Featured in (Re)constructing “A Is A” by O.G. Rose

The “Such/Lack Solution” to the “Is/Ought Problem”

O.G. Rose
19 min readFeb 2

From a Conversation Between Thomas Jockin and O.G. Rose

Photo by Charlie Deets

“Dialectical Ethics” by O.G. Rose explores how Hume deconstructions “is-ness” in favor of “such-ness,” and then how Hume establishes that we can only determine “oughtness” based on “such-ness.” We tend to associate Hume with deconstructing morality in general, but really Hume deconstructs ethical systems which aren’t grounded in a common and particular way of life. Generally, Hume’s entire project can be seen as an attack on “rationality” which doesn’t participate in the life, experiences, and/or “truth” which it rationalizes about, because this leads to totalitarianism (how exactly is explored in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose).

Episode #40: Thomas Jockin on the “Such/Lack Solution” to the “Is/Ought Problem”
Dialectical Ethics by O.G. Rose

Thomas Jockin and Johannes A. Niederhauser discussed differences between Aristotle and Heidegger, and Mr. Jockin noted that in Heidegger denying that “things have an essence,” Heidegger makes things vulnerable to the very technological (or “metaphysical”) thinking from which Heidegger wants to protect “beings.” Heidegger doesn’t want the world to be reduced to “standing reserve,” but do things entail an essence which suggests they shouldn’t be so used? The conversation is tremendous, and I suggest giving the whole discussion a listen (it’s called “Heidegger vs. Aristotle on Being, Substance, Causality”).

To perhaps close the gap between Aristotle and Heidegger, I would like to suggest that Heidegger wants us to “locate essence in such-ness,” which is a move similar to David Hume, and in this way we can position Heidegger as an extension of the Scottish Enlightenment. To sum up the main point, consider this section from “Was Heidegger a Child of the Scottish Enlightenment?”:

If I decide what I “ought” to do with a pen based on touching it, on seeing how the ink appears on the paper — this is “such-ness.” “Is-ness” is when I say, “That is a pen, and therefore should be used for x, y, and z” without ever actually taking the particularity of the pen seriously. In this way, Hume is concerned with people ascribing to a “bad ontology” of “is-ness” (to allude to the language of “good philosophy vs bad philosophy” from “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose), which contributes to us not letting “communities be themselves to us,” for example, which contributes to tyranny and ( worse yet ) tyranny that believes morality is on its side because “is-ness implies ought.” When Hume deconstructs “is/ought,” he wants to replace it with “suchness/ought-ness.” Whenever Hume or his friend Smith discuss “habit” and “sentiment,” thinking of “suchness” is critical.

Hume is defending “the common life” from tyranny in dividing “is-ness” from “ought-ness”: Hume is not encouraging us to be immoralists (if this interests you, please see the mentioned works, as well as this conversation on “Dialectical Life” with Daniel Zaruba and Zeb Kaylique).

In this work, I would like to focus on a point which arose in my discussions with Mr. Thomas Jockin; he wrote:

Can we reconcile Hume’s attack on “ought” by means of figures and inferences of lack? […] even if we grant a “is” does not imply an “ought,” a “lack” does imply an “ought.”

“Does ‘lack’ imply ‘ought?’ ” — I think this is a great framing, for even if being can’t get us to “ought,” perhaps “lack” can. And actually, the role of “lack” seems critical in understanding why “such-ness” in fact can bridge us to “ought,” for “lack” is not found in “is-ness,” only in “such-ness.” Only “such-ness” “lacks,” and arguably all “such-ness” “lacks.” (For more and to fill in details, please see “Lacks Are Not Nothing” by O.G. Rose, which arose out of another discussion between myself and Jockin.)


