Since G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903) the question of whether "good" denotes a property of something has been important in the field of Ethics. Indeed, one might say it spawned the whole field of metaethics which looks at the epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings of ethical beliefs. Moore challenged the notion of hedonistic utilitarians like John Stuart Mill that we could determine the right things to do, the morally good acts we should perform and support, by a calculus of the acts' effects in terms of how much pleasure or happiness such acts added to, or subtracted from, the world. Formulating his "open question" argument, Moore pointed out that it made no logical sense to suppose that anything that could be brought about in the natural world was what we meant by "good" and so it could never be enough to presume that how much happiness or pleasure, or any other natural phenomenon, was fostered in the world could determine whether or not we should act to bring such things about. This, he noted, was simply because we can always ask a further question of the supposed good, i.e., whether it, itself, is good. That is, since we can conceive of circumstances in which pleasure or happiness are not good (think of the happy junkie or serial killer who takes delight in his pursuits), the term "good" cannot possibly be equivalent to being happy or, indeed, any other phenomenon or condition.
Moore's solution was to suppose that "good" must therefore be understood as denoting something else and, because everything natural (occurring as part of the natural world in which we stand) could be either good or not good (i.e., fell victim to the "open question"), what "good" denotes must, in fact, be understood as being non-natural. That is, Moore suggested, it must be some property of a thing that is outside the natural world. Moreover, he suggested that such a property must be bottom line in its own nature, i.e., it must be unanalyzable to anything more basic than itself. Finally, he reasoned, such a property must be known to us in a way quite different than physical phenomena (natural properties and their aggregates) are known to us. That is, he concluded, it must be apprehended, when it is present, in some direct, intuited way. Thus Moore concluded the word "good," while operating like other words for properties, such as "yellow," must name a kind of property quite different from the sort of thing "yellow" names.
Later thinkers in the twentieth century, while finding Moore's critique of hedonistic utilitarianism compelling, were less moved by his solution. . . .
Updated on February 19, 2015 by Stuart W. Mirsky
One of the things that leaps out at you when thinking about moral questions -- as in what are the good and bad things to aim at via one's actions, what things are right or wrong to do -- is the distinction between being bad and being evil. The latter term seems somewhat old fashioned to modern ears. It conjures up images of demons and devils, of hell fire and brimstone. It reeks of the Middle Ages or earlier. And yet sometimes it seems that only a word like "evil" can name certain things human beings do. I'm thinking of recent reports about beheadings of captives in the Middle East, some involving literally sawing a man's head from his body while he's still alive. Or burning one's prisoners alive by dousing them in gasoline in a cage. Or seizing women and children and selling them into slavery. None of this seems right to modern eyes but all were fairly common practices in previous eras. And were taken more or less for granted. And they all seem to be in some sense worse than bad to the modern western mind. They seem to demand a different appellation, to rightly warrant the name of "evil."
Today, at least in the western world, we reject slavery and cruelty, even to the point of finding any form of capital punishment, even when administered painlessly by lethal injection, abhorrent. We look back on the recent past and the Nazis' impressment of segments of Europe's populations into slave labor and death camps and find all that especially horrifying and worthy of our condemnation. Some folks today also condemn the fire bombing of Dresden, conducted by the Allies in the course of war against Nazi-ruled Germany, as similarly evil (as G.E.M. Anscombe did when it was happening). Or the dropping of two atomic bombs on a still belligerent Japan in that same war as beyond the pale. Some in the West have condemned even possession of nuclear weapons as not just bad or wrong but downright evil. So when is the bad not merely bad? When, that is, is it evil and why is being evil worse than just being wrong or bad? . . .
