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G.E Moore's Non Naturalism (Open Question Argument & Intuitionism: Metaethics)

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I begin, then, as Moore began, with the question 'What is good? In fact it is Moore's claim that until we come to grips with what the word 'good' means that is, what value is we cannot move forward at all in the solution of the traditional problems of ethics. The inquiry into the meaning of, or the definition of, 'good' belongs only to ethics and to no other field of investigation.

What I want to discover is the nature of that object or idea. The Definition of 'Good' Good is good. As is well known, that is Moore's answer to the question, "What is good? It is a simple notion, a simple object of thought. It is a 'non-natural' object, in Moore's characterization; a claim that concerns us at length in a later chapter, but must remain unexplained in detail here.

But it can be said that 'good' is not the name of a natural object. Nor is it a complex of other notions; it is incapable of division or of definition. Since it has no conceptual parts, it cannot be analyzed into parts. A complex idea, such as is denoted by the word 'horse,' for example, can be defined, Moore tells us, because it "has different properties and qualities, all of which can be enumerated. Good is like yellow, however, not complex. Good is in the existing universe, independent of any or all observation. One judges that a thing is good, because the thing has good as one of its objective properties.

We are directly acquainted with things that are good. It is a fact that things are good. Where can good be found in the world? In things that are good. What is the property good that allegedly is in the thing?

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It, the property itself, cannot be defined, as has been shown. Good, the property, is a basic ontological entity. One further issue needs clarification before moving on. To judge that something is good in the world is not to judge that some action is called for. To say "This is good" is not to say "I ought to do thus and so. Moreover, as we shall see in this chapter, that something is beautiful is due to the fact that the thing in question possesses good as a property. This is yet a third matter. Finally, if the good were never exemplified in the world, if there were no simple, non-natural object that can be called good and that qualifies things and events, Moore holds that no judgments of value, moral or aesthetic, could ever be ontologically grounded.

One Consequence of Good's Exemplification in the World Moore holds that the question of good's existence in the actual world of things and events is an objective matter.

As has already been indicated, Moore's view maintains that good is actually present in the world quite independently of any awareness of it; that is, good is independently real. Moore argues that 1 good is a concept, an object of thought. However, as a concept it is not to be identified with any individual's idea; rather, good is real and has being, as an abstract entity, qua concept.

Moreover, 2 some things in the existing world are good; that is, they exemplify the intrinsic quality of being good quite independently of any cognition of those things. In order for practical ethical judgments-that is, judgments that an action is right or one's duty-to be made in human experience, there must be some act or acts of awareness 'in commerce with' exemplified value in things or events.

Precisely what the phrase 'in commerce with' is to indicate is clarified below. Its full meaning is developed in several ways in various of Moore's ethical writings from Principia Ethica on. At this moment let 'in commerce with' imply that some person is either a presently aware of a thing, things, or events that has or have value, or b was at some previous time aware of a thing, or things, or events, which had value; or c both. By "has value" I mean, of course, has or exemplifies the non-natural property named by the term 'good. The Notions of Practical Ethics and Aesthetics Before moving ahead with the exposition of the centrality of the notion of good, I want to remind the reader of a terminological observation mentioned, but not discussed, in Section 1.

Moore uses the term 'ethics' in Principia Ethica generically. He says that ethics includes inquiries into the three major questions historically garbled by confusion. In this study I refer to the general question 'What ought we to do? Moore often does so as well; but I'm afraid not always. The Ethics is an extended discussion of the problems involved in practical ethics. If I diverge from this usage, I clearly indicate that I am doing so. Moore has not considered the question of aesthetics extensively in his publications. Whenever he has, it has not been for the sake Copyrighted Material 8!

Good of the discipline itself. He offers a definition of the concept of beauty in Principia that is interesting, puzzling, and illuminating, and this is examined in Section 10 of the present chapter. I study the definition of the concept of beauty simply in order to point up the centrality of good, for Moore, even in aesthetics. Good, in Moore's view, is the non-natural and unique concept that makes possible the predication of value. Good becomes exemplified in the world, and, as has been said, qualifies things, actions, and events. Things that are good are things that have intrinsic value, for the terms 'intrinsic good' and 'intrinsic value' are names that refer to the conceptual entity called good.

