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Posts tagged G. E. Moore

Insert silly pun on G. E. Moore’s last name here: Principia Ethica and Ethics are available in full online

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, but other projects (some of them tangentially related, others not) delayed the happy announcement for a while: not only one, but two of G. E. Moore’s chief works on Ethics are available online, in full, for your reading and citing pleasure. As you may have already known (cf. GT 2005-07-11, GT 2005-06-28, GT 2005-06-01, GT 2005-02-18, GT 2004-12-19), I spent eight months off and on (mostly off) plugging away at a full transcription of Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903). I polished off Chapter VI: The Ideal back in August, meaning that the Fair Use Repository‘s copy of PE is now complete.

What you may not have known is that I also took some of the free time that I had at the end of the CTY session to knock out a complete transcription of Moore’s 1912 follow-up to PE, which he gave the inventive title of Ethics. (The hat tip for the idea goes to Roderick Long and Kelly Jolley, who mentioned the book to me and also expressed their pious hopes that an anonymous somebody-or-another might just happen to put the book online.)

Ethics is rarely read today, probably much more rarely than should be the case. Not because of its earth-shaking influence: no responsible history of contemporary philosophy could be written without a discussion of Principia Ethica; but it’s unlikely that even a history of the major developments in Analytic philosophy during the 1910s would take much notice of Ethics. (In fact, even folks writing specifically about Moore’s ethics mainly seem interested in Ethics only insofar as it illuminates, qualifies, or modifies his positions in PE.) And the scholarly neglect may very well be perfectly just. Ethics is neither as influential or as ambitious a book as Principia Ethica, and if your chief interest is telling the story of how early Analytic philosophy developed and how it bears on contemporary philosophy, Ethics is not going to be the most pressing item on your agenda. That’s all true, but of course it would only prove that you oughtn’t bother reading it if the only good books were influential books. The fact is indeed that Ethics is a much quieter book than Principia Ethica is; but that means only that it is quietly brilliant, where PE is obviously brilliant.

What’s so nice about Ethics is how clearly it exhibits Moore’s approach to ethics, and to philosophy as a whole: his extremely careful approach to philosophy, his precision, and most of all his apparently inexhaustible intellectual patience. There are some wonderful things that PE has and Ethics lacks–most noticeably, it lacks anything corresponding to PE‘s sustained discussion of the Naturalistic Fallacy, which Moore had made the center of his argument back in 1902. But what it lacks in treatments of specific topics, it more than makes up for in its method. Especially remarkable highlights are Chapter III and Chapter IV on The Objectivity of Moral Judgments, which contains what Kelly rightly described as one of the most subtle and suggestive treatments of relativism in the literature, and which are remarkable not because of some flashy or brilliant technical apparatus that Moore unleashed on the intellectual landscape, but rather just because he takes it so damn slow and draws out, in ordinary language and with an extraordinary amount of care and intellectual good faith, just what the relativist might want to say and just how it systematically fails to capture what we’re actually doing when we think about, talk about, or act on moral principles. The stuff is simply brilliant.

Ethics makes the third complete work of G. E. Moore which has been made available through the Fair Use Repository. (Besides Principia Ethica, there is also Moore’s 1903 review of an English translation of Franz Brentano’s The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong.) Since finishing up with Ethics, my two main projects for the Repository have been (1) transcribing some new works–at the moment, T. H. Green’s Prolegomena to Ethics (which is cited in passing in Principia Ethica, and was quite influential on English moral philosophy at the turn of the century, but is now almost impossible to find outside of academic libraries), and several articles from fin-de-siecle issues of Mind–and (2) improving the script that slices and dices data for the works in the Repository — so that, for example, it can represent the structure of a book like the Prolegomena to Ethics. Expect to see more soon–and in the meantime, read and enjoy!

Pet Peeves

There’s quite the debate raging over at Catallarchy, in reply to comments condemning Harry Truman as a terrorist as bad, or worse, than Osama bin Laden:

My view is the direct opposite of what they teach in government run schools. They teach that Truman’s action [the use of atomic weapons] was a heroic choice that saved many American lives. With a similar line of reasoning, a friend of mine argued that the massacre of civilians during war may be justified if the reward is high enough. He hesitated to make a judgment in the particular instance of Harry Truman’s wartime actions, claiming that the good of saving American troops at least partially offset the bad of incinerating Japanese homes and families.

