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This One’s Going Up On My Door

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 21 years ago, in 2002, on the World Wide Web.

Why should we suppose that what is merely necessary to life is ipso facto better than what is necessary to the study of metaphysics, useless as that study may appear? It may be that life is only worth living because it enables us to study metaphysics–is a necessary means thereto.

— G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica §28

3 replies to This One’s Going Up On My Door Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Anik

    Why would you compare the value pragmatic philosophy with the value metaphysics anyway? They’re both driven by a thinker’s libido, but they satisfy different thirsts. You’d be saying one kind of thirst was higher up on some scale of human development. That’s definitely a maybe for me.

    So developed people find life worth living through the study of metaphysics? If that’s true, what thinkers have found in metaphysics is beauty. I’ll wholeheartedly agree that beauty makes life worth living, but that quest for beauty need not be though metaphysics.

— 2004 —

  1. Charles Johnson

    Moore’s quote needs to be understood in the dialectical position from which it was spoken. As Moore indicates, the point here is respond to another view: the view that what is necessary for the maintenance of life (whether in the sense of survival or in the sense of flourishing) is /ipso facto/ good. One argument frequently given for this view is that goals other than maintaining life must be subsidiary in questions of value, because you have to be alive in order to do those other things — to study metaphysics, for example, or to contemplate beauty, or any other activity you could cite. So, for certain ethicists – Moore mainly has in mind (his reading of) Herbert Spencer here; Hobbes is an even more flagrant example of this kind of argument – ethics becomes a task of examining the conditions for human life, and things like the intellectual life or the pure contemplation of beauty cannot be valued in their own right. Insofar as they can be valued, the argument goes, it is only as subordinate goals – to justify them you have to figure out some way to show that they are means to the end of maintaining life.

    The point here is not necessarily that this view is false (although, in fact, it is), but rather that the argument typically given for is specious. It’s certainly true that you have to be alive to philosophize, but so what? That doesn’t settle the question of whether philosophy is valuable as a means to life or whether life is valuable as a necessary means to philosophy. (Similarly: having a piano where you can get to it is a necessary condition for playing the Moonlight Sonata. But nobody would argue that playing the Moonlight Sonata is only valuable insofar as you have a piano where you can get to it; generally the only reason to have a piano, rather, is to play things on it.)

  2. Charles Johnson

    N.B.: I must also object to this claim: “Why would you compare the value pragmatic philosophy with the value metaphysics anyway? They’re both driven by a thinker’s libido, but they satisfy different thirsts.” I don’t object to it because I think it’s false; I object, rather, because I think that it’s meaningless if true.

    “Libido” is used a lot of different ways; but I don’t think that there is any way to use it that can connect the motives behind the study of pure metaphysics with, say, the motives behind eating a ham sandwich, without either rendering it completely meaningless (i.e., by defining it in such a way that it comes out meaning something like “whatever the hell it is that drives us to do something when we think we have a reason to do it”) or else doing violence to the phenomenology of these different desires. What it’s like to want a ham sandwich is very different from what it’s like to want to study philosophy; trying to force them into some unitary falculty of “desire” strikes me as the kind of mistake that only a philosopher (or a psychoanalyst) could make.

    (The fact that there are fundamental differences between what it’s like to want to study metaphysics and what it’s like to want to eat a sandwich isn’t to derogate wanting to eat a sandwich in favor of airier pursuits. The point, rather, is to suggest that a theory of ethics or moral psychology which tries to get a lot of mileage from the fact that they are both desired is not going to get very far.)

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