Rationalism, Intuitivism, Quasi-Deontologists

Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, Rationalism Intuitivism, Quasi-Deontologists.

Proponents: G.E. Moore, Harold Prichard, W.D. Ross

G.E. Moore
Moore agreed with the Utilitarians that good must be something that is beyond us, objective and not dependent upon our mind or will. He agreed with Kant that whatever the good is, it had to be something transcendent, because Moore was adamant that you cannot derive good from empirical experience. Moore held that goodness is indefinable. He developed the “open-question argument” as to what goodness might be. Let’s say someone comes along and suggests that goodness is benevolence. Moore responds whether it makes sense to ask whether benevolence is always good? Can you think of a situation where you’d say, “is benevolence here good? and people wouldn’t look at you like some alien?” You are asking a sensible question, although it might be obvious to everyone that benevolence is good in that situation, nevertheless it is worth to think about. If it is not trivial to answer such a question, then we know that are not defining goodness by that which is being tested. Is pleasure good? If pleasure was in fact good, then it would not make sense to ask that. Moore said that there was no definition for goodness, but it is impossible to derive goodness from any natural state of affairs or empirical understanding of the world. Goodness is a non-natural quality. He agreed with Hume that he cannot derive moral obligation from a description of what is the case. How do you then learn about goodness? Moore said we learn about goodness through intuition. Everyone knows that it is wrong to torture children and break promises. After you learn about goodness through intuition, then the question is how do you pursue the ideal of goodness? Utilitarianism will show us the way. Moore is a Deontologist in terms of his Intuitionism and a Utilitarian in terms of his means to that end.

Response: Not everyone intuits uniformly what is good. You loose objectivity and universalizability if you take in intuitionist approach to ethics.

Moore said that goodness is indefinable because you can always ask the question is X really good?

1. He is engaged in a kind of reductionism forgetting that definitions have many times of purposes. If we hold that a definition must reproduce in an exhaustive way all the connotations of a term, then goodness would be undefinable. This is because you can’t give a definition that will reproduce all the connotations of goodness. The difficulty is that every other term is indefinable if that’s what you mean by definition, because no definition exhausts the connotations of the words that it defines. Definitions usually give us characteristic marks for the word that we are using.
2. Even when we do have a term that has been properly defined, it sometimes makes sense to ask about the definition of the term being identical. For instance, it makes sense when you are living in a context where there is confusion over the issue. Let’s say someone has confusion over the whether a billion is the following number of zeros or not. You think that that is a silly question, but then you find out that the person is British where the number of zeros is different from Americans.
3. The open question approach to the indefinability of goodness would hold that if you define something by something else, it is meaningless to call that something else the word that you are using. Let’s say I’m defining good by the will of God, Moore assumes therefore it would be meaningless to say that God’s will is good, because it would not have any content to it. There are counter-illustrations to this where it seems to make sense where we use an ultimate standard where we refer to the ultimate standard as passing the standard of the ultimate standard. We can ask whether the standard, meter, is a meter long. This is the ultimate standard for a meter. It makes sense to say this standard meter is a meter long.

Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy
1. What is it that makes good a natural property. What does Moore mean by natural or non-natural, since he says “good” is non-natural?
How do you distinguish between the natural and the non-natural? He thought that we intuited the difference between the natural and the non-natural quality. The problem with this is that once he shows that good is a non-natural property, that is the foundation for him saying that we must intuit what goodness is. The distinction is supposed to support the intuitive quality of goodness and yet the distinction itself is supported by an appeal to intuition.
2. Is it a fallacy to reason from what is the case to what ought to be the case? Christians don’t always believe that this always is a fallacy. God has made the world in a particular way and the way God has made the world reveals His moral character. The description that God is just and mercy is also prescriptive in that His people ought to be just an merciful.
3. Why is the naturalistic fallacy a fallacy according to Moore? It really depends upon the metaphysic you are presupposing.

According to Moore, in order to discover if something is good or bad, we need to hold it before our minds,contemplate it and intuit its moral worth.

Response: Let’s say I contemplate about torturing little children and on the basis of my contemplation, I say that that is wicked using I used my mind, senses and imagination. Am I not basing my view of human duty upon an experience, this is what intuitionists tell us not to do!

