DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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George Edward Moore (1873-1958)
Central to Christianity and most religions is the question, "What constitutes a right action." That is, how am I to tell a right action from a wrong one? This is the subject of ethics, the study of how to choose between right and wrong. Moore, whose work Principia Ethica was published in 1903, has proved influential in 20th
                                  century ethics.

There seem to me to be a few major approaches to ethical choice:

Law   We can say that an action is right when it conforms to a set of laws or regulations. The Jewish Torah or Law is an example. Alternatively, one might say that the only ground for morality is a legal system. In this case "the good" is ultimately derived from a social contract which mirrors standards agreed to and enforced by a group of people such as a nation.

Revelation   It's possible to hold that the dictates of a divine being establish what is right. This would apply to the Ten Commandments or to any behavioural guideline or rule derived either from sacred writings (like the Koran or the Bible) or from authority (like the Pope), claiming insight into the divine will. In both instances revelation is ultimately the means through which moral norms are communicated.

Nature  It may be that certain aspects of the natural world are obviously good. This amounts to the possibility of an a priori knowledge of right and wrong in which moral standards can be discovered in the same way that we discover that 1 + 1 = 2. This would include rights and wrongs which are worked out from experience. So, for example, we might discover that murder is wrong because of its unpleasant or destructive consequences, both for the individual and for society at large.

Choice   It may be that the only true morality is when we choose right or wrong for ourselves - either individually or corporately. In this case we choose moral standards from a range of options, none of which is intrinsically right or wrong. Thus, for example, we may individually choose that usury is not good, but be unable to persuade a majority of our fellows that this is so.

In Moore's case the concept of good arises from a simple, un-analysable and indefinable intuition of things and situations. It derives neither from nature nor from an a priori understanding. Rather it comes out of a kind of moral sense. It is not a sense experience so it doesn't originate in nature. The quality of goodness is clearly evident, argued Moore, in experiences such as friendship and the enjoyment of beauty. The moral concepts of right and duty are then analysable in terms of actions which possess the overall quality of goodness.

Moore was converted to Christianity as a young boy. But before he left school he declared himself an agnostic and seems to have remained that for the rest of his life. He wrote Principia Ethica while a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Like many other philosophers, Moore's views changed during his life. His early views were particularly volatile. Not until Principia can his philosophical approach be said to have been fully formed. The way in which Moore addressed metaphysics, epistemology and theories of perception has been criticised for being simplistic. One commentator on Moore writes: "In his ethics Moore provided simple, clear-cut answers to the problems and questions of traditional ethics, but their very simplicity ... produces its own disbelief ..." [1].  

This verdict is, I think, based upon a mistaken conviction that complexity is an indicator of truth. Moore's style is clear, though far from simplistic. His clarity is, however, a disadvantage in a strange way - his errors are relatively easy to discover. Many philosophers, their errors safely embedded in obfuscation, are less easy to sniff out.

Like all post-Enlightenment thinkers. Moore tried to discover "what is" by dint of argument. He asked how we know what's real? One early answer was to propose that our thoughts (like "That's a dog") are matched by real physical events (a thought which represents a dog) and a physical reality (an actual dog). Philosophers like labels - and this approach is often called "realist".

Perhaps in reaction to changing perceptions around him, Moore later moved towards less rigid statements of what's "real" by proposing that both specific objects (a dog) and the universals we use to describe classes of objects (dogs) are simply there. He quotes Bishop Butler in the Principia: "Everything is what it is, and not another thing" [2]. Grand statements about reality are not necessarily useful. What's needed is careful analysis of actual things, a painstaking unraveling of a reality by reasoned thought.

I look upon Moore as an important bridge between attempts to express the nature of reality through a priori examination of mental systems, and later stress on empirical objectivity. In other words, he was persuasive because his way of discussing "what is" gave the appearance of empirical observation. 

In fact, when he describes something ("I perceive that dogs bite") he is not being empirical. To be empirical would have been to state how many dogs bite, which breeds bite more others, and how often they bite - to remark on only a few of the observations we normally require to gain consensus about "what really is".

Moore's fundamental mistake can be difficult to spot, if only because his writing is clear and his logic minced small. In the Principia chapter on Naturalistic Ethics, for example, he writes:

[Nature] may be said to include all that has existed, does exist or will exist in time. If we consider whether any object is of such a nature that it may be said to exist now, to have existed, or to be about to exist, then we may know that that object is a natural object, and that nothing, of which this is not true, is a natural object. Thus, for instance, of our minds we should say ...

The jump from "nature" (by which Moore means something empirically identifiable and verifiable so that I can say "I perceive it") to "mind" (which cannot be verified, because I can't say "I perceive your mind") is almost seamless and therefore difficult to identify. But his basic arguments are nevertheless rendered false by the jump. In the years following Principia, Moore tried to overcome this problem by concentrating more and more on errors which arise from using words incorrectly - so it seems he may have been aware of the problem.

Perhaps in reaction to his difficulties in arguing his case, Moore reverted to an argument sometimes termed the "commonsense" approach. Even though his original method appears flawed, this approach (not beloved of philosophers, since it can make them look silly) is perhaps, with his clarity of argument, the primary origin of his considerable influence in the 20th century.

Moore thought that a principle of "weighted certainties" was useful. That is, certain assertions of "what is" are more probable than others. So if truth A is more likely than truth B, the arguments for the latter are not invalidated as such but simply less useful. 

If I assert, for example, that nothing except what each of us perceives exists, I'm essentially wasting my breath. Commonsense dictates that if this assertion is true, then [a] I can't validly use the word "we" and [b] that there's no point in making it since I can't demonstrate that anyone is "out there" to listen. Commonsense demands that we make certain assumptions about reality and proceed from there.

Like most philosophers of his times, Moore battled long and hard with questions of metaphysics and meaning. The above brief discussion should indicate why his discussion of ethics leads ultimately to a blind alley. 

How are we to know that friendship, for example, is "good"? Only when we derive pleasant feelings from the experience of friendship, perhaps? In that case, it is the feelings which are the real good and anything which produces them is a means to the good - not the good itself. Even then, is it possible to establish what a "feeling" really is? Is a feeling a subjective construct, or a series of neuro-physiological events?

Moore appears to just miss grasping this question:

... if anybody was to say ... that pleasure means the sensation of red, and were to proceed to deduce from that that pleasure is a colour, we should be entitled to laugh at him ... The naturalistic fallacy always implies that when we think "This is good," what we are thinking is that the thing is question bears a definite relation to some one other thing [2].

He thought that to discover "the good" we must consider what value things would have if they existed absolutely by themselves. Their existence may be merely a "true belief in the existence of the object of the cognition." As far as I can tell, it is on this commonsense view of reality that Moore's case rests.

To sum up: although Moore doesn't grasp the nettle of the essential unity of perception which is nowadays being stressed, he does settle that (roughly speaking) an agreement that an objective world of some sort existing out there is the best we can do. So if all but a few agree that dogs are "out there" then we must settle for that.

If this is the case, then the existence "the good" is possible. But the good can't be analysed. One can say only that what is good is good. To say that "pleasure is good" is to fall into the naturalist fallacy. "The good" is a complex whole which doesn't rest on external evidence - and must therefore be understood by "intuitions". 

So when we ask if an action is right, we're actually enquiring how much of the good it produces compared with other possible actions. It's only at this point that we can start analysing what's right or wrong.
_____________________________________
[1] J. O. Nelson, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967
[2] Principia Ethica, CUP, 1922

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