Since my high school days I've thought little of Ayn Rand. Yes, I read her as a kid and found her exhortation to live for oneself and disregard the demands and pressures of those speaking for society as a whole bracing and fresh . . . and, indeed, exciting. With a Nietszchean panache, she skewered the collectivist mentality and raised up the ideal of the SELF for itself. Her philosophy of "Objectivism," which rejected metaphysical and mystical pretensions in favor of an account based entirely on the facts as we find them, with the foremost and most basic being the fact of our lives, of our own existence (with the needs and desires which come with that), stirred the youngster I then was. It was a basic, down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of philosophy which still seemed to soar with its promise of self-realization attained through the unfettering of the ego.
No more shall we be oppressed by the weight of others' needs and their judgments of what we want for ourselves. But that sense of a liberated ego didn't last long. It seemed to me, even back then, that we have obligations to others as well as ourselves and that, at times, what we owe others does outweigh what we think we owe to ourselves. In the end, I set Rand and her Objectivism aside, especially after going on to college and discovering the historically great thinkers of philosophy: the Greeks and, later, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume . . . and Kant, of course, and then the modern Anglo-American analytical thinkers. Exposure to the great philosophers left me thinking that Rand was something of a pretender.
And to an extent she was. According to the Stanford On-Line Encyclopedia of Philosophy (where I was surprised to find an entry on Rand, after an old correspondent of mine had defended her and so piqued my curiosity):
Her views of past and contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, . . . seem to have been based largely on summaries of philosophers' works and conversations with a few philosophers and with her young acolytes, themselves students of philosophy. Unfortunately, this did not stop her from commenting dismissively, and often contemptuously, on other philosophers' works. Contemporary philosophers, by and large, returned the compliment by dismissing her work contemptuously, often on the basis of hearsay or cursory reading.
I wasn't surprised to learn this. It reflected what I'd already come to believe about her during my college years. I recall contemptuously dismissing interlocutors back then who seemed to be foolish enough to invoke her name or ideas in debates . . .
One big debate in metaethics today is whether or not we can argue for the truth or falsity of value claims. Is it true that kicking babies is bad? Or eradicating ethnic groups (genocide)? Is it true that keeping promises is good? That being kind to animals is? That being one's brother's keeper is? That we should treat others as we would wish to be treated? So-called moral realists argue for the necessity of being able to claim that such statements, and a great many others, are either true or false for, if it turns out we can't, then it looks as if we have lost the possibility of believing in the rightness or wrongness of these and similar behaviors. And this seems to undermine the moral project (the possibility of selectively differentiating between a certain class of actions). Without the ability to grant validity to our moral claims, we seem to be at a loss to tell others to do or not do a whole class of actions which seem to demand just such differentiating capability from us if we are to get on, in a satisfying way, with our lives. Societies and communities stand on the capacity to make such differentiations and to defend them when we do so, i.e., to believe in the truth of our differentiations.
No one doubts that one can judge the prudential value or its lack in certain behaviors, of course. We can know if it's true that we should keep our promise to another if we come to believe that doing so will prompt some good result for ourselves, e.g., that they will keep promises in turn to us (something we wish or need them to do) or if keeping promises will yield other rewards for us. But if personal rewards are the name of the game, then it's not keeping promises that's good (the right thing to do) per se, but getting the reward. And doing something to get a reward for doing it seems to vitiate the claim of moral goodness because it allows us, when the desired reward may not be available, to disregard practices like promise keeping, indeed to pursue a policy of deliberately performing their opposites.
Moral realists want to say that moral value claims carry their own criteria for being true or false, criteria which are not the same as the benefits an agent may gain, or hope to gain, by acting in a prudentially good way. Prudential benefits are external to the presumed morally good trait or action while what makes them morally good (or not) must be intrinsic to them, part of their very nature. Making and acting on moral claims must be independent of personal benefit, the value-granting feature (the presumed property of moral goodness the action is thought to possess) existing somewhere and somehow within the act itself -- or in our description of it. It's the presence or absence of such an extra feature, a feature we discern by observation and inquiry and which we assert to be there in statements which are subject to true or false judgments, that makes any claim of moral goodness reliable (or not) and so fit to be acted on (or rejected).
