Moore’s Open Question Maneuvering: A Qualified Defense

  • Jean-Paul VesselEmail author


§13 of Principia Ethica contains G. E. Moore’s most famous open question arguments (OQAs). Several of Moore’s contemporaries defended various forms of metaethical nonnaturalism—a doctrine Moore himself endorsed—by appeal to OQAs. Some contemporary cognitivists embrace the force of Moore’s OQAs against metaethical naturalism. And those who posit noncognitivist meaning components of ethical terms have traditionally used OQAs to fuel their own emotivist, prescriptivist, and expressivist metaethical programs. Despite this influence, Moore’s OQAs have been ridiculed in recent decades. Their deployment has been labeled “accident prone,” “simple to dismiss,” and just plain invalid. Critics accuse Moore of begging the question. Others argue that his OQAs founder upon the paradox of analysis. And still others argue that Moore’s open question argumentation is incompatible with the Kripke–Putnam causal theory of reference and thus it “simply fails; it is bankrupt”. I aim to show that there is something of continuing value in Moore’s open question efforts. I present and criticize Nicholas Sturgeon’s influential interpretation of Moore’s OQAs as a means to motivate and explicate my own interpretation of Moore’s thoughts in §13 of Principia Ethica. I then articulate the role that OQAs are intended to play in Moore’s overall argumentative strategies to undermine metaethical naturalism and thereby provide some theoretical support for metaethical nonnaturalism. Finally, I attend to the most prominent objections to Moore’s theorizing and attempt to evaluate the extent to which Moore’s efforts are successful. My hope is to display both the promising portions of Moore’s metaethical argumentation in Principia Ethica as well as its limitations.


G.E. Moore Open question arguments Metaethics Metaethical naturalism Metaethical nonnaturalism 



I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Fred Feldman. This essay is a descendant of the first three chapters of my dissertation, which Fred Feldman directed. Fred provided critical commentaries for draft after draft of these chapters. He made substantial suggestions regarding how I might proceed in many instances. In others, he suggested potential lines of inquiry and argumentation I might pursue. No one has contributed more to my understanding of Moore’s OQAs and their relevance to the metaethical dialectic than Fred Feldman has. I am also tremendously grateful for the assistance, support, and encouragement provided by my colleague Mark Walker. Mark studied many drafts of this essay, providing rich commentaries and trenchant criticisms for each draft. Several of the argumentative strategies pursued in the essay are Mark’s makings. Thanks to Robert Gressis for a thoughtful commentary on an early draft of the essay. Thanks to audiences at colloquia at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association and the 2008 Annual Meetings of the New Mexico-Texas Philosophical Society. And thanks to three anonymous referees for their critical commentaries and encouragement.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, MSC 3BNew Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA

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