G. E. Moore and the Strong / Weak case for Moral Psychology

G.E. Moore did an incredible amount of damage to philosophy.

Reflect on that for a second.


The naturalistic fallacy basically put ethics / moral philosophy in reverse for fifty years. We all know this proposition and the really unlucky ones amongst us were dogmatically taught its truth. ‘You cannot derive an ought from an is’. Or, more fully, there are three areas of ethical debate. Descriptive, prescriptive and metaethical. The former, which catalogues and describes how people actually behave, does nothing for the the second, which gives guidelines on how people ought to behave, denying that any psychological data could be used to enrich ethical accounts.#

Furthermore, Moore was used to create a tradition where the main focus was on meta-ethics in an attempt to refine the concepts and tools of ethical discussion, a programme of endlessly sharpening the knife.

It’s easy to see why Rawls’ and MacIntyre’s work was greeted with a collective sigh of relief.

G.E. Moore does leave us with a question though, how responsive should philosophy be to the empirical data from moral psychology? Should it merely respond to the ‘weak’ case, that is, no moral theory should take, as its representative model for humanity / human motivation and action, something that is psychologically impossible? Or should it be the ‘strong’ case, that the empirical data should set the agenda for moral discussions, that philosophy should be entirely grounded in the practical engagement of understanding the ‘why’ of human behaviour through the lens of actual occurrence?

Why should it be?

That moral psychology should set the out limits for philosophical debate?

That moral psychology should form the dominant base for subject matter - it should direct and create the debate?

No he didn’t. His work is very good, “damage” he did only to moral naturalism.

You have to be joking.

The weak case. Philosophy shouldn’t be a moralizing dogma. It should pick apart dogmatism - truth or moral propositions. If you turn philosophy into a tool for petty moral mongering then it just becomes an ideological artifact.

If you accept the point of the weak case then damage to moral naturalism is damage to morality as a whole, psychological data is very useful for enriching accounts of morality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Moore. The introduction was being deliberately provocative as an attempt to cause debate. That obviously failed (jus’ you an’ me in here). But the respect is grounded in an appreciation of the quality of both his writing and his thinking, that doesn’t mean I agree with his position. His particular contribution to ethics helped to create the incredibly dogmatic approach to ethics grounded in meta-ethics that was dominant for a good portion of the last century - something that led directly to its stagnation.

Imo the greatest moralists of the last few hundred years all pre-date Moore (Dewey, Hume, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard) and this was precisely because the area of moral debate was much richer, or, conversely, that its strong delineation at the beginning of the 20th century, something Moore contributed to, was highly damaging to the tradition and moral debate became much more interesting as the barriers broke down again.

None of this leads to it being a moralising dogma. Philosophers taking their cue from empirical studies does not limit either the debate or the mind, in fact I find it enriching. I find the greatest danger to morality as an area for philosophical dispute and discourse lies in the reductive, abstract way it is often treated.

I’m not even sure how the inclusion of psychology in philosophy in the ‘strong’ case causes it to become an ideological artefact. Personally I would argue the reverse. It refreshes philosophical debate and provides a new perspective in psychology. There is no need for the armchair to burn.