G.E. Moore’s Ethics: What is Ethics?

To my mind, the best thing about G.E. Moore’s Ethics is Moore’s evident commitment to clarity and precision. It’s a great example of the school of analytic philosophy, and like any good analytic philosopher Moore sets out precisely the question he aims to answer at the beginning. What, according to Moore, are the main questions in the field of ethics?  It’s rare to see questions like these explicitly stated, so let me just directly summarize them:

1) What is it that we mean to say of an action when we say that it is right or ought to be done?

2) What is it that we mean to say of a state of things when we say that it is good or bad?

3) Can we discover any general characteristic that belongs in common to absolutely all right actions… and does not belong to any actions except those which are right?

4) Can we discover any characteristic that belongs in common to all ‘good’ things, and does not belong to any things that are not good?

5) Can we discover any single reason, applicable to all right actions equally, that is the reason why such actions are right?

6) Can we discover any single reason which is the reason why a thing is good, if it is good, and justifies why some things are better than others?

7) Finally, is there no such single reason in one or more of these cases?

Note Moore’s mathematical care in the statement of these questions. He is very cautious about conflating questions of right action and right state of affairs, and very cautious about conflating characteristics of right action with reasons why those actions are right.

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