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Moore and Ayer on the Status of Ethical Statements

Moore and Ayer on the Status of Ethical Statements

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Yui Fujita. Originally submitted for Analytic Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer James Levine in the category of Philosophical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Yui Fujita. Originally submitted for Analytic Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer James Levine in the category of Philosophical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Moore and Ayer on the Status of Ethical Statements
In his
 Principia Ethica
, G.E. Moore claims as the province of ethics, “the general inquiry intowhat is good.”
1
Furthermore, because it focuses on more than ethics as practice, Moore statesthat it is a far wider field of study than previous philosophers of ethics have considered it to be. Thus, the object of study becomes not merely the ethical implications of certain actions, but also the ethical values themselves: good and bad, right and wrong.
2
A.J. Ayer accepts thisdefinition of ethics, but comes to radically different conclusions concerning the legitimacy of ethics as a science or source of true knowledge. For Moore, ethics is a feasible venture whilefor Ayer, ethics is “nonsense.”
3
The source of this fundamental difference can be traced in thestatus which each of them ascribes to ethical statements. Moore holds that ethical statementsare meaningful. However, for Ayer, ethics is not a feasible venture because ethical statementsare ultimately meaningless. This essay will examine Moore’s and Ayer’s views on the statusof ethical statements: their similarities, differences and the problems which exist in eachaccount. Two radically different theories of meaning, of the criterion for determining truthand falsity, with two very different weaknesses will become evident through thisexamination: one ‘absolutist’
4
and the other ‘empiricist.’
5
The essential difference between their views regarding the status of ethical statementsis encapsulated in Moore’s statement that “there is a simple, indefinable, unanalysable object by reference to which [the subject matter of Ethics] must be defined,”
6
and Ayer’s view thatethical statements “have no objective validity whatsoever.”
7
Here, what should beemphasised is the concept of reference as regards ethical statements. For Moore, ethicalstatements clearly refer to a definite object, which is simple and indefinable. In the subject- predicate form of a sentence, such as ‘this man is good,’ the referent (not the subject) of theadjective ‘good’ is the subject matter of ethics.
8
The referent of ‘good’ (henceforth
G
) is thecriterion for ethical judgement. It is the yardstick by which we judge whether an action or  person is good or bad and what Ayer refers to as ‘objective[ly] valid(ity)’ in the quotationabove. However for him, there is no such yardstick. In Ayer’s empiricist philosophy, the
1
G.E. Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 54
2
Ibid., 53
3
A.J. Ayer,
 Language Truth and Logic
,
 
(London: Gollancz, 1970) 118
4
Ibid., 106
5
W.V. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,”
The Philosophical Review
60, no. 1 (Jan., 1951):20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2181906 (accessed: March 21 2010)
6
Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 72
7
Ayer,
 Language, Truth and Logic
, 108
8
Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 57
1
 
criterion of meaning and of truth and falsity is empirical verification. Only those statementswhich can be made true or false with reference to empirical experience can be consideredvalid and meaningful. In Ayer’s own words, “unless the sentences in which [the word] occursexpresses propositions which are empirically verifiable, it cannot be said to symbolizeanything.”
9
 
