1 Draft of PHIL 202: Core Ethics Fall 2014; Classics in Metaethics David O. Brink Handout #1: G.E. Moore and the Open Question Argument G.E. Moore s ideas in ethical theory were developed in Principia Ethica (1903), Ethics (1912), and a handful of papers. His treatment in Principia is by far the most influential, and we shall confine our attention to it. Indeed, we will be very selective, concentrating on his criticism of ethical naturalism as involving the naturalistic fallacy and his use of the Open Question Argument (OQA). But before turning to the naturalistic fallacy and OQA, it would be good to situate them in Moore s larger aims and claims in Principia. THE MAIN CLAIMS OF PRINCIPIA We might start with a quick chapter- by- chapter summary of Principia. Chapter I (The Subject- Matter of Ethics) explains that he thinks that there are two fundamental ethical notions - - the good and the right - - and that the good is non- derivative, whereas the right can be explained in terms of (promoting) the good. He claims that the good is simple, unanalyzable, and sui generis. Ethical naturalists have misunderstood this, conflating what things are good and the good. That naturalists commit a fallacy can be shown by the OQA. Late in the chapter, Moore introduces the doctrine of organic unities, according to which the value of a whole can be greater than the sum of its (non- relational) parts. Chapter II (Naturalistic Ethics) continues the argument against ethical naturalism, applying it to Spencer s evolutionary ethics. Chapter III (Hedonism) begins by focusing on another version of ethical naturalism, namely, hedonism. First, he criticizes Bentham for defining the good in terms of pleasure. Then he turns to criticize Mill on various grounds, including the claim that the doctrine of higher pleasures cannot be squared with hedonism, which must take a quantitative form (64-81). He proceeds to criticize Sidgwick, whom he clearly takes more seriously than Mill, for denying the reality of ideal goods and insisting that all personal goods must be elements of consciousness. He appeals to beauty as an example of an ideal good, which he defends by appeal to the method of isolation (83-84, 90-91). He goes on to argue that egoism is an incoherent method of ethics because it is committed to relational or personal goodness (97-99). Moore claims that goodness is absolute, rather than relational. Goodness can be found in different places and different lives, but because goodness is absolute, anyone has a reason to promote it. Thus, Moore accepts the argument that Sidgwick considers for utilitarianism in The Methods of Ethics. 1. I have reason to promote goodness in my life. 2. It is open to me to promote goodness in other lives. 3. Hence, I have reason to be concerned about others, as well as myself, in proportion to how much goodness I can promote. Chapter IV (Metaphysical Ethics) extends the worries about ethical naturalism to ethical supernaturalism, which he associates with Spinoza, Kant, and Hegelians, such as Green. Chapter V (Ethics in Relation to Conduct) starts by claiming that (ideal) consequentialism is analytic because the word right just means the same as produces the best consequences (147-48). In particular, Moore understands consequentialism as act consequentialism (161-62), but he also believes that we are not justified in departing from fairly coarse- grained moral rules that are generally but imperfectly optimal (162-64). Though he is not explicit about this, these two claims seem to commit him to the possibility of blameless wrongdoing.