The vocabulary of Moore's usage may become awkward. Moore is led into some regrettable oddities and confusions that might have been avoided with some clarification. Considered by itself, good is a simple concept or, as we have said, 'object of thought. When he uses the term 'good' as the name of the concept, property, or object good, Moore uses the word 'good' as a noun.

But it is also Moore's habit to use the word 'good' adjectivally as wei!. The adjectival use, of course, typically occurs in predication. But even when he is using the word 'good' as an adjective it is clear that the word being used to predicate value refers to the simple concept good. Thus the sentences 'Some pleasures are intrinsically good' and 'Good is a simple concept' exhibit correct usage of the word 'good,' according to Moore; first as an adjective, then as a noun.

Merely knowing that it should exist, or ought to be, does not place an obligation on anyone. The terms of practical ethical importance are defined, not merely by taking cognizance of 'good' as 'ought-to-be,' but with other considerations as well. Chapters 7 and 8 are concerned with 'ought-to-be' and 'ought-to-do' in more detail. We should be clear about the context in which the adjectival use of the term 'good' can be used as equivalent in meaning to the phrase 'intrinsic value,' such that calling something intrinsically valuable may be understood to mean that it would be a good thing if it existed quite alone.

The context is ontological, not primarily epistemological, nor is it primarily a practical question of moral behavior. If a thing is good, has intrinsic value, and ought to be, it simply is good. The thing's mode of being, in Moore's terms, is that 'it would be a good thing if it existed quite alone. Practical Ethical Predicates Defined Practical ethics, for Moore, is not primarily concerned with the question 'What ought to be?

Practical ethics inquires into 'What ought we to do? This point emerges as very important in practical ethics. In Ethics the definition of 'right' is reaffirmed, but Moore articulates his view more carefully. He stipulates that there is a characteristic that belongs to every action that is right, but not to any action that is wrong. This characteristic is the amount of value found in the total actual consequences of an action that is right. The total actual consequences must have as much value as the total actual consequences of any possible alternative action s open to the agent that could have been chosen by him.

Although the investigation of this formulation must be postponed until later, what I want to emphasize here is that there is a fixed relationship between right and good. An action is said by Moore to be objectively right if its total actual consequences bring as much good or intrinsic value into existence as any other action the moral agent could have chosen instead. One other important practical ethical predicate is defined in similar fashion. Moore says: "to assert that a certain line of conduct is, at a given time, absolutely right or obligatory, is obviously to assert that more good or less evil will exist in the world, if it be adopted, than if anything else be done instead.

The goal of practical ethics is to bring into existence as much value as the agent is capable of through the choices of actions that are open to the agent. Moore's practical ethical theory assumes the existence of a moral agent who has the power to exert a causal influence on the course of events in the world.

The moral agent can become aware of value. The agent can become aware of the causal laws of the world; can understand that some actions may exclude good from existence. Finally, the moral agent will become aware that he is obliged to choose actions that will bring more good into existence than other possible actions. As Moore fully understood, this theory of practical ethics is a version of utilitarianism in which the moral value or rightness of actions is determined by their consequences. Duty: Ideal and Practical Moore's version of utilitarianism has an unexpected consequence that must be acknowledged at the outset.

Moore holds that our duty is to strive for an ideal that we may, he admits, never know we have realized. Let me repeat, Moore acknowledges that we may never know when, or if, we have actually done our duty. In any given choice context we may fail to have all the information required to determine the appropriate action. Moreover, we can never know for certain what the actual consequences of our action will be. No one can predict the future with certainty, either in science or in practical ethics. Often we may never actually know how much intrinsic value came about because of an action we performed.

And, finally, there can be no way of precisely determining the consequences of actions we have rejected.

Essays in Retrospect, 1st Edition

Nonetheless, according to Moore in both Principia Ethica and Ethics, our obligation is to do our duty. It should be noted that Moore allows for some actions we are permitted to do that are not strictly speaking our duty. In any given circumstance it may be that two or three quite different actions will cause an equal amount of good to exist. It is morally permissible to choose anyone of the them, provided that the good brought into existence by means of the chosen action is the most good possible-in other words, provided that there is not a further action open to the agent, one that he sees as possible, that is in his power to actualize, and that brings more good into the world than the other actions.