Think about a cat. Do you see it in your head? Very nice — now, here’s the question: What ought you do with that cat? Pet it? Feed it? Good, good, but how do you know that this cat in your head needs food or needs to be patted on the head? Because you know cats need food and love? That’s fine, but how do you know that this cat in your head right now needs these things and in the way you think it needs them? Yes, you know the cat generally needs food and love, but how do you know when and how the cat should be given food and pet? Because you imagine the cat needs these things right now? Well, that works, but the real world isn’t so easy. To determine “the details” of when we “ought” to do this or that for the cat, we would need to understand and encounter the cat in its particularity and “such-ness.” Otherwise, we will be acting off generalities, and, critically, misapplied goods can become evil. If I feed a cat when it doesn’t want to eat, I can cause it stomach pain; if I pet a cat to the point that it has a rash on its back, the cat will suffer. But how can I tell when a cat shouldn’t eat more or when I should stop petting it? Well, by paying attention to the particular cat we’re feeding and petting: the “idea of a cat” cannot provide this necessary information of seeing, practical timing, and application. Yes, from the general idea of a cat or “is-ness” we can determine what the cat generally needs, but the generality isn’t enough. It can cause trouble.

Now, let’s take another step: imagine a cat again. Got it? See it? Can you describe it? Great, now imagine it walking. Do you see the cat walking? Oh, forgive me, I forgot to mention: the cat is missing its two front legs and uses a device with wheels to help it move. Sorry about that — do you see the cat walking now?

See what I did there?

When I told you to “imagine a cat,” your mind likely saw “the general idea of a cat,” but there are no general cats in the world. Yes, there is “a general pattern” that a “given cat” likely falls into, so I don’t mean to suggest that it’s crazy to think about cats as “generally” like this or that — my point is only that if we’re trying to figure out how to “rightly treat” a real and particular cat, we’re likely to make mistakes if we only operate according to our general idea of cats.

Cats “in general” (according to “is-ness”) don’t need screws and axles to survive, but this particular cat (in its “such-ness”) does. To treat this cat morally, we might need to fetch a screwdriver, whereas a screwdriver would rarely if ever be needed “generally” to help cats. Note also that cats “generally” don’t get locked inside of cars, stuck under a house, and the like, but a given cat might be in such a situation, which would determine what we “ought” to do for that cat. In this way, particular details and situations can unveil the inadequacy of “is-ness” versus “such-ness.”

Furthermore, think back on how naturally the “idea of a cat” summoned up a “general pattern” of a cat based on an “idealized or general form” we’ve absorbed about cats based on years of experiencing them. It is not natural for us to think of a cat and imagine it with wheels for front legs — how can it be? The “map isn’t the territory,” no, but it’s certainly useful, and if our “idea of a cat” didn’t match a general pattern, but instead tried to incorporate “every possible version of a cat,” our “map” or idea would be too complex and “bulky” to use. We simply must treat ideas as “models which are ultimately wrong but still useful” (to allude to George Box), but this suggests potential danger: if we become adamant that our ideas aren’t mere models but insights into “true cats” or how “cats ought to be,” and if we have the power to act on this conviction, then we can become a tyrant who discounts “the handicapped cat” as a cat at all. We might then be justified to mistreat the cat, for to us it doesn’t fall under the category of “cat” to warrant receiving the “moral treatment” cats “ought” to receive: I could thus, in my mind, mistreat the handicapped cat and still be a moral person.

What was just mentioned is the terrible possibility which concerned Hume, for he understood how “is-ness” could be used to establish an “ought” which terrorized while at the same time enabling the tyrant to see his or her self as moral. A “moral tyrant” is the worst of all tyrants and most difficult to stop. This is especially the case if the population is uneducated, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood, which arguably everyone must be if they are not thinking according to “such-ness,” for “such-ness” is reality, and ultimately being “uneducated” is a matter of not knowing reality. Where we appeal to “is-ness” over “such-ness,” the horrors caused by (invincible) “stupidity” will spread and further moralize itself. The tyranny will be good, invincible, and reasonable (to itself), all while it is bad, destructive, and un-actual.


