G. E. Moore's Intuitionism. A highly implausible meta-ethical position

Essay, 2016

7 Pages, Grade: 71

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Is the good indefinable? What were G. E. Moore's reasons for defending this view? Do you think Moore's intuitionism is a plausible meta-ethical position?

This paper will aim to outline G.E. Moore’s defence in Principia Ethica of the view that goodness and consequently moral truth is indefinable. This paper will firstly outline a picture of the autonomous indefinable nature of goodness through Moore’s open-question argument and naturalistic fallacy and will then proceed to critique this characterisation by highlighting the subsequent problematic consequences that accompany the proposed indefinability. The paper will then detail Moore’s ensuing intuitive meta-ethical theory after which I will argue that the meta-ethical picture that Moore constructs is entirely implausible due to the proposed self-evident nature of moral truths and the vague faculty of intuition that it implies.

In Principia Ethica G.E. Moore writes that “goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property" (Moore §13). He describes how goodness exists in its own right in a simple basic, autonomous form and is not reducible to its constituent parts whatever they may be. As it cannot be broken down into a more complex compound, Moore labels goodness a basic, simple compound only definable or evaluated through its own terms i.e. through moral, non-natural terms. There is no possible substitute for the word goodness that will adequately encapsulate it in its entirety because “the value of a whole must not be assumed to be the same as the sum of the values of its parts” (Moore § 18). Moore cites the ‘principle of organic unity’ stating just as an organic organism is far greater than one piece of its biological composition, goodness cannot be fully evaluated from a fixation on one small part of its makeup (Moore §78–80). The sum of goodness is both greater and more complex than its component parts unlike for example, a natural complex concept. He writes “for every whole contains some parts which are common to other wholes also” (Moore §10). A ‘whole’ is not determined nor defined by its parts which can be found in other ‘wholes’. A true definition must encapsulate everything a given concept is in its entirety. A natural concept like a horse can be broken down and defined by describing how their singular parts are composed and related to each other however a simple concept like goodness cannot. Moore offers yellow as a comparison to goodness (Moore §10). In an effort to define yellow, one can try to break it down into its component parts. However it is impossible to fully encapsulate yellowness without experiencing yellow itself. We can say what properties accompany yellowness: e.g. certain wavelengths of light, however it is impossible to describe what the nature of the property of being yellow is. Like goodness, yellow is a simple unanalysable non-derivative property. According to Moore, goodness operates in a similar fashion, however unlike yellowness, it can only be known through intuition outside of the empirical natural world.

By deeming goodness non-natural, Moore disassociates morality from the natural world. He tells us that it is impossible to describe the nature of goodness using natural, scientific and metaphysical statements and should you do so you are committing what Moore calls the “Naturalistic Fallacy”(Moore §10). While we experience and perceive natural properties in the real world such as softness, brightness or warmth, goodness on the other hand cannot be accessed or evaluated through such empirical measures. Through the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ Moore seems to be telling us that any natural observation of behaviour cannot give us any indication of how we ought to behave and that it is impossible for moral judgements to be proven empirically. In Principia Ethica, he writes “far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not "other," but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness.” (Moore §10). Various philosophers who propose natural definitions of goodness are committing this fallacy. However, Moore does not dismiss entirely a correlation between natural properties and goodness. For example, although Hedonists equate goodness and pleasure, Moore does not necessarily rule out that pleasure is good. For Moore, a natural property such as pleasure may possess the attribute of goodness however it does not follow that goodness then equates with pleasure. Simply put, correlation does not entail identity.

Moore uses the Open Question Argument to detail the distinction between identity and correlation. He wants to refute any equation between goodness and any naturalistic or metaphysical property and in order to do this Moore establishes a difference between the closed, definition-seeking question ‘what is goodness?’ from the open, example-seeking question ‘What things are good?’ Take for example the following argument. If you equate goodness and pleasure then they will undoubtedly both occupy the same variable (x). Then the question (1) ‘is it true that goodness is x?’ is meaningless and uninformative as there is a self-contained, automatic answer within the question. It is effectively asking ‘is it true that x is x?’ We are simply left with the uninformative meaningless tautology that ‘x is x’. On the other hand, he says that the question (2) ‘is it true that pleasure is good?’ is not meaningless as it is possible to question a natural property’s morality. Therefore, Moore concludes, x does not equate to goodness or any other natural property. Question (1) can be answered from the conceptual terms alone therefore equating goodness with a natural property such as pleasure is a closed question. However questions such as “is it true that x is good?” is an open question as Moore tells us it is possible for a conceptually competent person to question the outcome and therefore has meaning. The Open Question Argument attempts to argue that any equation of goodness with an empirical, natural property will make the Naturalistic Fallacy and always be associated with a closed question. Any claim that goodness is pleasure is simply stating that pleasure is pleasure. Through this Open Question Argument Moore deduces that any natural evaluation of goodness is inevitably bound to fail. However Moore’s Open Question Argument results in some problematic consequences regarding the defining of any concept.

