Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Subject Matter of Ethics

This post's title is borrowed from the first chapter of Principia Ethica. Near the beginning of that chapter, G.E. Moore gave his answer:
I am using ['Ethics'] to cover an enquiry for which, at all events, there is no other word: the general enquiry into what is good.1
And he did mean it when he said 'general.' Though we often speak of 'moral good' and 'non-moral good,' Moore's view of ethics encompassed both. His problem — in my view — was failing to notice that 'good' is a term with a variable missing; all that is good is good for an end.2 When we distinguish between moral and non-moral good, we are distinguishing between moral and non-moral ends.

For example, we might say it's good to check more than Wikipedia because we aren't confident in reaching the epistemic end of having true beliefs by checking Wikipedia alone. Or we might say that it's good to avoid saturated fats. Why? Because the end of remaining healthy is endangered by consuming saturated fats in high quantity.

What end is at stake when we claim things are morally good? I don't have the answer today, but I do have two suggestions:

First, because of the end-facilitating relationship between 'good' things and the sense in which they are good, we should be able to survey the things we are most certain are morally good or bad and try drawing an inference to the best explanation, i.e. which end most plausibly generates these 'good' and 'bad' judgments? Yes, this is an empirical approach to defining moral goodness.

Second, we shouldn't assume all moral judgments are based on one, fundamental end. There's good reason to think our judgments are drawn from multiple ends,3 and that moral goodness is a complex — perhaps even incoherent — concept for this very reason.

1. From
3. See


  1. I think the key issue in all things metaethical is to distinguish between the scientific issue of what people mean, and the conceptual issue of what a certain definition is useful for. The project of investigating what we mean when we say "moral good" isn't really that interesting. It's far more useful to consider what the various definitions are good for (pun intended). I find that from that perspective the argument over "the" concept of moral goodness seems nonsensical - there are probably many useful meanings, and we're better off understanding what we want to talk about for a given purpose.


  2. Yair,

    I suspect that what people mean** when they make moral judgments doesn't line up with what a lot of moral philosophers think moral goodness must mean. So we might be able to sweep aside some of the philosophical concerns.

    Compare this to the way philosophers often have different ideas about the nature of God than non-philosophers do. Just as perfect being theology introduces thorny problems which might not be necessary for Theism, so too morality as discussed by philosophers may be injecting problems the topic doesn't need.

    I do agree we shouldn't necessarily be committed to finding 'the' right and proper concept of moral goodness, which is why I made that second suggestion in the original post. Of course, a single concept would be nice for parsimony's sake, if we can swing it.

    ** By 'what people mean' I don't necessarily mean what they report if you ask them, but what end[s] best explain[s] the pattern of their moral judgments.