Random Read: Roger Hancock, 1960

This is the first installment of the Random Read category — wherein I go to my local university library, pick an old journal up off the shelf, and read a random article therein. It serves the double duty of making me get out of my chair, as well as getting reacquainted with wonderful, beautiful printed matter. Remember books and journals? They are awesome.


Today I walked up to the University of Vermont, sauntered up to the second floor, and picked up the oldest volume of the Journal of Philosophy there: Volume 57, published in 1960. I thumbed through and picked an article to read, nearly at random. (The first article I picked wasn’t very interesting, so I gave myself the leeway to pick again.)

My thought is that, as a semi-regular exercise, this might be interesting for myself and (hopefully) for you. Philosophy is hyper-specialized, which means that sometimes reading a random article will leave one reeling with the righteous confusion of the non-specialist; but even in those cases, often something interesting will come of it. There’s always some good fodder for thought in any piece of philosophy.

Today’s random article: “The Refutation of Naturalism in Moore and Hare,” by Roger Hancock. Journal of Philosophy 57 (10), 1960.

refutation

The Players

I’m going to ignore R.M. Hare, here (sorry, R.M.), because he turned out not to be as contentious as Moore. G.E. Moore — the other subject of this essay — was a philosopher of tremendous note, whose Principia Ethica, published in 1903, made quite the splash in the philosophical community. In it, he argued (among other things) that the quality GOOD is indefinable.

My point is that ‘good’ is a simple notion, just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is.

This was a pretty radical idea, at the time, as philosophers were deep in the throes of a centuries-long process of trying to define goodness.

Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define it, by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to shew that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive. Indeed we should never have been able to discover their existence, unless we had first been struck by the patent difference of quality between the different colours. The most we can be entitled to say of those vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space to the yellow which we actually perceive.

Yellowness is not further reducible to physics, because we don’t perceive the physics — we perceive some sort of conscious experience that can’t be explained, because it has to be experienced. Yellow things do reflect light at a certain wavelength, but that isn’t what yellowness is. (He’s wrong about this, but let’s go on…)

Yet a mistake of this simple kind has commonly been made about ‘good.’ It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not ‘other’ but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ and of it I shall now endeavour to dispose.

This formulation is rife with problems, and much ink has been spilled examining and critiquing it. Hancock’s 1960 article is one such critique in the rising pool of these.

Hancock’s main thrust is to examine what Moore means by “naturalistic,” “naturalism,” or “natural.” If we’re committing the “naturalistic fallacy” when we equate goodness with some natural property, then goodness itself must be non-natural, right? Hancock notes that:

‘Naturalism’… might be defined as the view that ethical words such as ‘good’ or ‘right’ are synonymous with expressions designating natural properties. But what is a natural property? It might be suggested that a natural property is one that can be observed. Yet Moore himself holds that ‘good’ designates a property which in some sense can be observed.

We can “see” goodness just like we can see yellowness, and if the sense of sight is generally taken to be something that operates solely in the natural world, then Moore has some sort of problem to deal with here.

No Spoilers

I don’t intend to make a detailed analysis of Hancock’s article. I don’t know if it was well-received, or if it made any sort of impact on the philosophical landscape. My point in reading it was not to cement its place in history or start a new branch of investigation stemming from it. I simply wanted to immerse myself for a few minutes in a piece of philosophical history, and see if it made me think of anything interesting.

So what did I get out of this experience? Well, it got me thinking again about Platonism — the position that there are non-natural objects sitting in a non-natural “place”, to which humans have some sort of mysterious and privileged access.

Platonists have long been embroiled in a problematic epistemology, wherein they owe the rest of us an explanation of how humans can perceive non-natural things. (Our perceptual apparatus is fairly well understood, and is entirely explicable in physical terms.) They also owe us an explanation of why those non-natural things align so smoothly with natural things. If, as Moore seems to imply, yellowness is a Platonic object, then we can ask two questions of him: How is it that we see yellowness at all, since it is non-natural, and our visual apparatus is entirely physical? And, if we do see it, why does it so perfectly align with things that reflect light of a certain wavelength? (Moore said that it’s just coincidental that yellow things always reflect this sort of light. How does he explain this coincidence?)

Of course, the same analysis applies to goodness. If it is non-natural, how do we perceive it? And if it always lines up with some natural property, why is that?

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