British Philosopher George Edward Moore Philosophy Essay

Moore argued that defining ‘good’ by using non-moral terms is not possible, and in turn no moral property is identical to any natural property. He argues that ‘good’ cannot be identical to any natural property as claims about identity invite an intelligible question – an ‘open question’. The argument follows that if two terms are identical and synonymous, they can be substituted for each other in a sentence or question without changing the meaning. If two sentences both have the same meaning, then it is impossible for a competent speaker to regard one as an ‘open’ question and the other as a ‘closed’ question (a non-intelligible question). For any moral term M and any natural term N, a competent speaker will always find the question ‘X is N but is it M?’ open, and the question ‘X Is M, but is it M?’ closed, for example to ask the question ‘X is what we desire, but is it good?’ is open, whereas to ask ‘X is good, but is it good’ is closed, or perhaps ‘pleasure is good’ is a meaningful statement, but ‘good is good’ is a non-informative tautology. Moral and natural terms therefore may never be substituted for each other, and in turn no moral term is synonymous with any natural term, meaning definitional naturalism is false. If M and N do not mean the same thing and are not synonymous, then the property of being an M and the property of being an N are also not identical. Thus naturalism is false. [2] This is Moore’s argument. It can be said then that Moore is relying on two claims – if it is an open question whether ‘Ms are N’ , then M does not hold the same meaning as N, and if M does not mean the same thing as N then the things they refer to are not identical.

Moore’s argument however I find to be flawed, as it does not successfully refute the objections that are made against it. Firstly the second premise of the argument uses the term ‘a competent speaker’ or ‘a competent language user’, but what exactly does that mean? What is a competent user? The meanings of terms and concepts are not always transparent to us, in fact if meanings and concepts were fully transparent to us, then conceptual analysis would surely be impossible, as we would know all that there is to know about something, as all the information would be transparent to us. This would entail there are no interesting and unobvious analyses. This is, in part, the ‘paradox of analysis’, a term coined by Moore. The paradox states that a conceptual analysis cannot be both correct and informative at the same time. A completely correct conceptual analysis of a certain concept, through use of other concepts, should mean that the two have the same meaning, and are interchangeable with the target concept. As a conceptual analysis should also be useful and informative however it should provide new information. It is seemingly impossible however, due to this paradox, for both requirements to be met. For example if we consider that for all X, X is a vixen if and only if X is a female fox, we can say that this is correct, as the expression ‘vixen’ represents the same concept as ‘female fox’, it seems informative as the two expressions are not identical and, if correct, ‘vixen’ and ‘female fox’ are interchangeable. Then however if we state that for all X, X is a vixen if and only if X is a vixen it is obvious that this is uninformative, therefore the previous statement is not correct. For an analysis to be correct and informative, then both statements must be equal, however they are not and thus a paradox exists. This causes problems for Moore’s argument as he assumes if that analytic equivalency will render ‘is it true that X is good’ meaningless if ‘X is good’. Due to the paradox of analysis, it is possible for X to be analytically equivalent to good, and still have ‘is X good’ be meaningful.

Moore could perhaps respond to this by stating that it may seem like a definitional sentence is informative of the target concept, but in fact it is not. In the case of ‘good’, even if it is agreed that ‘pleasure is good’, no amount of reflection will make us think ‘pleasure is good’ is equivalent to ‘pleasure is pleasure’. This response however seems over simplified, and does not offer a strong argument to make us see why we should agree with him.

The argument also seems to beg the question. Moore states that ‘X is N, but is it M?’ is an open question and would be found to be an open question by a competent speaker when the definition of N in terms of good is false. He states within his argument that If ‘N’ &’M’ are analytically equivalent, then the question of ‘is N the same as M?’ is meaningless and a closed question, and in turn, if the statement is meaningless, then the two must be analytically equivalent. Moore states that ‘X is N, but is it M’ is not meaningless, assuming his conclusion in the premises of his argument, and thus begging the question.

In response to this the open question argument could be interpreted in a different manner or be reformulated. If the argument is interpreted as an argument to the ‘best explanation’ then the premises in question change slightly, going from the questions being conceptually open, to being ‘seemingly’ conceptually open to competent users of moral terms. This different interpretation of the argument holds that the best explanation of why these questions seem open is that they are actually open. The argument, as mentioned, can also be reformulated, as done in the Darwall-Gibbard-Railton reformulation, as proposed in their combine work ‘Toward Fin de siecle Ethics: Some Trends’ [3] , argues that it is impossible for a moral property to equate to a non-moral property using the internalist theory of motivation, something which Moore never even touches on. This reformulation would hold that If X is good, by itself X will motivate an individual to pursue X. A rational and competent speaker can understand that Action X* produces X, and still not pursue X*, and therefore X is not analytically equivalent to good.