What does all this have to do with “lack?” Well, to start, the problem with “is-ness” is that it doesn’t naturally entail “lack.” When I “think of a cat,” my idea naturally presents itself as complete and whole. It presents itself as “perfect” (in a way), and thus can suggest to me that all cats ought to be “like my idea(l) cat.” I have to remind myself that my idea isn’t perfect, but naturally it appears as “whole and entire,” and that very impression can make me forget that I need to remember that “ideas are not experiences.” With every thought, there can be a temptation to be taken by it.

When I’m told to think about “a cat,” whatever appears in my head presents itself as “the example of a cat,” and though I can quickly remind myself and know this isn’t the case, that realization tends to come after that initial experience. One may argue that they are only thinking of “a cat,” not “the cat,” but the fact the image of a cat that appeared in our head was in fact the image that appeared suggests that we are “primed” to consider what appears in our head as “the cat” versus merely “a cat.” We can know better, yes, but that will not be natural, and it especially won’t be likely if we’re not even aware of all this happening or potential problems with “is-ness” in the first place.

Ideas present themselves as what the world ought to be like, while “such-ness” unveils what the world needs, which is to say that “such-ness unveils lack” while “is-ness proposes the perfection to which things should conform.” The ethics of “is-ness” is naturally in favor of the idea of a thing, while the ethics of “such-ness” is naturally in favor of the thing and what it needs in order to be its (full) self. In a way, yes, things “lack” ideas, but note the critical difference between ideas presenting themselves as what things need, versus learning from things what things need and changing accordingly. All ideas that aren’t formed by encounters with “such-ness” must be prone to the mistakes and problems Hume and Heidegger recognized (and please note a week visit to a local community won’t cut it: we need roots, and roots take years). To put the point simply, we should predominately consider “what a cat needs or ought to do,” not what “cats need or ought to do.” Yes, we will have to think generally sometimes (as local communities need degrees of connection to avoid anarchism, as American learned from the Articles of Confederacy), but we should always do so with great “fear and trembling,” and cease doing it as soon as we can. Fire is necessary but dangerous.

We don’t actually know if “a particular cat is lacking” what “our idea of a cat is lacking,” though our idea will naturally present itself as “fitting” (in the same way that “a map” naturally presents itself as accurately describing “the territory”). In our heads, cats need to be pet, so we go to pet a particular cat who hates being pet, and though the cat doesn’t scratch us, the cat is uncomfortable. Are we immoral? In a way, for we are ignoring and even “objectifying” the cat, but this is not an extremely consequential immorality (but imagining the mistake on the State level…). And arguably, we can’t help but make mistakes: even if we are “open” to the “such-ness” of the particular cat (as we “ought” to be, for this “openness” is the grounds necessary for determining “ought-ness”), the particular cat may not give us any signals or information that we are doing something that the cat dislikes. And it’s not wrong to think that generally “cats like to be petted,” so based on that “probability assessment,” we did what was rational. In this way, it’s likely we’ll make mistakes; however, if we are at least aware of this problem and the importance of “such-ness,” the likelihood we will “get it right more than wrong” shall increase. Dialectics cannot promise perfection, but they might assure improvement.


What we think is a “lack” for cats, relative to an actual cat, could actually be “nothing,” while what we think is “nothing” could actually be a “lack.” Cats in general don’t need screws, so “screws are practically nothing.” However, for our particular handicapped cat screws can be “lacking.” Our particular cat can’t survive or live without screws to keep its wheels together, so screws aren’t nothing at all (they’re closer to “everything”). Generally, it’s a “good bet” that screws are “like nothing” to cats, but actually determining this requires encountering cats in their particularity, which is to say we can only meaningfully tell the difference between “lack” and “nothing” on grounds of “such-ness.”

