Last Updated 22 Jun 2020

Good in the Moral Context

Category Morals
Essay type Research
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GOOD IN THE MORAL CONTEXT i. e. OBJECTIVISIT, SUBJECTIVIST AND FUNCTIONALIST ‘Good’ can be described from three views: •Objectivist •Subjectivist •Functionalist Objectivist point of view One main philosopher who defended the objectivist point of view was George Edward (G. E. ) Moore. In his book Principia Ethica, Moore discussed the definition of the word ‘good’. With this book he influenced the philosophers who came after him. The objectivist point of view is naturalism i. e. (what moral law predictates, usually from the natural law). In defining the word ‘good’, G. E. Moore attacks the objectivist point of view.

He criticizes the naturalistic point of view. Moore, an intuitionist (meaning he is someone who decides if something is good or wrong by reflecting on his own, without anyone explaining to him) disagreed that good could be explained objectively. Moore criticised Utilitiarians as they were emotivists, i. e. depending on feelings. Thus they defined ‘good’ according to feelings. So good = pleasure. Thus utilitarians do not judge whether an action is good or bad by the quality of the action but by the consequence of the effects. Moore also criticised Christian morality, because these reason an action is good because it pleases God.

He said, something is not defined as good because it pleases someone else. Moore invented an interesting term called ‘The Naturalistic fallacy’. Naturalistic fallacy, according to Moore, is to define a term, in this case ‘good’ by means of something which is a state of fact. To explain ‘good’ in terms of pleasure, is committing a Naturalistic fallacy. His reasoning is as thus: if something gives me pleasure, and thus because of this feeling, I say it is good; I conclude, since it is good, then I ought to do it – this is a wrong conclusion. ‘Is’ is a statement of fact, while ‘ought’ is a moral statement.

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Moore was an intuitionist. Moore says that the word ‘good’ is not defined by its natural qualities (the qualities which are natural to something and which describe the object e. g. a red, juicy strawberry. If someone is asked why the strawberry is good, his answer will be, ‘because it is red and juicy’ thus defining ‘good’ by its natural qualities). For Moore, good is good and cannot be defined. The objectivists say that moral terms are explained by means of natural qualities. Objectivism is the view that the claims of ethics are objectively true. They are not relative to subject or culture.

A term is defined as thus because it is as thus. So good is good not because of feelings or situations, the definition of which would be from a subjectivist point of view, giving rise to relativism. ‘Good’ is defined as thus, because the actions showing good are inscribed in us in the natural law. So according to objectivists, ‘good’ is described by its natural qualities. Naturalism, which the objectivists used, is a term which interprets the word as it is standing for natural characteristics. This may be misleading as good might stand for a quality of pleasure or for something to be desired, and this is not always right.

Something pleasurable may in actual fact be wrong. One argument against naturalism, which the objectivists use, is that attribution (is) is confused with identity (ought). ‘Is’ is a statement of fact, while ‘ought’ is a moral statement. These (‘is’ and ‘ought’) are sometimes confused. Thus if something is pleasurable, thus it is good, thus it ought to be done, is (1) a wrong definition of ‘good’, (2) a wrong assumption as not all pleasures are good. One cannot equate good with solely pleasure. Moore goes deeper. In defining a word, he tried to split it into simpler terms.

According to Moore, ‘good’ cannot be split into any simpler terms as it is already in the simplest term. So Moore’s philosophy states that ‘good’ is ‘good’. ‘Good’ is indefinable. Subjectivist point of view Subjectivism means that what is right or wrong is defined from the perspective of one’s attitudes, one’s theories and one’s emotions. Subjectivism is based on feelings, and as a result of emotivism. Subjectivism may also be called emotivism. Subjectivism is ethical values expressed in emotional values; personal emotions which can differ from one person to another.

