Thursday, February 14, 2013

Was Moore a Subjectivist, a Non-cognitivist, or What?

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

In The Subject-Matter of Ethics, Moore is presenting a thesis opposing the view of ethical naturalism, which is the view that moral facts and properties of those facts are natural entities, that moral facts and properties supervene upon naturally existing properties; in other words, there is no change in moral facts or properties without a change in the natural properties. An ethical naturalist would thereby define “goodness” or “morality” in solely natural properties; this is something that Moore thinks is impossible. In his essay he struggles to come up with a way to define goodness at all, claiming it impossible.  He says, “propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic,” (51). By this he means that it is impossible to define what good is itself, for the goodness can only be defined as being in terms as a property of some other end; what I mean is, to define a “good bike” would be to explain what about the bike makes it optimal for its function, or what makes it good as a bike. To define a “good book” is to define what makes the book pleasurable or functional according to its purpose. What makes a book good is entirely different than what makes a bike good, so it is difficult if not impossible to come up with a definition for the good alone because the goodness of some thing depends on what properties make it optimal according to its function. So the goodness is always synthetic depending on what thing it is a property of, and it is never analytic, we can never define what it is to be good in itself. In order to define the intrinsic value of good, Moore says we must be able to determine the intrinsic nature of good, which he has shown is not possible.

Moore on page 55 focuses on the fact that “good” cannot be defined in an analytic way like “bachelor” can be defined as “an unmarried man”, in this case, you can substitute the phrase “an unmarried man” for the word “bachelor” and still retain the truth value of a proposition. “Good” however does not work this way, for it is not the case that, say, if I said the phrase, “this song is good” that I can then substitute “this song” for “good” in another sentence, like “hot coffee in the morning is this song”.

I agree with Moore that “good” cannot ever be defined as analytic, for it seems to always be synthetic with regard to whatever thing we are attributing the good to. I do not, however, think that Moore’s argument denies the fact that there can be epistemological ethical beliefs that are subjective that a person draws from when they make ethical claims.

I am also interested in seeing if there is a way to define “goodness” analytically by saying something like, “is such a way that it is optimal in function for its subject”. Like, what makes a bike good is that it works according to its function or what makes a book good is that it is optimal considering its function. This is almost a weird way of subjective things having the ability to be objective. However, it does not seem like this definition can even be applied to questions of ethics, for it doesn’t make sense to say that when I say, “that Bill Gates gives to charity is good” that I mean “giving to charity is optimal for Bill Gates function”, rather it is not necessarily something that is optimal for Bill Gates’ function in the way that breathing and eating are optimal for Bill Gates’ functions as a human. It seems that we would have to categorize these even further in order for a functionalist argument to work for ethics.

I am wondering what exactly Moore is trying to do after he shows ethical naturalism is false. Does Moore’s view support a subjectivist argument for the goodness of things, or is he leaning toward a more non-cognitive argument that it doesn’t at all make sense to talk about things being ethically good or bad? I think after subjectivism gets pushed passed a certain point it can turn into non-cognitivism, which could be a danger for Moore if he wants to support a subjective view of ethics. 


Anonymous said...

A bike that can't keep up elicits frustation and fatigue; a winning bike may elicit confidence and exhilaration; sleek and stylish bikes may elicit pride and exhaltation. In other words, we deem objects good or bad only to the extent that they attend with or conform to our passions.

Eric Bumbaca said...

I think that the above definition of good and bad ("only to the extent that they attend to or conform to our passions") is too simplistic. I believe that there must exist different levels of goodness and badness. One "good" may be watching my favorite football team win the Superbowl. This may elicit some pleasure or euphoria (I wouldn't know, I am an Eagles fan) but I believe that this feeling is entirely different than the good attained from say not being killed. I have spent every day of my life not being killed, but I dont fall asleep with the same sense of pleasure because I have not been killed today. I dont exactly know how Moore would respond to my differentiation of "goodness" but presumably he would reject it entirely.

Chelsea R. said...

Right now, I am leaning towards interpreting Moore as a non-supporter for a subjectivist argument for the goodness of things. (This reminds of the moral 'should/ought' and the nonmoral observational 'should/ought' from Harman's piece.) I think that if he were to adopt a relativist view of 'good' he would still be acknowledging there being a good in terms of some sort of morality, disproving his own point.