Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 31:55 — 29.3MB)
This is a short preview of the full episode.
On G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica, ch. 1 (1903); Charles Leslie Stevenson's "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms" (1937), and Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, ch. 1-2.
Is there such a thing as moral intuition? Is "good" a simple property that we all recognize but can't explain like yellow? G.E. Moore thinks that any attempt to define good in terms of properties like "pleasure," "interest," or "happiness" are doomed. Even if all pleasurable things were good, the word "good" still wouldn't mean "pleasant;" you could always sensibly ask, "but are those pleasant things really good?" This is Moore's "open question" argument, which expresses his objection to the "naturalistic fallacy," i.e. deriving an "ought" from an "is."
Stevenson agreed that "good" isn't reducible to any natural property; saying something is good is not to express a property about it at all. Instead, moral terms are tools we use to convince other people to like things that we like. This tendency of the word "good" to elicit such a response is part of what Stevenson calls its "emotive meaning."
MacIntyre thinks that this emotivism now pervades our current uses of ethical language. Because Moore is successful in debunking all the ethical theories that rely on natural facts (and supernatural ones too) to ground morality, we're left with no grounding at all, and people like Moore who pretend to be using intuition to discover primal moral facts are really just expressing their own preferences. The same goes for ethical theorists whose key terms don't hold up to scrutiny: when someone justifies an action by referring to a fiction like "greatest happiness," "natural rights," or "the dictates of reason," he is just, again, expressing his preferences; these bogus theories just serve to mask what's really going on. We'll give MacIntyre's positive account of how to ground morality (which is derived from Aristotle's) in episode 59.
Read more about the topic and get the readings.
End song: "When I Was Yours," by Mark Lint, 1997.
in terms of covering the readings this is one of the best podcasts to date!
here is A-Mac “on having survived academic moral philosophy”.
Love the new layout
Billie Pritchett says
I listened to the episode, and regarding the discussion of Moore, I agree that his attempts to understand what is good as an indefinable non-natural property is not well-grounded on a kind of semantic argument for how people use the word ‘good’ in the English language. In some respects, however, I don’t think the appeal to natural language is misguided, rather just the trajectory he took. I mean, for example, even if it is a fact, like if a person looked at an English language corpus and discovered, that people do not use the word ‘good’ to mean that which maximizes happiness or that which conforms to a maxim that is in principle capable of being universalized it does not follow that an ethical theory cannot be built from this identification, as you mentioned in passing. Any serious attempt to know (that is, anything attempting to be a kind of science) makes use of commonsense notions and abandons them as soon as they do not prove useful for a theory–that is, as soon as they do not seem to be explanatory, predictive, economical, etc. So even if a person could not identify the vernacular usage of ‘good’ with any of the things that could come along in an ethical theory, it does not follow that a person could not formulate an ethical theory that uses this term in a different way, of course provided that the term, if used, be defined as a technical notion that differs from the vernacular. Or, if the term be not used at all, Moore’s criticism regarding using the term or concept holds less water.
This is kind of an old article but here is Steven Pinker’s “Moral Instinct” in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?pagewanted=all. I will briefly summarize the position, which tries to give a kind of naturalistic ethical theory. Human beings are born with a moral faculty, about which people reason about what constitutes harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. This moral faculty initially favors kin and clan, but as this moral faculty interacts with the environment (broadly speaking) human beings increase the extent to which moral concerns affect groups outside the purview of kin and clan, over millenia, centuries, and decades, eventually extending to races, the human race, other animals, and the environment. This naturalistic account might not be true, but supposing that it is, and suppose that it is part of the human design that people reason in this way, is there much more needed to create an ethical theory? If you also add in for good measure the consideration for other perspectives and a tendency toward cooperation to make normal human affairs go smoothly, the line of reasoning from Moore to MacIntyre becomes irrelevant, doesn’t it? Moral reasoning is then on par with any other kind of natural process. If someone wants to ask, “Well, even if I’m designed this way, why should I feel morally obligated to other people?” the response might be on par to what you could say to someone who asks, “Even though I’m designed to be hungry, why should I care about eating?” The answer is of course that that person doesn’t have to care if she doesn’t want to but she should consider the very serious and real consequences that arise if she doesn’t.
thanks for the link to pinker’s essay, billie.
i am a fan of both steven (the blank slate was pivotal in my development into the teacher i became) and robert triver’s work, having an interest in why/how/when/for what purpose cultural assimilation happens to us as children, whether it be human or non/human primates.
triver’s most recent work, ‘a folly of fools’, goes one step further and attempts to explain why we lie, if we choose to.
attempts to explain…there really is no rationale, if for other than survival, imho.
