Monthly Archives: June 2011

Article Summary: “Trying Out One’s New Sword” by Mary Midgley

Midgley, Mary. “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” from Heart and Mind. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981.


Midgley argues that not only is moral isolationism – the view that one ought to respect other cultures but not judge them – incorrect, it is logically incoherent. She does so by presenting four self-contained arguments: that judgment is logically antecedent to respect, that outsiders can judge foreign cultures, if on a provisional basis, that moral isolationism leads to a complete inability to make moral judgments of any kind, and that cultures are not, as moral isolationism holds, subject to isolating barriers.

Midgley’s first argument is as follows: if moral isolationism is correct, then one can respect a culture without judging it. Yet, this is logically incoherent, because judgment, which Midgley sees as the formation of opinion – is logically antecedent to respect. One must judge a culture, to some degree, in order to respect it. Further, once one has an understanding of a culture, one can make positive and negative judgments; the two go hand in hand. The moral isolationist’s injunction that we are only allowed to be positive (i.e., respectful) of foreign cultures is thus impossible to uphold.

Midgley’s next argument is actually a simple – and reasonable – assertion: outsiders can, in fact, judge foreign cultures. These judgements will be provisional and limited in scope, but they can still be fair. In particular, she cites the judgments made by anthropologists as a paradigmatic example. Moral isolationism is thus simply wrong about the matter.

Midgley then argues that moral isolationism leads to a general ban on moral reasoning – an unpalatable conclusion. She says that judging one’s own culture requires the ability to judge other cultures, as a frame of reference. If we cannot judge other cultures, then we cannot judge our own. This would lead to an inability to judge anything of moral significance whatsoever, which is patently absurd. Moral judgement is a necessary part of existence, and thus moral isolationism cannot be correct.

Finally, Midgley says that the assumption on the part of moral isolationism that cultures exist in isolated bubbles from one another is factually incorrect. Cultures intermix all the time, and now more than ever. This intermixing dilutes the tenability of moral isolationism by making distinct, isolated cultures less extant than ever before. But if isolated cultures do not exist, then neither can isolated moral communities, and moral isolationism becomes irrelevant.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Judgment comes before respect)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then we ought to respect cultures and not judge them. [58L]
  2. Judgment is logically antecedent to respect. [59L]
  3. It is impossible to simultaneously affirm and antecedent and deny its consequent.*
  4. One cannot respect a culture without judging it. [2,3]
  5. Therefore, moral isolationism is false.

Argument Two (Outsiders can judge)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then outsiders can never judge a foreign culture (to any degree). [59L]
  2. Outsiders can judge foreign cultures, to some degree. [59L]
  3. Therefore, moral isolationism is false.

Argument Three (On moral reasoning)

  1. Moral isolationism holds that one cannot judge foreign cultures. [58L]
  2. If we cannot judge other cultures, then we cannot judge our own. [59R]
  3. If we cannot judge our own culture, we cannot judge any culture at all, and moral reasoning becomes impossible. [59R, 2-3]
  4. Therefore, if moral isolationism is true, then moral reasoning is impossible. [1-3]
  5. Moral reasoning is not only possible, it is necessary. [59R]
  6. Therefore, moral isolationism is false. [5,4]

Argument Four (Cultures are not isolated)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then cultures are isolated groups, separate and distinct from one another. [58L]
  2. Cultures are not isolated groups, but rather intermix all the time.
  3. Therefore, moral isolationism is false. [1,2]


Argument One
1. (∀x)(∀y)[(Cy ∧ Ox ∧ Uxy) → [Jxy ∧ (Jxy ≡ Rxy ∧ Dxy)]]
2. M → (∀x)(∀y)(Rxy ∧ ¬Dxy)
3. Therefore, (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∧ Ux ∧ Uxy) → ¬M
4. (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∧ Ux ∧ Uxy)(CP)
5. (∀x)(∀y)[Jxy ∧ (Jxy ≡ Rxy ∧ Dxy)](4, 1,MP)
6. (Cb ∧ Ua ∧ Uab)(4, UI)
7. [Jab ∧ (Jab ≡ Rab ∧ Dab)](5, UI)
8. Jab(7, SIMP)
9. (Jab ≡ Rab ∧ Dab)(7, SIMP)
10. M → (Rab ∧ ¬Dab)(2, UI)
11. [[Jab → (Rab ∧ Dab)] ∧ [(Rab ∧ Dab) → Jab]](9,EQUIV )
12. Jab → (Rab ∧ Dab)(11, SIMP)
13. Rab ∧ Dab(12, 8,MP)
14. Dab(13, SIMP)
15. Dab ∨ ¬Rab(14,ADD)
16. M → ¬(¬Rab ∧ Dab)(10,DeM)
17. M → ¬(Dab ∧ ¬Rab)(16,COMM)
18. ¬¬(Dab ∨ ¬Rab)(14,DN)
19. ¬M(18, 17,MT)
20. (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∨ Ux ∨ Uxy) → ¬M(4 − 19,CP)

Where O=Outsider, C=A culture, Uxy=X understands Y, Jxy=X can
judge Y, Rxy=X can respect Y, Dxy=X can disrespect Y, M=Moral
isolationism is true.

