# Moore's Open Question Argument

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Orwells Ghost
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08 Oct 2021, 8:15 pm

Hi everyone! New here. I thought I'd ask a question that's bothered me for years: Does anyone feel competent to explain Moore's Open Question argument? I've read several accounts and just never been able to get his point. (And, for reference, I can read *Kant* pretty okay.)

Orwells Ghost
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08 Oct 2021, 8:17 pm

Aaand you know that thing happened where right after I posted the question, I read one more thing, thought about it, and got it. So . . . stand down, I guess? Still happy to discuss it with anyone who finds it interesting.

shlaifu
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08 Oct 2021, 8:46 pm

I hadn't heard of it before, read the wikipedia article and watched two youtube videos on it by now. I'm not sure if I get it - the problem is whether there is some absolute moral good that's are inherent to things or actions? - and the reasoning behind it is that questioning a moral goodness never results in circular dependency, like the question "do triangles have three sides"? - therefore there's nothing that can by definition be good?

I guess this must come as a shock to Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson.

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Orwells Ghost
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09 Oct 2021, 2:25 pm

If I understand it correctly, the argument is based on something like this:

Any true proposition p is either analytic (tautological, true by virtue of the meaning of the words used or by logical necessity) or synthetic (not-analytic). If p is analytic, the question, 'Is it the case that p?' is closed: The answer *must* be yes. Closed questions cannot yield anything you didn't already know by asking the question, because to understand p is to know that it is true. By contrast, if p is synthetic, the question is open: The answer may be either yes or no, and therefore might tell you something you didn't already know (or were already rationally committed to, at least).

The argument would then go something like this:

1. Where A is anything other than 'the good', the question 'Is it the case that A good?' is always open.
2. If A and 'good' are just the same thing, then 'Is it the case that A is good?' is a closed question.
3. Therefore, A and good are not just the same thing. (modens tollens)

So, for example, utilitarians assert that utility (=something like 'pleasure' or 'happiness') and only utility is the good. Some go further and claim that not only is utility the only good, but that 'utility' (in their sense) and 'good' are just the same thing (a case of moral 'naturalism', i.e., arguing that the good/right and some natural property are identical). Moore argues that that cannot be the case, because the question 'Is utility good?' is plainly always open.

The weakness of this argument, IMHO, is that it fails to recognise the possibility of someone saying, ‘”Utility” and “good” *refer* to just the same *thing in the world* necessarily, but they nevertheless express different *concepts*.’ In technical terms, this is called ‘non-analytic naturalism’. So premise 2 is false: A (e.g. utility) and the good can be just the same thing, and yet the question ‘Is it the case that A is good?’ is open, because ‘A’ and ‘the good’ are not *conceptually* the same; it is *conceivable* that A and the good might be different, even though in fact they refer to the same thing.

In the end, I’m convinced that Derek Parfit (in Part VI of his absolutely masterful On What Matters) demonstrates that this is a distinction without a difference, but Moore’s argument does not even deal with this.

I haven’t read much of Harris or Peterson, but what I have read of (and about them), their arguments in metaethics lack cogency.

shlaifu
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09 Oct 2021, 6:32 pm

I think utilitarianism angles on the idea that "utility" and "good" are indeed synonymous, and the question "is utility good?" is actually considered meaningless by urilitarians.
It also doesn't solve anything.

I think I got the concept of Moore's Open Question now, though, so: thanks.

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Orwells Ghost
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09 Oct 2021, 9:53 pm

There are definitely utilitarians (naturalists) -- maybe the majority, I don't know -- who think that 'good' and 'utility' just refer to the same property, but there are definitely also non-naturalist utilitarians who maintain (far more sensibly, in my opinion) that goodness is a distinct property that supervenes on utility.

