Sunday, March 27, 2011

Answering Moore

One important question in moral philosophy is whether fundamental moral concepts are irreducible or, alternatively, composed of non-moral concepts.

Moral naturalism is the view that fundamental moral concepts can be understood or defined in other terms. The most famous denial of moral naturalism comes from G.E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.1 In it, Moore argues:
  1. The adjective or property good is the fundamental concept in ethics.2
  2. This same property good is applied not only to actions, but to 'good beer,' 'good chair,' 'good health,' 'good soldier,' etc.3
  3. Good, in this general sense, cannot be analyzed further or defined in other terms.4
  4. Attempts to define good in terms of other properties tend to commit what he calls the naturalistic fallacy
    In this post, I first affirm that the naturalistic fallacy is a true deductive fallacy. I will then argue that moral naturalism may be correct anyway.

    The Naturalistic Fallacy

    Moore draws a sharp distinction between the property good and the set of all things which have the property good. He calls this set "the good," but it might be more intuitive to expand this to the phrase "all things that are good." So, tautologically, all things that are good have the property good. Here's the important bit:

    What if all things that are good share another property? And let's take this one step farther. What if this other property is found nowhere else but in things that are good? Can we conclude with certainty that this other property and good are, in fact, one and the same property?

    Moore and I answer: no! That is not a deductively valid conclusion. For that, we would need premise (2) below.
    (1) Property Z always and only co-occurs with the property good.
    (2) If any property P always and only co-occurs with property Q, then P and Q are actually one and the same property.
    (3) Therefore, Z and good are actually one and the same property.
    It's easy to illustrate a problem with premise (2). Suppose Nathan and Isabella both only have one child, their daughter Sara. This means the properties being Nathan's daughter and being Isabella's daughter always and only co-occur. Yet Nathan could father another child in secret, causing the property being Nathan's daughter to hold in a person for whom being Isabella's daughter does not. This goes to show these were distinct properties all along.

    But wait! What if we strengthen the argument with some 'necessarilies' thrown in?
    (1) Necessarily, property Z always and only co-occurs with the property good.
    (2) If, necessarily, any property P always and only co-occurs with property Q, then P and Q are actually one and the same property.
    (3) Therefore, Z and good are actually one and the same property.
    This version of premise (2) is harder to counter-example. Plantinga argues against it by appealing to the implausibility that being half of six and being the 5th root of 243 are one and the same property because a person could easily know the number three has one property but not the other.5 But even if you don't accept Plantinga's argument against premise (2), it's still invalid to go straight from (1) to (3).

    Deduction Isn't Everything

    Suppose we do find a property Z which always and only co-occurs with good. If we don't have any way to rule out the possibility they are the same property, and the co-occurance cases are numerous, can't we use inductive or abductive reasoning to make a strong — though not certain — case for the identity of Z and good?

    A Moral Naturalism

    I claim the property good is identical to the complex property likely to bring about or maintain an implied end. In the same way, better is identical to more likely to [etc.] and best is identical to most likely to [etc.].

    Readers may notice I'm denying the dichotomy between things that are good for an end vs. good in themselves. I maintain that all things are good for an end — even if the end is so obvious or customarily assumed we don't consider it separately — or not good at all. In short, I consider talk of 'good in itself' or 'intrinsic good' to be misnomer or nonsense.

    But I'm less interested here in arguing positively that this 'property Z' always and only co-occurs with good than showing how Moore's objections to moral naturalism don't rule out possibility that good is properly defined in this way.

    Moore's Trilemma
    "In fact, if it is not the case that 'good' denotes something simple and indefinable, only two alternatives are possible: either it is a complex, a given whole, about the correct analysis of which there could be disagreement; or else it means nothing at all, and there is no such subject as Ethics."6
    I won't seek for a fourth option because I do think good is a 'complex' open to controversy about its analysis. Moore's argument against this option follows immediately...

    The Open Question Argument
    "The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition may be offered, it may always, be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good."7
    By way of example, Moore considers whether good might be identical to that which we desire to desire. But once we've identified the things which we desire to desire, it seems intuitively obvious to Moore that we can still intelligibly ask whether it's good that we desire to desire each of them. He then claims, "we have not before our minds anything so complicated as the question 'Do we desire to desire to desire to desire A?'"

    Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand here. Moore turned the question of goodness back onto the very thing suggested to constitute good. Of course this produces an awkward recursion! He just as well could have directly denied we have the question "Do we desire to desire A?" in mind any time we ask whether A is good. Instead, he obfuscated his brute denial by folding over the candidate moral naturalism in a way that makes it seem more convoluted.

    How does my favored definition of good sound under the same treatment? After we've identified the things which 'are likely to bring about or maintain an implied end,' can we intelligibly ask whether it's good that each of these are likely to bring about or maintain an implied end? So, for instance, a certain chair is a good chair because it is sturdily built and will likely maintain the end of holding up the person sitting on it. Is this state of affairs good? That is, is this state of affairs likely to bring about or maintain an implied end? If the implied end is the same end, then obviously, yes it is. We already covered that! If the implied end is a different end, then the original 'good chair' state of affairs could be good, bad, or indifferent toward this second end. For example, a chair being good [for holding up a sitter] might in turn be bad [for breaking easily during a staged bar fight].

    Implicit and Explicit Definitions

    Must we have an explicit definition of good in mind when we call things good or question whether they are good? If so, then moral naturalism is easily eliminated since I agree we often think of good as a simple attribute.

    But consider the notion of speed. We often think of speed as a simple attribute, "I'm going 70 mph." But it turns out that speed in a certain direction is velocity, and velocity is always relative to a reference frame. It's just that an Earthbound reference frame is so easily assumed and the reference frame of, for example, a train is almost as easily inferred from context. As a result, we usually don't explicitly consider the whole definition of velocity when we think or talk about it.

    In a similar way, I don't consider it a fatal defect for my favored definition of good to include a 'reference frame' or rather a 'reference end.' Most of the time we assume sturdiness is a requirement for a good chair, but if the implied end is unusual — such as when filming a bar fight — so too will be the requirements for a good chair. I actually consider it a strength for the view I hold that it can explain why we sometimes want to call a thing both 'good' and 'not good' in different senses.

    Actions can also be good or bad depending on the implied end. This explains why we might call, for example, a hostile takeover good [for business] but bad [for minimizing harm to workers]. Certain conventional ends concerning harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and the like are plugged into the definition of general good to define moral good in the more narrow sense.8 But since these conventionally moral ends can conflict, it's possible for a single action to evaluate as morally good and morally bad. This is why normative theories of ethics are plagued by troublesome counter-intuitive cases.

    Indefinable Good

    The main reason I resist Moore's assertion that good is a simple, indefinable property is how unhelpful I take his answer to be. "Good is good, and that is the end of the matter"4 leaves us without any idea of what it means to be good, beyond a list of things we feel have this property. What can we possibly do when such feelings conflict? Claim my ESP is better than your ESP? (Hey, it works for reformed epistemology!)

    If Moore can't prove further attempts to define good are futile — like Gödel did to kill a certain mathematical quest — my desire to understand morality drives me to find a more scrutible definition of good.

    2. "[T]his question, how 'good' is to be defined, is the most fundamental question in all Ethics. That which is meant by 'good' is, in fact, except its converse 'bad,' the only simple object of thought which is peculiar to Ethics." from Chapter One.
    3. "And on the other hand, other things, beside conduct, may be good; and if they are so, then, 'good' denotes some property, that is common to them and conduct; and if we examine good conduct alone of all good things, then we shall be in danger of mistaking for this property, some property which is not shared by those other things [....]" ibid. 
    4. "If I am asked, "What is good?" my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter." ibid. 
    5. Plantinga, A. (2010). Naturalism, theism, obligation and supervenience. Faith and Philosophy. Volume 27, Number 3 - 2010. Also see my post on the paper earlier this month.
    6. from Chapter One.
    7. ibid.
    8. See


    1. Garren, I've had a lot of time understanding this. I'm new to this whole stuff so that's probably it, but what exactly, is meant when we say "the property" good?

      And I didn't quite understand the whole bit by throwing the word "necessarily" either. I mean, what would make us change the argument into something being NECESSARILY so? What reason or observation prompts such a huge change? I also didn't get Plantinga's counter-example.

      Thanks for the read though, I think I'm beginning to get what Moore was going for with this.

    2. Esteban,

      I think philosophers tend to reify properties too much. (To reify something is to treat an abstract notion like a concrete thing. And yes, this blog is named after these categories.)

