Category Archives: Principia Ethica

Ethical Naturalism or Non-Naturalism?

Can ethical statements be understood in terms of some natural qualities or are they non-natural and perceived by some intuition or moral sense?

This problem, raised first by G.E. Moore, suffers from vagueness of the term "natural." What is natural? For Moore, that meant whatever is "the subject matter of the natural sciences and also of psychology." Miller rephrases that as "either causal or detectable by the senses." To me, these attempts at a definition seem arbitrary.

It's far better to recast the problem by considering whether an "ought" can be reduced to an "is." Remember the 4 varieties of good; let's repost them as:

1) X is a physical good = X is loved and X ought to be.
2) X is a metaphysical good = X is and X ought to be loved.

Thus, for 1),

1a) Absence of physical good = X is loved but not chosen.
1b) Indifference = X is neither loved nor hated.
1c) Evil = X is hated (and correspondingly ought not to be).

Let's now define the "is" as any true description of the actual world as it is now or was in the past. The following are part of the is:

  • Socrates was a philosopher.
  • My cat is asleep as I am writing this.
  • I am thinking of a possible world.

Consider the last one of these. That I am thinking of a possible world is part of the is, but the possible world itself of which I am thinking is not part of it.

Now going back to 1), what does it mean that X ought to be? It means that X was chosen out of several alternatives. The essence of a process of choice is precisely contemplating and weighing possible worlds. I think of the world as it is now and try to imagine how it can be changed to my benefit and the costs of each such change. The possibility that seems to yield the highest profit wins, ought to be, and becomes a physical good. All the options set aside are still loved but, since I make them such that they ought not to be (by rejecting them in favor of the thing chosen), are not physical goods.

Since creation of a physical good involves working with possible worlds, and since possible worlds are not part of the is, physical good cannot be described in terms of the is, and so we must be non-naturalists regarding it.

For 2), we have:

2a) Absence of metaphysical good = X is not.
2b) Indifference = X nether ought to be loved nor ought not to be loved.
2c) Evil = X ought to be hated.

It may seems that all things ought to be loved. Well, not when they are in conflict. From my book:

Consider Socrates again, only this time, he is infected with deadly bacteria. Now both Socrates and bacteria have more-or-less objective essences and therefore, a modicum of metaphysical goodness, having a claim on our love (or at least, regard) for them. As St. Thomas would say, everything that exists is good and good to the extent that it exists. Two points, however, make this situation interesting. First, Socrates and the bacteria are natural enemies. Second, Socrates' nature is far more perfect than the nature of the bacteria. ...

In other words, that Socrates is metaphysically better than bacteria is true ad sapientes or self-evidently from "wisdom." But wherein there is a conflict of interest such as postulated here, the more perfect wins over the less perfect, and so, we are permitted to will good to Socrates in desiring him to recover and to will evil to the bacteria in designing for it a speedy death. (SAtK, I, 34)

It may well happen that X may exist and ought to be loved, but is not loved. That's a problem, a sin, if you will. One ought to correct himself and come to love X. As with physical goods we were dealing with possibilities - timeless - thoughts, so with metaphysical goods, we are faced with potentialities - future - feelings. The task is to grow in love for those things that ought to be loved. If you are indeed commanded to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself," but fall short of this ideal, then God and neighbor are metaphysical goods and demand love from you.

This love must be carefully nurtured and elicited from the is and will come to be, if at all, in the future. An oak tree is an actualized acorn. For charity, God builds a flame from a tiny spark. But as of now, the future does not exist and so again is no part of the is. It seems like for metaphysical goods, too, we must be non-naturalists.

Since moral good

3) X is a moral good = X ought to be and X ought to be loved,

combines possibilities and potentialities, its analysis is straightforward.

There is an irony here. Physical and metaphysical goods are not reducible to the is, but the corresponding evils and wrongs are! The world is chock-full of, saturated with evil. I proved that "murder is wrong" in earlier posts by appealing solely to natural law. Physical evil is any pain or suffering that would "naturally" persist sans human action to alter the course of events and remedy this evil. Moral evil adds to harm an injustice which I cash out as disrespect for the nature of things, especially human nature, also a full aspect of the is.

Thus, "murder is wrong" is a proposition of natural law, but "a sandwich is good" is beyond nature.

We cannot therefore say simply that we are ethical naturalists or non-naturalists. We are naturalists for moral wrongs and evil, and non-naturalists for moral good.

Ethical Naturalism

It proposes that the term "good" can be reduced to a some natural property N, where "natural" means roughly within the scope of natural sciences or psychology.

