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G.E. Moore's argument against hedonism


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: G.E. Moore's argument against hedonism
Date: 15th December 2009 14:30

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 7 December, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Critically assess Moore's argument that if good were identical to pleasure, the claim that pleasure is good would be no more informative then the claim that pleasure is pleasure.'

There's is a lot of good stuff here, so I would give this a mark in the upper 60's, say, 67.

On the face of it, Moore is making a preposterous claim, which (as you observe) would render any attempt at philosophical analysis or explication futile.

Let's say I'm a Humean, and I hold the theory that causation is constant conjunction. Then applying Moore's argument, all I am really saying is that constant conjunction is constant conjunction!

Although I think you are right to consider this in a Fregean-Kripkean perspective, as question about different routes to reference, it is worth asking (as this is a moral philosophy essay not an essay in logic) what a hedonist might mean by the claim that the good 'is' pleasure.

One attraction of this view is that you can measure degrees pleasure: it is an objective, natural feature of the world. If the good is pleasure, then you can measure the amount of good by measuring the amount of pleasure.

Moore is surely correct in identifying a 'fallacy' here. The fallacious step concerns the relation between criteria and consequences. The criteria for pleasure are given naturalistically. The consequences, however, involve what human beings ought or ought not to do. To raise the question, in Moore's terms, 'But is pleasure good?' or, 'But is this particular pleasure good?' is to raise a legitimate question about what we ought to do, given certain facts.

However, in response to this why can't the hedonist say, 'Yes, I own up, I am making a substantial claim. I assert that we ought to choose the action which gives rise to the greatest surplus of pleasure over pain, and I assert this on no other evidence than that pleasure is something everyone (or almost everyone) wants and pain is something everyone (or almost everyone) hates.'

The problem with this, in Moore's view, would be that it commits the naturalistic fallacy all over again. The fact that nearly everyone wants pleasure is just a fact. We can still intelligibly raise the question whether this is a good thing, that is to say, whether we ought to want pleasure.

That leaves the hedonist in the position of having to say that the truth of hedonism -- that the good IS pleasure -- is not based on 'empirical evidence', that is to say the observation or measurement of facts about the world. It is simply an ethical axiom which any reasonable person must accept. It is a consequence of this axiom, that the good can be measured empirically.

At this point we can look again at Moore's claim that to say this is to say no more than that 'pleasure is pleasure'. Surely that is wrong. The hedonist is making a very substantial claim. In Moorean terms, the hedonist 'intuits' the good in pleasure and nothing but pleasure, while Moore intuits the good differently. A stand off.

However, having got to this point, I would say that there is another, more subtle, aspect to Moore's objection. Philosophers are less willing to talk nowadays of 'philosophical analysis'. The prefer to talk about 'proposing theories'. There is greater recognition that many fundamental concepts are 'sui generis', not in the sense that nothing informative can be said about them, but rather in the sense that they are irreducible to other concepts. (Moore was fond of quoting Bishop Butler's remark that 'Everything is what it is, and not another thing.')

There may be all sorts of opportunities for 'regimentation' (in a Quinian sense) of our ordinary language. It seems quite plausible, for example, that knowledge can be defined in terms of conditions relating to belief: knowledge IS a species of belief, belief which meets further conditions. On the other hand, there seems little chance of analysing the concept of possibility, or existence, or truth into other concepts. That doesn't prevent the philosopher from putting forward theories of possibility, existence or truth.

The same applies to the moral notions of 'good' and 'ought'. Even if it seems unlikely that a reductive analysis could ever be applied to the concept of 'good', that still leaves the moral philosopher with plenty to say about 'good', in the form of moral theories which connect together different moral concepts in an illuminating way.

All the best,