Goodness As A Simple And Indefinable Property Philosophy Essay

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

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.