Sunday, January 01, 2017

G.E. Moore - Principia Ethica, Chapter 5

Classes start in 238 days.

I have made my New Years Resolutions. (1) Exercise less, (2) Stop losing weight, and (3) Write more. And, in writing more, focus more on what is useful.

This resolution to "write more" and "write that which is useful" has gotten particular emphasis from reading Chapter 5 of G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica, "Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

Seriously, I would blog for a month on the ideas contained within this one chapter. I find it surprising how a person can write, in one chapter, so much of what I call "desirism" and yet not end up with desirism.

The reason for this is simple. Moore, like many moral philosophers, is trying to answer the question, "What should I do?" He has in mind a person who - consciously and deliberately - faces a choice, such as a choice as to whether to lie or tell the truth, or whether to break or keep a promise, or whether or not to commit murder. It is almost as if he has in his mind the thought of a philosophy professor, sitting in his office, thinking, "What should I do this afternoon? My options include playing a round of golf, working on my new book, or killing one of the new graduate students," and considering the pros and cons of each choice. Moore - like a great many moral philosophers - seems not to consider the fact that few of us ever even contemplate, "What are the pros and cons of killing somebody today?"

The difference between a murderer and those who do not commit murder is seldom found in the fact that they both seriously contemplated murdering another person as an option - that one opted to murder and one decided against it. The vast majority of those who do not commit murder never contemplated committing murder. It simply was not one of the list of options available. If somebody is sitting there contemplating murder and evaluating the reasons for and against performing the act, even if they have decided not to do so, there is already something wrong with that person.

It is true that, insofar as we are surrounded by people contemplating whether or not to commit murder, we would prefer that they decide against it. We like to have the reasons available to suggest to them that they answer the question, "Should I kill my roommate this afternoon?" with the answer of "No". But, seriously, morality is about having roommates for which murder is never a genuine option. Oh, it may be a fantasy from time to time, such as when the roommate is snoring at 2:30 in the morning on the day one will be taking one's Biology final exam. However, it is never a serious option.

The real moral question is not how to get a person who contemplates murdering another to decide not to do it, but to create a community within which the vast majority of the people never even seriously consider the option.

Moore does not consider this question, because he is focused exclusively on the decisions of a person who is considering murder as one of several possible actions and trying to choose the best of those available actions. He is then devoted to convincing this hypothetical person not to commit murder. In framing the question in this way, I would argue that Moore is not even discussing the subject matter of morality. He is focused exclusively on the realm of practical decision making.

However, in making this decision he provides some strong arguments in favor of following a rule (a rule not to commit murder) over deciding what act to perform at each individual moment. A moral prohibition on murder is grounded on the proposition that murder seldom produces good consequences, and on the proposition that if a person thinks that his circumstances happen to be an exception to this general truth he is more likely to be wrong than right. He should never trust his decision that, "This time, murder would be a good thing in that it would bring about the best consequences," but, instead, respect the likelihood that he is misunderstanding the consequences of murder to yield a conclusion he wants to be true - but which is probably false in fact. Even if nobody else finds out about the murder, it is still a dangerous habit of thinking that people generally have reason to discourage.

So, the person who, in deciding what to have for supper and what to watch on television, is also trying to decide whether to commit murder, should decide - according to Moore's advice - against violating the social norm or prohibition against doing such things.

Moore does consider the virtues - and I will get to them in a future post. Like I said, I could write for a month on what Moore fits into this chapter. Even if he has the moral question wrong - even though he asks, "What should I do?" instead of "What should I be?" - he still says some very interesting things that I will address in future posts.

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