Wednesday, February 13, 2013

G.E. Moore, Definitions, and Moral Terms

**This is from guest blogger, Daniel S.**

First, I’d like to start off by saying that I felt that this piece by G.E. Moore was fascinating, and some of the undefinable definitions he was portraying in the beginning of the piece were things that I have been pouring over rather recently. To start off with, Moore believes that there are notions which we are unable to define solely because of how simple these notions are. For instance, Moore gives the example of “yellow” and wonders about how are we to define “yellow” to a person who does not know yellow? This simple notion, “yellow”, is often used to describe and define other objects, but when it comes to defining itself, all we can really say is that yellow is yellow. Moore continues by saying that we may be able to define yellow by looking at the physical events which occur that allow us to perceive yellow, such as light vibrations in the eye.  But, these light vibrations aren’t really what we mean when we’re talking about yellow, but rather the light vibrations are merely our way of being able to see yellow.

It’s worthwhile to take an additional look at how we perceive these simple notions. Moore uses an example of a chimera. A chimera is a mystical creature that has the head of a lioness, a goat head growing from the middle of its back, and with a snake as its tail. This being is so complex that we are able to chip away its parts. We can take away the snake for the tail, or the head of the lioness. But, even after we do separate these parts we are still left with some highly complex parts. The head of the lioness is still going to have two eyes, it’ll have hair, and it’ll be a multitude of different colors. It is when we get to the very basic of these descriptions that we can find the simple notions, where we are no longer able to break it away into any additional parts. We often use these simple notions to express the parts of complex objects, but these simple notions in themselves express a certain quality; yellow is yellow.

The reason this is important is because Moore finds that the simple notion, “yellow”, is in some respects analogous to “good”. Moore believes that good, just like yellow, is a simple notion. This leads to Moore being asked, “What is good”, and consequently Moore would ambiguously reply, “good is good”.  Well, this seems frustrating and leads to a conundrum. If we, as ethicists, are attempting to find good and define what it is, then how are we supposed to be able to do that if all we are able to say about good is that “good is good”? Moore would reply that even though good is an undefinable notion, it is still something which we know. Just as we know what yellow is, we know what good is.

Personally I found this to be quite interesting, and this eventually leads into Moore’s naturalistic fallacy. I’d like to hear what you guys think though. Do you think it IS actually possible for us to be able to define good? Or are you content with Moore finding that it is a simple notion? And further, if we are to agree with Moore, then are those who are unable to realize the simple notion of good morally responsible for their actions? Because we can imagine a person who is color blind of yellow, and thus does not have any idea of what it is, but we do not portray him in a negative light. This might be one of the falling points for Moore’s argument, because it seems as though the consequences for being unable to recognize good are much greater than the consequences for not recognizing yellow, which may mean that "good" is actually a complex notion.


Nathan said...

Dan, I appreciated your comments on Moore. I'm inclined to agree with Moore when he thinks that the property good is fundamentally simple. Instead of considering definitions to pick out the "parts that invariably compose a whole,” let’s consider if we defined good and bad if we considered definitions to give necessary and sufficient conditions. One problem with this is what Moore points out, the difference between finding the good and good. For instance, I think most naturalist theories are trying to get necessary and sufficient conditions for the good (such as hedonism), but simply assume what the property good is. Even if the naturalist wanted to say that as a matter of fact, “good” is identical to some other property, such as pleasure or desire, it seems that they would fail to give truly necessary conditions that held in all possible worlds.

As to your second question, I think that we cannot hold a person morally accountable if they do not understand what good is; however, this might not be as problematic as it might seem. If a sociopath incapable of understanding what “good” is went and committed several violent crimes, we would imprison him and restrain him from harming others. Whether or not he is morally blameworthy still ends with him losing his freedom, kind of like a violent animal. Secondly, I think we don’t treat small children or the mentally handicapped as being morally accountable either. Instead, I believe that the vast majority of humanity knows, in the basic simple sense, what good is; the problem comes in deciding what is good and what to do in seeming moral quandries.

Erik V said...

I like both of your guys' posts but I have a problem with Moore. My problem is, of course, 'yellow is yellow' and its relation to 'good is good'. Here's why: Yellow has always existed. Its a wavelength of light. We just happen to perceive that wavelength of light as yellow. I don't see how an existing physical property can then not part of its definition. For Moore, 'yellow is yellow' and 'yellow is around a 600nm wavelength of light' are not the same thing, but if you were to ask anyone who knows anything about light, they'd say "Yep, both are true. Especially the whole yellow being yellow part. Genius". Yellow is just the name for the sensation of this particular wavelength of light hitting your retina, causing a cone to fire, which yadda yadda yadda color vision.

One might say "What about the guy who is colorblind to yellow"? To that I say he still perceives it, the wavelength that is, he just lacks the appropriate biomachinery to have the same sensory experience at the rest of the yellow-seeing world.

"What about the Mary: Color Savant case with all the black and white we learned about?" Well, I got an answer to that too. Mary knows everything about color, but has never actually perceived any, then sees a red fire hydrant and her mind proceeds to be blown in biblical proportions, right? So it appears Mary has learned something new. My problem is you could just hand Mary a spectrophotometer, a tool used to measure wavelengths of light, and then she can empirically confirm her sensation of red she just experienced. This can then tie in with her knowledge of red with what she knew about in her black and white world. She didn't learn something new, she just added another thing to the list of things she knows about red.

