What is Moore’s open question argument and what does it show?

This essay is going to analyse Moore’s Open Question Argument and it will show how Moore uses his Argument in order to confute Naturalism. It will also report the defects which have been attributed to the Argument.

Firstly, it’s important to specify that the main question in Ethics is ‘what is good?’ In his work Principia Ethica, (The subject-matter of ethics) Moore (1903) writes his opinion about it and claims that it is not possible to give an exhaustive answer to it, because the adjective ‘good’, which needs to be distinguished from the noun ‘good’, is indefinable, because ‘it is simple and has no parts’. ‘Good’ is the ‘ultimate term’ .


That being stated, Moore’s position is going to be contextualized in the debate between naturalism and non-naturalism. Beforehand, it’s necessary to make further clarifications in order to have a complete metaethical map (Debbie Roberts, lecture).

The biggest distinction is the one between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. According to the latter, moral judgments & utterances do not express beliefs. Cognitivism is the exact opposite which is split into realism and irrealism. Realism includes naturalism and non -naturalism. Essentially, naturalism ascribes the evaluative and normative properties to the descriptive and natural ones. Non- naturalism on the contrary denies the correlation between evaluative and natural spheres. Moore aligns himself with non-naturalism when formulating his Open Question Argument.

In order to construct the Open Question Argument he considers any candidate natural property so that, for example, “x is good” is equivalent to “x is pleasure.” Moore said that if this claim were true the judgement “Pleasure is good” would be equivalent to “Pleasure is pleasure”. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore- moral/). However, it doesn’t seem the case because the latter is simply an uninformative tautology whereas the former is not.

He also substitutes ‘what I desire to desire’ and many other natural properties to goodness. But for every natural property Moore takes into account, it is always the case that the first identity is substantial, while the second is trivial (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

The conclusion is that the property of goodness does not exhaustively correspond to the candidate natural property. The Argument is called ‘Open’ because, although it is true that pleasure is good, as with any other natural property, it is inherently reductive to define goodness solely in terms of pleasure. The definition of goodness is wider than this, it is more ‘open’.

Actually, Moore’s Open Question Argument seems to have a failure because he takes for granted that ‘if a definition were sound, it would seem to be a sort of tautology’. (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

Since when we associate the evaluative property of goodness with any natural one we don’t have a tautology he assumes that naturalism is wrong.

However, he does not consider the possibility in which two terms with different meanings pick out the same property. (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

In that case Frege would say that the two terms have different senses but the same reference. However, if we take into account the reference, which is the object picked out in the real world, the identity statement between the two terms must be considered a posteriori and not a priori.

Therefore the naturalism, which is not effectively ruled out by his argument, is just the non-analytical one. He succeeds in refuting analytical naturalism, but not the nonanalytical one (Dancy and Copp, 2006).

The second defect with the Open Question Argument, pointed out by Sturgeon (2003) (Dancy and Copp, 2006) is that the property of goodness itself can be considered a natural property. It seems weird that Moore didn’t think of this possibility. Dancy and Copp suggest that Maybe he just took for granted that the term ‘good’ as well as ‘right’ and other such moral terms are intrinsecally too different ‘in style’ (Dancy and Copp, 2006) from any terms expressing a priori natural properties such as ‘causing more pleasure than pain’.

In conclusion Moore underlines the exclusivity of the term ‘good’ and similar terms. He asserts that ‘they cannot be directly perceived’ (Dancy and Copp, 2006). Moreover, ss stated at the beginning of the essay, the adjective ‘good’ cannot be even definable, according to Moore.

Everything considered, the defects seem to bring/call into question the validity of the Open Question Argument. Therefore, in order to find effective argument against naturalism we need to take into account some other arguments (Dancy and Copp, 2006).


Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica (CUP) Preface and Chapter 1

Dancy, J. (2006) ‘Nonnaturalism’ in the Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory David Copp (ed) (OUP).



Word Count: 728.




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