The main objection, as I understand it, is the need explicitly somehow to bridge the is-ought gap for N, whereas it is the very meaning of "good" that it ought to be or that one ought to bring it about.

As a result, the non-naturalists argue, since the properties of all N vs. goodness differ, no natural N is analytically "good."

Principia Ethica, 3

All of a sudden on p. 99 Moore starts talking about "absolute" and "Universal" goods without ever defining either term.

His argument is as follows. Hedonists argue that pleasure is the sole good. But whose pleasure? Well, Egoists say that Smith's pleasure is the sole good for Smith. But, Moore objects, then Jones' pleasure is the sole good for Jones. The "fundamental contradiction of Egoism is that immense number of different things are, each of them, the sole good."

If Smith's happiness is good, then "everyone has an equal reason to pursue it, so far as they are able and so far as it does not exclude their attainment of other more valuable parts of Universal Good. In short it is plain that the addition of 'for him' 'for me' to such words as 'ultimate rational end,' 'good,' 'important' can introduce nothing but confusions."

But wait a minute. There is no such thing as an absolute human good. The only good that may contend for this quality is "true happiness" as an abstract type of good that all humans pursue. Smith pursues true happiness, and so is Jones, etc.

Of course, each person pursues his own version of true happiness. Eating vanilla ice cream makes Smith happy but not Jones who likes chocolate ice cream. So, all good is relativized to individuals. Now consider Smith's actions. He seeks his own true happiness. Which is good. But is not Jones' object of his own search a good even from Smith's point of view? Yes, but only to the extent that Smith loves Jones and wills good to him. In which case, Jones' happiness overflows into Smith and becomes Smith's. So, from Smith's point of view, there is no good other than his own true happiness, which, since it involves perfected nature, entails also charity for neighbor and rejoicing in their true happiness, as well. If Smith instead hated Jones, then Jones' happiness would in no way be Smith's good; if Smith was, say, an avenger of blood, then he would suffer upon seeing Jones happy.

Who Smith will love, how intensely, etc., is Smith's free choice, but generally speaking, people who love their fellow men are much happier than those who do not.

The universal good is also relativized, except this time to an "impartial observer" or to the Ruler of the universe, such as God, whose pleasure consists in maximizing the total true happiness over all people.

The human good then is relativized, but within each compartment, "for" Smith, "for" Jones, etc., there is only one supreme sole good: true happiness. Each person is a "microcosm" containing a unique ultimate good for its own self.

The absolute good, as I point out, belongs to the 3rd-grade Father only and consists not in true happiness (though the 2nd-level Son possesses it in an infinite amount) but in that principle whose self-diffusion creates things-that-seek-and-enjoy-true-happiness.

If there is no Smith in the first place, then there is no happiness for Smith. It is a straightforward deduction from this to set apart the Creator of Smith as something sui generis.

Is Everything That Exists Good?, 2

The previous post deals with the first objection and proposes that Goodness creates beautiful things. To the extent that beauty is goodness, every rational creature that exists is good and good in proportion to its beauty and true happiness.

What about the second objection? First, we need to determine how God loves people.

I believe that God loves us by rooting for us, cheering for us, egging us on, saying: "Come on, do something interesting! Accomplish something! Have fun! Go!" He takes our search for happiness to heart and even assists whenever necessary.

I analyze humans into component parts, such as essence (nature), accidents (virtue), and acts (happiness), where by acts I mean the answer to the question "What fun and exciting thing are you doing right now?" But God, if He loves, loves the whole of man. The question then becomes: What is the essence of human identity?

Moreover, it's not that I have a nature, as though a separate object or property from me; I am in part my nature. It's not that I have character traits; I am my character. And it's not that I am enjoying something; I am in act.

The essence of identity is to build it up self-consciously on the virtue tier and then forget all about it on the happiness tier. Identity is its rejection or perhaps transcendence, when rightly understood, as one focuses no longer on perfecting oneself but on mastering and enjoying what he is doing, being so caught up in the moment that he forgets about himself.

The more in act or truly happy we are, the more enthusiastic God becomes at supporting us. God has no patience for mere states (more permanent like nature or even more changeable like virtue); He wants and loves action.

Thus, the more in act one is, the more God delights in him.

Then I do not so much enjoy true happiness as I am my own true happiness. But since true happiness is a definite good, then God does not so much will good to me as wills me to be -- overall -- good. It is true that man acts for an end; but the end is he himself!

As I become in part true happiness (only God is wholly pure act), I become good, and this is the sense in which I and all human beings are good by virtue of their mere existence.

The syllogism is as follows:

(1) Happiness is good.
(2) I (= what I am + who I am + what I am doing) am somewhat my own happiness.
(3) I am good.