Thus there is no fixed standard, no norm, no mean. David Hume He is a basic figure in subjectivism. He was a 17th century philosopher. Hume was also an empiricist (tries to tie knowledge to experience) as he did not use rationalism (reason) but got experience from things around him. Hume said that all we know comes from around us, from our senses 9what we see, what we feel). Decante on the other hand used rationalism. Kant tried to fuse empiricism and rationalism. Hume thus says that a person, basically, is a bunch of sense experiences. He also says that the senses can never lead us to the universal truth.

We cannot say that something is right or wrong just from our senses. According to Hume, ethics is not built on reason (which is what Aristotle says) but on the senses. The universal truths (which are basically what the natural law states – do good to others, harm no one etc) are simply cut off by Hume’s subjective approach. Hume emptied ethics from any rational foundation – he shifted ethics based on reason (like that of Aristotle) to ethics based on emotions or feelings. Hume says not to look for reason but for sentiments – thus if something feels good – do it.

He said that passion not reason is what leads us to do something – reason alone is ineffective. According to Hume, it is sentiments and not reason which are the foundations of morality. Hume said that statements like ‘This car is red’ (descriptive) and ‘This action is good’ (evaluative) are statements both of the same nature. He mixed descriptive and evaluative argument. In the statement, ‘This person is good’ one is not saying something about the person, but it is my reaction towards that person. Three philosophers affected by Hume were AJ Ayer, CL Stevenson and Hare.

AJ Ayer According to Ayer, when we make a judgement, it can be classified as 1. empirical or factual 2. logical or analytical 3. emotive Ayer said that ethical statements are non-statements because you cannot verify them (as in analytical statements) and you cannot make them as a statement of fact (empirical statement or factual). Ethical statements such as good, just expresses one’s emotions (emotivism) – a statement depending on one’s feelings. For Ayer ethical statements are meaningless. Ethical concepts, such as good, cannot be analysed because they are not real oncepts at all – they are false concepts. He stated, ‘The presence of an ethical symbol (good is an ethical symbol) in a statement adds nothing to its factual content, meaning nothing is stated about the nature of the ethical symbol. Thus ‘good’ has no value when describing someone or something – for Ayer ‘good’ was just a way of expressing a feeling about the person/object concerned. CL Stevenson Statements such as ‘good’ do not say anything about state of facts but says only about one’s behaviour, one’s attitudes and one’s feelings.

Ethical statements such as ‘good’ do not express a belief, only attitudes. Beliefs are based on reason, attitudes and one’s emotions (emotive). ‘Moral discourses are primarily not informative but influential’, says Stevenson. Thus when I say ‘John is good’, I am expressing my feelings and at the same time influencing others by my statement. Stevenson, being emotive, says that ethical language, such as good, does not give us information about the person or object – they simply express one’s emotions. They simply intent to inform, they do not say anything about the nature.

Hare While Ayer and Stevenson said that ethical statements are non-rational, non-logical, Hare is introducing rationality. He says that by a statement one influences another person, if the latter accepts it, and to do so he must understand it and he has to use his reason. Another point that Hare brought up is that an ethical statement can be 1. emotive 2. action guiding To guide it involves rationality. So ethical statements are not simply giving a piece of information, but action guiding (presciptivism – moral commitment to the giving or accepting of a command).

Hare says that ‘a right action is one which ought to be done’ while ‘a wrong action is one that ought not to be done’. The prescriptive theory holds that the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are used not simply to command but to comment (=give an advice to do or not to do). ‘Good’ as applied to objects. It is important to distinguish between ‘meaning’ and ‘criteria’. Meaning always has a value, but criteria (the description) is different. ‘This marker is good’ or ‘This microphone is good’. The meaning is the same as the marker writes and the microphone amplifies sound. As applied to people, if I say, ‘John is a good man’.