Dyami Hayes says
We have built in, “intuitive” moral values that contradict each other. Not all our moral reasoning, from a naturalistic view, is harmonious. With different framing of the Trolley problem, experimenters are manipulating the answers they receive by playing off of the subject’s competing moral intuitions.
The naturalistic approach to morality presupposes the values which the researcher assumes to have moral relevance. Which of our bodily motions are moral? What is the qualification? They may say, “our survey says a lot of people consider smoking to be a moral issue”, but any argument which depends on popular vote is really no argument at all.
When we decide which naturalistic properties are relevant to morality, we are making value-based – non-“factual” claims. Dido for when we theorize for our competing moral intuitions.
I find moral psychology, experimental philosophy and the likes, to all be very informative. No doubt, how we view morality should not contradict the facts of our moral evolution. When Hobbes bases a moral theory on our supposed internal values, we should juxtapose that with our anthropological, psychological discoveries. But lets not pretend that an fMRI can tell us right from wrong. No natural value theory can solely be natural. The most we can get is, “here is why we might think something is wrong”, when we are looking for, “Here is why something IS wrong”.
When the hungry person refuses to eat, which consequences should she then value and consider? Couldn’t all the people who act immoral then simply say, “I was designed to act in this way”? Your naturalistic account makes the value-based assumption that we should consider our consequences, and implies a further value-based assumption that we should prefer some consequences over others.
There is no contradiction in stating some of our moral intuitions are immoral.
I’m the Chilean who wrote a while ago about the humor.
As you can see, I’ve stayed with you people a while now.
I’ve listened to about half your talks. I find the stuff about ethics more interesting, but that’s just my personal preference: I have no interest in metaphysics or in science either, while ethics moves me to reflect.
I find nothing about strange about being interested in questioning things at my age, 66. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more impatient with superficialities and with small talk, even with most of the stuff that appears in journalism. I always try to read one serious book, either fiction or philosophy. Currently, I’m reading or rather rereading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.
Next on my rereading list is Aristotle’s Ethics. Your podcast on Aristotle is very insightful.
With time, I’ve gotten to have a sense of who is who among you three or four, although I still don’t find your humor to be funny.
If I might make a suggestion about the humor, when you edit the podcasts, eliminate the laughter.
Jokes (in my experience) work better if they stand on their own without laughter on the sound track.
Jokes (in my experience) work better if they are not signaled by laughter.
Now it could be that some people prefer the sound track laughter because it sounds more “natural” and because they are looking for clues about how to “feel one of your group”. I can see that and perhaps I’m wrong about editing out the laughter. So finally I can see both points of view.
In any case, thank you for so many thoughtful and reflective conversations.
Wayne Schroeder says
I’m a 65 year old Californian (no I have not thrown in the towel), and I may have poor taste in humor, but I happen to appreciate your humor and laughter (and even philosophical bantering). In fact, I do not trust people without humor and do not like people without laughter. Humor is much more foundational to good ethics than good behavior, since you know when to laugh, but who knows what the f$%k we should do. Laugh on, even when you are 60+ 🙂
Wayne Schroeder says
P.S. I know being from California probably got some good laughs. We have had some dictators here, one got shot, but lived and didn’t die in a motorcycle crash. By the way, did you hear the one about Plato and a Platapus walking into a bar one time and . . .
Tim Tempest says
I’m a 65-year-old Canadian who’s hanging onto my towel, and, like Wayne, enjoy the humour, laughter and bantering. However, I’m with Swallerstein that there’s nothing strange in finding the questions because more interesting and stimulating as you get older. Like him, I’m becoming more impatient with superficial chatter, which is one reason I’ve been with you youngsters since Episode 4. PEL sets a fairly high standard for listeners and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve found most episodes are worth a second listen and some are worth repeated listenings (Aristotle, Plato and Machiavelli in particular). Laugh on and keep on questioning.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I think Wes’s comment about age just reflects his world weariness and was mostly jocular. Of course Plato was all about only older folks being fit to do philosophy, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if folks often spend more time on such things after retirement or as one’s peers start dying off in increasing numbers.
Wes Alwan says
I made a comment about age? I remember laughing at someone else’s comment.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Must have been Seth, then.
Bear Mathun says
Before getting too upset, I think the podcast is good and a very positive thing: however, that does not mean it is not without flaws.
I agree with the Chilean gentleman about the humour – even living in an English speaking culture I find it very culturally American: also the banter is particularly undergraduate and tedious.
I enjoy the podcast – it is an easy way to listen to other views and insights about particular topics. There are a couple of observations:
a. when someone is a guest such as Owen Flanagan or Lawrence Ware, it is much more interesting and the discussion on the blog is also better (these are the two best episodes);
b. in some of the discussion, the presenters are very defensive, both on air and in the blog – an example is the comments replying to the Chilean gentleman – which I think are attempts of humour but are rather defensive. People offering criticism or correction are often mocked in the “banter”, and this is a little distasteful and closed.