Many other men have used logic similar to Truman’s supporters to justify attacking civilian targets to further national objectives. However, I don’t think my American friends would hesitate to condemn their actions because they don’t bat for the home team.

For example, the name Osama bin Laden has taken its place among Hitler and Satan in the pantheon of evil. The reason? He thinks freeing the Arab world from Western imperial influences is important enough to sacrifice civilian lives. We might call him the Harry Truman of the Middle East.

As most Americans condemn bin Laden for putting civilians in harm’s way, so too do I condemn Truman. If bin Laden is a terrorist, then so is Truman. In fact, Truman’s actions are more indefensible because eventual victory was available through conventional military means. For bin Laden, direct military action, against the most feared armed force in all of history, is out of the question.

Americans have a perverse and dangerous view of their place in the world. Until we realize that our civilians are not worth more than other country’s civilians and that our leaders do not operate within a sacred halo that allows them to turn ugly sins into holy acts, America will continue to be a source of great suffering.

Now, I think that Jacob is right on here, and that the shameless apology for mass murder, as long as it happens under the Stars and Stripes, may very well be the most sickening feature in all of American education. But the fish I want to fry today is meta-ethical, not political, so if you want to argue about the massacres at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc., feel free to do so, but the point I want to call attention to is actually off to one side of the debate. Here’s a comment in the thread from Dave, howling in protest (emphasis added):

Jacob’s post is about moral relativism gone out of control. Maybe next this libertarian will compare Timothy McVeigh to Murray Rothbard because both harbored anti-government feelings. Look at the passive posture he wants the United States to assume. …

And blah, blah, blah.

I pick this out because it highlights a pet peeve of mine. The Right–thanks to the influence of the Christian Right and fundamentalist ideas about the nature of secular modernism–have been throwing around the phrase moral relativism in public debate over the past ten or twenty years, and every year that goes by they seem to get further and further from having any clue at all what it means. Here we have a particularly dramatic case in point: not only is there there is absolutely nothing in Jacob’s post which either entails or even suggests moral relativism. In point of fact, Jacob’s comments demand that moral relativism be rejected, and that moral principles be applied universally, rather than applied ad hoc depending on your relationship to the agent being judged.

It’s no sin not to know meta-ethical theory, but if you’re going to use the terms, you ought to know what they mean. Moral relativism does not mean being lax about taboos that you shouldn’t be lax about; far less does it mean drawing a mistaken comparison in ethics. Moral relativism is the doctrine that one and the same action can be both right and wrong at the same time–that is, that questions of moral value can only be answered relative to some frame of reference that can change from one judgment to the next. For example, some people have believed (wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed (also wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether or not the person making the moral judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally condemned, or generally considered neutral. (For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see Chapter III of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now, Dave might think that Jacob’s moral principles (for example, that deliberately slaughtering thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians in pursuit of your goals is wrong, no matter what) are mistaken. I don’t think they are, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Jacob is insisting on principled ethical judgments (even if you think the principles are wrong) and he is not claiming anywhere, ever, that the applicability of those principles is relative to the speaker’s feelings, or culture, or relation to the person carrying out the slaughter, or relation to the victims, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary; he’s insisting that moral principles, which he claims we insist on in bin Laden’s case, ought to be applied absolutely and for everyone. That’s an outright rejection of relativism and the excuses for atrocities that relativism so happily provides.

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for these comments:

If you don’t believe that your country’s citizens are worth more than the citizens of other countries — that is, entitled to live even if it means the death of citizens of other countries — I don’t want to be in the same foxhole with you.

