Is a moral ought an unconditional ought? In a book on nursing ethics I came across the idea that a moral ought was unconditional. Contained no ifs or buts. Nurses ought to help their patients. Not ifs about it. It was stated as being unconditional. First page, first paragraph They said unlike moral oughts, other oughts are conditional... if you want to be well rested you ought to go to bed early, that sort of thing. But it is not true that nursing oughts are also conditional? Nurses ought to help their patients if they want to keep their jobs/follow nursing guidelines...etc. How can there truly be an unconditional ought?

For myself, I doubt there are unconditional oughts. Your book seems to have been informed by a specific kind of ethics associated with the work of Immanuel Kant, among others. For Kant there are two kinds of imperatives. One kind, called "hypothetical" imperatives are the sort where what one ought to do depends on a condition being met. They usually take the form of "If you want X, then do Y." Or "If you don't want X, then don't do Y," and so on. For Kant, these are really moral "oughts" since they depend out our desires. In cases like this one acts in order to satisfy one's self, to answer one's desires, not because the action is the moral thing to do. In such cases we are slaves to our desires and acting more or less selfishly. Often, in fact, what's the morally proper thing to do, according to this line of thinking, is to oppose our desires or even do what we don't desire. If I find money, I might desire to keep it, but the morally right thing is to return the cash. So, what your book is saying is that a nurse ought to help her patient, even if he or she doesn't want to do so. The patient might be a murderer, a rapist, or someone the nurse for other reasons loathes. For Kant and those like him, to act morally, one should act on a "categorical" imperative. Categorically, the nurse should help, no matter what the contingencies. I myself don't find these kinds of ethics entirely satisfying, but that's where I think your book is coming from.

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