Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

The Absoluteness of Intrinsic Value. A Critique of the 'Principle of Universality.'

Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

The Absoluteness of Intrinsic Value. A Critique of the 'Principle of Universality.'

Article excerpt


Moore's account of the relation between his theory of intrinsic value as an unnatural, etc. property, and the so-called 'principle of universality' seems to be considered quite uncontroversial. In opposition with this assumption, this paper argues that, given Moore's theory of value, the 'principle of universality' is a nonsequitur. In other words, there is no reason to believe, on Moorean grounds, that if something has value, then it has it universally. In positive terms, intrinsic value is 'absolute', meaning completely independent from the natural features of the world. There is no contradiction in thinking 'goodness' 'ingressing' on the natural features that constitute, say, a murder. This outcome rules out the possibility to establish ethics as a science: there are no universally true ethical judgments. Even if a judgment of value remains true over time, then it is so only de facto.


The core of G.E. Moore's ethical theory is twofold. In fact, it is constituted by the relation between the famous defense of the characterization of 'goodness' as a real, simple, indefinable, non-natural property and the so-called 'principle of universality', which, in its most general terms, sketches the task of ethics by stating that if it is the case that some thing has the property of being good, then it has it 'under whichever sky'.

This paper attacks exactly the relation between the two traits above, in the attempt to show that if we accept the cogency of the first aspect of Moore's theory, that is, his characterization of 'intrinsic value', then the 'principle of universality' is a non sequitur. This project acquires its relevance by the following consideration: while it is easy, in the rather extensive body of philosophical literature on Moore, to come across critiques of the cogency of the argument by which Moore wants to show that his thesis about the nature of 'goodness' is correct (i.e., the appeal to the 'naturalistic fallacy'), the relation between that first trait and the 'principle of universality' seems to be considered somehow uncontroversial.

As we shall see, the 'principle of universality' implies that there is an 'essential' relation between the natural properties of some thing and its having (or not having) the property of being intrinsically valuable. But, as I also try to show, it turns out to be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to identify which natural properties must actually be obtained in order to allow the presence of intrinsic value. Thus, to argue against the legitimacy of inferring the 'principle of universality' from Moore's characterization of intrinsic value amounts to the positive claim that Moore's theory of intrinsic value is really committed to a completely different outcome: precisely, it is committed to the apparently counterintuitive idea that intrinsic value 'ingresses' or 'supervenes' on objects and events independently from their natural properties.

The above claim is not a tentative denial of the fact that intrinsic value 'goes together' with certain kinds of things and events rather than others (which moreover would entail the suggestion that we are generally if not systematically wrong about our judgments concerning intrinsic value). Instead, the claim means that if it is true that intrinsic value does 'go together' with certain kinds of things and events rather than others, then it is so only as a matter of contingent fact. From a metaphysical point of view, such 'independency' or 'absoluteness' of intrinsic value with respect to the natural properties of objects and events leaves open the possibility for intrinsic value to go together with things having different and even opposite natural properties.

This paper is divided into three parts. The first part contains a brief reconstruction of the Moorean ethical project, chiefly with respect to his major work Principia Ethica. The second part addresses and critiques two different attempts to show, on Moorean grounds, that the 'principle of universality' is sound. …

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