I don't think one can boil things down as far as Moore wants to without being ignorant of known things in the physical world.

Will Psilos said...

Hey Dan, I think your questions about moral culpability are pretty interesting because they directly lead back to the problem of moral epistemology that has come up in class repeatedly (that is, if good exists how does one come to know it?). It hadn't occurred to me that Moore doesn't touch on this at all in the selection we read before reading what you said, so thanks. On this idea of moral knowledge, I'm inclined to believe that Moore wouldn't see moral perception in the same vein as color perception (something that is relatively fragile in humans) because this would seem to lead to relativism fairly quickly (and I don't understand why a relativist would want to take the trouble to define "good" as a simple term, etc.). I mean besides color-blindness, color perception isn't entirely systematic or reliable. I understand there are scientific designations that seem to be precise, but even in these terms something like yellow is actually a range rather than a single thing, and, being a range of things, it is subject to disagreement, particularly about colors that lie in the extremes of yellow. As I said I think such a description of good would be fairly relativistic, or would at least provide relativistic wiggle room for determining the goodness of controversial actions. Of course this all could be completely wrong because there isn't anything specific in the article about how Moore understands moral perception. But I still sense some effort in the article to make "good" a concrete, if undefinable, thing, and I don't understand this effort if it's only in the service of saying that good is something relative to different sense perception, people, cultures, etc.
I don't quite know if Moore would describe the perception of good as more akin to reason, but that's where I would lean if I had to determine his ideas from just this article. So to finally address the moral culpability issue, I think that if moral perception were akin to reason that most people could be held responsible, with possible exceptions in the cases that Nathan mentioned.

Now w/r/t Erik, I don't understand the distinction between "learning something new" and "add[ing] another thing to the list of things she knows about red." I mean to say that they seem to be the same thing to me (both being new knowledge, to be clear) and that, furthermore, the ability to categorize new knowledge under prior knowledge doesn't seem to have anything to do with the question of whether the new knowledge is actually new. It seems to me that you're saying the new knowledge isn't a new type of knowledge, but rather just another detail to add to an old type of knowledge, and it doesn't seem to me that the question of the type of knowledge (or whether it can still be understood in the established paradigm, in this case, as light waves) was ever really at issue.

Will Psilos said...

After thinking about it, I feel that I should clarify how I understand the Mary situation, to avoid any confusion. The way I see it (in black-and-white and color, for the record), the issue that the Mary story addresses is that there is something that scientific, empirical knowledge doesn't account for, and perhaps can't account for, by itself. I think the "by itself" is the most important part, and may be what we differ about. You say that after her first actual observation of color, Mary can test to see whether this new thing is something she already knew about, and thereby reconcile the new knowledge with the old. What's important here is not that Mary can or can't reconcile her new knowledge with the old, it's that she has to test to find out in the first place. She has no idea if this new thing falls in the range of wavelengths of red that she already knew about (620-740 nm, to be precise). That is why it is new knowledge and that is what shows the account of science to be lacking. In Moore's case, I suppose one could always try to reconcile perceptions of good in the world with preconceived naturalistic ideas about good, but again I think this process of reconciliation itself shows there to be a separation between the two things or a necessary lack of descriptive completeness in the naturalistic account.

Heirron said...

Erik, I am not sure I understand your comment. In the first paragraph, I take it that you want to define yellow as a wavelength of light. However, you also say that yellow is our name for a certain sensation. But a certain sensation is not a wavelength of light. If yellow is a certain sensation, perhaps we can say it reduces to some kind of brain state. While this would, I think, be problematic for Moore, yellow would still not be something that is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The issue at hand, whether yellow is a sensation or a frequency, seems to raise the question of what exactly we are aware of when we receive information from our sensory organs. Are we directly aware of whatever is causing the information to be transmitted, or are we only aware of our internal interpretations of that information? Also, I am confused when you say that Mary did not learn about red, but merely added to the list of things she knew. If adding to what one knows is not learning, what is?

As to your question, Dan, I would have to say that I am not content with Moore's claim that goodness is a simple concept since I do not know what a simple notion is. One question I have is whether or not any notion of a physical entity could be simple. Even a fundamental particle, it seems, will have distinguishing properties that do not refer to its parts. Perhaps that it composes all other material, or that it has this or that "spin," or etc. If this is right, it might seem that we are referring to properties of things. If this is also right, and Moore is right, it looks as if properties are different than the things that have those properties. But surely such a thesis could not apply to all properties (consider the property of being spatially extended, for instance). So what properties does it apply to, and how can we recognize them? Perhaps I have misconstrued Moore's proposal, but whether or not this is the case, what should be said about it is not clear to me.

Anonymous said...

It might help to ask what is good rather than what IS good. Most would agree that will is good or bad. Schopenhauer would say that our passions are the 'adequate objectivity' of will. Hegel calls them 'efficient angels'. Contrast this with:

"And not only... acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects for disapprobation which may rise to abhorence. Cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all passions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity; irascibility on insufficent cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one's share of advantages...; the pride that derives gratification from the debasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favor; - these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character."

John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty", IV