Published date01 December 2004
Date01 December 2004

Part 2: The Essence of Goodness

The aim of this part of the essay is to explore the area in morality generally named metaethics; the study of moral facts, and the basis for moral norms and values; of the value of good and how, if at all is it can be defined — whether by objective or subjective inquiries, and the motivation that drives one to obey moral norms. There is insufficient space to cover in detail the area surveyed simply because it is too vast; thus for that reason, this essay has the more modest ambition of providing a simple map through metaethics as well as aspects of utilitarianism and Kantian ethics to ease discussion gently into normative ethics — a dim sum prelude to the full course in Part 3 to come.

I dare not guess; but in this life

Of error, ignorance, and strife,

Where nothing is, but all things seem,

And we the shadows of the dream, … 1

1 This part of the essay is intended as the bridge between the previous2 and the one to follow.3 In the first part of this essay I explained the positivist doctrine of the separation of law and morals, and suggested that among the different schools of thought, legal positivism might best avert the intractable complications arising from an entanglement of law and morals. However, questions of morality do not go away upon separation. They become sharper, and thus, more compelling. “Morality” is a word with connotations to right and wrong, ethical and unethical, fairness, justice, honesty and faithfulness, all of which belong to a family of words that are generally and readily understood by the words “good” and “bad” and the values they represent. Moral judgment is the force that determines whether our action is right or wrong, that is, with the corresponding prohibition

against doing it if it was wrong. In moral discussions it is often assumed that the moral judgment “good” is also right, in the sense that we should always act in accordance with what is right, and, further, that what is good is right. Hence, the basis of moral values is formed from a compelling gel of these emotive words. The incipient problem, thus, is one of definition, principally concerning the idea of the “good”. G E Moore, criticised as he might have been elsewhere, left important fundamentals that I would use as an appropriate starting point in the following moral discussion. He reminded us that what is “right” is not necessarily what is “good” and that “What is good for us?” ought to be separated from “What is good?” The right man for a job does not mean that he is also a morally good man for the job. That simple distinction reminds us that right and good are not the same things. It is only the morally right that can be equivalent to good if, by good, we mean morally good. Co-existing with the problem of definition is the problem of the reason why we obey moral norms.4

2 Many philosophers since, including Bertrand Russell, who was one of Moore’s most formidable contemporary critics, agree with the Moorean pronouncement that good is indefinable.5 Moore declared:

If I am asked “What is good?” my answer is that good is good and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked “How is good to be defined?” my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is all I have to say about it.6

He explained, however, that the reason he thinks that good is not definable is that all propositions about good are synthetic, not analytic. By that he meant that the propositions are a combination of parts making the whole, as opposed to a whole that can be analysed and thus understood. Though the propositions are synthetic, good, as the quality in itself, is a simple (as opposed to a complex) notion like the colour yellow, which Moore says, is so simple a notion that it cannot be explained except to one who already knows what it is.7 He then discussed the example of the definition of a horse. If it is meant to mean a hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus, then it is definable, in the sense that that would be a mere verbal definition. But if it is to mean more than that, that it is an animal with four legs, a head, a heart, a liver, etc

all arranged in a particular order and functioning in a particular way, and which we can say differs from a donkey, then good is indefinable — that there is nothing that we can substitute for good or, as Russell puts it, to say that pleasure is good is simply saying pleasure is not pleasure. If there were no standard criteria by which good or bad can be defined, would we be able to say that we have a “moral sense” for these things? Moral disagreements are notoriously difficult to harness not only because the subject matter is too vast, but also because philosophers cannot seem even to agree where to and with what to disagree. As MacIntyre said, “they apparently can find no terminus”.8

3 The purpose of moral inquiries can be distilled into the old Socratic question, “How ought we to live?”. The field of moral philosophy has two parts, distinct, yet connected. One is devoted to the study of metaethics, that is, the study of the meaning, basis and truth of morality and its entire family of words, of right and wrong, good and bad. It questions whether good has any property, whether there are any moral facts, and whether morality can be rationally and objectively ascertained. It is not concerned with questions such as whether we should return flowers mistakenly left at our doors, or under-declare our income to the tax authority, or call people names. These questions belong to the other part of moral inquiry, namely, normative ethics. Normative ethics is concerned with the matters of rule application in moral discourse, and casuistry — how we are to conduct ourselves, and how we give reasons to our moral conduct in any given ethical situation. Should we abort an unwanted child? Should we terminate the life support system of a brain-dead patient? Should we clone human beings? Normative ethics will be the theme of the next part of this essay. The two parts are connected in such a way that moral inquiry would be incomplete without one or the other, and yet it is important to understand the distinct levels of inquiry between metaethics and normative ethics. Griffin says, “metaethics is not prior to normative ethics; neither can be pursued fruitfully for long without attending to the other. If they are to advance, they will have to advance together.”9 Many of the moral issues we have to resolve in life are issues of normative ethics, but unless we understand metaethics, our answers or solutions to the normative ethical problems can appear irrational and inconsistent. It is often the difficulty in finding a rational, coherent, and consistent basis in normative ethics that creates the sense of futility. Metaethics is not the solution to the problems in normative ethics, but it does provide the foundation upon which solutions to normative problems may be constructed. It is therefore important not to be confused into thinking that an ethical problem has been solved just

because a normative principle has been established. As Harman illustrates:

The moral principle may “explain” why it is wrong for the children to set the cat on fire. But the wrongness of the act does not appear to help explain the act, which you observe, itself.10

“How ought we to live?” is thus a question poking at both levels of moral inquiry. When we make statements like, “It is wrong to set the cat on fire”, or “It is wrong to kill” we tend to speak as if these statements carry an immutable truth about ethical conduct. On the other hand, we may not be so certain when we say, “We will not give to the SPCA”, or “We will not give to street beggars”. Can we really be certain in any of these situations? The degree of certainty and comfort are higher in statements such as “It is wrong to kill” than they are in the statement, “We will not give to street beggars”.

4 One major reason why we cannot solve ethical problems the way we solve mathematical or scientific problems is that moral statements have no properties from which we can establish a moral fact the way we establish a scientific fact, or a legal fact. We can observe a cat being set on fire and we can observe that it is a wrong thing to do, but we cannot observe11 the wrongness in itself. Similarly, when we say that something is morally good, we connect the object — the event or thing, with an approval rating within us. But goodness itself has no property upon which a rational analysis can be made about it. Moral statements are not themselves moral facts although often dressed as such. McGinn strips away such disguises when he points out that “we cannot say that something is good because it is good, in the way that we can say something exploded because it exploded”.12 However, in the past 20 years or so, more thinkers13 are inclined to challenge the view that there are no moral facts.14 Another facet apparent about a moral statement is that unlike other matters in nature, it is not coercive in itself. If I deny the caustic effect of acid, and jump into a tub full of acid, the acid itself will prove me, and my statement, wrong. That is not the case with a moral statement. If I deny that it is wrong to rob, my act of robbery will not prove me wrong. Others might correct me or punish me for it, but I

am not corrected by the act itself. So, it seems that if we hope to do what is morally right, it must be for its own sake.

5 However, moral good on its own, is difficult, if not impossible, to define. But that is not to say that its nature cannot be discerned. We can, and do say, such and such an act is morally right or such and such a man is morally good. The nature of good in this sense always relates to something else —“a man is morally good by virtue of having a character of a certain kind, and … an action or feeling is morally good by virtue of proceeding from a character of a certain kind”.15 This only leads us to question...

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