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April 5, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
Works on ethics suffer, as a rule, from two opposite defects. From a desire for system and simplicity, reinforced by logical confusions, they flagrantly outrage common sense in their estimate as to what things are good in themselves; and then, from a dread of consequences which are felt to be immoral, they endeavour, by flimsy and inconclusive arguments, to prove that their estimate of goods leads to the usual code of duties and sins. Both these defects are absent from Mr. Moore’s work. There is throughout a frank appeal to what appear as ethical facts, combined with an extra ordinary subtlety and care in the analysis of their implications. But, in spite of the subtlety, all the discussions are admirably clear, and are intelligible, except in one chapter, without any previous knowledge of philosophy.
It is a merit rarer, perhaps, than is supposed, to aim solely, in philosophy, at the discovery of truth. Most philosophers are interested, almost exclusively, in establishing some apparently valuable conclusions, for which they seek to find premises. The premises, when found, do not interest them on their own account; and any questioning of the premises is regarded as trivial and carping. Thus attention is concentrated on results, and a hasty, practical tone of mind is generated. In the present author, no trace of this mistake is to be found.
“It may be thought,” he says on one occasion, “that my contention is unimportant, but that is no ground for thinking that I am not in the right. What I am concerned with is knowledge only – that we should think correctly and so far arrive at some truth, however unimportant.”
In accordance with this theoretical spirit, Mr. Moore begins by dismissing the notion that ethics is solely concerned with human conduct, or with the goods attainable by human beings: ethics is the general inquiry into what is good, and into what good is. The chief contention of the first chapter is that good itself is indefinable: an ultimate, simple notion, like yellow. Not that it is impossible to define the good, i.e., the things which are good; but that what we mean when we say that a thing is good, cannot be explained in any other terms. This is established by observing that, however we may propose to define good, it is always significant to say that that which is suggested as the definition is itself good. If we say: “pleasure is good,” we say something different from: “pleasure is pleasure”; thus good cannot mean the same as pleasure. And the same process may be applied to any other suggested definition. The notion that good can be defined, is called by Mr. Moore the Naturalistic Fallacy, because usually some natural object (i.e., something which exists) is taken to be the meaning of good. He shows that, in one form or other, it has been committed by almost all ethical writers; it is involved, for example, in every attempt to infer what ought to be, from what is or will be. The remainder of the chapter is concerned, first, with distinguishing good as end from good as means – what is called good as means is merely a cause of what is good, while good as end is the same as good simpliciter – and, next, with the principle of what are called organic unities, i.e., wholes whose value is not the sum of the values of the parts. These have a very important place in estimating goods, and are frequently discussed in later chapters. An instance is the enjoyment of a beautiful object. A beautiful object which no one sees has little or no value, and a mistaken admiration also is not much prized; but, when the object admired has beauty, we get a whole which is often very good indeed.
Adapted from Bertrand Russell.
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This was an article on Ethics.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.