By what has been said the third objection may be easily solved.

Is Everything That Exists Good?

The question is whether everything is good by virtue of its mere existence, a kind of metaphysical goodness. In the posts below, I reluctantly conclude that this does not make sense. Why should the mere presence of a slab of lard or a dude make either the lard or the dude "good"?

However, the intuition that the world is good kept gnawing at me.

Again, there are three objections to the idea that all things just "are" and are neither good nor bad:

  1. It would seem to belong to Goodness to create good things.
  2. If God loves us, and that which is loved is good, then we must be good in some sense.
  3. If our human nature, when appropriately uplifted, is a means to our true happiness, then is not humanity itself good?

There is a way to arrive at what seems to be the demanded conclusion in a more roundabout way.

Humans' final cause, unlike the final cause of merely material things, is within them. It is their own happiness, whereas the goodness of matter consists in its ability to assist men in their search for happiness. So, no individual can be essentially a means to an external end. (To be sure, on the free market, social cooperation can be viewed as people using each other efficiently. But the end of such mutual help is greatest overall happiness. It is still the happiness of individuals, even if aggregated somehow.)

Suppose I plant flowers in spring, and when they bloom, I say: "They are very beautiful." Am I not therefore attributing some form of goodness to them that goes beyond a mere means to my ends? The flowers are not "tools"; they are "works of art." They are not functional but expressive. In this sense, humans have no external purpose to them as means but are nevertheless expressive of the Father's artistry.

In other words, even if we admit that humans are not essentially useful goods, they can still be virtuous goods.

In short, humans, as well as many other things, are if not good then certainly beautiful. Now unlike goodness which is objective real, beauty is subjective real. This means that it belongs to us (to paraphrase St. Thomas, we are beautiful by our own beauty not by divine beauty) but only insofar as other people or God delight in us. However, we are not "good" as in good independent of God's or other people's opinion.

Humans are beautiful to the extent that they evoke loving feelings from others and God. Our beauty as things by virtue of our mere presence is determined by others.

But with respect to God's opinion it can be affirmed that God's sense of beauty is perfect; hence, we may argue in favor of a "divine command theory of beauty": X is beautiful if and only if God finds it so. With this, beauty becomes more objective and convertible into goodness. Moreover, no creature is condemned to hell; so, all things are more or less beautiful.

It is permissible to reassert the preeminent condition of human beauty: a person is beautiful to the extent that he is truly happy. The reason still to invoke God's external perception of us is that He is in many ways the Author of our happiness, discerns an individual's beauty most competently, and beauty's subjectivity need not mean there are no right answers.

In sum, the world is good insofar as it is beautiful in the eyes of God and even a non-divine rational creature. To the extent that beauty is convertible with goodness, the world is also good simply as existing, in its own self.

What Is the Good?

Goodness means different things for different grades.

For 1st-grade merely material things, goodness is measured by conformance to a perfect archetype. The more a thing resembles an ideal, the better it is.

Now what then is "perfection" on the 1st level? It is suitability to a (human) purpose. A perfect knife cuts with wonderful efficiency. A perfect chair is extremely comfortable. Then a "good" knife is one that cuts pretty well if perhaps imperfectly. And that's all there is to it.

For 2nd-grade rational beings, goodness has the property of being relative and is directly linked up with happiness.

Goodness is metaphysical if it refers to human nature; moral, if to personality; and physical, if to narrow happiness. Call any such good relative proximate.

In particular, physical goods consist potentially of <desire, plan, execution>, and actually of <vision, comprehension, fruition>.

Relative ultimate goodness refers to true happiness, which is a combination of perfected nature, virtue, and narrow happiness.

Most practical ethics is concerned with relative proximate goods.

For the 3rd-grade God, goodness is not happiness-sought-by-a-rational-being, but that whose self-diffusion creates out of nothing beings that seek happiness.

This goodness is absolute.

Principia Ethica, 2

On pp. 30-36 of Principia Ethica, Moore discusses the part-whole relationship called "organic unity." He describes one meaning attached this term as follows:

But finally (3) the sense which has been most prominent in recent uses of the term "organic whole" is one whereby it asserts the parts of such a whole to have a property which the parts of no whole can possibly have.

It is supposed that just as the whole would not be what it is but for the existence of the parts, so the parts would not be what they are but for the existence of the whole; and this is understood to mean not merely that any particular part could not exist unless the others existed too..., but actually that the part is no distinct object of thought -- that the whole, of which it is a part, is in its turn a part of it. ... This supposition is self-contradictory...

Well, allow me to retort.

