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The open question argument, while resilient, is not without its flaws.

As I understand it from
lectures, the argument can be read as follows:

I. If two terms are synonymous, they can be substituted with each other in a
sentence without change of meaning.
II. If two sentences have the same meaning it cannot be the case that a
competent speaker will regard one as asking an open question and the other as
asking a closed question.
III. For any moral term “M” and any natural term “N”, a competent speaker will
always find the question “X is N, but it is M?” open and “X is M, but is it M?”
IV. So, moral and natural terms cannot be substituted without change of meaning.
V. So “M” and “N” are not synonymous.
VI. If X and Y are identical then X and Y are synonymous.
VII. Moral properties and natural properties are not identical.

I aim to show that the open question argument has flaws which make seeking a replacement
argument against the naturalist position a worthwhile pursuit. The first problem I would like to
discuss is the exact ability level a speaker is required to attain in order to be considered what Moore
called a “competent speaker”.

Argument against the competent speaker

What does it take to be a competent speaker? I would consider anyone who can write an essay such
as this a competent speaker. However, I suggest Moore would need a much higher standard of

Often foreign students are required to prove their level of ability with the English language before
being offered a place at any UK university. This means the student must display a level of use which
would allow them to write essays and reports. In short, they must prove their competency. I have
had experiences with foreign students who are unfamiliar with terms like “gerbil” which are familiar
to children, basic users of the language. Even very advanced users of the language have a great deal

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of difficulty with some very common terms, as evidenced by philosophical debate around ideas of
beauty and knowledge.

I feel, however, competency is a vague and uninteresting objection compared to my following


First argument against synonymy

My second problem with both the open question argument and the naturalistic position is borne
from their use of synonymy, a dependence which I would argue impossible to achieve in English, and
possibly in other commonly used everyday languages. The first premise reads, “two terms are to be
considered synonymous if they can be substituted into a sentence or question without change of
meaning”. We might deduce then that if two words are to be synonymous, we should treat them as
identical. If two words are identical then they have exactly the same properties of their synonym
other than the group of letters used and the order in which they are deployed.

Consider three synonyms of the one concept; kill, murder and slaughter. I cannot foresee any
competent speaker having a problem in considering these three words synonymous. In a context
such as “the Vikings slaughtered the villagers”, we can have no doubt that when we say “the Vikings
murdered the villagers” we mean the same thing.

Take these same two words in a different context, “we slaughter the animals” and “we murder the
animals”. Here they are meant in two slightly different ways. The use of “slaughter” would imply we
take the animal’s life for the purpose of sustaining our own. A vegetarian or vegan may argue that
the word murder is more appropriate, the use of the “murder” implies, regardless of our intentions,
we have needlessly and perhaps selfishly taken the life of the animal.

My third example will contrast “kill” with “murder”. Consider an average wildlife documentary about
sub-Saharan antelope. The documentary would undoubtedly cover their ordinary comings and
goings, reproduction and so on. An irrefutable aspect of their day to day life is the fact they are
hunted by lions. When the film maker comments on a lioness attacking an antelope he or she is likely
to describe the lion as “killing” the antelope, with the intention of providing food to its pride. Note

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that when we kill an animal with the intention of providing food we call it “slaughter” (abattoirs are
even referred to as “slaughter houses” in many cases).

It would seem strange for the film maker to say that the lion has “slaughtered” the antelope, even
more absurd to say the lion “murdered” it. Even though we have the same intentions as the lion
when we take the life of the antelope we are unlikely to attribute the same language. I would suggest
this is because we don’t attribute moral values to the action of animals, in this case the lioness, like
we do to ourselves. I reach the conclusion then that “slaughter” and “murder” are strictly moral
terms. I would accept that kill may or may not have moral connotations, but it is this ambiguity I have
been searching for.

Good has various connotations, it is multiply ambiguous. If we really want to find an argument
against naturalism, we must find a way to express the moral “good” in an unambiguous way. I
suggest a plausible line of enquiry would be to substitute the ambiguous term “good” for a strictly
moral alternative. This would afford us an attack on naturalism and their inherent fallacy without
need for the open question argument. Consider the following avenue of enquiry;

Phrase 1: “x is good”, would now be

Phrase 2: “x is guud”

I choose the term “guud”, a pseudo-word, as an example of moral language which accurately
identifies, or metaphorically points to, the concept of good which we mean when saying “good” in
cases of moral judgement. We should now avoid the natural language which gives rise to the
naturalistic fallacy. It seems the naturalist would rely upon equivocation, giving different meanings to
the word “is” in order to make sense of their claims.

If we try plugging some natural language into phrases one and two we will see very clearly Moore’s
point without the burden of the weaknesses from the first two premises. We shall try substituting
“X” for “pleasure”. When We do this we get the phrase “pleasure is good” and this makes perfect
sense to a basic user of the language, a child can understand that pleasure is good in light of (or
perhaps as example of) the fact that a child can understand the ambiguity of the term “good”. In this
sense intended to be a moral good, but unarguably a desire-based account of goodness. However,

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this ambiguity is removed in phrase two. Consider “pleasure is guud”, I assert that this second form is
an odd claim to make.
The odd claim

Pleasure is a mental state, like desires or beliefs (questions borne from the philosophy of mind
aside). Am I justified in saying my desires are guud or not-guud? If I am on a diet, I cannot help my
desire for a chocolate bar or slice of pizza. It would seem absurd to assign blame to me for desiring
the chocolate bar, but less absurd to assign blame to me for acting on that desire. This is a somewhat
mundane and not entirely moral example (one could argue a moral duty to keep in shape, but that is
superfluous to the argument), but it explains my point well enough.