Moore says we intuit these absolute standards of good and duty. This puts an end to any rational or philosophical ethic, once things degenerate to the point of intuition, they are not publicly discussable. You cannot have a debate over intuition. You can only say I do or I don’t see things that way. People will also have varying levels to what is being intuited, so people will gravitate towards different conclusions.

Moore did not have any way of reconciling conflict between duties. Let’s say that I intuit that I must tell the truth under all circumstances. However, I also shouldn’t help people kill innocent individuals. What if Nazis come to the door and ask if I am hiding innocent Jews that they want to kill? You just can reconcile these two conflicting intuitions.

W.D. Ross
He was a British Aristotelian scholar in academics and public life. He is known for his commentaries on Aristotle. His main contribution to philosophy was in the field of ethics. In his book, “The Right and the Good” he argued for intuitionism. He also wrote “The Foundations of Ethics” which was also popular. He opposed all forms of reductionism and he hated ethical subjectivism. When he came to question of ethics, moral notions like “good” and “right” were distinct indefinable irreducibly objective qualities. Ross held that “rightness” belongs to acts held independently of motives. Goodness belongs to motives apart from acts. He said that there are four kinds of good things: virtue, knowledge, pleasure and the allocation of pleasure and pain–deserting. In his two famous books, the targets for his criticism were ethical subjectivism and ideal utilitarianism. The specific duties that lie upon mankind are of three kind: duty of reparation, gratitude and keeping faith. The plain man in deciding what he ought to do does things that is often of the past as he does of future consequences. The plain man says, “I have a duty to do something of the past such as a promise that has been made.” What happens when a man intuits two duties which seem to conflict with each other? He said that you should do the act that is more of a duty. He drew a distinction between prima face duties and actual duties. He said conflict can only arise between prima face duties. No conflict can arise between actual duties. An act is a prima face by virtue of being of a certain kind. That would be an actual duty if it did not conflict with another more important prima face duty. If I promised to lend money to a friend who was in need, I have a prima face duty to hand over the money. But suppose before I hand over the money, I find that my mother is in the hospital and is in need of that money for crucial medical treatment. Now I recognize a conflicting prima face duty. One the one hand, I have the duty to pay off the debt to my friend and on the other hand, I have the duty to support my mother. Ross maintained that only one of these two options is actually my duty. He said that each of these is a prima face duty, but only one can be the actual duty. Ross concludes his resolution of conflicting duties by saying, “I can only have an opinion about which is more of a duty and therefore my actual duty.” Intuitionism thus ends up in a kind of skepticism.

There are four basic motifs through the history of deontologism that keep re-occurring.

1. The No Distinction Motif: There are plenty of schools of thought that hold to certainty, rational insight and many of stable qualities, but hold that in the end, final reality holds no distinction between things. We have an absolute duty that there is no distinction between good and evil.
2. Appeal to Reason Motif
3. Appeal to Natural Law
4. Appeal to Intuition

Epicurus: He said it is a universal duty to seek pleasure. The meaning of the term “good” was a natural quality which is objectively existing.
Natural Law Ethic: They held to universal quality of duty, that duty could lead to self-sacrifice.
Real Utilitarianism/Real Egoism: If it is my duty to do something for the greatest happiness for the greatest number or my own happiness, you can imagine scenarios where I am led to do things that are counter-intuitive. Many utilitarians and egoists have modified their views to hold that the teleological test actually tests rules rather than concrete actions. Let’s say I am contemplating robbing a bank. Act Utilitarianism says I consider that one individual act in its context considering the consequences of that act in that contexts and decide whether the balance between pain and pleasure will be realized. If it is, then that act is good. The Rule Utilitarian says you don’t use utilitarianism to judge individual acts, you use it to judge rules. Once you got your rules, everyone must follow the rule. You try to find which rules lead to the welfare of society.
Rule Consequentialism: You choose rules based upon the consequences that result. It attempts to bring together deontologism and consequentialism.

Quasi-Deontologism tells us that you can’t have one perspective on ethics.


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