But of course the comments come not from Jacob, but from the hawkish Tom, in protest of Jacob’s point. The implied conclusion — that subjects of other States shouldn’t be treated as though they have as much of a right to life as the subjects of your own State — is a textbook case of moral relativism. (Specifically, in this case, the claim that fundamental moral obligations, like the rights of innocents not to be burned alive as a sacrifice for others, can only be decided relative to the relationship between the you and the victim–if you are subjects of the same State then it is not O.K., but if you are subjects of different States, then anything up to and including dropping a fucking nuclear bomb on their heads is, apparently, acceptable.) Maybe Jacob’s principles are right and maybe they’re wrong; but he is employing principles, and insisting that they are universally binding. Tom, on the other hand, is explicitly stating that moral principles are binding relative to one group of people and mere breath relative to another. Yet it is Jacob, not Tom, who is denounced as a moral relativist; this is nothing but darkening counsel with words without knowledge.

The kind of argument that Tom uses is, of course, a method of excuse used all the time by the Right: the idea that any means at all are acceptable in warfare, because our moral obligations end at borders on a map, and so the pursuit of victory can trump any and every other moral consideration. Of course, just saying that a view is relativist is not the same thing as saying that it is false; maybe there are some good arguments for relativism. I haven’t found any, and I think there are decisive arguments against it, but it’s an open philosophical topic. But my concern here is about the proper use of terms, and about consistency; if you are going to support a bloody and unapologetic form of relativism, then you had better argue for it, and you had better not pretend that you’re opposed to it. Yet it seems that somehow the self-appointed arch-nemeses of moral relativism never do get around to condemning this sort of blatant disregard for universality in ethics–perhaps because their situation is as the Prophet has written: We have met the enemy, and they is us.

Moore summer reading

Two things that you ought to know if you ever want to teach for CTY are: (1) it’s a thrilling, challenging, wonderful experience that changes the lives of nearly everyone involved in it for the better; and (2) you will have almost no time whatsoever to yourself for six weeks, and certainly no time to follow the news. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you is a question I leave to you and your god.

But though I may be in no position to offer any timely analysis, I do at least have time to offer some analysis. So, hot off the presses from October 1903, I’m glad to announce that the completed transcription of Chapter V of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica is now available online from the Fair Use Repository. This chapter is Moore’s treatment of Ethics in Relation to Conduct, and it highlights one of the odder parts of Moore’s ethical system. Moore was, as I’ve mentioned before (in GT 2005-06-01 and GT 2005-06-28) a sharp critic of utilitarianism, and has given the philosophical tradition what I think is one of the loveliest arguments ever given against it. But he wasn’t a critic of consequentialism; in fact, he seems to have regarded consequentialism as more or less obviously true, and a direct consequence of properly distinguishing things good as ends from things good only as means. Although he alludes to this early on, it’s Chapter V that does the real heavy lifting for the argument. If Moore’s arguments go through, then it will turn out that no human action is good as an end in itself, but rather that actions are good only insofar as they are the causes of good effects. But unlike most consequentialists, Moore does not think there is any reason, other than prejudice, to start out assuming that the kinds of effects that are relevant for moral questions are effects on human consciousness at all, let alone the specific effects of promoting happiness (or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimizing misery (or pain, or frustration). In fact, he takes himself to have shown already (with the Open Question Argument) that there’s no reason, other than prejudice, to start out assuming that you can characterize the quality that all good effects have in common in any terms except the bare fact that they are indeed good. (N.B.: That doesn’t mean that it can’t be the case; Moore thinks that the OQA proves only that if there is some non-ethical property that all good effects in fact have in common, that’s a substantive, synthetic finding about ethics, which will have to be justified by an appeal to ethical intuitions, rather than logical analysis of ethical terms. His discussion in Chapter III is intended to give some ethical reasons why even if there is such a property, it can’t be pleasantness; his positive reasons for thinking that there isn’t any such common quality will have to wait until the forthcoming transcription of Chapter VI.)

The upshot of all this is that although I think Moore goes seriously astray in his argument in Chapter V, he can’t be engaged on the same terms that most criticisms of consequentialism work from–because most criticisms of consequentialism are criticisms of utilitarianism and Moore is no utilitarian. Since he defends, at some length, the intrinsic value of many things (beauty, knowledge, friendship, some character traits, etc.) against utilitarian attempts to treat them as mere means, he can easily stand with anti-consequentialists during most of the common criticisms of utilitarianism–that it requires you to be willing to approve of injustice or lies in principle if there is enough of a pay-off in pleasure, for example; since Moore defends the intrinsic value of many things besides pleasure he is not at all committed to that; since Moore, in Chapter V, so sharply distinguishes the question of what ought to exist from what we ought to do, he may have an easier time than most ethicists would agreeing with Bernard Williams’ criticism that utilitarianism seems to obliterate me and my projects in favor of rigidly impersonal rule-following. If there’s something that Moore’s doing wrong here–and I think that there certainly is–it probably won’t be successfully picked out by most of the arguments that pick out something wrong with more familiar forms of consequentialism.

