Goodness As A Simple And Indefinable Property Philosophy Essay

Moore’s Principia Ehica was the first to claim that ‘goodness’ is an indefinable

Goldman presents a causal theory of knowledge designed to counter the Gettier cases that plagued the traditional view of knowledge (Justified True Belief). His theory effectively identified a problem with the traditional view, since in each case, the actor believed a fact, but the case was not the cause of his belief, which opened up the justification to be merely accidental that it applied to the circumstances. Despite conquering this fact in his theory, it cannot be a full account of knowledge because it has trouble reconciling inferences, cannot explain a priori knowledge, and does not account for knowledge not gained directly through a causal chain.

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Goldman’s causal theory of knowledge states that “an actor S knows that P if and only if the fact that P is causally connected in an appropriate way with S’s believing P.” The appropriate causal processes include the following: perception, memory, causal chains, and any combinations of the above mentioned. This definition entails that justification is causally constructed -therefore, how the belief forms determines the justification. An example of perception is our sense of sight. Through sight, we can know facts available through this appropriate causal process, i.e., that book is blue. This process is causal because the instance of light reaching our eyes causes us to see color. This causes our belief that the book is blue in our example. Our justification is how our belief was formed, via the fact that the light from the book reached our eyes. Therefore, this causal process satisfies on simplistic level Goldman’s conditions for knowledge. The fact that P in this example is the color of the book, S believes this is the case be due to the causal process of perception to perceive this book, which caused the belief to begin with. An example with memory could be me remembering my girlfriend’s birthday. Let’s suppose I learned of this fact from my girlfriend telling me this fact. I believe her testimony was trustworthy, and that her telling me she was born on a certain date as well as my observation of her birth date on her driver’s license. This makes my original knowledge of this fact founded upon a warranted inference, I believe her testimony is trustworthy and believe that her testimony must have resulted from the fact that she was indeed born on the date she claims. I might not remember when or where she told me, but my ability to remember ensures that I do indeed have knowledge of my girlfriend’s birth date, and according to Goldman, it is because of the causal process of memory. An example of a causal chain being an appropriate knowledge producing process is an example that has been looked at by multiple philosophers is the lava example as Goldman states it:

“Suppose S perceives that there is solidified lava in various parts of the country-side. On the basis of this belief, plus various ‘background’ beliefs about the production of lava, S concludes that a nearby mountain erupted many centuries ago. Let us assume that this is a highly warranted inductive inference, one which gives S adequate evidence for believing that the mountain did erupt many centuries ago. Assuming this proposition is true, does S know it?” p.21

According to Goldman’s analysis, there is a causal chain if in fact the mountain did erupt before S perceived the lava. In this case, the fact that there is lava was caused by the mountain erupting. The mountain erupting caused my perception of the lava. The connection between these two causes is an example of a causal chain. Causal chains remain causal even when inferences are added to them, provided the inferences are warranted, according to Goldman. These simpler examples demonstrate that the idea of causal chains is a relatively good idea when accounting for knowledge; however, the limitations of this theory will show that there is still work to be done to make this a complete theory of knowledge.

One of the problematic points that Goldman faces with his theory of knowledge is the contradiction between requiring a causal connection between the fact of the matter and the belief of the matter at hand and the use of non-causal processes to arrive at the belief. To clarify, whenever we formulate a belief from an inferential process that did not in a direct way originate from the fact of the matter, Goldman’s theory will deny knowledge. An easy example is the following: suppose I form, the belief that I know steam was created in the process of creating the tea that I am drinking. Let us say my reasoning for this was because I know about how tea is made at this particular location. The inference was developed because of my observation of the current state of the tea. Goldman’s theory and his explanation of it would work, if the cause of my inference was because of the fact of the matter that the tea was steaming. However, my inference instead resulted from an examination of the tea I had and the facts I knew about the production of tea. My illustration demonstrates that Goldman’s account of inferences does not account for cases of a belief P with a justification containing inferences where the source of the inference is not resulting from the fact of P. Similarly, Goldman’s theory does not account for a related process in justification: entailment. Justification seems to be preserved through entailment because for a given proposition, its entailment is a necessary and logical consequence. These logical chains of entailment are not causal, but arise as inferences. Seeing that inferences are not handled well by Goldman’s theory, entailment does not seem to be in any better condition in examples where the justification ultimately resulting from entailment from a fact other than the fact that p results in a belief about p, but yet it can still be said that the person still has knowledge.