      Suppose I talk about a smooth stone, or maybe a smooth floor. The adjective 'smooth' is saying something about the stone and floor. Saying something similar even. If someone asks, "What does 'smooth' mean?", we could say: 'having a surface or substance which is perfectly regular and has no holes, lumps or areas that rise or fall suddenly' or similar (including metaphorical uses).

      What we've just done is explain what the property smooth means. Now, we could have just listed a bunch of smooth things and hoped the other person gets the point. (This works pretty well, usually!)

      So what if I talk about a good pizza, a good song, or a good deed? How would you explain what 'good' means, besides listing a bunch of good things and hoping the other person gets it?

      According to G.E. Moore, you can't!

      This is what he's saying when he claims 'good' is indefinable. Unlike 'smooth,' he claims there isn't some description we can give of what it means for things to be good.

      …I hope the minimal use of the word 'property' above helps clarify what philosophers mean by 'property.' It's pretty much a synonym for 'adjective' or 'attribute.'

      Besides giving the meaning of 'good' and besides listing a bunch of good things, there might be a third option of explaining 'good' to people. What if every good thing also happened to be a pleasant thing? If this were true, we would be very tempted to say 'Therefore, good means pleasant.' (Especially if every pleasant thing were also a good thing.) But if we do this, we commit the naturalistic fallacy.

      Another hypothetical: every good thing is pleasant and vice-versa, but we can imagine a good thing that isn't pleasant, or a pleasant thing that isn't good. We don't know that any such thing exists, but we realize it could exist. In this case, we would have a good reason to avoid saying 'good means pleasant.'

      On the other hand, what if we think it's impossible for any good thing to fail to be pleasant, or any pleasant thing to fail to be good? Now we're talking about necessity! It's more tempting to say 'good means pleasant' if they necessary go together.

      Make better sense?

    3. Garren, thanks a lot (especially for having to decipher my comment. It was late when I wrote it and, reading it back, it's a bit of a mess).

      I suppose the only two things that bother me is that "good" doesn't seem to be a property of anything. It seems to me that the property of good is based on whatever it is I desire or accomplish, and it is me who is assigning "good", "neutral" or "bad" depending on what it does to accomplish my goal. I hope what I'm getting at makes sense.

      I'm also not sure that this system really works in establishing a morality in the conventional sense. For example, if I want to brutally beat up my neighbor, a metal hammer would be "good." Although, really, conventional morality doesn't seem to make much sense anyway.

      My second concern is just that it seems so odd to say that something must necessarily be so just because you can't imagine something to be one way. To give an example of why this makes me uneasy is, if it weren't for the scientific proofs of gravity, I would think it impossible that the Earth be flat and sustained by nothing, since it flies in the face of all that we experienced. It seems to have no basis. Maybe it's because so far I'm only familiar with the scientific process (even when it comes to topics of government and historical analysis) that this all seems to have no foundation on anything. On the other hand, I struggled with Physics because some of the more abstract concepts seem to be based on abstractly bridging concepts...

      At any rate, thanks a lot of your response, I at least understand why this is being discussed and now I (finally!) understand the Naturalistic Fallacy, along with what is meant when discussing good. Thanks for your other articles too. I've been trying to get through them, but it's a bit hard since I'm not used to these terms.

      PS: I'm loving some of these captchas. Last time I had to write "Commy."

    4. Esteban
      .."I suppose the only two things that bother me is that "good" doesn't seem to be a property of anything. It seems to me that the property of good is based on whatever it is I desire or accomplish, and it is me who is assigning "good", "neutral" or "bad" depending on what it does to accomplish my goal."

      It's very similar to the word 'helpful,' isn't it? Nothing is helpful off in total isolation. When we describe something as 'helpful' we are referencing some goal which might be — but isn't necessarily — held by the speaker.

      The end-relational theory of 'good' I keep mentioning is no more than saying the same pattern holds for 'good.' Moore didn't think 'good' had a definition, but I say he needed to take a slightly higher-order view to find it.

      ..."My second concern is just that it seems so odd to say that something must necessarily be so just because you can't imagine something to be one way."

      Yeah, that's definitely something to be wary about. It could just be a failure of the imagination! I distrust arguments from necessity and impossibility once we've left the realm of mathematics.