Moore uses a narrow definition of "part" which he understands as "material cause." When the meaning of this term is restricted in this way, then of course, the proposition "the whole subsists in one of its parts" makes no sense. For example, there is a "deductive a priori" argument that "the whole is no smaller than any of its (material) parts."

But if A contains and is bigger than B, then for A to be a part of and contained in B would require it to be at the same time smaller than B. Which is absurd.

If, however, we generalize "part" into "cause," then it is easy to grasp how the entire human body including the arm is an efficient cause of the arm. The efficient cause of a thing answers the question "How does it work?" But it is impossible to understand how an arm works, unless we take into consideration both (a) the fact that the arm is attached to the body and (b) the entire body as a whole. It is the whole body that causes the arm to work. Cut the body off, and it no longer works. Its efficient cause -- that which makes it do the things that arms do -- is gone; and hence, the effect, i.e., the working arm, disappears along with it.

In this sense, the whole, i.e., the body, is definitely in its part, i.e., the arm. The arm is part / material cause of the body, and the body is part / efficient cause of the arm.

In its capacity as efficient cause, the body sort of "permeates" the arm.

The difference between a mechanical and organic whole, rather obviously, is that in the latter both the whole and the parts are alive, and both not only allow each other to work but to live, as well. Otherwise, mechanical wholes are also efficient causes of their parts.

A car is a complex mechanical whole. Yet it is possible to shut off the engine, disassemble the car into its component parts, then put it back together, and have the car work perfectly well. The human soul may be defined as that aspect of humanity that prevents us from performing a similar procedure on a living person: it is hardly possible to kill a man, carve his body into organs and cells, then slap them back together and reanimate him: anyone who attempted to do that would quickly be assured that zapping the resulting cadaver with a lot of electricity is a poor substitute for the Holy Ghost.

Regarding economics, while Crusoe economics yields important insights, for genuine understanding of this science we need to examine social cooperation among many human beings. Mises, for example, endorses this view as follows:

The market process is coherent and indivisible. It is an indissoluble intertwinement of actions and reactions, of moves and countermoves.

But the insufficiency of our mental abilities enjoins upon us the necessity of dividing it into parts and analyzing each of these parts separately.

In resorting to such artificial cleavages we must never forget that the seemingly autonomous existence of these parts is an imaginary makeshift of our minds. They are only parts, that is, they cannot even be thought of as existing outside the structure of which they are parts.

Take that, Moore!

Society or the economy as wholes are efficient causes of human beings and human actions. Studying a person in isolation from society, therefore, is only of limited, if still definite, interest.

Principia Ethica, 1

Moore makes a strange assertion in this book. A "simple," as in, non-composite thing cannot have a definition.

He considers the definition of a horse, saying that it "is composed in a certain manner: that it has four legs, a head, a heart, a liver, etc., etc., all of them arranged in definite relations to one another. It is in this sense that I deny good to be definable." Outrageous! Suppose that good is indeed simple, as in having no components of which it might be made up. That only means that it lacks a material cause. It says nothing about its formal cause!

The former is an answer to the question, "What parts does good consist of?" The latter, to the question "What is good or the good?" These questions inquire of very different things, and conceding that materially, good is "nothing" does not entail that it is "nothing" formally, as well.

Let me illustrate the distinction.

Peruse the Wikipedia entry on the DNA. The first sentence is that it's "a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses." That sounds interesting.

The rest of the article, unfortunately, busies itself with the question of how the DNA is constructed, and a bit on how it works. But I, in turning to Wikipedia, want to know first and foremost what the DNA is! What does it do, and why? How does it further the ends of organisms, from their mere survival all the way up to pursuit of happiness, which pertain also to its final cause? Why is the DNA used in the "development and functioning of all known living organisms" as opposed to some other structure that might exceed it in efficiency? Given almost complete lack of attention devoted to such primal questions, the article is a failure.

Moore then uses the comparison of "good" to "yellow," saying that "yellow," too, is simple and (therefore) undefined. This, too, is nonsense. Yellow is "undefined," because it is a personal subjective experience, and those are fully private and incommunicable. How do I describe how yellow feels like to my sight? I cannot. How can I make sure that my experience of yellow is the same as your experience? I cannot do that, either, if that question is even meaningful. As a result, "yellow" cannot be defined other than by different types of ostention and hoping that our human bodies work sufficiently similarly that, however the mind-body connection is effected, the spiritual experiences are close to each other in "quality," as well, whatever exactly that means.

Presumably, however, Moore does not hold that good, just like yellow, is a subjective experience. The analogy fails. Let's hope, as I continue re-reading this book, that he will try to prove the simplicity of goodness in some other way.