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Goldman’s theory focuses on empirical knowledge, which he states is the case at the beginning of his “causal theory of knowing” article. Goldman went as far as to state that the traditional analysis (Justified True Belief) was sufficient for accounting for knowledge of non-empirical truths. The problem with Goldman’s stance on this matter is that there are not causal processes that link a priori truths to empirical truths, which would deny application of a priori knowledge to make empirical beliefs about the world count as knowledge. An example is the case of a smart mathematics student who spies the shadow of a house to be exactly 30 feet from the house (he knows because the shadow ends on a pre-marked area that is 30 feet from the house) that is 40 feet tall. He knows that top of the house is 50 feet from him through his mathematical knowledge of trigonometry. In this case, the knowledge has its justification in the entailment of mathematical knowledge, rather than though the causal processes that Goldman states are appropriate connections for knowledge. This case is important because the student is able to make an empirical belief based on a priori propositions in addition to information gathered through the causal processes (perception of the shadow, memory of the distance of the marker, entailment that the length of the shadow is equal to the distance of the marker). None of the causal chains however actually causes the belief. The origin of the belief is a separate a priori proposition that entailed that the given evidence necessitated the belief created. While there were some causal processes, I reject Goldman’s view that inferences and a priori propositions when added to a causal chain make the entire chain causal. I reject this view because inferences and a priori propositions are not causal. If they were then inferences and a priori propositions would cause other causal processes. I want to say that a causal chain is causal until a link in that chain is not causal, any non-causal parts of a chain of reasoning cannot be counted as causal. A priori propositions in particular tend to either validate or invalidate one’s justification for belief, but has no bearing on the actual truth of the situation. Going back to the house’s shadow example, the trigonometric rules applied to form the belief had no bearing on the actual truth of the situation. The math student either validly deduced correctly the entailed answer given the input conditions, or does so invalidly. If the trigonometric proof is valid, then the justification is valid. The claim by Goldman is that the justification must be connected to the truth about the belief in an appropriate causal manner; inferences and a priori propositions do not constitute causal matter therefore according to Goldman’s reasoning are not relevant in claiming whether a person has knowledge or not. Goldman attempted to dismiss this fact by reasoning that in all cases when an inference in a causal chain that the entire process that the entire chain is causal. Going back to my shadow example, while the belief is in reference to an empirical observation, that observation did not cause the belief, but rather the justification for the belief lies mostly with the mathematics that made it possible. To understand this, we can try to think if we take away parts of the justification. If the student did not have the a priori mathematical propositions would the student have been able to formulate the belief? If it is true that only causal processes can form beliefs about empirical observations, then knowledge is only possible through the causal processes; however, in this case, a non-causal process makes the belief possible. The observation itself could not justify the belief alone. One observing a shadow reaching a specific point does not cause the belief that the top of the building is a certain distance from the user; but rather this observation was utilized in the logical process of mathematics, and the mathematical process formulated the belief in the student. Therefore this process was not fully causal, but was also subjected to the a priori propositions of mathematics of which the conclusion became the belief.

Goldman’s theory of knowledge covers a lot of ground and is a fairly effective account for many types of empirical knowledge, especially those with clear causal chains. However, as many theories of knowledge are, there are several conditions which can make a specific theory fail. In this case, one of the inconsistencies in how Goldman decided to handle inferences, a priori knowledge, and causal chains shows that his reasoning was either faulty or inconsistent such that the clarity of the case for knowledge is distorted. The reasons we can think of to demonstrate whether or not an individual has knowledge comes in many forms, and causal forms are only part of the processes needed for a person to obtain many types of knowledge. Having stronger support of inferential and a priori combinations of knowledge(in addition to causal processes) would lead to a better definition of knowledge, since it would account for the variety forms of justification we utilize in our day to day lives.


non-natural property belonging to a simple intuition. For Moore a property is natural if, and only if, it is detectable by the senses1. Ever since Moore, the debate of what ‘good’ is has become essential to moral philosophy and meta ethics.

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Moore, to understand the simple notion of ‘good’, puts forth an analogy of the simple notion of yellow. The notion of yellow can only be conceived by those who already understand it, the same applies to good. Moore is contrasting the indefinable understanding of ‘goodness’ to the indefinable perception of a color’s qualia. Qualia is defined as the subjective quality of conscious experience2. We can mention certain properties of yellow: it’s specific wavelength or frequency. But we cannot mention what the nature of the property of being yellow is. This is because colour is a simple property that cannot be analyzed. To experience colour, we must appeal to our experience.

