Tuesday, January 03, 2017

G.E. Moore Against Moral Absolutism

G.E. Moore: The Ends Justify the Means

236 days until the first day of class.

Here is an argument from G.E. Moore against moral absolutism.

More specifically, Moore provides us with an argument to use against anybody who claims certain actions are wrong regardless of the consequences – or, more precisely, against those who argue that a certain type of action (e.g., murder) is never to be done.

Your answer, according to Moore, can go as follows:

(I am paraphrasing – these are not exact quotes.)

Okay, you say that it is an intrinsically bad thing that a murder takes place. I can accept that.

(Actually, Moore will argue that act types are not intrinsically good or bad – but is willing to accept the claim that an act type is intrinsically bad at least for the moment. There is no need to waste effort to argue against premises one does not, strictly speaking, need to disprove.)

I assume that you are not going to tell me that this particular murder is not the only thing that is intrinsically bad. If this single murder was the sole thing that was intrinsically bad than, either no other murder is intrinsically bad or there can be more than one thing that is the sole thing that is intrinsically bad. Neither of these implications make any sense, so this particular murder cannot be the only thing that is intrinsically bad.

For the same reason, this murder cannot be the worst thing in the world. Or, at least, it cannot be the case that each individual murder is the worst thing in the world, such that it outweighs all of the other bad things.

Consequently, it must be possible that there is a murder that, even though it is a bad thing, can be outweighed by the other bad things that might come about if the murder does not take place. That is to say, allowing the murder, or even performing the murder, may be the least bad option available – the lesser of two evils.

If murder can be the lesser of two evils, then there are times in which murder is the thing that should be done – because it can never be the case that we must do the greater evil over the lesser evil. The claim that we should perform the greater evil does not even make sense – since to be the greater evil is, by definition, to be the thing that ought not to be done.

The way that contemporary moral theorists present this same argument is to ask, “What if, by performing a murder, you could prevent 20 murders? If murder is a bad thing, then, it seems to follow that 20 murders would be worse than a single murder. Consequently, the thesis that murder is intrinsically bad argues that it is better to have only one murder than 20 murders. Consequently, there must be times in which it is morally permissible to commit murder.

Another way that the argument can be presented is to respond, “What if some powerful alien race came to Earth and demanded that we kill Person X. If we do not, then they will destroy the earth in such a way that all of humanity will suffer a very slow and painful death. Clearly, even though murder is wrong, it is better that this murder take place than that all of humanity suffer a slow and painful death.

This argument comes from my continued study of G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica of which, I have said, Chapter V is a treasure mine of good philosophical arguments mixed with a few bad philosophical arguments). I have read the chapter three times now. I need to move on with my reading - but there is still a lot to write here.

Speaking of writing, we are seeing another example of the fact that it is a poor idea for me to edit my own documents. Ian Downey was kind enough to make suggestions to my recent short paper on G.E. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy. In incorporating his suggestions, I am afraid I made some substantial edits - as is my habit. I likely introduced just as many problems as I removed.

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