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Gary Cox opens up G.E. Moore’s ethics, and his open question argument.
The branch of moral philosophy with the fancy-sounding title ‘meta-ethics’ is most fundamentally concerned with questions of meaning and reality in ethics. To cut a very long story short, there are basically two types of meta-ethicists: those who believe that there are objective moral facts or, at least, that there are objective means of establishing that an action is right or wrong, and those who don’t. The latter believe instead that morality, however it may be dressed up, is actually just a matter of taste, a basic matter of approval or disapproval. Not surprisingly, the first group of philosophers are known as moral realists, the latter as moral subjectivists.
David Hume and GE Moore by Essa Sameteh
Portrait by Essa Samateh 2021 Essa’s Instagram page is crise60
Most famous amongst moral subjectivists is the great Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Hume argues that we receive no sensory impressions of the goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness of a person, action, or event. In other words, there are no moral properties to be observed alongside the natural properties we observe. When I witness a stabbing, for example, I perceive the knife going in, the blood flowing, and the cries of the victim, but I do not perceive the badness of the act. Rather, I interpret the act as bad. The false supposition that goodness and badness are natural properties of persons, actions, and events has come to be known as the naturalistic fallacy.
In his work A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume famously illustrates the naturalistic fallacy by comparing the crime of parricide with a sapling growing up to kill its parent tree by overtopping it and depriving it of light. He asks what the basis is for our conclusion that human parricide is heinously immoral, while arboreal overtopping is amoral and natural, if what we perceive in both cases is essentially the same: an offspring killing its parent? Hume also takes the example of our very different moral attitudes towards incest among humans and incest among animals. If there is no difference between human and animal incest in terms both of what they essentially are in themselves and in terms of what we perceive, then on what basis do we proclaim the former to be morally repugnant and the later simply to be a part of nature?
Hume’s answer is that observing and reflecting upon cases of parricide and incest among humans stirs our internal senses or sentiments to feelings of revulsion and disapproval, while on the other hand, observing and reflecting upon cases of, say, kindness and honesty among humans, stirs our internal senses and sentiments to feelings of delight and approval. Observing and reflecting upon the same things in animals does not usually evoke the same sentiments.
In other words, in opposition to moral objectivism, Hume holds that we do not make moral distinctions on the basis of reason and cognition, but on the basis of emotion, feeling and sentiment. So for Hume, morality is not rooted in the cognitive part of our nature but in the conative. That is, morality is not a matter of reason, but a matter of desire and volition. It is because morality is a matter of desire and volition that it is capable of moving us to action. If it were merely a matter of cognition – of coldly understanding certain facts and having certain ideas – it would not be sufficient to motivate us to act, Hume argues.
Hume further notes that authors of ideas about morality are in the habit of sliding illegitimately from talking about what is and is not the case, to talking about what ought and ought not to be the case, as though the mere contemplation of logical principles, metaphysical notions, or the observable facts of an action or event were sufficient to furnish these authors with moral grounds for pronouncing that this principle ought to be applied or that this action ought to be performed or that this event ought not to happen. Hume implies that, on the contrary, there is no legitimate way to move from a statement of observable facts to a statement of moral values: in short, that it is impossible to get an ought from an is. This idea has come to be known as Hume’s Law, the is-ought problem, or the is-ought gap.
Hume holds that only two types of proposition are meaningful: relations of ideas and matters of fact. (The distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact is today known as Hume’s fork.) ‘Relations of ideas’ simply refers to all the purely logical relationships between ideas – found, for example, in maths and geometry. The human mind recognises that the idea ‘2+2’, for example, is equivalent to the idea ‘4’. On the basis of this recognition the mind can immediately conclude that the statement ‘2+2=4’ is absolutely certain. ‘Matters of fact’, meanwhile, include all those statements that are held to be true on the basis of the present evidence of our senses or the evidence of past experience as recorded by our memory: ‘The banana is yellow’, ‘Paris is the capital of France’, and so on.
