Wednesday, February 13, 2013

More on Moore

**This is from guest blogger, Nathan T.**

I just have to say this: G. E. Moore makes philosophy seem so annoyingly simple.

In the selection, “The Subject-Matter of Ethics,” Moore proposes that good is fundamentally undefinable. In considering definitions of good, Moore refutes an appeal to semantics and the common useage of the word “good,” stating that he instead wants to know the property or thing to which “good” refers. Likewise, he does not ask what things have the property of being good, or “the good,” (p. 52) but what the property “good” is in of itself.

Moore believes that there are certain foundational properties or entities that are completely simple; namely, that they cannot be reduced to any further properties or components (unlike a horse or a Chimera). Moore considers an example with the color yellow: while yellow can be described in terms of wavelengths and retinas, yellow is a basic perception that cannot be broken up into any more basic parts. Likewise, good is a property that is completely basic, and therefore undefineable (because, according to Moore, a definition “states what are the parts which invariably compose a certain whole” (p.53)). Therefore, any naturalist attempt to define “good” in terms of more basic concepts, such as pleasure or desire, will fail, as he considers for the last half of the selection.

I have to admit, I agree largely with Moore. However, I am slightly uncertain as to what his ultimate “project” is. By making “good” undefinable, is Moore precluding meta-ethics as a legitimate field of study? If “good” is a simple (and, implicitly, unanalyzable) concept, then it seems that the only valid subject matter are the things which are good, which Moore seems to take as the enterprise of ethics (p. 52, second column).  Or is Moore simply “cleaning house,” and doing away with muddled and blurred concepts, such as thinking that good and pleasure are related? Perhaps Moore is instead saving the enterprise of meta-ethics from unclear ideas.

I think I probably side with the first interpretation, but I’m open to other thoughts. So what do y’all think?


Anonymous said...

"Reason is the discovery of truth or falshood. Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now 'tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement; being original facts and realities, complete in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. 'Tis impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced true or false, and be contrary or conformable to reason.

This argument is of double advantage to our present purpose. For it proves directly, that actions do not derive their merit from a conformity to reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it; and it proves the same truth more indirectly, by shewing us, that as reason can never immediatly prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence. Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable and unreasonable: Laudable or blameable, therefore, are not the same with reasonable or unreasonable. The merit and demerit of actions frequently contradict, and sometimes controul our natural propensities. But reason has no such influence. Moral distinctions, therefore, are not the offspring of reason. Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as a conscience, or a sense of morals...

It has been observ'd, that reason, in a strict and philosophical sense, can have an influence on our conduct only after two ways: Either when it excites a passion by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion. These are the only kinds of judgment that can accompany our actions, or can be said to produce them in any manner; and it may be allow'd, that these judgments may often be false and erroneous. A person may be affected with a passion, by supposing a pain or pleasure to lie in an object, which has no tendency to produce either of these passions, or produces the contrary to what is imagin'd. A person may also take false measures for attaining his end, and may retard, by his foolish conduct, instead of forwarding the execution of any project. These false judgments may be thought to affect the passions and actions, which are connected with them, and may be said to render them unreasonable, in a figurative and improper way of speaking. But tho' this be acknowledg'd, 'tis easy to observe, that these errors are so far from being the source of all immorality, that they are commonly very innocent, and draw no manner of guilt upon the person who is so unfortunate as to fall into them. They extend not beyond a mistake of fact, which moralists have not generally suppos'd criminal, as being perfectly involuntary...

Shou'd it be pretended, that tho' a mistake of fact be not criminal, yet a mistake of right often is; and this may be the source of immorality: I would answer, that 'tis impossible such a mistake can ever be the original source of immorality, since it supposes a real right and wrong; that is, a real distinction in morals, independant of these judgments. A mistake, therefore, of right may become a species of immorality; but 'tis only a secondary one, and is founded on some other, antecedent to it."

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Part I, Section I, Moral distinctions not derived from reason

Danny Witt said...

Nathan, I agree that GE Moore makes things so damn simple. His appealing argument might be the sign of a brilliant philosopher with an easy explanation for ‘good’. However, his move seems somewhat suspect as a sneaky maneuver which makes ‘good’ a metaphysical quality to be found in objects that we describe verbally as ‘the good’. I understand his argument to be that ‘good’ in and of itself is a metaphysical quality present in things that we term as good (i.e., good deeds). However, this brings up an interesting epistemological question: how do we observe this mind-independent goodness? We supply our artificial label of ‘good’ to many things (e.g., acts of kindness, things that give pleasure, etc.), so Moore’s stance (epistemologically speaking) must suggest that we have an intuition of this fundamental ‘goodness’ and we thus label it so in our respective language. As humans we must have some channel that instantly helps us identify good, bad, and other moral qualities (on the metaphysical level), since trying to unpack them from events we observe and the nonmoral facts present is ignorant of Moore’s suggestion that ‘good’ is indefinable and irreducible. If ‘good’ existed objectively and mind-independently in an action, and every human had the ability to determine it, then it seems that we wouldn’t have disagreement on what we call good, bad, etc. I didn’t necessarily try to arrive to this objection (a classic critique), but here I am. I’m not sure if Moore really addresses this—or does he? I have a feeling we would head for the same arguments and objections observed with Russ Shafer-Landau’s moral realism.
With respect to Moore, perhaps his ‘intuitive’ knowledge of ‘good’ as the ‘analytic’ claim that “good is good” is a conditioned response as his mind integrates/interprets actions that can be morally judged—those actions consisting of characteristics which prompt the label goodness based on past experience, empathy, social-definitions (etc.) instead of actually having some metaphysical ‘goodness’ intrinsic to the act. Just a possibility. For him to go ahead and say “good is good” smells a lot like a claim that rests solely on each individual and their subjective view of the world. The claim would work subjectively for all of us (since we all have subconscious reasons why we each call something good), but trying to make it a universal claim about the objective nature of ‘goodness’ seems to ignore individualized conceptions of ‘good’. Does any of this make sense? I feel like I am circling the archetypal “disagreement on moral judgment” objection. Perhaps there is a quick response to this, but I do not see it coming from Moore.