2 2 Chapter VI (The Ideal) discusses absolute goodness, reasserting the doctrine of organic unities and the method of isolation (184-87). Moore claims that friendship, beauty, and knowledge are intrinsic goods ( ) and that awareness and appreciation of their goodness is a second- order good (194). Indeed, consciousness of beauty is Moore s prime example of an organic unity, because he thinks that conscious of beauty is significantly greater than the value of beauty and the value of consciousness (27-29, 194). THE GOOD AND THE RIGHT In the Preface Moore says that there are two fundamental ethical notions - - the good and the right (viii). Both can be expressed using <ought>. The good is that which ought to exist for its own sake, and the right is the action that ought to be done. Moore also says that he is an intuitionist (viii). This might well be an epistemological claim, which is one sense in which Moore embraces intuitionism (143). But here he has in mind at least partly that some truths are non- derivative. In his view truths about intrinsic goodness are non- derivative, but truths about what ought to be done are derivative insofar as he thinks rightness just means produces the best states of affairs (ix). THE GOOD AS INDEFINABLE Moore s claims about the subject matter of ethics, and especially the subject matter of the good, are confusing. On the one hand, he repeatedly frames the question as one about the meaning of the word good and whether good is definable, and he appeals to claims about difference in meaning to refute ethical naturalism. On the other hand, he is also at pains to say that he is interested in what is good and what the concept or term denotes, not truths about meaning (2, 6-7, 12). Early on, Moore says that good is indefinable, unanalyzable, simple, and sui generis (6-7, 15). Coming as early as it does, one might think that this claim is supposed to stand on its own. Perhaps, but I think it more likely that here Moore is just anticipating his main conclusion for which he offers argument later. This argument, I think, takes the form of the OQA. But we might start with what Moore means when he says that good is indefinable (notice that Moore often writes in the material mode - - good, rather than good ). Consider four possibilities. 1. Goodness is primitive and cannot be defined. 2. Goodness cannot be defined in non- ethical terms. 3. Goodness is simple and cannot be defined as a complex whole in terms of its parts. 4. Goodness is non- derivative. (1) seems false even by Moore s own lights, since he thinks that good means ought to exist for its own sake (viii). We may not be able to give goodness any kind of reductive definition, but we can define good in terms of ought and vice versa. (2) fits some of the argument of Principia. After all, he inveighs against naturalistic definitions in Chapters I- II and against metaphysical definitions in Chapter IV. So perhaps his target is reductive definitions of goodness, rather than definitions per se. (3) might explain the fact that often Moore associates indefinability and simplicity, and he focuses sometimes on definitions that decompose a whole into its parts (8-9). But this is puzzling, because Moore thinks that ethical naturalists fail to recognize the indefinability of goodness, but it s not clear that they wrongly treat goodness as a complex whole. If the ethical naturalist says that goodness is the same as pleasure, it s hard to see how this represents goodness as complex. While it s certainly true that Moore believes that truths about intrinsic goodness are non- derivative, as (4) claims, it s again hard to see why the ethical naturalist need deny this. If the ethical naturalist is a hedonist, then she identifies goodness and pleasure. It s not clear how that makes intrinsic goodness derivative from something else.
3 3 THE NATURALISTIC FALLACY So what is the naturalistic fallacy? Moore tells us that it is to conflate goodness and those things that are good (10). Here, he seems to suggest that ethical naturalists confuse all and only those things that are good with goodness. This seems like confusing terms that are co- extensive and terms that designate the same property. Or perhaps he thinks that if one says pleasure is good one is confusing the is of predication and the is of identity. But why should we assume that the naturalist makes this mistake? Take hedonism again. Why think that the hedonist is merely claiming that all and only good things are pleasurable? Surely, the hedonist believes that being pleasurable is what makes things good and that things are good insofar as they are pleasurable. Hedonism can and should be understood as a property identity claim. This was clear as early as Plato s Protagoras, and is certainly the natural way to understand Bentham, Mill (insofar as he is a hedonist), and Sidgwick. It may be true or it may be false, but there s no reason to assume that the hedonist is making a category mistake. Of course, if there is nothing with which goodness is identical, then pleasure could be at most correlated with goodness. But this would beg the question against the hedonist who thinks goodness and pleasure designate the same property. Does Moore have an argument that the ethical naturalist must be mistaken? THE OPEN QUESTION ARGUMENT Moore defends his claim that ethical naturalist claims about goodness commit the naturalistic fallacy by appeal to the OQA. Here s one reading of the OQA. 1. Terms designate the same property iff they are synonymous. 