If we stick to the idea of Hare, that moral discourse, ethical statements, are action guiding, am I saying that ‘if you want a good man choose John’. It does not make sense. So when we place human beings as morally good, we are not talking about use or function. Hare deals with the distinction of the function and by treating the moral sense of good, it becomes an advice for imitation rather than a choice. A weak point of Hare: he still says that moral statements (such as good) still not saying anything about the person, but simply is a matter of influencing others and telling others to imitate him.

Moral discourse is not only influential but action guiding – brings in rationality. He is still an emotivist saying that if an object is good, I am action guiding you; if a person is good I am just telling you to imitate him. Functionalist approach The functionalist approach is defining good in terms of aim and purpose. Good is the fulfilment of a function. For example a marker is good because it fulfils its function – it writes. If you are saying something is good, you are saying something about the object. O am not reflecting my emotions on an object (thus not an emotivist).

A functionalist approach is based on its function. An emotivist approach is based on the attitude. A person chooses the good from the bad chooses a good life, because we are aiming at a ‘goal’ at an ‘end’. Aristotle is saying that there is something in-built in every object, in every person, to seek the good – the good being that at which all things aim. For a person to live a good life, he must understand the purpose of the human life. The purpose of human life is common to all humans, from a philosophical point of view – to have a good life.

Aristotle defined end or purpose as ‘that for the sake a thing is done’ and good ‘as that at which all things aim’. Aristotle aid that God and nature do nothing in vain – that everything in the universe has been created to achieve a particular purpose. According to Aristotle the purpose of all human beings is the same. To understand the meaning of the word ‘good’ and of the ‘good life’, we have to understand the purpose of the human life and thus the metaphysics of the universe. In attempting to answer the meaning of ‘good’, Aristotle looked at the dynamic elements of the world around us (oak tree, chimpanzees, humans and so on).

This is the general characteristics which defines Aristotle’s philosophy (metaphysics and ethics) and teleological (the study of the ends and purpose of things). According to Plato’s metaphysical views, he came with two kinds of worlds, the world of ideal and the world of reality. What we see is not the real world but an imitation of the ideal world. So substance in the ideal world is not included in the real world. Aristotle was Plato’s student but he still rejected Plato’s approach. Aristotle brought together the world of ideal and the world of reality.

What we see is not an imitation – it is real. To explain the universe, Aristotle gave the theory of the four causes. 1. natural cause 2. formal cause 3. effective cause 4. final cause The theory of the four causes explains the dynamic nature of all the animate objects including human beings. In that way we can understand the goal, the purpose of the life of a human being, thus the meaning of a good life and the meaning of the word good. Metaphysics gives us a way of understanding reality how the human person acts and behaves, this behaviour can be living a good or a bad life.

Ethics and metaphysics are distinct but interrelated. The theory of the four causes goes to explain, that if we think of an example of something which is produced by an agent such as a statue – then Material cause – that which constitutes the statue eg marble Formal cause – the pattern or blue print determining the form and the result Efficient cause – agency producing the result eg tools, sculpture Final cause – the sake for which the cause is produced ie the end towards which the production is directed In the case of humans: Material cause – genes Formal cause – human

Efficient cause – freedom, intention, responsibility, practical reasoning Final cause – the good life In humans the efficient cause and final cause are dependent of the formal cause – the fact that I am a human being. We are free to make choices in the efficient cause, choosing responsibility or lack of it, thus effecting the final cause. Aristotle also spoke about potency and actuality. Potency is the potentiality of something or someone – characteristics, which if cultured, become actual. Actuality means when something, which is potential, becomes actual. So we have to ask…what is our potentiality?

We have a potential to reach our goal in life. Conclusion Having been exposed to these three views, in the definition of the word ‘good’, I think that subjectivism is the view which least defines well the word ‘good’. This view shows relativism and emotivism. To define a word well, especially one with a moral value/a virtue, there has to be a norm, a mean, a standard and subjectivism fails to do this. On the other hand, the functionalist definition of the word ‘good’ is the best definition of all as it shows a standard – its function; so there is no relativism involved.

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