Second point on synonyms

I have a further, shorter, point to make regarding the use of synonyms. If we consider a synonym as a
word which has an identical or very similar meaning, then they must have identical or very similar
antonyms, or opposites. If X is synonymous with Y and if A is antynomous with X and if B is
antynomous with Y, then A and B must be synonymous. It can be considered in both a mathematical
example and in a real world example.

Mathematically, consider X is 3 and Y is (2+1). Now, if A is the negation of X and B the negation of Y, A
and B must be equal, that is A and B must be something like -3 and (-2+(-1))

In a real world example we could imagine I said to one person “I am a religious person” and then to
another I say “I am a holy person”. Indeed, it seems like these two sentences have an identical or
very similar meaning. According to our rule, then, the antonyms must also be synonymous.

When we apply our rule, however, we find that the opposites of these words are not synonymous.
Indeed, if we look at the opposites of the words “religious” and “holy” we find radically different
word sets. Religious has opposites in the shape of “agnostic” and “atheist” where holy finds its
antonyms as “sinful” or “immoral”. To maintain the integrity of synonymity, we would have to argue
that “agnostic” or “atheist” is somehow synonymous with “sinful” or “immoral”.

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So what has gone wrong here; is our rule wrong or do we merely have to face the fact that the idea
of synonymy isn’t as strict as we would have hoped?

I by no means attempt to rule out any two words with very similar meanings having antonyms which
are also synonyms. I personally think it would take too long to test every word in even one language
against every one of its synonyms and check for cases where our rule would apply. I would
hypothesise that such instances will exist, but the strict form of synonymy we need to make both the
naturalist position and the open question argument work just doesn’t exist.

My argument against the Naturalist

I hope to have shown thus far that two words cannot be substituted with each other in a sentence
without change of meaning unless they have the same connotations, or “point to” the same idea.
This is both my argument against the open question argument and the basis for my own argument
against a naturalist position.

My argument can be most concisely expressed in the following way; I shall use the naturalist term “is
desired by me” as the synonym of choice for the naturalist. Consider the term “X is good”, if we let X
be “desired by me” and we use language which points to the moral idea we can let X be “guud”. We
will now find two relationships; that “being desired by me is good”, “being guud is good”. The
naturalist would like to say, then, “being desired by me is guud”.

If this reasoning were valid, the following example would also be valid; Odd numbers are numbers.
Even numbers are numbers. Thus, odd numbers are even numbers. This is clearly false, and so I
propose the naturalist’s suggestion that moral terms can be explained in natural terms is also false.

Possible Objections
Synonymy Objections

I am using the synonym of “guud” to mean “good”. If I am intent upon using synonyms then why
have I claimed they are a hindrance in Moore’s argument? Further, if I have indeed shown any

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argument based on synonyms to be inaccurate or even invalid, using one makes my own argument

I use “guud” not as a synonym, but as a phrase which points to the same idea as good in that
particular context. For example if I said “that thing to my right” and “my coffee mug”. “Coffee mug”
and “thing to my right” are not synonyms, but they can be the same thing in certain contexts,
accounting for how different words or phrases have connotations in different settings.

Those who posed the first objection might then ask what synonymity means if not two words which
point to the same idea. The issue though is context. Synonymity implies we can change words with
their synonyms in any contexts with only aesthetic changes in how the language sounds – it keeps its
meaning. However, I hope to have shown that this view of synonymity is too weak and so cannot be
used in argument.

The third objection which may be levelled at me follows from Moore acknowledging “good” is
ambiguous and his wishes to use it only in the moral sense. He does not assign value to what we
actually call it.

While Moore acknowledges the ambiguity, this is not the problem with his argument. The naturalist
position is defeated by demonstrating the ambiguity of good as Moore has done (if we read his
argument as valid). The problem with the open question argument arises in the first premise, which
is demonstrably false. Recall the first premise “If two terms are synonymous, they can be substituted
with each other in a sentence without change of meaning”. For Moore's argument to hold, this
premise must be true. However, while two synonyms may be loosely substituted it is impossible to
switch two synonymous words with the accuracy required for this premise to be true.


The space afforded to me means I cannot fully expand on my naturalist attack. It also means I have
dealt with only three brief objections to my argument against synonymity, and I am sure there are
many more. I hope, however, to have used to space efficiently enough to have achieved three goals.

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Firstly, to have dealt with the immediate task of evaluating the usefulness of the open question
argument. Secondly, to have dealt with those challenges most pressing to my argument against
synonymy. Finally, I hope to have sketched the structure for a more challenging argument against

A partial solution for Moore would be to simply change any mention of synonymity to something like
“which points to the same idea”. However, this would not save the argument, there would still be
issues surrounding its second premise and the level of competency a speaker requires, as well as
questions arising from metaphysical naturalists.

Synonymity cannot be used as the basis for any theory due to the demonstrated weakness of
meaning. It is fine for everyday language, but I hope to have shown it is too inaccurate for the
purpose of argumentation1.

1 I owe much of the content of this essay to discussion with fellow students and staff rather than the
traditional reading material. It might be the case this argument has already been made, perhaps made
better and in clearer fashion. Still, I offer this as my contribution to the debate.

Michael O'Donnell
− Moore, G.E., “the Subject-Matter of Ethics”, pp. 53-5, 57-72, 1993, from Principa Ethica.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

− Smith, Michael., The Moral Problem, 1994, Blackwell: Oxford

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