Ethics is radically tied to “lack,” and “lack” can only be determined in an encounter with “such-ness.” We can’t tell from “our idea of a cat” if that cat in front of us needs food or not: we must encounter the circumstances (note that I didn’t say “think about the circumstances,” for that is a form of “is-ness” too that may seem more like “such-ness” but ultimately isn’t). What is the critical difference between “general cats” and our handicapped cat? Well, our “particular cat” is lacking front legs. As a result, it needs screws to hold its wheels together. And this is all to say that “the horizons” of what a cat needs is relative to its particularity and “such-ness,” which also means that “what we think a cat needs” can be a dangerous thought. If it’s “open” to correction, that’s one thing, but thoughts naturally present themselves as not needing to be “open” to anything, for they appear whole and “perfect.”

Critically, the cat needs screws not because it varies from “our idea of cats,” but because in its “such-ness” it lacks front legs. There is a practical and “lived” experience the handicapped cat is undergoing that suggests “lack” (versus “nothing”): it’s not because of us and our idea that “lack” is unveiled (which would position thinking and “is-ness” to be the source of morality). No, it is the experience of the handicapped cat which discloses its “lack” and need, which we only understand thanks to ideas, for ideas help us respond to the cat, but “response” and “source” are not similes. The cat taught us about its “lack,” per se, versus we be the source of that disclosure. Our position is much humbler, and Hume wants to humble us in the moral life (for prideful moralists are easily tyrannical).

Critically, if the cat was missing legs and perfectly happy, perhaps the cat wouldn’t need “wheel-legs” at all. This is a key point: we can’t even from “the idea of a cat missing legs” determine that it “ought” to be given wheel-legs. Yes, this is a good bet, but we can’t even be certain or absolutist about this: an encounter with “such-ness” is still needed. Perhaps to a particular cat missing legs, “wheel-legs” are “nothing,” while to another cat “wheel-legs” are “lacking.” We can’t tell from the idea: we require experience. Experience is necessary to (“meaningfully”) determine the difference between “lack” and “nothing,” which is to say “such-ness” is needed versus “is-ness.”

Is “lack” really so fundamental for determining “right action?” Well, yes, because ethics is about determining “what we should do,” which means it is about determining “a yet-to-be-constituted state,” which by definition is “lacking.” Ethics is about “what should happen or keep happening,” which means ethics is about “what isn’t yet.” Now, not all futures are “lacks” versus “nothing”: futures which “lack” are relative to my particularity. Yes, I am “without” a future in which I am an NBA star, but I am also terrible at basketball, so this future is “practically nothing.” However, if I currently need to pay some bills, I might presently be “lacking” a world in which I have money to pay these bills, and so if someone came up and gave me the money, that person could be acting morally. On the other hand, if someone came up and offered me a chance to play in the NBA, since I’ll make a fool of myself and this possibility is “practically nothing” (for I won’t make much of it), perhaps the person is “being nice,” but the person will not be acting morally. Moral action is relative to “lack,” and “lacks are not nothing.”


Wherever there is being, there is potential “lack,” for all being is in time (a point elaborated on in “The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose) (do note that time means “such-ness” is always changing, suggesting that we have to stay committed to encountering “such-ness” and always remain “open,” which also means that we are always ultimately stuck in “models,” but fortunately some models are better than others). Where I own a red car, I am without a yellow car, but though it is true in a sense that I am “lacking” yellow, it’s more like I’m just “without” yellow. The color is “more like nothing” to me, unless that is I wanted yellow and got red, and suddenly my experience of “the without” turns into one of “lack” versus “practical nothingness.”

Am I justified to want yellow? Is it moral for me to feel like my car “ought” to be yellow? Well, that would get into the details of what I ordered, what I said, what I paid for, and so on — it would depend on the “such-ness” of my situation (my “ethics game,” to allude to “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose). And even if perhaps I’m “lacking” yellowness, is it really that big of a deal? Even if I’m justified to feel like I’m “lacking” and to be upset, I might still be “the better man” to not make a fuss about it. Then again, maybe not: maybe this would be an example of me being too passive. Who can say? Well, those involved in the situation, even if ultimately they too are operating according to an imperfect “model.”

