Maybe It’s Good that Helping Old Ladies Across The Street Brings About Happiness? But, Is It Good That It’s Good?

G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument


In the previous post we took a look at G. E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy which, if you recall, is (short version):  

(1)  Simple ideas/concepts cannot be defined by their properties because then they would be the same as their properties.  Eg.  ‘Yellow’ cannot be defined as ‘bright’ because ‘yellow’ and ‘bright’ are not equivalence. 
(2)  ‘Good’ is a simple concept.
(C)  Therefore, ‘good’ cannot be defined by its properties.  If one says “‘good’ is pleasure” or “‘good’ is virtue” they are committing the naturalistic fallacy.  ‘Good’ is not equivalent to pleasure or virtue.  Some things might share the properties or ‘good’ and pleasure or ‘good and virtue, but it is a mistake to define ‘good’ as either pleasure or virtue.

We see the naturalistic fallacy every day when people say things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their properties.  Typical examples abound in the alt-med community where you’ll often hear that something is ‘good’ for you because “it’s natural”.  No.  It’s just natural, its goodness has nothing to do with it being natural.  Natural and ‘good’ are not equivalent.  Try eating some organic, pesticide-free, natural helmlock and tell me how ‘good’ it is for you.  

You’ll also hear from them, “that’s artificial, it’s baaaaaaaaaaad”.  X may be both artificial and bad but its badness is not related to its artificiality.  Lots of manmade things are good for me too, like antibiotics if I have gangreen.  Yay! Science!

You can also hear the naturalistic fallacy from anti-gay groups.  They say, homosexuality is baaaaaaaaaad because it’s not natural.  But, after studying the naturalistic fallacy we know that the badness and naturalness of a thing/act are not equivalent.  Even if we discount the factual falsity of this claim, whether something is natural or not has no bearing on whether it’s good or bad.  If they want to maintain logical consistency, they shouldn’t fly in airplanes or drink coca cola because they’re not natural either, therefore baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

The Open Question Argument

Lets take a quick look at Moore’s next famous argument, known as the Open Question Argument.  While this argument is related to the first, it is slightly different.  The basic objective of the argument is to shew that any answer to the question “what does ‘good’ mean” is insufficient.  The answer only leaves us with another question thereby preventing us from closing the original question.  Lets break this shit down.

Check 1.  Check 1.  Test.  Test.  Oh, before I continue I should mention that I am now even cooler than I was a month ago because I bought a bluetooth earpiece for my cell phone.  Now I am very cool and look like an official security guard.  Just thought I’d share…moving on…

Wait!  I need to say one more thing in the preamble about why Moore is even making this argument.  Up until Moore (with the exception of Sidwick) when different philosophers gave differing definitions of ‘good’, the cause of the disagreement was considered to be just that some philosophers (those with an opposing viewpoint) simply had the wrong definition.  Moore’s argument attempts to show that the disagreement doesn’t arise out of some definitions being wrong while others are right, but that they are all wrong because no definition is ever possible.  Finally, just because we can’t define ‘good’ doesn’t mean the concept has no meaning, he’s simple pointing out that we can’t define it.

Ok, back to the open question argument.  Here’s an example to illustrate the argument.  Lets pick something that most would consider to be ‘good’; lets say, (i) helping old ladies across the street is good.    Some annoying person asks, “but what does it mean for something to be good”?  Someone else replies, “(ii) saying something is good means something brings about happiness” (you can substitute anything you like).

So now we have a definition:  something that brings about happiness is good.  Now we can ask another question: “is it good that (i) helping little old ladies across the street brings about happiness?” Perhaps the answer to this particular example is yes, but the answer isn’t important to Moore’s case.  What’s important is that we are asking a separate question which arose out of the prior assertion (ii).

Moore’s point here is that any value claim–i.e., x is good because it brings about happiness–doesn’t close the issue; it raises further questions: (iii) is it good that doing x brings about happiness? (iv) And is it good to do anything and everything to bring about happiness?  This is a separate issue and might not have the same answer as our first question.  Momentary reflection should give us some examples where bringing about fleeting happiness might not always be the ‘good’ thing to do.  

Two important observations fall out of this: (1) ‘good’ and ‘happiness’ (or whatever we put in its place) aren’t really equivalent in meaning.  If they were they’d be interchangeable and the question “is it good that helping little old ladies across the street brings about happiness?” would be as nonsensical as “is it good that helping little old ladies across the street is good?”.  Clearly these two sentences are different in meaning.  (2)  We can see that (i), (iii), and (iv) are separate but significant questions.  The general lesson here is that while we may be able to point to specific examples of what ‘good’ is, anytime I try to define ‘good’, a new non-trivial value question pops up, leaving us with further value question about what is ‘good’.

OK, that argument makes my head spin.  Anyone reading this who has anything to add, correct, or present more clearly…please feel free!  It would be good!  

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