Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
Excerpts from Stephen Darwall's chapter on "Moore to Stevenson" in Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy Ed. Cavalier, Gouinlock and Sterba (MacMillan/St. Martin's Press, 1990).
Moore held that ethics attempts to answer two distinct
questions: first, 'what kinds of things ought to exist for their own sakes?'
(or, as he also put it, what is 'good in itself or has intrinsic value?'),
and, second, 'What kinds of actions ought we to perform?' (PE, viii).
Of these two, Moore believed the former to be more fundamental. Indeed,
in Principia he held that the latter question, concerning right
and wrong, really asks no more than which acts will actually bring about
the most intrinsic value. Later he was to give up this 'analytical consequentialism',
and maintain that while 'right' does not mean productive of the
best consequences, nonetheless it is always right to do whatever will
promote the most intrinsic value. Moore never wavered from the position
that the most important substantive question of ethics is: What is good
in itself? What has intrinsic value?
Still, he thought, there is a question that is even more fundamental
for ethics than this substantive one. And that concerns the nature of
intrinsic goodness itself. Before we can assess attempted answers to the
question of what is good, or even know what could count as evidence for
and against them, we must first know what the question itself is about.
So Moore argued that the issue of 'how "good" is to be defined,
is the most fundamental question in all Ethics' (PE, 5).
Now it is important to appreciate that what Moore meant by 'definition'
was a matter not of lexicography, but of elucidating the nature of the
property to which 'good' refers. Moore thought it self-evident that
when we wonder whether something is good we are wondering whether it has
a specific property. And so the most fundamental question concerns the
nature of that property: what is intrinsic value?
Moore's first answer, in Principia, may seem unlikely to provide
much help in moral philosophy; for his thesis was that 'good' refers to
a property that is simple and unanalyzable, one that can be given no contentful
description at all. The property of goodness cannot be further analyzed.
Nonetheless, Moore thought his discovery very powerful. Admittedly, it
could not lead directly to knowledge of what is good, but it could demonstrate
various proposed paths to that knowledge to be blind alleys.
The field of ethics was littered, Moore held, with attempts to argue
for some substantive theory of good or other on the grounds that goodness
simply is whatever property the theory identified as characteristic of
what is good. So hedonists, Moore charged, had tended to argue that pleasure
is the only intrinsic good on the grounds that 'good' simply means pleasurable,
that being pleasurable is simply what it is to be good. But 'good' means
no such thing. Indeed, Moore said, there is nothing contentful
that it means. 'Whenever [a person] thinks of "intrinsic value"
or "intrinsic worth," or says that a thing "ought to exist."
he has before his mind the unique objectóthe unique property of
thingsówhich I mean by "good."' (PE, 17.) That
property is not identical with any of the properties with which philosophers
have sought to identify itónot with being desired, nor being desired
when fully informed, nor being desired by God, nor tending to promote
survival, nor anything else. 'Everything is what it is and not another
Ethics, as a discipline, is concerned with 'tine only simple
object of thought which is peculiar to' itóthe idea of intrinsic
value (PE, 5). And since intrinsic goodness is irreducible, it
follows that ethics is irreducible to any other subjectónot to
any of the sciences, nor to metaphysics, nor to theology.
Moore thought it followed from the unanalyzability of the concept of
goodness that no evidence or reasons can be given for any proposition
of intrinsic value at all. Strictly speaking, a proposition of, say, psychology
can provide no evidence whatsoever for any proposition about what is intrinsically
good. As a foundationalist, Moore thought that a proposition can only
be evident in one of two ways: either it must be self-evident, or it must
be deducible from some other self-evident proposition. If a property is
complex and can be analyzed into simple parts, then its existence follows
from the existence of the simples that form the complex. Moore gives the
idea of a horse as an example: 'hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus'.
From the propositions that x is a quadruped, x is hoofed, and so on, we
can deduce that x is a horse. But since goodness is a simple property,
there are no such propositions from which it can be deduced. A proposition
about the good can be known, consequently, only if it is self-evident.
But why was Moore so confident that goodness is not identical with any
of the properties with which other philosophers had sought to identify
it?... why such confidence that being good and, for instance being the
object of informed desire are two things rather than one?
Given Moore's methodological emphasis on questions, it is perhaps fitting
that his most powerful argument is known as the 'open question argument'.
No definition can settle a question of ethics since 'whatever definition
be offered, it may be always asked, with significance, of the complex
so defined, whether it is itself good' (PE, 15). So, suppose someone
suggests that goodness is identical to the property of being the object
of informed desire. That this proposed identification cannot be correct,
Moore argued, follows from the fact that the question, Is what we desire
when informed good?, does not lack significance, though it would have
to if 'good' and 'what we desire when informed' meant the same thing.
Consider: since the word 'bachelor' means never married male adult, there
is no significant question, Are never married male adults bachelors? But
this is not the case with 'good'. It follows, Moore thought, that the
fundamental concept of ethics, goodness, is indefinable.