Philosophical Ethics: On G.E. Moore’s Notion Of Good As An Indefinable Non-Natural Property

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester.  Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are).  I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions.  These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions.  Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university.  I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  The first topic I covered with either class (and which I wound up discussing with both classes) was G.E. Moore.

G.E. Moore is famous for advancing the idea that goodness is a “non-natural property,” which cannot be defined by reference to any natural properties but rather is an indefinable, simple intuition.  He compares the indefinable grasp of goodness to our indefinable perception of what we might today call a color’s “qualia.”   Qualia is the word for the way that a particular color appears to us in our minds (or the particular noise a sound wave causes us to experience when it interacts with our inner ears or the way a smell smells in our  noses, etc.).  Color qualia, for example, are distinct and distinguishable things from the processes of wave reflection which leads to our qualitative experience of them (as yellow or as red).  Similarly noises differ from the sound waves themselves which cause us to hear them.

Moore distinguishes the qualia of yellow as a simple property.  It is explained by an account of wave reflection and by our eyes processing the result of such wave reflection with their rods and cones in a particular way (the “yellow” way) but it is a distinguishable property from this process that generates the color in our minds when we experience it.  We were only able to figure out what wavelengths cause yellow qualia experiences we knew and recognized the property of yellow distinct from knowing and recognizing the process that would generate it.  Only independently experiencing the yellow qualia were we able to know what the property was and go on to compare it to the wave that corresponds to it in a laboratory and recognize that they match each other such that the wave causes the yellow qualia.

Scientists were able to ask themselves or test subjects, “what color is being experienced now?” and answer “yellow” while separately measuring the waves reflected from the “yellow” object in the field of vision.  And by being able to distinctly perceive both the yellow qualia and to separately measure the waves which led to its experience and then correlate the two factors to say that the waves caused the yellow required there be (at least) two distinguishable and thus relatable things in play—the yellow qualia and the light wave that would stimulate the yellow qualia upon interaction with the eyeball(s).

Moore thinks goodness is an analogously simple and irreducible property because the concept of the “good” does not simply reduce to any of the various things we generally call good or with which philosophers have repeatedly tried to identify it.  Good, as a concept is not just the concept of pleasantness, nor just the concept of that which we desire, nor that which is useful to us.  There are pleasant things we call good of course, but they need not be desired by us or useful to us in every case.  There are useful things that are neither pleasant nor desired psychologically and there are things we desire which may not be useful and/or pleasant.

The fact that we can ask of any particular thing that we find ourselves calling pleasant, useful, or desired the further question, “but is it good?” indicates to Moore that the concept of good cannot be strictly identical to any of these other things.   This is known as the “open-ended question” problem.  Just saying that something is pleasant does not conceptually rule out the intelligible question, “yes, but is it good?” the way that finding out someone is an unmarried man would rule out the question, “yes, but is he a bachelor?”

Moore also coins the term “naturalistic fallacy.”  Moore characterizes the naturalistic fallacy as any attempt to move from something’s simply being the case to its being good.  Something’s being pleasant alone cannot tell us about its being good.  Neither can its being desired or its being useful.  This is because, as others such as David Hume had already noted, there is nothing about a fact statement that inherently entails an obligation.  Just because something is the case does not by that fact indicate to us that it ought to be the case.  This distinction between what is and what ought to be and the charge that we can never infer what ought to be from an investigation of what happens to be is another version of the naturalistic fallacy charge.

Moore’s thoughts on good as an indefinable, non-natural property leave us with some serious puzzles to solve and challenges to offer in reply.

First there is the question whether good might still be definable in terms of something other than merely pleasantness, desiredness, usefulness, etc. which encompasses each of them.  One alternative would be that the word good simply means some variation of “something I like” or “something my community likes.”  Good could mean “something I/we like” since what is pleasant is something I/we like (at least insofar as it is pleasantness and by definition we like pleasant things).  Also what is useful is “something I/we like” (insofar as it is useful for us and it seems intuitive that we must like that which is useful for attaining what we desires at least so far as it helps us get what we desire, even if we do not like it unqualifiedly).  And of course what is desired is something we like—at least insofar as we desire it since if we did not like it enough to desire it (at least in some respect), it would seem impossible for any desire for it to form.