I discuss the issues involved in our ignorance of actual consequences more fully in Chapters V and VIII, but here we should recognize that the fact that we cannot be certain of future events, and can never be certain our actions will have the consequences we believe they will, is a matter for theoretical as well as practical concern. Moore has some suggestions for dealing with the practical problem, but I leave the discussion of the issue aside for now Copyrighted Material 12 I Good by saying that as moral agents we can be sure of the criterion for right actions, for duty and obligation.

We can make our moral choices with that criterion before our minds; even if we cannot be sure we have succeeded, we know what it means to fail-to do wrong, to fail our duty and our obligations. We can have a moral ideal before our minds as a guide for our practical efforts, even though we cannot know of the moral success of those efforts in advance. The Notion of 'Intrinsically Better' Insofar as actual choices are concerned, moral agents find themselves in real situations in which they must choose one course of action among several possibilities.

In such situations moral agents must find one course of action that promises, or at least seems to promise, consequences that are intrinsically better than those of any other action. In Ethics Moore indicates what the notion of 'intrinsically better' means. It refers to a characteristic that reflects a fixed relation either to good, or to evil. According to Moore, the notion of 'intrinsically better' can be developed in terms of pleasure and pain, and he does so in the initial chapters of Ethics.

Consider two possible actions, A and B; and further suppose they are the only options open: A may bring about good, and B may bring about good. But if A brings about more good than B, then A is the better act, and it is our duty to do A. A may bring about good, and B may bring about no good at all.

In this case A is better than B, and it is our duty to do A. A may bring about good, and B may bring about badness or evil. Then A is better than B, and it is our duty to do A. Then A is better than B, and it is our duty to do I. Thus given a situation where five different actions are posed for a moral agent-A, B, C, D, E-Iet us grant that A would bring about great good, B would bring about some good, C would bring about a predominance of neither good nor evil, D would bring about some evil, and E would bring about a great amount of evil.

A value hierarchy is thus defined in which the notion 'intrinsically better' implies the relational notion of 'better than. So if the moral agent chose B, knowing that A is better than B, his choice would be morally wrong. If a moral agent thought of A, B, and C, but did not have the power to do A or B, then C would be the morally required action. It seems that Moore would say that even if, owing to an agent's lack of information, a certain better action was not done, the action would nevertheless be a duty or obligation although the agent would be held blameless.

I I Rightness: Not an Irreducible Property It should be evident from what has been said in the last two sections that practical ethical predicates do not refer to indefinable properties of things, or of events, or of actions. Nor does 'obligation' refer to a unique object of thought that has no parts and is unanalyzable. The questions of practical choice involve the assessment of consequences which are likely to follow as a result of the choice. Anticipating the consequences of an action requires some degree of sophistication concerning the way the world works.

One must have some idea about what sorts of actions cause what sorts of things to happen. Moore also holds that practical ethics involves an ability to judge the comparative value of outcomes. For example, suppose one is aware that a child will be swept over a waterfall while floating down a river on an innertube, and that such an eventuality is bad; and one is also aware that the child could be pulled to the shore before she reaches the edge of the falls, and that the result of carrying out such a rescue would be good; and that the latter is better than the former.

In such a case it would be right for such a moral agent to perform an action to bring the child to shore. As the example shows, some knowledge of the materially causal factors in any morally problematic situation is just as much needed as strictly moral knowledge. The information involved in a judgment of rightness or obligation must include such causal factors as may either be present in the practical situation, or be anticipated in calculating consequences. It is very possible that some critics have been misled into thinking that 'duty' and 'obligation' are to be determined solely by 'intuition' or 'self-evidence' by one of Moore's remarks in Ethics.

Moore, as we have seen, defines 'duty' and 'obligation' in the Ethics as that which will produce the best effects on the whole, or will produce the total consequences of the most intrinsic value. These definitions are the same as in Principia Ethica. In the book, however, Moore tells us how he knows that duty is to be so defined: "It seems to me quite self-evident that it must always be our duty to do what will produce the best effects upon the whole, no matter how bad the effects upon ourselves may be and no matter how much good we ourselves lose by it.