From here, the transcription will continue with the final chapter, Chapter VI: The Ideal, in which Moore attempts to give his full positive discussion of the sorts of things which are good in themselves. I hope to keep up my pace of 1-2 sections per day (although I probably won’t be able to begin until tomorrow). If you want to keep up with the progress of the transcription, you can subscribe to the Atom feed of Chapter VI, which will be updated as each section is completed. Onward to the ultimate end!


Other news

For those of you who just can’t get enough fin-de-siècle English philosophy, you’re in luck. Not only is the transcription of Principia Ethica nearing completion, but you may also be interested to know that:

  1. I’ve also found and transcribed G. E. Moore’s review of Franz Brentano’s The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, which appeared in the International Journal of Ethics in the same month that Principia Ethica was published; Moore refers to Brenatno’s book and his review of it in the Preface to Principia Ethica, where he says that he discovered the book after completing PE but found [in it] opinions far more closely resembling my own, than those of any other ethical writer with whom I am acquainted. The review singles out Brentano for praise mainly because of Brentano’s parallel emphasis on the irreducibility of good (The great merit of this view over all except Sidgwick’s is its recognition that all truths of the form This is good in itself are logically independent of any truth about what exists), but offers some criticism of Brentano’s attempt to define good in terms of other ethical predicates (as that which it is right to love). Also, apparently, the translation sucked, but that was Cecil Hague’s fault, not Brentano’s.

  2. I’ve transcribed several articles from the April 1895 issue of Mind, and will probably finish transcribing the rest of the contents within the next several days. I picked that issue out in particular because it had Lewis Carroll’s fantastic three-page essay, What the Tortoise said to Achilles; the issue also features some rather mediocre material from Bradley, an apology for the Common Sense school of Scottish philosophy by Henry Sidgwick, an early book review by Bertrand Russell (not yet online), and an interesting introductory essay on Hindu Logic by S. N. Gupta.

  3. I hear tell that the court scribes of the Austro-Athenian Empire have also been hard at work, with three new transcriptions of essays from Herbert Spencer’s 1902 book Facts and Comments. In addition to his essay Patriotism, which Roderick made available online a while ago, you can now also find his (sadly topical) denunciations of war, empire, and its corrosive effects on civilization in Imperialism and Slavery, Re-barbarization, and Regimentation.

Just a reminder: just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s not topical; and just because something’s not topical doesn’t mean it’s not good. So, enjoy!

Chapter IV and much, much Moore…

This is old news, but I was too busy packing for my temporary relocation to upstate New York to put a post up about it at the time: the transcription of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica proceeds apace, and this time I have not one, but three milestones to announce (!):

  1. Chapter III, Moore’s extended treatment of hedonism, which I mentioned around the time I was halfway through with it, is now completely transcribed. I’d already finished Moore’s dissection of naturalistic hedonism (that is, hedonism supported by the naturalistic fallacy, as in, for example, Mill’s Utilitarianism); the new passages carry on with Moore’s discussion of Sidgwick and intuitionistic hedonism (that is, hedonism supported by an appeal to ethical intuitions). I think this actually contains some of the best material in all of Moore’s work — including one of my favorite arguments in all of philosophy, the Two Planets argument against ethical hedonism. (It may seem like an intuition-pump, but it’s a beautiful intuition-pump. And also, actually, a successful one: many people worry that he’s just begging the question, but I’d argue that Moore completely refutes hedonism, and that the argument ought to be convincing whether your intuitions about the planets line up with Moore’s or not. Maybe I’ll go into the reasons why here a bit later.)

