeasible, and can be suppressed by additional premises which interfere with any of the links in the implicit chain of inference (Experiments 2a, 2b and 3). We propose that deontic introduction is a species-specific generative capacity whose function is to regulate future behaviour.



deontic reasoning, is-ought problem, normative thinking, causality, valence, new paradigm, moral judgement


Elqayam, S., Thompson, V.A., Wilkinson, M.R., Evans, J.St.B.T., and Over, D.E. (2015) Deontic Introduction: A Theory of Inference from Is to Ought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 41 (5), pp. 1516-1532


Research Institute

Institute for Psychological Science