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But for the moment the reader is alerted to the fact that Moore does not hold the view that obligation or duty or rightness is an indefinable, simple, or irreducible quality or property of actions. What is indefinable, simple, and irreducible is the intuitive object of thought, the entity that Moore calls 'good' and that is an indispensable constituent of the notion of obligation or duty. Practical Ethical Disagreements Practical ethical disagreements, moral disagreements, are not captured by the simple form 'N ought to be' as opposed to 'No, M ought to be.

If N is done, what consequences may be expected? As we have seen, Moore stresses the causal question. He also emphasizes, as we know, that the consequences chosen by an agent must be morally justified. Moore provides the justifying criterion-that the best possible consequences must follow from the action-and it is clear that this criterion determines which of any possible alternatives ought to be chosen. Moore's point is just that the criterion that determines duty is not an intuited property that one alternative has and the others lack.

Good, indeed, may be expected to follow from all the alternatives facing a moral agent, and so it cannot by itself be the criterion for choosing among them. As we have seen, Moore's practical ethical doctrine allows for disagreement and argument. But the question remains as to what kinds of disagreements count as moral and are legitimately the subject of moral debate and argument.

I shall suggest only some of them. Let us suppose that two disputants, Smith and Jones, are in disagreement over which action, M or N, ought to be done in a given situation; call it situation Z. First: Both must be clear that they have situation Z under analysis. It is a common error for disputants to be unclear as to what the situation actually is that is evoking disagreement. Smith may have Z in mind while Jones, saying he is judging Z, is actually noticing Zl. Supposing, however, that both have Z as the object of their judgments, the scope for error is still very considerable. Smith and Jones may agree, for instance, that consequence 0 represents the best possible outcome.

However: a Smith believes act N will produce consequence 0, while Jones believes act M will produce O. Several errors in this case can be seen to be possible: i Smith may be wrong about N's actual consequence, and Jones may be correct about M's. Act L brings about consequence 0; act M and act N are both mistaken. Consequence U is the best. They may both be correct, act M produces 0 and act N produces O. The error comes in each thinking the other action wrong. Each is in error in thinking the other to be mistaken.

But they are also both mistaken when they think that 0 is the best possible consequence and that act M and act N produce O. Consequence U is the best possible and both M and N produce U. The set of possible errors becomes more complex when: b Smith believes act N will produce consequence 0 and Jones believes act M will produce consequence U. In this disagreement context Smith holds consequence 0 to be the best possible while Jones opts for consequence U as the best possible. The laundry list of possible errors cited above can be worked out for such a disagreement context.

The point is just that Moore's theory requires a very careful assessment of possible actions for their causal, hence moral, suitability. It suggests further than an intellectually and therefore morally honest person must be careful to make the series of distinctions necessary to be clear as to precisely what he is to judge, and in what moral context. There is no scope in this doctrine for any kind of moral absolutism that may be present in some traditional kinds of intuitionism.

Insofar as Moore can be called an intuitionist at all, it is clear that the label is not applicable to such matters as his treatment of moral obligation, the morally right and dutiful actions we must perform in our capacity as moral agents in the world. I have an occasion to underscore this point in the last section of the present chapter. The Aesthetic Predicate: Beauty In the last chapter of Principia Ethica Moore gives us his account of the aesthetic predicate 'beautiful.

The situation is an 'organic whole,' or an 'organic unity,' to use Moore's terminology. It is the unity, the whole, that is 'an intrinsically valuable whole,' and the question "whether it is truly beautiful or not," Moore tells us, "depends upon the objective question whether the whole in question is or is not truly good. Moore calls the experience, as already indicated, an organic whole. When the whole is intrinsically good, beauty is realized. Let's consider 2 first, the intrinsically good qualities. In the eyes of some critics Moore appears to involve himself in a circular argument by defining these qualities in terms of beauty.

To obviate such a reading I quote from Principia Ethica and give what I hope is a clear and coherent interpretation of Moore's thought: When, therefore, I speak of the cognition of a beautiful object, as an essential element in a valuable aesthetic appreciation, I must be understood to mean only the cognition of the beautiful qualities possessed by the object, and not the cognition of the other qualities of the object possessing them.

II Moore also says, in another way of stating what he takes to be the same point, "when it is said that the picture is beautiful, it is meant that it contains qualities which are beautiful. Can it be legitimate to define 'beautiful' in terms of beautiful qualities? The problem of circularity appears to haunt Moore's remarks.

