Essay “Good is meaningful”. Discuss (40)

September 17, 2018
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‘Good is meaningful’. Discuss (40) OCR June 2018 Q2

Here is an example of an essay done under timed conditions on an exam question set in June 2018. I have added my comments in italics. Notice that this is essentially the same question as “Good is meaningless”, Discuss. But they can only ever ask a question once in the wording we have above – s the second version on this theme remains a possible question it the future. What other wordings can you think of on this theme? It’s an interesting exercise thinking up some more. PB

Many scholars such as AJ Ayer would suggest that ‘good’ is meaningless, because it cannot be verified analytically or synthetically, placing it in the category of subjective opinion, based solely on emotion. Although I would agree with Ayer that moral statements are just expressions of emotion, I would be inclined to suggest that these statements still have meaning, as they are part of our daily lives, through law and basic human rights.

A Good, clear introduction laying out the parameters of the question in terms of analytic and synthetic truth. Strictly speaking, you don’t verify analytic statements as they are true by definition and do not require empirical observations to confirm them. The truth value is internal to the meaning itself. The phrase ‘based solely on emotion’ is also not quite right: moral statements express emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily they are just based on emotion. This is meta-ethics – about the meaning of the language, not normative ethics which explores the basis for such a judgement. Ayer’s is a meta-ethical claim.

 Bradley in his book “Ethical Naturalism’ would suggest that good is an absolute, observable fact of the world, which has direct relevance to our position and role in society. This would imply that good has a resolute meaning as it influences how we should behave, given our place in the world. Many thinkers would criticise this viewpoint, such as Kai Neilson who would correctly note that society is ever -changing, and ‘good’ varies within different cultures, which would adequately explain or changing attitudes to homosexuality, pre-marital sex and race and diversity.

‘Absolute’ is rather an ambiguous term in ethics. It can mean universal – applying to the whole of humanity, objective,e meaning measurable in some way, or non-consequentialist.

When Bradley speaks of ‘something beyond’ I think he means we can point to something observable or at least part of our common experience (such as utilitarian pleasure and pain). It would be good to mention the naturalistic fallacy here, because the debate in meta-ethics is whether we can really point meaningfully to this something beyond. This student could really do with referring back to the question and bring out, and discuss, the idea of what ‘meaningfulness’ might imply to different authors. Generally it’s always a good idea to keep retranslating and reworking the question specifically in each paragraph.

 This would suggest that other naturalists, such as Philippa Foot, are incorrect to say that good has a fixed meaning, even if it is culturally observable as to what societies mean by ‘good’. Foot uses the insightful example from Memoirs of a Revolutionist to try and illustrate how ‘good’ is something fixed and intrinsically meaningful. The example sates how a geographer , observing a tribe of indigenous people, upholds his promise not to photograph them even when he is presented with the opportunity of doing so without their knowledge of it, whilst they are asleep. This, Foot would argue, illustrates how ‘good’ is a fixed duty and not relative to the people concerned, but concrete.

Again you need to refer back to the question and make the idea of meaningfulness explicit. What is the ‘something beyond’ which Foot is pointing to? Isn’t it Aristotelean eudaimonia, a state where our potential is fulfilled by observing those rules which objectively build a better world for us – a world where our potential is more likely to be fulfilled. Honesty of character and truthfulness build an objectively (measurably) better world.

 Perhaps Kant’s maxim of ‘universalisation’ could suggest a reason for this apparently ‘fixed’ sense of duty from the geographer. This could be suggested as perhaps the geographer would not want this action to be universalised, and if he was in the situation wouldnot want someone to take a picture of him, hence suggesting that self-preference and compassion for others decides goodness; it is not fixed but relative and therefore has meaning only in a subjective sense.

It’s not entirely clear how Kant relates to the pint about absolute versus relative morality, as of course Kant argued that feelings of compassion were irrelevant for morality and only duty for duty’s sake counted as a motive.

Mackie makes an interesting addition to this debate in his book “Does morality rest on a mistake’ as he suggests that we know what good is and it has meaning; but that this ‘meaning’ is completely made up by society and tradition. He gives the example of the rules in a game of chess, which are only valid due to the being created and accepted by those who play, and have no meaning to someone who did not know how to play the game. This suggestion that good has meaning is actually human created would provide a much more satisfactory explanation of that of an intuitionist such as GE Moore, who in Principia Ethica would argue that “when I am asked ‘what is good?’ my answer is ‘good is just good’ and that is the end of the matter”.

The candidate might relate this back to the analytic/synthetic point mentioned in the opening paragraph, which hasn’t been developed in the essay. It might have been a better strategy to begin with the Ayer/Hume thesis and then move outwards into the contrasting viewpoints of an ethical naturalist and an intuitionist (the intuitionist view being an interesting middle position as Moore argues that good is meaningful even if indefinable). Perhaps the idea of ‘meaningfulness’ needs closer inspection generally in the essay.

This suggests that good is indefinable but still has intrinsic meaning as just as we recognise the colour yellow, we intrinsically recognise good, suggesting that it has significant meaning, even if some would argue this definition of it lacks clarity.

Yes, this is the key point.

In conclusion, ethical naturalists and intuitionists alike, although disagreeing how to define good, or whether it can indeed be defined, would both suggest that good does indeed have meaning. Personally I would suggest that Kai Neilson’s principle of cultural relativism sheds the most light on this issue, although he states that good is essentially made up it still has different meaning in different cultures, even although it cannot be empirically or analytically proven.

A very clear piece of writing which takes a particular line on the question and sustains that line successfully, embracing  wide range of scholarly views. I would have liked to see the Ayer/Hume point developed a bit more at the start, as it is perhaps a key to unlocking this debate. This might have been linked to the naturalistic fallacy – explaining what the fallacy is and why many philosophers (Alisdair MacIntyre in After Virtue for example) don’t accept that it is a fallacy at all. David Hume’s point is that there is a missing premise in the movement from ‘is’ description to ‘ought’ prescription – we need to explain for example what is so good about pleasure, for instance (if we’re a utilitarian that is). But notwithstanding this, it is a good A grade answer beautifully written.

 AO1 Level 5 13 marks A very good attempt to address the question demonstrating knowledge and understanding. Very good selection of relevant material, technical terms mostly accurate. a very good range of scholarly views, academic approaches, and/or sources of wisdom and authority are used to demonstrate knowledge and understanding

 AO2 Level 5 20 marks A very good demonstration of analysis and evaluation in response to the question. successful and clear analysis, evaluation and argument. Views very well stated, coherently developed and justified. There is a well–developed and sustained line of reasoning which is coherent, relevant and logically structured.

 33/40  83%  A grade






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