2. Terms M and N are not synonymous if the question Are M- things M? is closed and the question Are N- things M? is open. 3. If M is goodness, then for any naturalistic value for N, the question Are N- things M? will be open. 4. Hence, goodness is not identical to any natural property. We could question (3). In an influential article, William Frankena said that Moore was wrong to infer that no naturalistic definition would be acceptable from the failure of the few he considered. 1 While the general claim may not follow, Moore seems to think, not unreasonably, that the cases he does consider illustrate a more general point that any informative identity statement would be epistemically open. We might note, as Ross would later, that Moore s own definition of right action in terms of the action with the best consequences would also fail the open question argument. This is not because it s naturalistic so much as because it is informative. Alternatively, we might question the semantic test of properties in (1) or the conception of meaning underlying (2). On the one hand, we might deny that terms have to be synonymous to pick out the same property, embracing the possibility of synthetic property identities on the model of water = H 2O or heat = mean kinetic molecular energy. On the other hand, we might reject Moore s assumption that synonymy should be obvious or transparent (43) and embrace the idea that truths by virtue of meaning might be informative. One could reject both (1) and (2), but it seems like at least one must go. These two options correspond to two assumptions in descriptional theories of meaning and reference that were the focus of criticism by theories of direct reference: (a) the assumption that meaning determines reference and (b) the assumption that meaning is something all competent speakers are immediately authoritative about. (a) commits one to a semantic test of properties, 1 William Frankena, The Naturalistic Fallacy Mind 58 (1939):
4 4 and (b) was thought to be true if the meaning of a word or phrase consists in the descriptions that speakers conventionally associate with the word or phrase. If these two assumptions were true, competent speakers ought to be able to recognize when two terms designate the same property. Informative property identity claims pose a problem for the conjunction of these two assumptions. The more common response was Kripke s response of denying that meaning determines reference (hence, direct reference). Putnam also denied that meaning, understood as something that competent speakers are authoritative about, determines reference, but he also proposed a different conception of meaning that included the property to which the term (directly) refers. So one might appeal to direct reference and reject either (1) or (2) or both. This is roughly the view of Cornell realists and naturalists (Boyd, Brink, Railton, and Sturgeon). Alternatively, one might reject (2) appealing to a network analysis of moral concepts and terms, as the Canberra realists and naturalists do (e.g. Jackson and Smith). This reading of the OQA and its weaknesses rests on quite general issues in philosophy of language. On this reading, Moore might as well have argued that those who say that water is H 2O or that heat is mean kinetic molecular energy are committing a kind of naturalistic fallacy. Many will think that this version of the OQA is not especially compelling. NORMATIVITY AND THE OQA Perhaps because of the weaknesses of this version of the OQA, others have wondered if Moore had something different in mind. Perhaps the OQA is supposed to have narrower scope, raising a difficulty not about all informative identity claims but about a certain kind of identity claim about specifically normative properties. On this reading, the reason the question Are N- things M? remains open is because M is a normative property. It s as if goodness is a property with a special normative charge, and the OQA asserts that no natural or metaphysical property could carry this normative charge. 2 The normative version of the OQA is interesting, and, as we will see, has proven influential in later metaethical debate. But it s not at all clear that it is a good interpretation of Moore s OQA for the simple reason that Moore never explicitly mentions or discusses normativity in any obvious guise. If we are to take the normative reading of the OQA seriously as an interpretive claim, it must be because by attributing assumptions about normativity to Moore we can best explain the way he argues. Just as astronomers posited Neptune s existence to explain Jupiter s perceived orbit, so too, on this reading, we should posit an assumption about normativity to explain why Moore would find the OQA convincing. Normativity can be understood in different ways, and so there are different versions of the normative reading of the OQA corresponding to different understandings of normativity. Some understand normativity in motivational terms. On this view, to recognize something as good is to be motivated to bring it about. This is really a motivational internalist claim about judgments of goodness. On this reading, Moore is arguing in something like this fashion. 1. To judge something to be good is necessarily to be motivated to pursue it. 2. To judge that something has a natural (metaphysical) property is not necessarily motivating. 3. Hence, judgments of goodness are not equivalent to naturalistic (metaphysical) judgments. 4. Hence, goodness is not a natural (metaphysical) property. 2The normative interpretation of the OQA is explored in the very helpful metaethical survey by Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, Toward Fin de Siècle Ethics: Some Trends Philosophical Review 101 (1992): , esp , and in Connie Rosati, Naturalism, Normativity, and the Open Question Argument Nous 29 (1995):