The ensuing problematic consequences of Moore’s Open Question Argument enables us to categorise a whole host of concepts as indefinable. Due to question (1), it seems that every definition might fail when put through the open question test. Take for instance Moore’s own example of the definition of yellow. No matter what you say about yellow it will not match exactly what yellowness is. Moore tells us that this is due to the simple, basic nature of yellowness that it share with goodness. However, any definition can suffer this fate of deficiency. In order to qualify as a definition the definition itself must be informative. It must not simply be a rehashed word-replica of the concept you are trying to define. However by informing, you are not fully defining and encapsulating the concept that you are trying to define because it can only ever be truly described by its own term. This is called the paradox of analysis. Any definition of a concept will, if successful, appear uninformative. The consequences of Moore’s Open Question Argument in proving the indefinability of goodness includes the undesirable outcome of labelling countless of other concepts as equally indefinable. The concept of a horse in all its usages and horse-ness essence will never be able to be defined as well as it can be through the term ‘horse’. No matter how hard you try a horse is not the very same thing as its definition. Should you operate under Moore’s conceptual framework using his Open Question Argument then alongside the concept of goodness one must attribute indefinability to a vast array of things even widely held true definitions such as water is H20. Goodness may still prove to be indefinable however Moore’s Open Question Argument confirms little.

Thus far I have outlined that Moore has said moral properties are not found in nature. This leaves us with two options. Either both moral truths and goodness do not exist at all or they occupy a non-natural, unusual metaphysical existence. The first option being too dreadful to contemplate for Moore, we are then introduced to his meta-ethical intuitionism which I will now outline. Moore describes how through intuition we gain access to objective moral goodness. For Moore, moral truths are self-evident to a mature mind and are therefore known through intuition. He writes goodness can only be evaluated through "moral intuitions:" self-evident propositions which recommend themselves to moral reflection, but which are not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof (Moore §45). Moore’s ethical intuitionism places the burden of proof on those in disagreement with his unusual metaphysical picture. The moral truths, accessed through intuition stand alone as basic simple ideas that cannot be broken down or further analysed. Careful not to be categorised as the previous meaning of intuitionist Moore outlines exactly what he means by intuition. Unlike deontological intuitionists who use intuitions to evaluate the morality of a given action, Moore’s “first class” intuitions stand alone as autonomous and do not assert a certain action is right (Moore §5).

The main issues of Moore’s intuitionism revolve around the self-evident nature of his moral truths. Moore outlines what he means by intuition writing “when I call such propositions Intuitions, I mean merely to assert that they are incapable of proof; I imply nothing whatever as to the manner or origin of our cognition of them” (Moore, preface, x). However in Principia Ethica he has actually expanded upon this. He has told us that moral truths are not analytical, we cannot know them through empirical measures, so they must be synthetic and a priori in nature. This begs the first question: how do we access these self-evident moral truths? Moore provides us with no clear way of accessing these truths. He simply tells us that a conceptually competent judge has access to them. However we are not given the privilege of the knowledge of how they gain access to them nor what exactly is a conceptually competent judge. He is presupposing some inherent faculty of intuition in conceptually competent individuals which seems entirely implausible. Frankena describe the bifurcation between the ‘ought to’ and the ‘is’ that is implied through Moore’s intuitionism. He writes “the notion of a naturalistic fallacy has been connected with the notion of a bifurcation between the 'ought' and the 'is', between value and fact, between the normative and the descriptive“(Frankena 466). This binary distinction that Moore emphasises forces the conception of another existence, a pseudo-platonic depiction of forms. Goodness, like Plato’s forms, seems to subsist in an unlikely autonomous separate world to our own. Furthermore, Moore puts the burden of proof on the naysayers. In the proposition of such an unusual metaphysical dimension the proof should be on the proposer. Frankena further writes that “yellow and pleasantness are, according to Mr. Moore, indefinable in non-ethical terms, but they are natural qualities and belong on the ' is ' side of the fence”(Frankena 467). We have some evidence for things on the empirical, natural side of the fence such as visual perception. We have little evidence for Moore’s world of morality which is “not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof” (Moore §45).