But I suggest that when we put Moore's view more carefully, the appearance of circularity is not sustained. What is cognized when one notices that a painting or any object is beautiful? Moore claims it is good, or value, that is judged to be present in the object. Certain qualities of the painting exemplify value, and it is these qualities that are grasped as beautiful. The qualities in question are certain natural properties of the painting and provide natural grounds into which good ingresses. The process of ingression is explained more fully in Chapter VI, but let me say here that Moore's claim is that on the occasion of a person's noticing a painting that has been crafted so that the natural properties are receptive to value, good becomes exemplified.

The viewer grasps the value exemplified. That occasion, plus certain other conditions upon which I remark presently , is one in which beauty may be experienced. The first analytical step has been fulfilled when the viewer has completed a cognitive act-the grasping of value in the object.

The experience involves, then, both a cognitive act and an emotional response to an object's qualities. Thus it is natural for Moore to refer to the qualities that call for such a response as 'beautiful qualities. As remarked above, cognition of the qualities that exemplify value in an object is not a sufficient ground for saying that beauty has been experienced, although it is, of course a necessary one.

Moore argues that there must also be feeling. The feeling must be an emotional response appropriate to the qualities that exemplify good. When the appropriate emotion is present, the whole becomes intrinsically good, and beauty may then be correctly predicated of the whole. Here is how Moore puts it: It is not sufficient that a man should merely see the beautiful qualities in a picture and know that they are beautiful, in order that we may give his state of mind the highest praise. We require that he should also appreciate the beauty of that which he knows to be beautiful-that he should feel and see its beauty.

And by this we certainly mean that he should have an appropriate emotion towards the beautiful qualities he cognizes. Despite what I have said by way of interpretation through restatement of his position, Moore may seem to have referred to seeing and feeling beautiful qualities as if beauty was there, itself, qua beauty, in the thing. The text reads as quoted, and I appreciate whatever uneasiness remains.

Moore does nonetheless explicitly say that beauty is a defined notion, and is defined in terms of the simple undefined and unanalyzable substantive concept named "good. But if our definition is correct, the strangeness disappears; since it leaves only one unanalyzable predicate of value, namely 'good,' while 'beautiful,' though not identical with, is to be defined by reference to this, being at the same time, different from and necessarily connected with it. Beauty and Good: Further Remarks As I read Moore, in a genuine aesthetic experience it is not enough just to see and recognize the value that is in the object in order for the predicate 'beautiful' to be correctly ascribed.

There must be, as we have seen, an appropriate emotional response to the value exemplified as well. There must be 4 a subject who 3 has an appropriate emotional response toward 2 the intrinsically good qualities, which the person cognizes in I the object. When these four conditions are met, the organic unity of the experience itself, the whole thus indicated, is intrinsically valuable.

It intrinsic value is located in 2 , which is part of I the intrinsically good qualities of the object. Beauty, unlike good itself, is not independent of either the object or the experience of the object, but is in the whole situation, the organic unity of which is achieved when the four conditions are met. Beauty is not, like good, an irreducible entity.

Moore does not further examine the notion of appropriate emotion, but not because he overlooks the question. He thinks it is incapable of further explanatory analysis. He observes that different types of emotional responses seem appropriate in accordance with differences in the types of objects experienced. There seems to be wisdom in his observation. A response to the ballet Swan Lake, or a series of responses to that complicated object, seems to differ from a response to the Guernica as a painting, as would be expected from a difference in an experience in a dance studio and an experience in an art gallery.

A response to a musical experience seems different in kind from that of an experience in the visual arts. Perhaps the issue should not be left with these minimal remarks, but I am not going to investigate it for its own sake here. Errors in Aesthetic Predication Moore's analysis of beauty is consistent with discussion, criticism, and argument in relation to matters of aesthetic judgment. An aesthetic controversy is not to be understood as settled by 'agreeing to disagree,' as the popular cliche about matters of 'taste' would have us believe.

Just as there are mistakes in practical moral judgment, so there may be mistakes in aesthetic judgment; in neither realm does the presence of an intuitive factor in the. Moore does not hold a doctrine of the incorrigible aesthetic perception, just as he does not hold a doctrine of the incorrigible perception of value in practical moral decisions. In fact Moore outlines two types of errors that can be committed in aesthetic contexts roughly parallel to similar types of mistakes that occur in making moral choices.

