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  • The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, or Why You Don’t Need to Bother with Aristotle, Hegel, and Kant

    Posted on November 7th, 2015 Helian No comments

    G. E. Moore isn’t exactly a household name these days, except perhaps among philosophers.  You may have heard of his most famous concoction, though – the “naturalistic fallacy.”  If we are to believe Moore, not only Aristotle, Hegel and Kant, but virtually every other philosopher you’ve ever heard of got morality all wrong because of it.  He was the first one who ever got it right.  On top of that, his books are quite thin, and he writes in the vernacular.  When you think about it, he did us all a huge favor.  Assuming he’s right, you won’t have to struggle with Kant, whose sentences can run on for a page and a half before you finally get to the verb at the end, and who is comprehensible, even to Germans, only in English translation.  You won’t have to agonize over the correct interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic.  Moore has done all that for you.  Buy his books, which are little more than pamphlets, and you’ll be able to toss out all those thick tomes and learn all the moral philosophy you will ever need in a week or two.

    Or at least you will if Moore got it right.  It all hinges on his notion of the “Good-in-itself.”  He claims it’s something like what philosophers call qualia.  Qualia are the content of our subjective experiences, like colors, smells, pain, etc.  They can’t really be defined, but only experienced.  Consider, for example, the difficulty of explaining “red” to a blind person.  Moore’s description of the Good is even more vague.  As he puts it in his rather pretentiously named Principia Ethica,

    Let us, then, consider this position.  My point is that ‘good’ is a simple notion, just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.

    In other words, you can’t even define good.  If that isn’t slippery enough for you, try this:

    They (metaphysicians) have always been much occupied, not only with that other class of natural objects which consists in mental facts, but also with the class of objects or properties of objects, which certainly do not exist in time, are not therefore parts of Nature, and which, in fact, do no exist at all.  To this class, as I have said, belongs what we mean by the adjective “good.” …What is meant by good?  This first question I have already attempted to answer.  The peculiar predicate, by reference to which the sphere of Ethics must be defined, is simple, unanalyzable, indefinable.

    Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the Good doesn’t exist.  It just is.  Which brings us to the naturalistic fallacy.  If, as Moore claims, Good doesn’t exist as a natural, or even a metaphysical, object, it can’t be defined with reference to such an object.  Attempts to so define it are what he refers to as the naturalistic fallacy.  That, in his opinion, is why every other moral philosopher in history, or at least all the ones whose names happen to turn up in his books, have been wrong except him.  The fallacy is defined at Wiki and elsewhere on the web, but the best way to grasp what he means is to read his books.  For example,

    The naturalistic fallacy always implies that when we think “This is good,” what we are thinking is that the thing in question bears a definite relation to some one other thing.

    That fallacy, I explained, consists in the contention that good means nothing but some simple or complex notion, that can be defined in terms of natural qualities.

    To hold that from any proposition asserting “Reality is of this nature” we can infer, or obtain confirmation for, any proposition asserting “This is good in itself” is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    In short, all the head scratching of all the philosophers over thousands of years about the question of what is Good has been so much wasted effort.  Certainly, the average layman had no chance at all of understanding the subject, or at least he didn’t until the fortuitous appearance of Moore on the scene.  He didn’t show up a moment too soon, either, because, as he explains in his books, we all have “duties.”  It turns out that, not only did the intuition “Good,” pop up in his consciousness, more or less after the fashion of “yellow,” or the smell of a rose.  He also “intuited” that it came fully equipped with the power to dictate to other individuals what they ought and ought not to do.  Again, I’ll allow the philosopher to explain.

    Our “duty,” therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative… When, therefore, Ethics presumes to assert that certain ways of acting are “duties” it presumes to assert that to act in those ways will always produce the greatest possible sum of good.

    But how on earth can we ever even begin to do our duty if we have no clue what Good is?  Well, Moore is actually quite coy about explaining it to us, and rightly so, as it turns out.  When he finally takes a stab at it in Chapter VI of Principia, it turns out to be paltry enough.  Basically, it’s the same “pleasure,” or “happiness” that many other philosophers have suggested, only it’s not described in such simple terms.  It must be part of what Moore describes as an “organic whole,” consisting not only of pleasure itself, for example, but also a consciousness capable of experiencing the pleasure, the requisite level of taste to really appreciate it, the emotional equipment necessary to react with the appropriate level of awe, etc.  Silly old philosophers!  They rashly assumed that, if the Good were defined as “pleasure,” it would occur to their readers that they would have to be conscious in order to experience it without them spelling it out.  Little did they suspect the coming of G. E. Moore and his naturalistic fallacy.

    When he finally gets around to explaining it to us, we gather that Moore’s Good is more or less what you’d expect the intuition of Good to be in a well-bred English gentleman endowed with “good taste” around the turn of the 20th century.  His Good turns out to include nice scenery, pleasant music, and chats with other “good” people.  Or, as he put it somewhat more expansively,

    We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

    and

    By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

    Really?  No one?  One can only surmise that Moore’s circle of acquaintance must have been quite limited.  Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s Fifth is in the mix, but only, of course, as part of an “organic whole.”  As Moore puts it,

    What value should we attribute to the proper emotion excited by hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, if that emotion were entirely unaccompanied by any consciousness, either of the notes, or of the melodic and harmonic relations between them?

    It would seem, then, that even if you’re such a coarse person that you can’t appreciate Beethoven’s Fifth yourself, it is still your “duty” to make sure that it’s right there on everyone else’s smart phone.

    Imagine, if you will, Mother Nature sitting down with Moore, holding his hand, looking directly into his eyes, and revealing to him in all its majesty the evolution of life on this planet, starting from the simplest, one celled creatures more than four billion years ago, and proceeding through ever more complex forms to the almost incredible emergence of a highly intelligent and highly social species known as Homo sapiens.  It all happened, she explains to him with a look of triumph on her face, because, over all those four billion years, the chain of life remained unbroken because the creatures that made up the links of that chain survived and reproduced.  Then, with a serious expression on her face, she asks him, “Now do you understand the reason for the existence of moral emotions?”  “Of course,” answers Moore, “they’re there so I can enjoy nice landscapes and pretty music.”  (Loud forehead slap)  Mother Nature stands up and walks away shaking her head, consoling herself with the thought that some more advanced species might “get it” after another million years or so of natural selection.

    And what of Aristotle, Hegel and Kant?  Throw out your philosophy books and forget about them.  Imagine being so dense as to commit the naturalistic fallacy!

    Moore