Argument Two
1. I → ¬J
2. ¬J → ¬M
3. ¬M → ¬R
4. R, therefore, ¬I
5. I → ¬M(1, 2,MT)
6. I → ¬R(5, 3,MT)
7. ¬¬R(4,DN)
8. ¬M(6, 7,MT)

Where I=Moral isolationism is true, J=The ability to judge other cultures, M=Ability to judge our own culture, R=Ability to engage in moral

Argument Three
1. M → (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ ¬Jyx)
2. (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ Jyx)…Therefore, ¬M
3. M(IP)
4. (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ ¬Jyx)(3, 1,MT)
5. Ca ∧ Ob ∧ Jba(2, UI)
6. Jba(5, SIMP)
7. Ca ∧ Ob ∧ ¬Jba(4, UI)
8. Jba ∧ ¬Jba(3 − 7, IP)

Where C=A culture, O=An outsider, Jxy=X can judge Y, M=Moral
isolationism is true.

Argument Four
1. M → I
2. ¬I
3. Therefore, ¬M(2, 1MT)

Where M=Moral isolationism is correct, I=Cultures exist in isolation from one another.


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Article Summary: “The Subject-Matter of Ethics” by G.E. Moore

Moore, GE. “The Subject-Matter of Ethics” in Principia Ethica, 1903.


Moore argues that ‘good’ denotes something both simple and indefinable. He does this by refuting the only possible alternatives as to how ‘good’ can be understood: that good is merely equivalent to some natural object, that good is a complex whole which requires analysis, and that good does not exist.

In order to defuse the notion that ‘good’ is merely some natural object, such as pleasure or intelligence, Moore says that equating good with a natural object disallows normative statements. This is because if good is merely pleasure, say, then the only statements that we can produce regarding good become descriptive. We will merely be asserting what ‘is’ the case (that pleasure is good, that this or that thing is pleasurable, i.e., good), rather than what ‘ought’ to be the case. Since normativity is an essential requirement of ethics, we cannot equate good with natural objects. Further, Moore says that when we equate good with natural objects (a move he calls the ‘naturalistic fallacy’),  it becomes impossible to refute such a definition and/or we limit ourselves to a verbal discussion of good. That is to say, when we discuss good, we will merely be discussing how people use the word good, rather than what good actually is.

Moore then disputes in quick succession the notions that good is a complex whole and that good does not exist at all. For any definition we come up with for ‘good,’ Moore asserts, we can ask whether that definition is good or not. It quickly becomes clear, then, that ‘good’ is something separate from any of these definitions. For example, if we define good as that which we desire to desire, then when we ask “Is A good?” we are asking “Is A that which we desire to desire?” It is clear that no one asks such things, and thus ‘good’ cannot be defined as a complex whole.

Meanwhile, Moore is sure that good exists because, so he says, when any lucid person asks a question about what “ought” to be the case, they have a clear, unique object in their mind which is in fact ‘good’ itself. Good is to be understood as a property of things; Moore sees it as uncontroversial that everyone has such a notion in their head. He merely believes it is indefinable (because it is simple).

Logical Outline

Argument One:

  1. Ethics requires normative as well as descriptive statements.*
  2. That which is good is the subject matter of ethics. [53R]
  3. If ‘good’ is equated with any natural object, then there can be only descriptive statements about it and not normative ones. [53R]
  4. Therefore, ‘good’ cannot be equated with any natural objects if we wish to do ethics. [1-3]

Argument Two:

  1. Unless ‘good’ is simple and indefinable, it is either a complex whole or it does not exist at all. [55R]
  2. Good is not a complex whole. [56L]
  3. Good exists. [56R]
  4. It is not the case that good is a complex whole nor that is does not exist at all. [2,3]
  5. Therefore, good is simple and indefinable. [4,1]


Argument One
1. (G = X) → ¬N
2. D ∧ N…Therefore, ¬(G = X)
3. N   (2, SIMP)
4. ¬¬N   (3,DN)
5. ¬(G = X)   (4, 1,MT)

Where G=Good, X=Any natural object, N=There are normative
statements about the good, D=There are descriptive statements about the

Argument Two
1. ¬(Sg ∧ Ig) → (Cg ∨ ¬Eg)
2. ¬Cg
3. Eg…Therefore, (Sg ∧ Ig)
4. ¬Cg ∧ Eg   (2, 3,CONJ)
5. ¬(Cg ∨ ¬Eg)   (4,DeM)
6. ¬¬(Sg ∧ Ig)   (5, 1,MT)
7. (Sg ∧ Ig)   (6,DN)

Where g=Good, S=Simple, I=Indefinable, C=Complex whole, E=Exists.


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