What’s the Definition of ‘Yellow’?

G. E. Moore:  The Naturalistic Fallacy


G. E. Moore marks the beginning of contemporary meta-ethics.  Vas is meta-ethics you ask?  It’s the branch of philosophy where we study the origin and meaning of ethical concepts.   We try to answer questions like, what does it mean for something to be good? bad? evil? What is a virtue? And what makes some behaviour virtuous and other behaviour not? Another key meta-ethical issue is asking whether morality exists independently of humans, or whether it only applies to humans.  In short meta-ethics can be seen as the enterprise of laying the foundations upon which ethical theories can be built.  Think of it this way, how can we begin to decide what constitutes “good” or “moral” behaviour until we decide what those terms mean.

Ok, enough of that.  Lets look at two of Moore’s contributions to meta-ethics, the naturalistic fallacy and the open question argument…

The Naturalistic Fallacy (In Ethics)

Imagine you’re talking with your bff.  You’ve both had a little bit of wine and are feeling good.  You’re talking about “life”.   We’ve all had these conversations.  Your friend starts telling you about a difficult moral decision he has to make and ask you, “so, what does it mean for something to be good?”  Feeling somewhat philosophical, you reply, “it’s whatever brings happiness”.  

Apparently, your friend is feeling even more philosophical because he/she replies (while gazing off into the distance), “yes, but what is happiness?”  You slowly nod your head knowingly, acknowledging the mind boggling profundity of your friend’s question.  After searching the depths of your intellect you whisper your reply: “happiness is love.  Happiness…is….loooove, my friend”.   

Awww! Shit son!  You just dropped some knowledge!  Boom!  Neurons in your friend’s brain explode with the sagaciousness of your answer.   Then your friend realizing the import of the revelation scours the depths of his mind and returns philoso-fire with another question.  His lips tremble with the philoso-weight of his words, “what is….love?”  You are seized by the world-changing significance of this moment.  

You enter a deep philoso-trance.  Emma Bunton’s lyrics fade in and out of your conscious awareness “…philosopheee…is a walk on the slippery rocks…”  You lose track of time.  Maybe it’s minutes, maybe it’s days.  You are like Buddha sitting under the Bohdi tree.  Alas, from the depths of your subconscious an answer begins to emerge.  At first you can barely make it out.  You strain with all your philoso-might.  You reach for it and try to grasp it in your mind but like a slippery rock it slips away again and again.  With one final quantum energy flux you reach deep into the ocean of your self conscious and grasp the elusive Truth.   Like a wild king salmon trying to escape the great american eagle’s talons, it writhes and fights, but alas, your talons are too strong.  You rip the Truth from the clutches of your subconscious and thrust it into the daylight of consciousness.  Your whole body trembles as you speak the Truth: “Love…is….life”.   You collapse. 

The next day you go to your Intro to Philosophy class to share your revelation with your professor.  Surely, you are well on your way to becoming the next Rousseau, nay, Aristotle!  Your professor walks in the room.  You can hardly contain yourself.  Your hand is up higher than it’s ever been.  The professor nods in your direction and says, “I’ll take questions after we get through this section on the naturalistic fallacy.”  And thus begins the lecture…

Let us recall Locke who said all ideas are either complex or simple.  Complex ideas are made up of simple ideas.  For example, the idea of a car is made up of the constituant ideas of wheels, carburators, chassis, etc…If we wanted to define a car we would mention each of its constituant parts and how they are assembled.  Notice, each of those ideas, themselves complex, can be further broken down until we have only simple ideas like, extension, weight, colour, shape, etc…These ideas cannot be broken down further because they are simple; they cannot be defined with anything but synonyms…or frantic hand-waving movements.  

Consider the colour yellow.  How could you define “yellow” to someone who had never experienced it/didn’t already know what it was?  You could never define the concept of “yellow” without appealing to the concept of yellow itself.  Just like you can’t define weight or extension (to someone who has never experienced them) without appealing to the very concept you are trying to define.  When it comes to defining simple ideas, they cannot be defined in terms of other concepts or properties.  To make this more tangeable, think about if you could define the colour yellow to a blind person or the sound of a cello to a deaf person. 

Moore considered ‘good’ to also be a simple idea and that trying to define it was a mistake.  Suppose you encounter a being that has no concept of ‘good’ and you try to define to it what it means (using words).  The naturalistic fallacy would be your trying to define it by appealing to other concepts, that is, other properties.  Consider some historically popular accounts of what “good” means: Things that are pleasant are good, or doing one’s duty, or virtue is good.  

Recall that we cannot appeal to other properties to describe a simple idea.  If we examine the structure of the examples, they take the form: “things that are Y are X” (e.g. Things that have property Y are good).  But this does nothing to define X.  It only pushes the problem back one step to, “why is Y-ness good?”  We haven’t come any closer to defining ‘good’.  We’ve only given one of its properties (maybe).  We are now stuck with the question, why is virtue good? pleasure good? etc… We cannot define ‘good’ by its natural properties (hence, naturalistic fallacy).  And besides, virtue/pleasure/duty and ‘good’ are not one and the same.  

It may very well be that there are some things/actions that are both virtuous and good or pleasurable and good, or maybe virtuous, pleasurable, and good.  But just because things can share properties doesn’t mean that the properties they share are one and the same.  We can see this again in the analogy with yellow:  We might say yellow is bright but we wouldn’t say that ‘bright’ is the definition of ‘yellow’ or ‘yellow’ the definition of ‘bright’.

So, what’s the upshot of all this?  Well, Moore thinks we should give up the task of trying to define what ‘good’ is by appealing to other concepts and properties.  In fact, ethical philosophers should give up trying to define ‘good’, periode.   ‘Good’ is simple, indefinable, and unanalyzable.  ‘Good’ is good, and there’s no way to define it for someone who doesn’t already have an idea of what it means.  

“Are there any questions about the naturalistic fallacy?” your professor asks…”Oh! didn’t you have your hand up earlier?”  he says looking at you.  

“Um, is this going to be on the test?” 

The Open Question Argument
….I’m tired, it’s almost 4…I’ll do this part tomorrow
good night

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