Complex notions, on the other hand, can be defined by their sub-parts and the relationships between those sub-parts. The property of being a horse is an example of a complex object that can be defined because it has many different qualities3. But it can only be defined until it has been reduced to its simplest terms beyond which those simple terms cannot be defined. Since simple terms cannot be reduced any further, they cannot be clarified to anyone who does not already understand them. Yellow and ‘good’ are not complex, but are simple notions. Moore, in this sense, thinks ‘good’ is indefinable.

‘Good’, as a concept does not correspond to the concepts of pleasure, desire or usefulness. Given that there are things that we call pleasurable as well as ‘good’, but we can call a thing pleasurable, desirable or useful and then ask, “but is it good?” The fact that we are able to ask such a question of a thing with particular qualities of pleasure, desire or usefulness is evidence, for Moore, that ‘good’ cannot be identical to the concepts of pleasure, desire or usefulness. This is known as the “open-ended question” problem. Saying that something is pleasurable does not exclude the question, “yes, but is it good?”

The Open Question Argument

Moore backs his claim that good is simple and indefinable through the famous open question argument. He argues that good cannot be defined by considering the fact that “whatever definition be offered, it may be always asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good” 4. What he means by this argument is that, if we, for instance, equate ‘good’ with doing what is pleasurable (which seems reasonable) then, Moore points out, that it can still be asked “is it good to do what is pleasurable?” Therefore, it remains an open question (hence the name of the argument) whether something is ‘good’, irrespective of it being pleasurable.

Moore accepts that the argument does not demonstrate that pleasure is not the only test for an action’s goodness, all it demonstrates is that what is pleasurable cannot be known by simply inspecting the definition of ‘good.’ What is ‘good’ has to be known in another way.

Moore also formulates the term “naturalistic fallacy.”  Naturalistic fallacy is defined as an intent to classify some thing’s simply being the case to the case of it being ‘good.’ If something is pleasurable then, this quality alone cannot tell us anything about its being ‘good.’

The Naturalistic Fallacy

According to Moore, if ‘good’ is simple, indefinable, cannot be analyzed and ‘what is good?’ remains and open question then an attempt to define the simple notion of ‘good’ as any other naturalistic notion is to commit the naturalistic fallacy5. To clarify, Moore draws the yellow analogy. Yellow can be defined as a specific wave length but these waves are not yellow.

To commit the naturalistic fallacy is a common mistake when attempting to define ‘good.’ While it may be entirely possible that all things that are good can also be something else, just as yellow things have certain other properties, but to equate these properties to the definition of ‘good’ is incorrect.

Good as an intuition

Moore claims that though ‘good’ is indefinable, it is part of our everyday coherent language. This is because we identify ‘good’ based on our intuition. MacIntyre objects to this view by saying, “how, then, do we recognise the intrinsically ‘good?’ The only answer Moore offers is that we just do” 6. But this would make ‘good’ a complex notion since for different people ‘good’ would have different analyzable content. Furthermore, this would be contrary to Moore’s claim of ‘good’ being a simple notion.


Philosophers such as Mackie, MacIntyre and Nagel do not essentially agree with the naturalistic fallacy or the validity of the open question argument.

Mackie, presents an objection to Moore with his argument from queerness. He argues that there is no such thing as goodness and badness. Moreover, he claims, goodness and badness have no properties or qualities that can be reduced to simpler terms since they do not exist. Goodness and badness are meant to properties of objects but they are queerly different to other properties like weight, size or fabric. Mackie concludes that goodness and badness are prescriptive moral terms and intrinsic or inherent properties of things is simply not possible.7

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Moore responds by arguing that ‘good’ is a simple concept of ethics. And all other ethical concepts must be derived from it. Although ‘good’ cannot be defined, ‘what is good’ can be defined. Thus, while we do not know the definition of ‘good’ we can identify which things are ‘good.’ David Hume says it best, “just because something is the case does not by that fact indicate to us that it ought to be the case.”


In my opinion, Moore’s claim of ‘good’ being indefinable due to it being a simple and non natural property is an extreme argument to make. If Moore is right, then it would mean that there is no objective way of defining ‘good’ and that the term is relative to the human species. This fact is hard to reconcile. There would be substantial implications for the way ‘good’ is discussed at a practical and theoretical level of ethics.

Many do not agree with Moore’s arguments, especially MacIntyre who says, ‘more unwarranted and unwarrantable assertions are perhaps made in Principia Ethica than in any other single book of moral philosophy’ 8. But we have to accept that Moore has been responsible for raising many issue that have become central to meta ethics today.

On the other hand, maybe ‘good’ is so inherent and intrinsic to the human mind that we cannot completely define it. This would not be surprising as our language is not a rational or precise tool that can be used to comprehensively define one of the most important terms used in ethical discussions today.


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