Does giving someone a gift involve “lack?” Isn’t gift-giving ethical? It can be, yes. Even if a cat doesn’t need a new toy, for example, it “lacks” that toy (in a sense), and so there is potential there for a “nice gift” to be given (which is a kind of moral act). However, it might turn out the toy “is just nothing,” because the cat may not like it or already have one just like it, and thus what seemed to be “a moral act” is arguably not moral (except in terms of intentions). But even in this nuanced situation, “what could have been moral” was relative to “what could have been lacking.” Hence, even here, “lack” plays a critical role.

In a way, we could say that ethics is about “pressing lacks,” and what constitutes “the pressing” is relative to “such-ness.” The cat “lacking” legs who is starving needs “wheel-legs” (the “lack” is pressing). However, a different cat without legs might not be starving and actually like its situation, because the cat’s owner doesn’t expect the cat to catch mice, whereas if the cat had wheel-legs, the owner would have different expectations. Hence, for the first cat, “the lack” is pressing and thus perhaps moral to address, whereas it is arguably “immoral” to address “the lack” of the second cat, because it does not desire wheel-legs, hence making the lack “not pressing.”

There is a strong connection between “lack” and “such-ness,” and morality must take this connection seriously. Also, the language of “pressing lack” might provide further insight into why “addressing lack” can be foundational to moral life. For “pressing” and “pressure” are strongly connected, and if I lack legs, this reality can “hurt” precisely because I feel like “I can’t do what I ought to be able to do.” If I can’t pay for my healthcare bills, if I can’t take care of my Mom, if I can’t contribute to the community — all of this feels like I’m failing to live up to an “ought.” Hence, if someone helps me pay for my healthcare bills, if someone helps me take care of my Mom, if someone helps me contribute to the community — all of these are examples of someone acting morally. This means that the very point of “lack” is tied to a sense of “ought,” which is further reason to think that ethics and “lack” are strong connected. It is not clear from my “being” in a world with healthcare, my “being” someone with a Mom, my “being” in a community, and so on, what exactly would constitute “the moral action toward me,” but from “lack” what constitutes the ethical is much clearer. “Lack” guides ethics, while being is only where “oughtness” might occur.


Drawing this paper to a close, it should be noted that the paper “(Im)morality’ by O.G. Rose discusses “ethical games,” which is a play on Wittgenstein’s famous “languages games.” To sum up the argument, the point is we basically cannot determine “the ethical” beyond particular situations in which particular things were said and particular terms agreed to and understood. If I say to you that, “I’ll be here at 5PM tomorrow,” then it is ethical for me to do just that given there is no occurrence which keeps me from being here which we both agree, implicitly or explicitly, is acceptable (say my mother dying or I falling ill). No one forces me to say that I’ll be here at five tomorrow, and you may have easily allowed me to pick any time I wanted on any day I chose (or not expected me to come at all), but now that this exchange has occurred, an imperative has been created in and to our particularity. At five tomorrow, there will be a “lack” (me not being at the train stain) which I will need to fill (by being at the train station). In this way, the “ethics of lacks” and ethical picture described in “(Im)morality” overlap.

Now, the second half of “(Im)morality” discussed the impossibility of ethics without ontology, which lead into a somewhat tongue-and-cheek discussion on dictionaries. Critically, ontology always disclosures itself through and in “such-ness,” which is to say we cannot determine “what a thing is” except by really encountering it. This then brings in the work on “Absolute Moral Conditionality,” which argues that though “murder is always wrong,” we have to encounter the “such-ness” of a particular “killing” to understand if it falls under that “always wrong category.” This means ethics is “conditional” more than “relative,” and conditions exist in such-ness while I am the source of relativity (by being the source of subjectivity). I do not create conditions; I only create myself to meet them or not, and/or other things and other people position themselves to so meet them. We do not “interpret murder into existence” (as the language of “relativity” might suggest), but rather we interpret if a given killing meets the conditions of being “murder.” The likelihood this interpretation has of being correct is relative to how closely the given interpreter “encounters” the thing being interpreted in its “such-ness”: in the realm of “is-ness,” the chances are slim (and if I make mistakes, I may become neurotic and totalitarian to avoid admitting I was wrong).