Intuitionists suppose such extra features are recognized by us because we have a kind of sense of them when they are there, picking up whatever the goodness feature is in a fundamentally unanalyzable way. Just as we see colors and hear sounds and taste flavors, so, for intuitionists, we have a kind of parallel capacity to apprehend moral goodness. That was G. E. Moore's notion and the notion of others, like Henry Sidgwick, who followed him down the intuitionist path. But intuitionism lacks a certain respectability in the modern intellectual world. If we can't explain the intuitive mechanism, as we can explain how and why we see colors, etc., in some physically demonstrable way (as a function of our sensing faculties and as phenomena sensed and thus relayed to the brain), then the idea of intuitions of goodness just looks spurious . . .
A correspondent of mine from India sent me a message this morning. A young man drawn to western philosophy for a while, he has now turned to a local guru in his home country who has been guiding him on his path of discovery. What he failed to find in western philosophy he now hopes to uncover in his native tradition. His message to me was about how we're all dying every moment we're alive and how realizing that enables us to transcend the dread of death through a turn to an all embracing feeling of love. Love for everything, he wrote, love as the means of connecting with this moment, with the world we are living and dying in. It prompted me to offer my own meditation in response, one that is perhaps more pessimistic than his but which hinges on this question of how love, whatever that is, can be enough to transcend. Is transcendence of the sort envisioned even possible?
Death is part of life though I'm not sure that's entirely satisfying to one who is dying (in the sense of experiencing impending dissolution when one is suffering a fatal illness and watching one's body fall apart and realizing that, with this, comes the end of one's being as a distinct, self-aware entity). Of course it pays to realize that all of us are in such a state of decline at every moment, even if it is happening so incrementally that we barely notice. Yet, as we age, we can't help but notice because we experience the loss of faculties and physical capacities. My mother is 91 and acutely aware of her failing capacities. She has arthritis that severely restricts her movements and hearing loss and some vision loss and she is very much aware of her bodily discomforts. She needs a cane to help her keep her balance when she walks. She remembers how it used to be though and is sad at the obvious differences she sees in herself, between then and now . . . .
Writing in Ruling Passions, Simon Blackburn picks up and continues the sentimentalist tradition in ethics made famous by David Hume and which has, since Hume's account, posed a serious challenge to all those seeking to find truth in moral claims, to treat moral beliefs as assertions of knowledge, that is, of fact. The idea that moral judgments are objectively grounded seems to stick with us when we make such judgments but the sentimentalist account, which makes our moral claims about expressing our feelings about things rather than about asserting facts we know about them, runs counter to what seems to be part of the actual practice of moral valuing. Blackburn's book aims to restore a sense of objectivity to moral judgments within the context of an expressivist (or, as he sometimes calls it, projectivist) account.
In a nutshell, he proposes that all moral claims of value can be understood as part of the psychological dimension of our lives in terms of how we interact with others and how we feel in the process of such interactions. For Blackburn, moral judgment is a matter of expressing our desires, preferences and so forth and valuing, he suggests, is just another activity-related mental state like these others. But such states are not discreet things nor are they reducible to any particular behavior or complex of behaviors of the actor. Rather, he suggests, they are elements in a "kind of web or field or force in which no single element has its own self-standing connection with action. Different beliefs and desires (and perhaps other states, such as emotions, attitudes, wishes, fantasies, fears and, of course, values) come together to issue in an action." (p. 52) On his view, then, valuing is just another mental feature like its fellows and not anything apart from them.
Thus, moral judgments are instances of having a particular mindset like our other mindsets associated with the mental state(s) in which we happen to be. As such, he supposes that asserting moral value is about navigating our way between our various mental states with claims about the goodness or badness of some action or thing, or about its rightness or wrongness, being equivalent to claims which express our feelings of the moment concerning current and longer term matters. Yet he wants to preserve the possibility of objectivity here . . .