5 5 As we will see, this reading of the OQA will later prove influential among noncognitivists who want to reject the idea that moral judgments express beliefs at all and claim that they express non- cognitive conative attitudes instead. But it seems very unlikely that Moore accepted this version of the OQA. Not only does he never make these motivational claims about judgments of goodness, he is in fact a motivational externalist [cite]. A different normative reading of the OQA results from understanding normativity in terms of authority. On this view, facts (not judgments) about goodness are normative, because they necessarily give an agent reasons for action. Here the OQA reads like this. 1. If something is good, necessarily there is reason to pursue it. 2. There is no natural (metaphysical) property of things that necessarily implies reasons to pursue it. 3. Hence, goodness is not a natural (metaphysical) property. It s more plausible that Moore might have had this version of the OQA in mind. We know he thinks that goodness does fund ought claims, because he thinks that if something is (intrinsically) good then it ought to exist for its own sake (viii), and, at least according to Hurka, Moore is a unitarian who thinks that the only <ought> is that of practical reason. What s unclear, on this reading, is why we should accept (2). Why should we assume that no natural property can supply reasons? If hedonism is true, then pleasure does. Of course, we may doubt that this is true, which is just to say that the truth of hedonism is an open question. But this is no obstacle to the truth of hedonism unless we accept the semantic test of properties and the assumption that meaning must be transparent or obvious. But then it turns out that this normative version of the OQA is no more plausible than the non- normative version. NON- NATURALISM AND SUPERVENICENCE The OQA was supposed to show that ethical naturalism was wrong to claim that moral properties are natural properties. Though he thought moral and natural properties were distinct, he did not think that they were unrelated. In fact, he thought that the moral properties of a situation systematically depend on its natural properties. I should never have thought of suggesting that goodness was `non- natural,` unless I had supposed that it was `derivative` in the sense that, whenever a thing is good (in the sense in question) its goodness... `depends on the presence of certain non- ethical characteristics` possessed by the thing in question: I have always supposed that it did so `depend,` in the sense that, if a thing is good (in my sense), then that it is so follows from the fact that it possesses certain natural intrinsic properties, which are such that from the fact that it is good it does not follow conversely that it has those properties. 3 We would now describe this commitment using the language of supervenience. If the moral supervenes on the natural, then the natural properties of a situation fix or determine its moral properties, and two situations couldn t differ with respect to their moral properties without differing with respect to their natural properties in some way. Non- naturalism, on Moore s view, seems to consist in the asymmetrical metaphysical dependence of the moral on the natural. This claim gives rise to various questions for Moore. One question is whether this doesn t commit him to thinking that goodness is derivative after all. Another question is how Moore thought he could reconcile this commitment to supervenience with the OQA. For the supervenience 3G.E. Moore, "Reply to My Critics" in The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, ed. P. Schlipp (La Salle: Open Court, 1942), p. 588.
6 6 of the moral on the nonmoral requires recognizing informative or synthetic necessities. But if informative necessities are possible, why shouldn t we also be able to recognize informative identity statements. THE LEGACY OF THE OPEN QUESTION ARGUMENT The OQA was supposed to undermine ethical naturalism and support non- naturalism. The OQA was widely influential, convincing many that non- naturalism was true. Indeed, non- naturalism was one leg of the metaethical stool adopted by the rational intuitionists, as we might call them. Sidgwick, Moore, Prichard, Ross, Broad, and Ewing all combined commitments to moral realism, non- naturalism, and an intuitionist moral epistemology. Indeed, the OQA s critique of ethical naturalism was accepted by critics, as well as proponents, of rational intuitionism. Noncognitivists accepted the OQA s refutation of ethical naturalism but found non- naturalism metaphysically and epistemologically extravagant. 1. Moral realism is committed to cognitivism. 2. Cognitivism claims that moral judgments express the appraiser s beliefs about the moral properties of people, actions, and situations. 3. The OQA shows that moral properties would have to be non- natural. 4. Non- natural properties would be metaphysically and/or epistemologically queer. 5. Hence, we should reject cognitivism and embrace the noncognitivist claim that moral judgments express the appraiser s conative attitudes instead. 6. Hence, moral realism is false. One person s modus ponens is another person s modus tollens. So, although the original proponents of the OQA accepted non- naturalism and conjoined it with their moral realism, it is arguable that the real beneficiary of the OQA was noncognitivism, which treated non- naturalism as a reason to reject the cognitivist presuppositions of rational intuitionism.