Consider Donald Trump’s hair. The statement, ‘Trump is blonde’, for example, expresses a matter of fact about Trump, firmly established on the basis of sensory evidence. He may not be a natural blonde, and it’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on with that enigmatic mane; but nonetheless, there is no getting away from the fact that the forty-fifth POTUS was blonde. The moral statement, ‘Trump is wicked’, however, does not express a matter of fact – or an empirical falsehood – about Trump, because wickedness is not part of the fabric of the physical, observable, world. As Friedrich Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) in one of his pithy aphorisms, “There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” Neither does the statement ‘Trump is wicked’ express a relation of ideas, because (whatever Hilary Clinton’s sour grapes led her to believe), Trump is not synonymous with wickedness in the way that 2+2 is synonymous with 4. At best, the proposition ‘Trump is wicked’ expresses feelings of disapprobation towards Trump, just as swearing or groaning at the sight of him does.
All these clever Humean ideas – his sentimental theory of morality, the is-ought gap, and Hume’s fork – were hugely influential on later moral subjectivists; and on some moral objectivists, who recognised that if they were to construct a credible objective moral theory, they had to take onboard the crux of what Hume was saying.
One philosopher who sought to make a case for moral objectivism in the full glare of Hume’s sceptical roasting of the very notion, was G.E. Moore (1873-1958). Moore understood Hume’s position on ethics so well that it was he and not Hume who coined the phrase ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in his 1903 book Principia Ethica to describe one of the central errors that Hume exposes in his attack upon moral objectivism.
George Edward Moore had an exceptional philosophical pedigree. Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, he was a colleague of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, both of whom he influenced to a considerable degree. His ideas remain influential across several areas of philosophy, not least ethics. Principia Ethica, probably Moore’s best known work, was also a major inspiration to the Bloomsbury Set of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, et al, who adored the close comparison the book draws between ethics and aesthetics.
The Latin term principia means principles, especially first or fundamental principles. To use the term is to evoke Isaac Newton’s world-shattering Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687. The term is somehow unavoidably pretentious, so if you’re going to use it in the title of your book you had better know what you’re talking about. Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, who knew exactly what they were talking about, also used the term in the title of their seminal work Principia Mathematica (1910-13). Written in the same location and intellectual environment as Principia Mathematica, but published seven years earlier, Principia Ethica undertakes to do for ethics what Russell and Whitehead were undertaking to do for logic and maths – that is, to establish first principles and remove long-standing confusions.
Much of Moore’s Principia is taken up with exploring, in exhaustive detail, Hume’s insight that most systems of morality are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. Moore expands on Hume’s insight not least by levelling the charge of naturalistic fallacy against many systems of morality that succeeded Hume, particularly the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, even though that theory was in many ways a product of the same empiricism Hume embraced. Moore argues that the fundamental naturalistic error of Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism is to equate goodness with pleasure. If goodness and pleasure are taken to be the same thing, then to assert that ‘Good is pleasure’ is to say no more than ‘Good is good’, which is really to say nothing. The equation does not define ‘good’, and certainly we are no nearer to understanding what good is.
Someone might object that we all know what pleasure is, and pleasure is precisely what is good. Simple. Moore tackles this kind of seemingly common-sense response with what’s known as the open-question argument, in which he maintains that questions about what good is are never closed questions but always open questions; always questions the answer to which is open to debate.
A closed question is one which can be fully answered with a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or by providing a specific piece of information. Take the closed question, ‘Where is the sugar?’. The sugar is where it is, so the answer, ‘It’s in the cupboard’ will be either true or false. Moore’s colleague Russell identified what he called ‘barren tautologies’ – for example, ‘A quadruped is a four footed animal’. This statement is true by definition, since ‘quadruped’ literally means ‘four footed animal’. This makes the statement barren, because if you know what ‘quadruped’ means you already know it means ‘four footed animal’. No new information is conveyed by the statement. Although not all closed questions arise from barren tautologies, barren tautologies always give rise to closed questions. The tautology-inspired question, ‘Is a quadruped a four footed animal?’ has a definite answer. If you understand what a quadruped is, and you intend to respond sensibly, you have no choice but to answer ‘Yes’.
