Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

Oscar’s Second Presentation


Oscar presented an article by Philippa Foot on the fact-value distinction. Foot thinks that those who think there is a significant division between fact and value make two assumptions:

Assumption (1) is that some individual may, without logical error, base his beliefs about matters of value entirely on premisses — which no one else would recognise as giving any evidence at all. Assumption (2) is that, given the kind of statement which other people regard as evidence for an evaluative conclusion, he may refuse to draw the conclusion because this does not count as evidence for him. (Foot 1958, 83–84)

The first part of her article is about the first assumption while the second part is about the second assumption. Oscar had asked us to read the second part and so to focus on the second assumption.

Oscar’s point about the second part of Foot’s article seems right to me. He said that Foot’s argument fails to show there are any categorical imperatives, that is, things you must do regardless of what you want to do.

I think that’s right. Foot’s argument for the conclusion that you must draw an evaluative conclusion from the relevant evidence is that the evaluative standards we employ are connected with our interests. You can’t know that something would be an injury without wanting to avoid it because human beings depend on the proper functioning of their bodies and injuries damage the proper functioning of their bodies. Similarly, Thrasymachus is wrong to reject justice in the Republic because doing so makes him worse off than he would be if he were just. This kind of argument isn’t going to show that avoiding injury or injustice are good regardless of what you want. Rather, the argument is that it’s natural for human beings to want the things that injuries and injustice are incompatible with.

Moore’s Open Question Argument

Since we keep coming back to Moore’s open question argument, let’s put what Moore actually says on the table.

Moore makes the open question argument in Principia Ethica §13 (1903, 15–17). At this point in the book, he has maintained that goodness is a simple, indefinable property much as colors are simple, indefinable properties. “What is yellow?” you ask? The only answer is to point to something yellow and say “that is yellow, yellow looks like that.” Similarly, if you want to know what it is for something to be good, Moore thinks the only thing that can be done is to point to something good. This is complicated because he thinks that good is a non-natural property. So it’s going to be a bit of a head-scratcher to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to point at. I guess a thing with this non-natural property of being good. Anyway, it’s like pointing at a color.

Moore argues for his position by disputing what he sees as the alternatives: (1) that “good” refers to a complex property or (2) that “good” has no meaning of its own. Alternative (2) is not easy for me to understand. I take it that he means that if “good” means something like “is pleasurable” then “good” doesn’t have a meaning distinct from “is pleasurable.” He makes the open question argument in reply to both alternatives.

In fact, if it is not the case that ‘good’ denotes something simple and indefinable, only two alternatives are possible: either it is a complex, a given whole, about the correct analysis of which there could be disagreement; or else it means nothing at all, and there is no such subject as Ethics. In general, however, ethical philosophers have attempted to define good, without recognising what such an attempt must mean. They actually use arguments which involve one or both of the absurdities considered in § 11. We are, therefore, justified in concluding that the attempt to define good is chiefly due to want of clearness as to the possible nature of definition. There are, in fact, only two serious alternatives to be considered, in order to establish the conclusion that ‘good’ does denote a simple and indefinable notion. It might possibly denote a complex, as horse does; or it might have no meaning at all. Neither of these possibilities has, however, been clearly conceived and seriously maintained, as such, by those who presume to define good; and both may be dismissed by a simple appeal to facts.

(1) The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition may be offered, it may always be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good. To take, for instance, one of the more plausible, because one of the more complicated of such proposed definitions, it may easily be thought, at first sight, that to be good may mean to be that which we desire to desire. Thus if we apply this definition to a particular instance and say ‘When we think that A is good, we are thinking that A is one of the things which we desire to desire,’ our proposition may seem quite plausible. But, if we carry the investigation further, and ask ourselves ‘Is it good to desire to desire A?’ it is apparent, on a little reflection, that this question is itself as intelligible, as the original question, ‘Is A good?’ — that we are, in fact, now asking for exactly the same information about the desire to desire A, for which we formerly asked with regard to A itself. But it is also apparent that the meaning of this second question cannot be correctly analysed into ‘Is the desire to desire A one of the things which we desire to desire?’: we have not before our minds anything so complicated as the question Do we desire to desire to desire to desire A? Moreover any one can easily convince himself by inspection that the predicate of this proposition — ‘good’ — is positively different from notion of desiring to desire which enters into its subject: ‘That we should desire to desire A is good’ is not merely equivalent to ‘That A should be good is good.’ It may indeed be true that what we desire to desire is always good; perhaps, even the converse may be true: but it is very doubtful whether this is the case, and the mere fact that we understand very well what is meant by doubting it, shews clearly that we have to different notions before our mind.

(2) And the same consideration is sufficient to dismiss the hypothesis that ‘good’ has no meaning whatsoever. It is very natural to make the mistake of supposing that what is universally true is of such a nature that its negation would be self-contradictory: the importance which has been assigned to analytic propositions in the history of philosophy shews how easy such a mistake is. And thus it is very easy to conclude that what seems to be a universal ethical principle is in fact an identical proposition; that, if, for example, whatever is called ‘good’ seems to be pleasant, the proposition ‘Pleasure is the good’ does not assert a connection between two different notions, but involves only one, that of pleasure, which is easily recognised as a distinct entity. But whoever will attentively consider with himself what is actually before his mind when he asks the question ‘Is pleasure (or whatever it may be) after all good?’ can easily satisfy himself that he is not merely wondering whether pleasure is pleasant. And if he will try this experiment with each suggested definition in succession, he may become expert enough to recognise that in every case he has before his mind a unique object, with regard to the connection of which with any other object, a distinct question may be asked. Every one does in fact understand the question ‘Is this good?’ When he thinks of it, his state of mind is different from what it would be, were he asked ‘Is this pleasant, or desired, or approved?’ It has a distinct meaning for him, even though he may not recognise in what respect it is distinct. Whenever he thinks of ‘intrinsic value,’ or ‘intrinsic worth,’ or says that a thing ‘ought to exist,’ he has before his mind the unique object — the unique property of things — that I mean by ‘good.’ Everybody is constantly aware of this notion, although he may never become aware at all that it is different from other notions of which he is also aware. But, for correct ethical reasoning, it is extremely important that he should become aware of this fact; and as soon as the nature of the problem is closely understood, there should be little difficulty in advancing so far in analysis. I don’t find that to be the clearest thing I have ever read. But that’s the argument.


Foot, Philippa. 1958. “Moral Beliefs.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, no. 59: 83–104.
Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.