Of course, this solution to Moore’s problem of the open question—that it can be solved by equating “good” neither with pleasure, utility, or desiredness but instead with being liked—was explored by the emotivists and has its own problems which I’ll explore in the next post.

The core problem Moore’s intuitionism leaves us with is that while goodness is experienced only in conjunction with pleasure, utility, desiredness, etc., it can only be intuited as present in some non-natural way.  One must just be able to see the goodness in a way that admits of no objective demonstration to others who disagree with you.  We can (and frequently do) wind up in disagreements wherein both of us say that we can just see the goodness or can just see the badness in the opposite things.  In such a case, if good is not further definable or demonstrable, rational argument grinds to a halt on a contest of dueling intuitions.  That does not mean necessarily that neither of us is intuiting correctly in fact nor that neither of us is intuiting incorrectly, but it means that there can be no basis for adjudicating disputes rationally and in a way that could compel one of us to abandon our initial intuition.  And because of this problem as well, the emotivists saw even more reason to infer that our dueling “intuitions of goodness” were really expressive only of our contrasting affective states.  You liked x but not y and I liked y but not x and that alone is sufficient for explaining why you say x is good and why is bad while I insist that y is good and x is bad.

This is not a problem in the case of knowledge of qualia, his analogous example of a simple property.  If you and I have a dispute about whether something is red or green because one of us is color blind, we can measure the wavelength in question with a spectrometer and discover which one of us is having the inadequately discriminating qualia experience.  If it turns out that the color really is red and you could not distinguish it from green, while I could you could be correct in saying you had a “green” qualia experience but wrong in saying that you grasped what kind of wavelength you were judging.  You are only right about your internal states when you say that you are experiencing green, but not correct in saying that the object is green.  This is true even though “green” does not inhere in the object but is only created by our eyes and our minds when processing the “green” lightwave as green.

So even though there is no color inhering in the object itself emitting the wave with a frequency that most human eyes discriminate as “green” counts for it “being green” and emitting the wave with a frequency that most human eyes discriminate as “red” counts for it “being red.”  But, you may, ask, why should “most humans” be the standard of truth?  In this case it’s because most human eyes when seeing red and green are matching those two colors to two different wave frequencies.  An eye that sees green when exposed to waves of both those frequencies is less discriminating of waves and so in that way an inferior eye for discriminating different pieces of information within the world.

The question becomes whether we can do anything similar with the property of “goodness.”  Even if we grant Moore that “good” is a distinct property from the things which create it, is there a way to assess the combinations of features in the world to determine how they should make us intuit the presence of “goodness” and how they should not?  If we could find such a “spectrometer,” a set of features that made for goodness, then “goodness” could be something both intuited distinct from the other factors in which it in some sense “inheres” and yet our intuitions could still be investigable from a third person standpoint.  We would be able to assess our intuitions of good without simply appealing to them themselves.

What do you think?  Is Moore right that goodness is an indefinable, simple, non-natural property which is distinguishable from all natural properties upon which it merely “supervenes”?  Do you agree it is some of those claims but not all of them?  And if you disagree with some, why do you disagree?  Why do you agree with the ones you agree with?  Do you think that the emotivists are correct and that “good” means something akin to “liked”?  Or might you be able to offer a different feature that all “good” things share in common such that we call them each alike “good?”  Do you think alternatively that intuitions of “good” might not be identical to any natural property but nonetheless rightly generated by certain combinations of natural things in the world?  Like the way the yellow qualia is not identical to the wave reflection processes that generate it, might good be distinct from processes which create the intuition of it?  What might such processes be?

Do you think that the problem of naturalistic fallacy in deriving “ought statements” based on natural facts is insuperable?  Can we ever infer from a set of facts anything about how things ought to be or must we inevitably impose ought statements from outside of descriptions of natural arrangements in some way?  Do you think the fact that we frequently have disagreements about goodness indicates that there is no common intuition of it comparable to our common intuitions of colors or do you think that something like our effective ability to use the word good in communities and to translate it across cultures may be proof for its being a common intuition despite apparent disagreements of application?  Do you have any other challenges, defenses, or developments of Moore’s ideas here presented or as you find them in your own reading of his work that I have not suggested yet?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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