Meh, somewhere between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 mins, the podcast turns itself off on my iPod (just after Mark says ‘sui generis’. Anyone else having this problem?
Great topic and talk, though. It wasn’t as obtuse as some of the ‘difficult’ German stuff, and I definitely enjoyed it more than the Flanagan episode, which was more of a presentation than a discussion, IMO.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks all for reporting this. I’ve replaced the file, and you can re-download if you’d like.
Thanks Mark, that fixed the problem.
First time listener and this episode is right on track with my current professional interest. I’m researching the Dutch translation of the Virtues In Action (VIA) questionnaire from Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.
The questionnaire aims to screen what virtues are important to us. It’s theoretical underpinnings at this moment are fairly immature and superficial and could have learned from this podcast or the philosophers that you speak about.
Then again, it’s interesting to see that both Seligman and someone like Shalom Schwartz (who surveyed over 60.000 people) found that around the world, people value the same kind of behaviour and outcomes. That’s a finding that, in my opinion, should be interesting for philosophers that are thinking about this subject.
Keep up the good work, I’ll be listening to the next episode for sure.
This is Moore’s “open question” argument, which expresses his objection to the “naturalistic fallacy,” which states that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.”
Not trying to be picky, but i think the above sentence is misleading. Isn’t he objecting to these fallacies, rather than the concept of them? I almost skipped this thinking Moore was an idiot, when it turns out i agree with him. : )
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Mike; I’ve tweaked the wording in the post to make this clearer.
Aargh….turns out i don’t agree with Moore. I’m sure he’ll lose sleep over it.
I’m not sure how he goes from natural fallacy, to a more natural fallacy. “intuitive”, my god.
Dan? Asked this as to why they didn’t take the next logical step down the road….. why didn’t they? If they had i wouldn’t have had to make this second post. LOL
I listen every episode, however this topic made me fall asleep at my desk. How about some Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida or discussions of Star Wars?
David Clark says
With all respect, Fred, I couldn’t disagree more strongly! I loved this episode – I haven’t been more riveted since Mark led me through Cantor during the the Bertrand Russell discussion. I actually yelled at Wes while listening to this one (despite the fact that he wasn’t present), such was my involvement with the discussion.
Please keep doing what your doing – don’t change a thing.
Bear Mathun says
Just a couple of observations now that I have finished listening to this episode…
I was glad that you finally mentioned Freddie Ayer – he was one of the first to refute Moore and calling out the fact that it was simply a statement of preferences. Unless you have a Metaphysical concept of the Good, then Ayer is correct is pointing out that you are simply stating preferences.
As for people looking at different accounts of the Good and accepting different Ethical systems – this part of MacIntyre’s project, and his book following “After Virtue” – “Whose Justice, Which Rationality” – explores this further.
A footnote to this is to consider Mediaeval European (or rather French) Jurisprudence. An assumption was that everyone belonged to a group or community and that one should be tried within one’s own community. So when the Franks set up the Kingdom of Jerusalem in Palestine, the locals were expected to have their own courts and manage justice within their own community. Clearly, other courts were used for inter-community disputes.
So this is a practical example of an acceptance of more than one account of Justice or Ethics: interestingly, Thomas Aquinas was exposed to this type of thinking, since he taught in Paris for a number of years.
This lead to an interesting feature of English courts having different competences to try cases: and there used be a processes called “Pleadings” which would determine in which court a case would be heard. This had mostly disappeared by the 1970s.
As a final note, MacIntyre began his project before he became a Catholic. Although you may view him as being “Conservative” (whatever that may mean), his rejection of Kantian Ethics has been a significant shift within Catholic Ethics – putting him directly in conflict with the last Pope and the conservatives within the Church.
You guys were strongest in this episode, as most philosophy is, when you were talking about how children understand what is good and bad. This is why Dewey and the pragmatists were so strong: they understood children. To quote the legendary John McDermott, “There are no children in Descartes.” Stay with the kids and they will bring us closer to the truth of this matter, I’m sure of it.
Nathan Schock says
Hey all, haven’t had a chance to read through the comments, but I posted a few thoughts on my blog: http://nathanschock.tumblr.com/post/26438761949/after-virtue. I’m looking forward to the rest of the discussion and I love the new web design.
I have some serious objections to many of her ideas, but I think she also has some really good points that many people are unaware of or dismissive of (partly because of her choice of terms/wording).
The article has a couple points that lean toward libertarianism which can be debated/objected to, but as I said above it has some really good points.
