26 March 2011

Some Reactions to Moore as Ethicist

I quoted last week a crucial, perhaps the crucial, passage from G.E. Moore's book Principia Ethica.

This gist of it is that goods come in two sorts: instrumental and inherent. We pursue instrumental goods so that we may secure and increase the inherent goods.

Furthermore, inherent good consists chiefly of a consciousness enjoying something outside of itself: personal relationships or beautiful objects.

Each of these is a compound whole: that they are consciousness-enjoying-X or consciousness-enjoying-Y already makes them so, and X and Y are each compounds as well. What do we mean by attributing inherent good to either of these compounds? We mean that each possesses the non-natural property that we call goodness, and that is not subject to further analyses. Goodness is in that sense a simple property, though it simply adheres in a compound, or an "organic unity" as Moore sometimes put it.

At any rate, Moore ends up with a moral objectivism. In calling something good we assign an objective character to it, and we are at least sometimes right about this.

This has all been subjected to a good deal of criticism over the intervening century plus. I'll provide a pertinent link here.

His friend Bertrand Russell agreed with Moore about much of this, at least for a time. Indeed, in the essay "The Elements of Ethics," published seven years later (1910), Russell wrote: "Good and bad are qualities which belong to objects independently of our opinions, just as much as round and square do; and when two people differ as to whether a thing is good, only one of them can be right, though it may be very hard to know which is right."

George Santayana criticized Russell in Santayana's Winds of Doctrine (1913). Although it was directed at Russell by name, the criticism was clearly aimed at aspects of Russell's views that came from Moore. Santayana, who describes his own views as ethical skepticism, complains that "we are asked to believe" by Moore and Russell, "that good attaches to things for no reason or cause, and according to no principles of distribution; that it must be found there by a sort of receptive exploration in each separate case; in other words, that it is an absolute, not a relative thing, a primary and not a secondary property."

Addressing Russell's own chosen example, Santayana observes, "while square is always square, and round round, a thing that is round may actually be square also, if we allow it to have a little body, and to be a cylinder."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.