One of the main problems with analytic naturalist utilitarianism is that it doesn't seem to be able to account for the existence of real non-utilitarians as opposed to just people who talk funny by using words like 'good' and 'happiness' as if they meant different things. But surely those of us who are not analytic naturalist utilitarians -- however mistaken we might be -- really disagree with them about the nature of the good, not about semantics. When I say something like, 'It is not the case that the most felicific act in any given situation is necessarily the right one,' I simply do not mean 'It is not the case that the most felicific act in any given situation is necessarily the most felicific act,' or 'It is not the case that the right action in any given situation is necessarily the right one,' -- and frankly, I find it more than a little obnoxious when people insist otherwise.

And this is (I think) another way of getting at what Moore was going for with the open question argument.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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10 Oct 2021, 3:09 pm

I think George Moore wanted to find a way around ethical hedonism— the idea that happiness (broadly defined) is the only intrinsic good in the universe, and suffering (broadly defined) the only intrinsic bad. In fact, I’m pretty sure Moore wanted to add knowledge and beauty and one or two others to the list.

Myself, I think ethical hedonism is largely true, however . . .

it doesn’t really help much as a decision procedure.

Udinaas
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11 Oct 2021, 1:37 pm

It's similar to what Hume was getting at when he talked about the is-ought problem but from a different angle and more expanded. If you can't get an ought from an is, oughtness can't be an intrinsic part of an is. I'm a utilitarian-leaning quasi-realist but I think that if moral realism were true oughtness would have to be an irreducible property like Moore claims.

Coming from the bible belt, I associate the kind of is-ought confusion Hume and Moore are criticizing more with divine command theory and natural law than with meta-ethical naturalism (outside of Sam Harris, it doesn't seem anyone is advocating it anymore), and it always puzzles me when religious apologists think the is-ought problem is helpful to their moral arguments.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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12 Oct 2021, 4:22 pm

Udinaas wrote:
It's similar to what Hume was getting at when he talked about the is-ought problem but from a different angle and more expanded. If you can't get an ought from an is, oughtness can't be an intrinsic part of an is. . .

Do you think there’s some potential from the idea of emergent properties?

For example, jazz syncopation didn’t exist in the early universe, but it kind of exists now. And mathematical theorems.

And as early, fast-living stars produced heavier chemical elements such as carbon, well, we eventually got things such as lipids being hydrophobic and producing round structures.

And yes, I admit it is a stretch to argue, for example, that once living creatures become complex enough to have a personality, they also have rights.

Personally, I’d rather just say it’s obvious that happiness is a positive, suffering a negative, but that has problems, too.

If I was going to write a philosophic treatise, I guess I’d just ask people to take the journey with me.

PS At the end of the day, I probably believe in a hybrid between Utilitarianism and a Kantian rights-based approach.

Udinaas
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12 Oct 2021, 8:39 pm

AardvarkGoodSwimmer wrote:
Udinaas wrote:
It's similar to what Hume was getting at when he talked about the is-ought problem but from a different angle and more expanded. If you can't get an ought from an is, oughtness can't be an intrinsic part of an is. . .

Do you think there’s some potential from the idea of emergent properties?

For example, jazz syncopation didn’t exist in the early universe, but it kind of exists now. And mathematical theorems.

And as early, fast-living stars produced heavier chemical elements such as carbon, well, we eventually got things such as lipids being hydrophobic and producing round structures.

And yes, I admit it is a stretch to argue, for example, that once living creatures become complex enough to have a personality, they also have rights.

Personally, I’d rather just say it’s obvious that happiness is a positive, suffering a negative, but that has problems, too.

If I was going to write a philosophic treatise, I guess I’d just ask people to take the journey with me.

PS At the end of the day, I probably believe in a hybrid between Utilitarianism and a Kantian rights-based approach.

