Principia Ethica

by G. E. Moore

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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...

(This entire section contains 2217 words.)

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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 allows that the proposition “pleasure alone is good as an end” may still be intuitively true, if and only if intuitions are consistent. When Mill distinguishes between “qualities of pleasures,” however, he must admit that intuitions are not universal. Therefore, pleasure—which relies on intuitions—cannot be the only good since pleasures vary in terms of their goodness.

Moore also rejects egoism. Egoism is a way of asserting the importance of one’s own happiness. Its secondary effect is to create a generally happy society as all pursue this good. In ordinary parlance, egoists serve their own interests or their own good. Egoism holds that each person’s happiness is the sole good. Each person values different good things, however, so the highest good consists of many different goods. A universal good cannot be both universal and relative simultaneously. Adding “for him” or “for her” to account for differences in taste or desire produces confusions in ethical theory. In other words, a consistent theory cannot simultaneously value a single person’s happiness as sole good and value the aggregate of all persons’ happiness as the sole good, because “sole good” in each case refers to a different entity, a different good.

Moore reviews the theories of the Greek Stoic philosophers, as well as those of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Hegel’s followers. He labels them all as metaphysical ethicists. Metaphysicians make claims of knowledge about objects that are suprasensible. Metaphysical ethicists consider nature as perfect moral entity (Stoics), or as absolute substance in harmony with the intellectual love of God (Spinoza), or as the realm of law as such (Kant), or as the material substance of reality, which is coming through human history to develop and know itself (Hegel). These systems all commit the naturalistic fallacy since they all advocate the “good” as an attribute of a super-reality beyond that which is empirically knowable. If the Christian heaven and hell, for example, have greater reality than the here and now, then ethics from the Christian perspective is meaningless and pointless because ethics can only affect temporal reality. If some good exists in temporal reality, then eternal reality cannot be the sole good.

Next, Moore discusses what one should do. People need reasons for their ethical decisions, so they need a very clear meaning of “good.” Causal knowledge is also necessary for ethical judgments; such knowledge must include all possible alternatives and all conceivable effects. Such certainty is practically impossible, so certainty in ethical decisions is impossible. Likely alternatives and likely results, thus, must suffice. “Likely alternatives” are those that occur to a person. Another alternative may be best, but it may not occur to the person and thus cannot be considered.

Some rules for Moore do approach certainty, such as a rule against murder if one values life, a rule against theft if one values property, a rule in support of industry if one values the acquisition of property, a rule in support of temperance if one values health sufficient for the acquisition of property, or a rule in support of promise-keeping if one values exchanges in the acquisition of property. Thus, preserving life and acquiring property are universals of ethics. Chastity, on the other hand, is not a universal since a society without conjugal jealousy or paternal affection is conceivable. Of all duties, crimes, and sins, an individual must be able to perform or avoid them, because choice is an inherent feature of ethics. Moreover, performing or avoiding moral actions must generally produce better or worse results, respectively, and those results must be so predictable as to appear universal.

Since reliable prognostication is impossible, a binding analysis of exceptions to rules is also impossible. Such exceptions may be known, but not their conditions. Breaking a rule may encourage others to break the rule also if they see a spurious analogy without comparable moral clarity. Thus, Moore asserts, one should adhere to custom even where custom is bad, although an individual’s understanding may become great enough to justify breaking rules. If that action inspires others and if the rule broken is truly bad, then the overall effect will be a good one. An individual’s own analysis of probable outcomes should generally take precedence over any rules, but only when the individual accepts that by breaking rules he or she risks sanctions.

Moore lists the following moral rules:

@LIST = (1) A lesser good is proper for an individual if she cannot see the greater one.

@LIST = (2) A good closer to self and loved ones is of greater importance.

@LIST = (3) Temporally near goods are generally better than distant ones.

@LIST = (4) Duty is that which produces the best possible outcome.

@LIST = (5) Everything must be either part of the universal good or else not good at all; no third alternative (“good for me”) exists.

Moore agrees with Aristotle’s “habitual disposition” as a definition of “virtue.” However, to consider a virtue to be an intrinsic good, one should have to demonstrate its good results. Therefore, virtues are not intrinsic goods. Christians, for example, will see virtue as a sole good and see it rewarded by heaven. Thus, heaven is a greater good, containing happiness. Happiness is a good yet greater than heaven alone. All these goods claim a logically impossible sole-good status. Acting habitually does not constitute virtue.

The ideal is the best state conceivable. Heaven and utopias, for example, would be such states. To attain a heavenly or utopian ideal, Moore believes, one must compare goods to arrive at the best possible combination in an organic whole. Two construction errors are likely in making this determination: First, one may isolate goods that serve as means and stock the ideal setting with such goods. This would render the ideal worthless, since it would lack intrinsic value. Second, one may neglect the principle of organic unity by rejecting a part that seems to have no intrinsic value. Doing so would destroy the organic whole.

Knowledge of the highest good adds value, although knowledge itself is value neutral. Theoretically, God’s perfection outdoes that of any human, but the love of God is inferior to human love if God does not exist. With relationships among people, mental beauty adds to the appreciation. Purely material existence does not have as great a value as do mental events. Both together offer an organic whole; neither is irrelevant.

Evil is similar. The addition of true belief to a positive evil constitutes a worse evil than a purely imagined evil. A “mixed” evil might be an imagined evil that is contemplated. Thus, a tragedy (an imagined evil that is contemplated) can be productive of an overall good. However, delighting in evil by taking pleasure from the pain of others enhances its vileness. Meanwhile, a true belief in the existence of a good or beautiful object or person that one hates will enhance through one’s hatred the badness of this organic whole. An erroneous judgment, by contrast, may lessen the badness of the organic whole.

Pain appears to be a far greater evil than pleasure is a good. If pleasure enhances an evil state—if a criminal contemplates with joy the pain of victims, for example—the resultant organic whole is worse than it would be without this pleasure. If pain enhances an evil state—if the criminal feels the pain of remorse or receives punishment—the resultant organic whole may be improved by that pain. Retributive punishments consist of wickedness (the criminal act) and pain (the penalty). Targeting existing evil adds greater value to the world. Punishing existing evil meliorates it.

Moore is aware that his remarks in his final chapter on the ideal are inconclusive and affected by his feelings. If pain, evil, pleasure, and good were all of equal status, calculations such as Jeremy Bentham’s hedonic calculus would make ethical analysis much easier. The simple scale of dolors and hedons used by Bentham is turned by Moore into an analytic enterprise of great complexity, as far beyond Bentham’s work as a modern passenger jet is beyond the initial flier invented by the Wright Brothers. Moore is to be lauded for the great precision of his analytic approach.