Moore’s proposed synthetic a priori conception of moral truths proves further problematic. Johnson writes that concepts of this nature “are devoid of cognitive significance” (Johnson 256). Empiricists such as Johnson claim that statements of this nature are simply pseudo-propositions referring to unsubstantiated hypotheticals. This of course stems from a bias empirical stand point, however, Moore puts very little emphasis on the empirical reality we perceive. The reality in which we live in and in which moral acts take place seems to warrant a larger role in the meta-ethical existence of goodness as its goal is to instruct us how to act in the natural world. Moore’s proposed unusual metaphysical reality in which goodness purportedly exists is in utterly divorced from our empirical world. Moore might retaliate that the outlined correlation between natural properties and goodness duly meets this demand, however, the correlation is weak. Moore’s dispensation towards the debatable openness of question (2), which leaves only an uncertain possibility of ties between moral truth and natural properties, does not adequately answer the call for a more accessible meta-ethical picture.

A further problem lies in Moore’s assertion that question (2) is open. There appears to be lack of cohesiveness between the Open Question Argument and the proposed self-evident nature of moral truths. If goodness is self-evident then, in the assumption that one is a conceptually competent individual, one would have some sort of access, whatever it may be, to a body of intuitive knowledge of moral truths. Therefore one should definitively intuit if it is true that pleasure is good. Therefore question (2) no longer bears the status of an open question as there is no room for debate over its truth. Moore’s self-evidential moral truths assume an objective moral standard of morality. – issue with faculty of intuition.

Moore claimed that “every way in which it is possible to cognise a true proposition, it is also possible to grasp a false one” (Stratton-Lake). In parallel to this argument Joyce outlines the “belief pill” thought experiment (Joyce 179). He describes a pill that might make us believe Napolean won the Battle of Waterloo. We then go about our daily lives happy in this belief. However one day somebody slips us another belief pill that plants the belief that napoleon had lost the Battle of Waterloo (Joyce 179) .Joyce is arguing that things might seem morally correct not because of some inherent value but because we have evolved to react in a given way. However, I contend that this does not disprove Moore’s inherent, objective autonomous value of self-evident truths. Just because we may have evolved and think something is true does not clash with autonomous nature of moral truths. However it does conflict with Moore’s problematic proposed self-evident nature of morality which I have dealt with above.

In conclusion I contend that Moore’s intuitionism is a highly implausible meta-ethical position. Vast difficulties arise due to the unenlightening self-evident mere assertion of moral beliefs. This self-evidential nature is not sufficiently argued for nor does he deal with any difficulties that arise from its proposal. There appears to be some mysterious faculty of intuition underlying this meta-ethical picture which lies unmentioned. He outlines no proof for nor describes in any great detail any method of engaging with moral truths in an academic sphere that asks us to deal with natural empirical situations. Moore’s theory is entirely unhelpful in ascertaining the morality of a situation which conflicts with the reality of our lives that seems to allow us to compare and evaluate the morality of one action against another. Furthermore, Moore’s assertion that good is indefinable is based on a flawed Open Question Argument includes the undesirable outcome of labelling countless other concepts as equally indefinable and is inconsistent with the self-evident nature of morality outlined in his intuitionism.


Frankena, W. K. “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” Mind, vol. 48, no. 192, 1939, pp. 464–477.

Johnson, Oliver A. "Denial of The Synthetic A Priori". Philosophy 35.134 (1960): 255. Web.

Joyce, Richard. The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1903. Print.

Stratton-Lake, Philip, "Intuitionism in Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intuitionism-ethics/ Accessed 24 April 2017.

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G. E. Moore's Intuitionism. A highly implausible meta-ethical position
Trinity College Dublin  (The Department of Philosophy)
TSM Philosophy
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g.e.moore, moralphilosophy, intuitionism, meta-ethics, empiricism, Open Question Argument, Principia Ethica, goodness
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Mark Costello (Author), 2016, G. E. Moore's Intuitionism. A highly implausible meta-ethical position, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/365435


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