You have a good point about emergent properties but I don't see any way for anything external to intrinsically obligate people regardless of their desires. I also think this moral internalism isn't as problematic as moral realists think it is and that you still end up with some universal moral obligations for non-psychopaths (people with moral intuitions). Intuitively I agree about happiness and suffering but that doesn't mean that they are objectively good or bad in a cosmic sense, and they don't need to be for me to be justified in trying to increase happiness and reduce suffering. We construct morality around our moral intuitions and the goals that they entail, and both individual actions and the rules themselves can be objectively good or bad within that framework. I can elaborate if you want. Our conclusions about morality probably aren't very different (although I prefer a Rawlsian view of rights); we just get there in different ways.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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14 Oct 2021, 12:04 am

Udinaas wrote:
. . . Our conclusions about morality probably aren't very different (although I prefer a Rawlsian view of rights); we just get there in different ways.

I think of Rawls as basically asking, What society would I like to be reincarnated into, if I didn’t know what position I’d be in?

Is this understanding in the neighborhood? And how might you link it and overlap it with other theories?

With Utilitarianism, I think I’d like what I might personally call “repertoire utilitarianism.” For example, just from detective shows such as Columbo and Barnaby Jones I saw on TV as a boy, I probably know more about how to commit a murder than I know many aspects of basic first aid. I mean, I just barely know how to do rescue position for someone having a prolonged seizure!

We might also call this percentage baseball utilitarianism. Robert Adams did something similar with what he called “motive utilitarianism” from the 1970s. And I think the idea can be further built on.

Udinaas
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14 Oct 2021, 8:22 pm

AardvarkGoodSwimmer wrote:
Udinaas wrote:
. . . Our conclusions about morality probably aren't very different (although I prefer a Rawlsian view of rights); we just get there in different ways.

I think of Rawls as basically asking, What society would I like to be reincarnated into, if I didn’t know what position I’d be in?

Is this understanding in the neighborhood? And how might you link it and overlap it with other theories?

With Utilitarianism, I think I’d like what I might personally call “repertoire utilitarianism.” For example, just from detective shows such as Columbo and Barnaby Jones I saw on TV as a boy, I probably know more about how to commit a murder than I know many aspects of basic first aid. I mean, I just barely know how to do rescue position for someone having a prolonged seizure!

We might also call this percentage baseball utilitarianism. Robert Adams did something similar with what he called “motive utilitarianism” from the 1970s. And I think the idea can be further built on.

Your understanding of Rawls is accurate. I see it as the most utilitarian way to approach politics if the goal is to maximise the well-being of each individual. Rawls rejected utilitarianism but the version of it that he attacked was one based of maximizing units of happiness without regard for how they're distributed. But that's not the only form of utilitarianism or the one advocated by Mill. When Mill said that the world would be as unjustified in silencing the opinions of one person as they would be in silencing the rest of the world, he obviously wasn't trying to maximize mere units of happiness, but do what was best for each individual.
I'm not familiar with motive utilitarianism.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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14 Oct 2021, 11:35 pm

Udinaas wrote:
. . . When Mill said that the world would be as unjustified in silencing the opinions of one person as they would be in silencing the rest of the world, he obviously wasn't trying to maximize mere units of happiness, but do what was best for each individual.
I'm not familiar with motive utilitarianism.

Thank you for the good info.

With “motive utilitarianism,” one thing Robert Adams pointed out was that there is a heck of more overlap between Utilitarianism and Kantianism than generally acknowledged (and I’ll add, much more so than most undergrad ethics classes tend to point out!)

And then, he had a really long example of someone who loves architecture and is visiting the Chartres Cathedral in France, but this same person hates to drive at night. He overstays his visit from what would have been optimum from a maximizing welfare perspective. But, Adams argues that this is a case of rational irrationality.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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15 Oct 2021, 12:02 am

I’m showing a random book by a baseball manager to illustrate . . .

. . . that theories of ethics are WAY behind the curve as far as good advice and examples about working with different types of people.

AardvarkGoodSwimmer
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20 Oct 2021, 3:29 pm

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011 ... to-be-good

From Derek Parfit, I personally draw the conclusion:

My future self and well-being has of course moral count, as does the well-being of other people. And the difference between the two is less than what I grew up believing.