(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A philosopher in the analytic tradition, G. E. Moore believed that clear questions solve philosophical problems. In Principia Ethica, he poses three questions:(1) What ought to exist for its own sake? (2) What actions should one perform? (3) What is the nature of the evidence to prove or disprove ethical propositions?

Moore believes that the answer to the first question is self-evident. To ascertain the answer to the second question, causal truths must be used as evidence. Moore’s goal is to establish a scientific (that is, a practical) ethics.

Moore asserts that “pleasure” is not definable in terms of “good.” This is the case because “good” is a primitive term. That is, it is indefinable. For example, “green” may be defined as a combination of “yellow” and “blue.” However, “yellow,” as the name of a primary color, has no definition other than itself. “Yellow” and “blue” are primitives.

Ordinary-language philosophy distinguishes good or value as a means from goods in themselves, or intrinsic values. Goods as means cause or produce intrinsic values. Intrinsic values, like primitives, are simply good by definition.

Moore asserts that any action must produce a predictable effect. Since the human mind can predict only tenuously, however, people must work with uncertainty under varying conditions. They would have to know all results of a given action in order to determine with certainty whether a decision is productive of more good than evil. Moreover, they would have to know all the outcomes of all possible alternative decisions. Such knowledge is impossible. Therefore, ethical reasoning necessarily proceeds with uncertainties: A certain ethical proposition is inherently false. By contrast, a statement referring to generally good effects, rather than making an absolute assertion of goodness, may be true for a limited time.

Statements about intrinsic goods are different since they do not rely on predictions. An intrinsic good, or a good in itself, exists regardless of the contingencies and uncertainties of the world around it. For Moore, then, ethical inquiry differentiates between goodness in itself and goodness as a result. To decide what to do in a given situation, a person relies on an analysis of both intrinsic good and resulting good. The best course of action is the one that will lead to the greatest sum of intrinsic value. One must weigh the intrinsic good of an action, the intrinsic good of its results, the intrinsic good of the results of those results, and the goods and evils involved in all possible alternative actions and their resulting causal chains.

The union of all parts of actions (their causes, conditions, and results) forms what Moore calls an “organic whole.” For example, Menenius Agrippa’s allegory of body parts that all complain about the lazy stomach at the center illustrates an organic whole. Parts of a picture have a similar relationship of reciprocity. The parts are of a whole and share its nature. Organic wholes may be understood as wholes that have intrinsic values greater than the sums of the values of their respective parts.

Moore discusses naturalistic ethics. Generally, ethics includes nature. Nature he defines as all phenomena that are taken by physics, biology, and psychology as their proper objects of study. Naturalism assigns to any given thing or event the quality of being either natural (normal) or unnatural (abnormal). As such, Moore believes, it offers no reasons for ethical principles. Instead, it deceives people with false ethical principles.

Since “good” is not definable and nature offers no guidelines, Moore insists, one must begin ethical inquiry with an open mind. Objects of nature may be good, but goodness is not a natural property. Feelings are natural, but goodness is not a feeling. Considering goodness as a feeling commits the naturalistic fallacy, which is an illogical crossover from nature into nonnature. This fallacy often involves confusing “is” and “ought.”

Living “naturally,” Moore asserts, renders ethics obsolete since all actions in the world are natural. For example, though health is good, disease, too, is natural. Evolution also cannot set a standard for how one ought to live. Evolution ethics, derived from Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, classifies “higher” and “lower” races or groups. If this reasoning were correct, the cockroach, which may survive humanity after a collapse of an ecosystem, would be a “higher” species than humanity. Whether a surviving species is “higher” or “lower” than another is an open question. For this reason, Darwin did not combine his theory with the questionable assumption of evolution as progress. Forces of nature cannot set standards for moral thinkers.

Moore evaluates the hedonistic view that “nothing is good but pleasure.” Hedonism is an all-or-nothing doctrine. It rejects the notion that pleasure is just one good of several. Hedonists think that things are good only if they lead to pleasure as an outcome. Moore rejects such valuation as a basis for ethics.

John Stuart Mill observed that the fact that people desire something is proof that that thing is desirable. However, the proposition that one ought to desire a thing because one does desire that thing is another example of the naturalistic fallacy. Moore...

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