  2. Chapter IV, Moore’s discussion of what he calls Metaphysical Ethics, is also completely transcribed. This is one of the chapters where Moore’s partisan aims come through a bit more clearly than you might hope; the goal is honorable enough — to show that his British Idealist contemporaries are actually guilty of the same sort of fallacy that constitutes the naturalistic fallacy when used by naturalists, and that the fallacy is no less fallacious when good is reduced to some set of supernatural properties rather than some set of natural properties — but the effort to count some coup against British Idealists who cited their Continental predecessors ends up in a very weak bit of criticism against Kant, who never did anything to deserve it. (Unfortunately, this would not be the last time that this happened to Kant — and especially not to Hegel — among the Analytics.) Still, the chapter is well worth reading, and on somewhat firmer ground when Moore is doing philosophy (i.e., when he examines the conceptual contours of the doctrines he sets out) than when he is doing scholarship (i.e., when he starts making claims about where those doctrines came from).

  3. Finally, you may notice a technical change that I took a few days off from transcribing to implement: the text of the documents is now stored in machine-readable feeds and processed by a PHP script that I wrote for the purpose. Aside from some minor aesthetic improvements I made along the way, the main upshot of this for you is that you can now read and cite the text not only by chapter, but also by individual section (as I did above when I cited §50) or even by ranges of sections (such as, for example, the characterization of the naturalistic fallacy and the Open Question Argument in §§10–13). Of course, you can still read chapter-by-chapter if you prefer.

Next up is the transcription of Chapter V, Moore’s discussion of right and wrong conduct; a bit of the work has already begun and I’m trying to keep along at a steady clip of at least one passage per day. How well I’m able to keep up with that depends on how hectic my work schedule turns out to be; but if you’re interested in keeping up with the process, and happen to have an Atom/RSS newsreader handy, you can do so by subscribing to the Atom feed for Chapter V.

Let me know about any typos that you spot. Read; cite; enjoy!

Other things: Chapter III of Principia Ethica is now online

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve been on something of a break from writing here for the past few weeks (due partly to travel, partly to lack of motivation, and partly to wanting to spend some quiet time away from it). I don’t know whether I’ll feel like picking up on the rate of posting in the near future; I do know that I’ll probably be taking more time off about a month from now when I head off for summer work in New York (same thing as last year: I’ll be working for the Center for Talented Youth, TA’ing two courses in Logic for extremely gifted 12-16 year olds).

I’m trying to wean myself off posting Sorry I’m not posting posts; but my purpose here is a bit different anyway. While I may not have the drive to post much right now, I do at least have the energy to copy out things that people smarter than I am once wrote. Thus, I’ve been making some substantial progress in transcribing the third chapter of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica for online reading and citation. It’s not complete yet (Chapter III is one of the longest chapters in the book), but I am mostly keeping up a pace of a section a day or more; which means that if I keep a steady pace the chapter should be complete in under three weeks. (Knock on wood.)

Chapter III contains Moore’s extended treatment of ethical hedonism — that is, the theory that pleasure is the only thing good in itself (this is how Moore defines it, anyway; he claims that some hedonists might not agree to the formulation explicitly but that they have to rest on it at least implicitly for their arguments to go through). The first part of the chapter is an addendum to his treatment of naturalistic ethics in Chapter II: he attacks arguments for hedonism based on the naturalistic fallacy, using John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism as an example. (The case is mostly pretty convincing, although I think he is unfair to Mill toward the end and doesn’t adequately discuss Mill’s notion of goods that are desired as parts of happiness.)

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my transcription of the chapter so far; but if you want a preview of what’s to come in the next few days, Moore goes on to consider whether hedonism can be defended on grounds of ethical intuitions, once defenses based on the naturalistic fallacy have been set aside. He argues no; this involves what I think are some of the best arguments in the book and a long consideration of Sidgwick (Moore’s ideas about the proper methods of ethical philosophy owe a lot to Sidgwick’s intuitionism; but Sidgwick thought that intuitionist methods supported hedonism, and Moore thinks they decisively refute it). Finally, he wraps up with some rather brief and unfair polemics against the two ethical schools that seem most commonly to be based on hedonist arguments–Egoism and Utilitarianism.

There’s a lot to complain about in the chapter, but also a lot to love; it’s certainly something that anyone engaging in ethics or moral psychology ought to read and engage with. Read, cite, and be merry!

Further reading

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