That body ought to have life,” I might say in a given situation, “but it is now ‘lacking’ life, so why? Is it murder or killing?” This in mind, I could proceed with an investigation, and in this way “lack” open up ethical considerations. Because there is “lack,” there is reason to think an “ought” has been violated (though perhaps not), and thus instigate an ethical consideration. But why do I think there is a “lack?” From where does that sense arise? Well, because a human is supposed to be alive, and this human lying on the ground isn’t. Oh? So a human is meant to be an animated body, not just an unmoving body? And so, ontology and definition lift its head…

What we think a thing “is” determines what we think it “lacks.” If we believe “a cat is something which has legs,” then we think the cat with “wheel-legs” is “lacking” something. If we think humans “need shelter to live,” then people who are homeless are “lacking” something essential to “being human.” Human rights, moral considerations — all of these are tied up to ontology and categories, which begs the question: How do we determine ontology? Well, that’s basically what arises to metaphysics. What kind of metaphysics? Hard to say, but at the very least, we can establish that to do ethics is to do metaphysics (even if we don’t like to call it “metaphysics”).

Ideas present themselves as what the world “lacks,” while encounters with “such-ness” can help us determine what things need. Obviously, ideas are involved in determining ethics based on “such-ness,” but these ideas are “open” to particularity and dialectical with particularity versus susceptible to idealization and generality. “Ideas are not experiences,” to use a phrase from The Conflict of Mind, but we also can’t live without them, so the question is how best to “bind” and “contain” them? Well, as we’ve learned from Hume, avoiding “is-ness” in favor of “such-ness” will go a long way, a move which will also put us in the place where we can determine and organize ourselves according to “lack.” In this way, we’ll be positioned to productively engage in moral reasoning.

When the world was less globalized and the internet didn’t make us feel like we lived everywhere all at once, the distinction between “is-ness” and “such-ness” was less needed. We didn’t spend the majority of our time online “disembodied” and focusing on places we had nothing to do with, nor could the average person easily travel or stay informed about distant lands. Where we lived tended to be where we lived, and so we could use the language of “is-ness” and it would, most of the time, practically be equivalent to “such-ness.” Rulers and kings generally still needed the distinction, as Hume noted (for they could rule over great distances), but generally the mistake of conflating “is-ness” and “such-ness” was more contained. Now though, under globalization, we all need the distinction, and if we fail to use it, we will be confused about what should be foundational to our thinking, what “truth” should “organize our values” (to allude to The Conflict of Mind).

“Such-ness” is much more tied to action, movement, change, and “becoming” then is “is-ness,” which can be associated with stillness and “being.” Since things are “such,” things are always “toward” a future that is yet to be, and in this way are always “toward” a “without” that may or may not be “lacking” (versus “practically nothing”). That depends on a host of factors, factors which we are unlikely to understand well (if at all) outside a “particular encounter.” But even if we learn from thinkers like Heidegger, Hume, and Deleuze that we need to encounter “such-ness” and accept the “difference” which arises there, without metaphysical and ontological reasoning, we will struggle to determine “what a thing lacks,” because we will struggle to determine “what a thing is.” We cannot discover a “such/lack” solution if we cannot define the “is/ought” problem, and defining the problem requires metaphysics. What kind of metaphysics, and according to what conclusions? Good questions, for these begin a great investigation into what things are (“lacking”).




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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart. https://linktr.ee/ogrose