An open question, on the other hand, is a question that cannot be answered either with a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or by providing a specific piece of information. There is scope for debate. An open question certainly cannot be answered simply on the basis of understanding the terms within the question. For example, in the open question, ‘Are dogs clever?’, the terms ‘dog’ and ‘clever’ are not synonymous. Dogs are not by definition clever, and so a definite answer to this question cannot be given simply on the basis of understanding the terms within it. Indeed, a definite answer cannot be given to this question at all. Dog lovers will argue that dogs are clever, citing wonderful examples of doggy intelligence; others will argue that a dog has never won the Nobel Prize for Physics.
According to Moore, ‘Is good pleasure?’ is also an open question. The terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘good’ are not synonymous: good is not by definition pleasure. People who understand the terms in the question can, and do, disagree about the answer to it – revealing that good cannot be defined as pleasure as a quadruped can be defined as a four footed animal. And exactly the same can be said for the question, ‘Is good happiness?’, or for any question with the form ‘Is good x?’ Any question concerning the nature or definition of goodness is always an open question, revealing that no x is synonymous with good. Or to put it a Russellian way, good is not synonymous with any predicate x. A predicate is that part of a statement or proposition which identifies a property of the subject of the proposition. In the proposition, ‘Grass is green’, for example, ‘grass’ is the subject term, while ‘green’ is the predicate term. However, Moore argues that since predicates ascribe properties, and ‘good’ is not synonymous with any predicate x (there is no predicate that can stand for good), so good cannot be a property of anything. In short, goodness does not exist, at least as a natural property of anything. Moore concludes that goodness cannot be defined – that it is indefinable.
He does not, however, conclude that goodness does not exist. For Moore, although goodness does not exist as a natural property, it nonetheless exists as a non-natural property – as a metaphysical, transcendent quality that’s not available to the senses but rather is intuited by the intellect; or even, according to some readings of Moore, by a specific moral faculty. This idea is known as Moore’s intuitionism.
In these respects, the non-natural moral property of goodness is comparable to – and for Moore closely akin to – the non-natural aesthetic property of beauty. That is, what was just said about goodness with regard to the open-question argument can also be said about beauty. Beauty is also not synonymous with anything with which it is commonly identified: symmetry, purity, elegance, loveliness, and so on. You might think that when, for example, you perceive a beautiful statue, you perceive its beauty alongside its natural properties of symmetry, proportion, whiteness, coldness, hardness, and smoothness. But really, its beauty is a property of a different order – a property that transcends the physical properties. This property can be alluded to, as I am alluding to it now, but it cannot be directly pointed out or defined.
The beauty of a beautiful statue, painting, woman, man, house, bridge or mountain, requires a combination of natural properties, because without its natural properties the beautiful thing would not exist. However, the beauty of a thing is not one of its natural properties, but is instead a non-natural property that transcends the natural properties. In the same way, according to Moore, the non-natural property of goodness transcends the natural objects, emotions, actions, attitudes, and habits that we hold to be most valuable and broadly describe as ‘good’.
It is perhaps ironic that after developing to the full Hume’s insight vis-à-vis the naturalistic fallacy, Moore ends up endorsing a rather exotic metaphysics of non-natural properties existing in a supersensible dimension intuited by some higher intellectual faculty. Hume, who in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) condemns all metaphysical writings as containing ‘nothing but sophistry and illusion’ which ought to be ‘consigned to the flames’, would not approve at all!
Towards the end of Principia Ethica, Moore advocates a variant of utilitarianism called ideal utilitarianism. Intrinsic value, he says, does not belong to pleasure or even to happiness, as classical utilitarians maintain, but to the consciousness of beauty and friendship. He argues that of all things in life, consciousness of beauty and consciousness of friendship are the most valuable, worth having purely for their own sakes and not merely for the sake of something else. These things are not synonymous with goodness, but they are the highest goods, in the sense of being the most valuable things in life and, therefore, the things that should be pursued and promoted above all else. Consciousness of beauty and consciousness of friendship are the ends to which all else should be a means.
© Dr Gary Cox 2021
Gary Cox is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and author of over ten philosophical books, including the recently published How to be Good: or How to Be Moral and Virtuous in a Wicked World. All his books are published by Bloomsbury.