“A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society
Jerome Petiprin says
I am bothered by the example of “this is water” and “this is H/2O” as being equivalent statements and statements unlike “this is good.” This example comes up repeatedly in Episode 58. Not once was ‘ “this is water” and “this is H/2O” are equivalent statements’ challenged. This example was taken as utterly unexceptionable.
If I hold up a container of water and say ‘This is a container of H/2O,’ this would only be accurate if it is a container of distilled water and only if I intend on putting the statement in a context of models drawn from physical science.
The ordinary use of “water” would apply to distilled water, tap water, pond water, ocean water, or even water so polluted that it could be set on fire. That is, ordinarily “water” is applied to a whole rage of instances where H/2O is a major constituent, but by no means the only constituent.
Further, most instances where H/2O is a major constituent would not be called “water” by proficient users of English. If there is a glass of tea and a glass of coffee on a table, and I ask someone to hand me the glass of water on the table and that person is fluent in English, that person would not hand me either of those.
“H/2O” is a way of talking about a molecule of pure water and puts it in the context of the discourse of physical science. “Water” is a way of talking about a whole range of functionally defined substances and puts it in a social context, for which the percentage of H/2O content is only marginally relevant.
So if the example used as a touchstone for what is an instance of a simple and utterly obvious demonstrative use of “this is X” is, in fact, rather a whole minefield of levels of what “this is X” involves, it should not be used to contrast with “this is good” as being complicated in contrast.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Point taken. It’s just one of those standard philosophy examples…
Thanks for pointing this out Jerome. I also remember being bothered by it.
The prevalence of such “standard philosophical examples” show how deeply ingrained the names-are-labels-for-external-objects idea is, despite Saussure, Wittgenstein et al.
Frank Callo says
I came away from this episode with the same nagging question that I have come away from others with, the one that, more than any other made me think better of perusing philosophy as a career, namely, why must philosophical propositions always need to justify themselves by an appeal to “naturalism”. It seems to be a prejudice of “modernity”, or more like the old adage in business that what gets measured gets done. The idea that anything REAL must be measurable. If it isn’t measurable, it isn’t real and therefore of no consequence to human life and activity. If art were judged in this way there wouldn’t be any (which might explain why are is regularly defunded in the public education system).
OK I know that was a bit of a rantlet-sigh.
It seems to me that discussions of the good are a lot like discussions of the beautiful. People seem to fall into two camps. Either the beautiful is simply conventional or it is some metaphysical property that can’t be fully unpacked because it is the very WAY in which things are packed and unpacked. The first camp seems to win a lot of the time. I think it is because if you can reduce beauty to convention then you can designate the context in which you are speaking about beauty and thereby always be certain exactly what you are talking about.
The “conventionalist” view of beauty seems to go something like this. People from different backgrounds might disagree about whether a woman, or a painting or what ever is “beautiful”. Since there doesn’t seem to be anything “down there” to ground one or the other’s opinion, the opinion of each must be simply a cultural artifact. The trouble with this view is that if people can argue about what is beautiful there must be something they both MEAN by beauty. If this something were merely conventional they wouldn’t even be able to understand what the other person is talking about. The sense of beauty is a certain RESPONSE to an object. When I disagree with someone about what is beautiful we are not disagreeing about the contents of perception, we are disagreeing about the FEELING that the object elicits. The feeling is what beauty IS, or is at least the sensation of what beauty is. For example, in the case of sexual attractiveness, cultures differ somewhat in what constitutes this but not in what is is to find someone sexually attractive.
I think good is just like this. To say that an object or action is good is to say that it elicits a certain response in the individual. People might differ in what moves them to that response but the response is the same. it would be tempting to say at this point to simply inquire what this response is at the level of the organism. This is, in fact, what much of the philosophy of mind seeks to do. But this doesn’t tell us what good is any more than the study of the retina helps us know what light is. Worse in fact because at least we can find some material agent outside of the retina to explain visual phenomena. The good and the beautiful seem to share more with our intuition of geometric forms. Lots of different things are round but few are perfect circles. The perfect circle is a “way things might be”. I think the good is something like that, a WAY (with all the Taoist implications of the word in tact) things are.
Moderns don’t like such ways because they suggest that one gains understanding of things like the god and the beautiful through a practice of some sort, a way of life. This is where Aristotle comes in (as well as Jesus, Buddha and all others who suggest that we become good by being in a certain way). It is like the practice of music or poetry, as you do it you become better at it. It is like health in that the things one does to become healthy are not ends (diet, exercise, etc. are not what health IS, they are WAYS in which one becomes healthy.This is different from the natural sciences where we assume that what we seek to understand is a THING. Good is not a thing, it is a way in which a thing can be.