I One might notice an object and be mistaken about the properties of the object. One might suppose that certain properties were part of the object that were not in fact actually present. Thinking that the absent properties were there, one might have an emotive response that would have been entirely appropriate if the imagined properties had been present. Moore calls an error of this sort an error of judgment.

The fact that Moore cites errors of judgment as important errors, which can occur, indicates why Moore was insistent upon referring to the beautiful qualities of the object and not to the beauty of the object as such. Still one might have an emotional response that is inappropriate. Moore refers to an error of this type as an "error of taste. I should suppose that aesthetic criticism would generally consist in discussion and debate over the context in which errors of judgment are made or are likely to be made.

But, and I emphasize the fact once again, Moore does not, with any frequency or consistency, pursue questions of aesthetics in his subsequent work. In the one instance that he does so, several years after both Principia and the Ethics were written, a view is expressed that clashes with the one we have just been explicating. I turn to that view in the next section. An Alternative Analysis of Moore's 'Beautiful' Moore does not follow up the discussion of the two orders of error, as outlined above, in further elaboration, nor does he turn to aesthetic theory for its own sake.

The remarks on beauty in Principia Ethica must therefore be interpreted almost entirely as adjuncts to the general theory of value articulated there. That this is not always accepted by Moore's critics is, however, worth noticing. In Moore's essay, "The Conception of Intrinsic Value," Moore speaks of beauty as if it were a type of intrinsic value on its own.

Because of the remarks I quoted at the end of Section 10, in which it is stated that analysis "leaves only one unanalyzable predicate of value, namely 'good,' while 'beautiful,' though not identical with, is to be defined by reference to this, being at the same time, different from and necessarily connected with it," 15 and because of my analysis of Moore's views, I take it that Moore's notion of beauty is in fact different from the Principia view.

But there is a critical interpretation of Principia Ethica's concept of beauty that differs from the one I have suggested, and I want to air it here. Austin Duncan-Jones suggests that Moore thinks the Principia Ethica thesis calls for the existence of a great number of "pulchrific qualities. Each of the pulchrific qualities "is such that the appropriate kind of admiring contemplation of it would be intrinsically good. Moreover, if there were such particulars, the distinction between natural and non-natural properties of things would collapse.

For, as we shall presently see, good as a quality is not a simple particular that is constitutive of a thing, as natural properties are. Duncan-Jones's analysis requires beauty to be located in discrete value particles, qualities that are unanalyzable on their own account. Moore, however, holds that there is only one unanalyzable predicate of value: good itself. It may well be that Austin Duncan-Jones was trying to square the Principia view of the beautiful with Moore's statements in "The Conception of Intrinsic Value," where beauty is said to be a kind of intrinsic value.

But the two views collide. Of course the Principia analysis must be made consistent with itself, as shown in Section 10 above, but there is no further requirement that it be made consistent with the essay that Duncan-Jones cites. And it seems clear that the Principia analysis is the one we should be exhibiting here, and that it must be understood in its own terms and not those of the later essay. Even so, we are not yet finished with the matter. Organic Unities and Beauty Each and every object that is good in the world of human experience, Moore tells us, is an organic unity constituted by diverse natural elements.

If such an object, as an organic whole, is so constituted that good may become exemplified in the whole, then good necessarily will exist in that object. Epistemically, we can have no a priori insight into precisely the grounds for any instance of value entry into the world. But if a certain object is intrinsically good, then, in Moore's ontology, anything just like it will also be intrinsically good.

It is mentioned here in application to aesthetic theory, however. Beautiful objects are like any other existing object in that they are conceived by Moore as organic unities. They are wholes, he tells us, consisting of many parts. Any particular part may have no value at all. Some parts may have minimal value.

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In fact, an object of great value may have diverse parts, each of which may have little or no value in itself. Reprinted in Ambrose and Lazerowitz eds.


Coliva, Annalisa. Moore, Wright, and Pryor. In Wittgenstein Today. Coliva and E. Picardi eds. Padova: Il Poligrafo. Palgrave Macmillan.

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