This reformation does presuppose the internalist theory of motivation, however without going into the pros and cons of the reformation, if we take it to be true then the OQA (open-question argument) does avoids begging the question. This however can only occur if the argument is altered or reformed away from Moore’s argument, showing that the OQA that Moore gives cannot stand against this objection as it is.

Another strong reason behind the problem of the open-question argument is the problem of identity which refers to the philosopher Gottlob Frege’s distinction between sense and reference from philosophy of language. Frege states that there is a difference between the sense and referent of a term. In general terms, the reference of a term is the object to which it refers to and the sense is the way in which we refer to that object. Moore argues that if two terms are synonymous then and interchangeable, then the property of being ‘N’ or ‘M’ is also identical, or if ‘N’ & ’M’ pick out the same property, then ‘N’ & ‘M’ must be synonymous. This however depends on the transparency of meaning. It is possible for there to exist two, or more senses for one referent, and even a competent speaker could not know they refer to the same object. If there is a masked man in a room and this masked man is John’s brother. If one questions John ‘Is the masked man your brother?’ whether or not John knows the identity of the masked man, the question is logical, informative in it’s an answer, and open, however the question ‘is your brother your brother?’ is nonsensical and closed. Using this example we can see that, there exists two questions, one open and one closed, which refer to the same object. Applying this to Moore’s argument, it can be seen that it is perhaps possible for a moral term, i.e. good, to refer to the same thing as a natural term i.e. pleasure, just holding different senses.

Another example of this, and a very commonly used example in relation to these arguments, is the identification of the natural kind of water with H20 being necessarily true but not analytically true. Though these two terms identify the same property, they are not synonymous with each other. It is completely viable that a competent user of ‘water’ need not know that it holds the same property as H20. This is not also knowable through a priori reasoning, and must be found out empirically or a posteriori. This theory structure again can be applied to Moore’s argument and moral predicates, in that goodness could quite possibly be identical with a naturalistic property, even though the terms may not be synonymous. Just as a competent user of ‘water’ and H20’ could say ‘I know it is H20 but is it water?’ and a competent user of ‘brother’ and ‘the masked man’ could say ‘I know it is the masked man but is it my brother’, a competent user of ‘good’ and pleasant’ could just as easily say ‘I know it is pleasant but is it good’ without it being unintelligible, uninformative, confusing or ‘closed’.

Moore might respond to this line of objection by stating that there is a difference between the conceptual cases of pleasurable and good, and water and H20. Let us say that water had an ‘unknown’ underlying structure of the liquid found in rivers, lakes, lochs, that falls from the sky when it rains, is odourless etc., however when this structure is found out empirically to be H20, this property then ‘fills a gap’ that existed in the concept of water, and renders them identical. This gap filling explanation does not extend to the case of pleasurable and good. Goodness does not have a gap to be filled in the same way that water would, as to be good is not to hold another property that plays a practical role. It is also evident that the gap that is filled in the case of water and H20 is discovered through empirical investigation of the world. This is seemingly not the case, however, for ‘good’. Investigation of the world would grant us information about pleasure, however it could never prove that pleasure is the same as good, as no amount of empirical research would grant access to what good actually is, so would say Moore.

This response at first does seem to hold strong against the objection, however it can again be argued against. In the example of water and that of the masked brother, analytic equivalence is not relevant, thus this is an a posteriori investigation. This a posteriori investigation is flawed in the assumption that the events can be explained through moral value, when in fact they can be explained as normal value. The normal value is the relationship between desire and the situational circumstances. It is fallacious for normal value to be objectified into categorical moral value, and thus the response that Moore gives to his objection can be again countered, giving rise for the need for yet another rethinking and response from Moore and his argument.

If we look at the aforementioned arguments, it is clear to see that Moore’s open question argument cannot hold convincingly against its objections, and that it is left open to criticism and objection. It is important to note though that despite the evident weaknesses of his argument, it does show that there is something wrong with the naturalistic viewpoint and something central seems to be missing. Peter Railton states there is a ‘significant critical function that Moorean questions can perform in metaethics whereby we may seek to identify some central and important ingredient of the target concept that a proposed analysis or reforming definition fails to capture’. [4] Philosophers since Moore have offered theories, and given new open-question arguments, such as the reformation of the argument through Darwall-Gibbard-Railton, or through further analyses and developments by philosopher such as A.J. Ayer, to counter the objections raised against Moore’s version and create a more viable, concise argument. However in Moore’s case, he does not manage to display this missing ‘ingredient’ Railton mentions and his open question argument fails to successfully defend itself against the objections raised.