G
(the quality of goodness possessed by a particular thing) cannot be found inexperience. Therefore, propositions of ethics are invalid and without meaning.The disagreement between Moore and Ayer concerning whether ethical statements aresynthetic or not, is further evidence of this fundamental difference. It also reveals the problems which each encounters in determining the ontological status of the referent of ‘good.’ Moore explains “that propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic.”
 This characterisation of propositions concerning the subject of ethical statements(the referent of ‘good’) is rather problematic, because it renders the ontological status of itsreferent indeterminable and indescribable in any precise manner. In using the word‘synthetic’ to describe ethical propositions, Moore intended to assert that though
G
“dependsonly on the intrinsic properties of things which possess it, and is, in that sense, an intrinsickind of value, it is not yet itself an intrinsic property.”
 What I believe Moore means is that‘good,’ when it is used to describe something, is a quality which is not inherent in the object;not a property, but in some unspecified sense (to use a controversial term)
 supervenient 
onthose properties. To make matters worse, he also describes
G
as different from natural properties (which is the proper domain of the natural sciences) and metaphysical properties(those properties which stand in the same relation to suprasensible objects as natural properties do to natural objects.)
If we take metaphysical properties to mean those properties denoted by adjectives such as happy or funny,
we remain no closer tounderstanding what exactly ‘good’ is. As Moore himself states, ‘good’ is simple andindefinable, but this is rather unhelpful and self-defeating when the purported objective of 
9
Ayer,
 Language, Truth and Logic
,116
10
Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 58
11
Ibid., 22By intrinsic property, Moore means that if object A has property x and object B does not, and it is thusimmediately obvious that object A and object B are not exactly alike, then property x is an intrinsic property.(Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 23)Since the referent of ‘good’ is therefore not an intrinsic property, two actions or objects with the exact sameconstituents (properties) can be described as either good or bad. This squares with the application of good and bad to actions/events in practical ethics.
12
Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 13
13
These are adjectives which describe or are connected to emotions (such as happiness), which may be far fromwhat Moore intended by suprasensible objects. However, they are the only examples that I consider feasible inthe context of suprasensible objects being set up in opposition to natural objects and natural science, as well as being different from values like
G
.
2
 
Ethics is “the general inquiry into what is good.”
If this is the case, then what is good isdetermined by the supervenience of some unspecifiable value
G,
on some object. This isclearly an unsatisfactorily vague account of ethical value.The question of whether ethical statements can be considered synthetic (as referring to
G,
an actual value) leads to a different problem for Ayer. In essence, he cannot allow ethicalstatements to be synthetic and thus, must consign ethical propositions (“judgements of value”
) to the realm of meaninglessness; as “pseudo-concepts.”
As he himself admits, “theacceptance of an “absolutist” theory of ethics would undermine the whole of our argument.”
17 
Ayer cleaves to what W.V. Quine explains to be one of the two dogmas of empiricism,reductionism: (as has already been mentioned) the sole criterion by which a sentence can beconsidered meaningful, is its being able to be verified or falsified by empirical experience,“the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon termswhich refer to immediate experience.”
If Ayer allows that ethical statements are synthetic beliefs, it means that a genuine, meaningful proposition has arisen outside of empiricalexperience and this “makes [certain] statements (of value) unverifiable.”
Thus, there would be statements which are empirically unverifiable but are nonetheless meaningful. Ayer mustgive up his verificationist theory of determining the truth or falsity of propositions and hiscriterion of meaningful statements, if he accepts that ethical statements are synthetic.Therefore, in order to save his core principles, he is constrained to deny that ethicalstatements are in fact synthetic. Clearly, Ayer is compelled by the rigid dogma of hisempiricist theory to reject the proposition that ethical statements are synthetic; rather thanthere being a substantive, non-dogmatic reason in favour of doing so.The examination of the surface similarities between the treatment of ethicalstatements in Moore and Ayer is useful for highlighting both the deep differences and further core problems in their respective philosophical systems. Firstly, both Moore and Ayer rejectthe thesis that ethical statements are in actuality, nothing more than statements about one’sown state of mind or psychological make-up at a particular point in time. They claim that the psychological explanation does not provide an accurate account of conflicts over ethical judgements. However, Moore and Ayer disagree on precisely why this is a patentlyunacceptable explanation. According to the psychological account, when person A claims
14
Moore,
 Principia Ethica
, 64
15
Ayer,
 Language, Truth and Logic
, 111
16
Ibid., 107
17
Ibid., 106
18
Quine,
The Philosophical Review
, 20
19
Ayer,
 Language, Truth and Logic
, 106
3

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