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Does the phrase "ought to" express the irrelevance of the person taking the action? For example, if someone says "Governments which are just, ought to ensure food security for their citizens", are they specifically saying certain governments ought to do so, or is the sentence expressing that governments which are just, in general, ought to do so, as in a generic statement that doesn't express the relevance of the person/entity taking the action?

  • Not sure how this is a question about ought to. Put absolutely any other verb in that position, and you can ask the exact same thing. – RegDwigнt Jul 19 '14 at 17:28
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    Ought to means should; it's a modal paraphrase. It has nothing to do with relevance or irrelevance, only moral obligation, as in this case, or speculative probability, as in He ought to be home by now. (By the way, there should not be a comma after just.) – John Lawler Jul 19 '14 at 18:45
  • I can't tell from OP's orthography whether the statement applies to all governments (which the speaker takes for granted are "just"), or only those governments which are in fact just. That latter clashes with "ought" (if they are just, they'll be complying already), so perhaps the meaning might be better interpreted as governments which would like to be thought of as "just". – FumbleFingers Jul 19 '14 at 18:52
  • @FumbleFingers This is a stock "resolution" for high-school debaters, so your parenthesis begs the question, which is whether providing food security is or is not an obligation for just governments. – StoneyB Jul 19 '14 at 19:43
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    @WS2: "moral obligation" is the deontic sense; the epistemic sense of "speculative probability" is also possible. All modals have epistemic and deontic readings, which may or may not be ambiguous in a given context. – John Lawler Jul 19 '14 at 23:09
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Taken in isolation, the sentence is a general statement about all governments which are just.

However, it might be used on a context that makes it clear that it's condemning a particular government that does not meet this standard. Read the Declaration of Independence, for instance. It makes a number of general statements about the appropriate relationship between a government and the citizenry. It's not until well into the document that it specifically mentions King George. This makes it clear that the earlier statements about what a government should do were intended to refer to the English government.

  • Would this perhaps depend on your understanding of 'justice'? Is 'justice' that which is determined by the opinions of legislators, authors of constitutions etc., or is 'justice', an altogether more fundamental quality. Plato's view, in The Republic would have it that it was. – WS2 Jul 20 '14 at 19:37
  • I guess it depends on how much you believe in moral relativism. I don't think this is the place for such philosophical and political discussions. I think that the way the author uses phrases like this usually makes it clear what their opinion is. – Barmar Jul 21 '14 at 2:14
  • Furthermore, if you're writing a treatise criticising the government in power, it's pretty much a given that your political or moral philosophy will be different from the opinions of your legislators, constitution authors, etc. – Barmar Jul 21 '14 at 2:15

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