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Principia Ethica

G. E. Moore, original 1903 (Barnes & Noble: January 2005), 264 pages.

When Principia Ethica appeared, in 1903, it became something of a sacred text for the Cambridge-educated elite who formed the core of the Bloomsbury Group. In a letter of October 11, 1903, Strachey confesses to Moore that he is “carried away” by Principia, which inaugurates, for him, “the beginning of the Age of Reason.” Moore’s critique of convention, his caustic dismissal of his philosophical predecessors, and the relentless rigor of his method promised a revolution in morality commensurate with the modernist transformation of art and literature. Principia Ethica shifted the study of ethics away from normative questions to issues of “metaethics,” the study of ethical concepts.

Realism vs. relativism, the relation of goodness to rightness, and the logic of moral argument would come to dominate philosophical ethics for the next century, even when Moore’s philosophical heirs differed from him in their conclusions. In this sense, Moore established the methods and issues that would define Anglo-American reasoning about ethics from W. D. Ross (1877-1971) to Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) to John Rawls (1921-2002) to Bernard Williams (1929-2003).

George Edward Moore didn’t intend to be a philosopher. He was born in 1873, the fifth of what would eventually be eight children of devout evangelical parents. About the time he was twelve years old, Moore himself went through an “ultra-evangelical” period, though, according to his autobiography, “long before I left school, I was, to use a word then popular, a complete Agnostic.” Moore and his brothers attended Dulwich Academy in the London suburbs. He excelled at Greek and Latin,
and it was as a Classics scholar that Moore went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1892. But by the end of his freshman year his new friend Bertrand Russell was urging Moore to take up philosophy.
Moore was elected to the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society, more
commonly known as the Apostles, the elite of the intellectual
community at Cambridge. Russell describes Moore’s début as
“perfectly wonderful. . . . He looked like Newton and Satan rolled
into one, each at the supreme moment of his life.” In 1898 he was
elected to a six-year fellowship at Trinity. In 1925 Moore was
appointed Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, a position which he
held until his retirement in 1939. He continued to write and lecture
regularly until his death in 1958. In the early 1960s, Moore was
fondly, if comically, captured by Jonathan Miller, in the voice of
Bertrand Russell, as part of Beyond the Fringe, the satirical revue
made up, in addition to Miller, of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan

Principia is an audacious work. The very title evokes Isaac
Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687,
the founding document of modern physics (Russell and Whitehead would
do the same in their own Principia Mathematica, the first
volume of which would appear in 1910). Moore’s famous first sentence
is a withering condemnation of his predecessors:

It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical
studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is
full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to attempt to
answer questions, without first discovering precisely what
question it is which you desire to answer.

Moore’s method came variously to be known as “conceptual analysis,”
“linguistic analysis,” and “ordinary language philosophy.” Moore
himself disdained these labels, but there is little doubt that, as a
recent commentator puts it, “the effect of Moore’s position was to
turn the kind of philosophy done by some of his teachers on its head.”

One thing Moore isn’t doing is semantics. Early on he insists
that “verbal questions are properly left to the writers of
dictionaries and other persons interested in literature; philosophy,
as we shall see, has no concern with them.” While he will discuss the
definition of “good” at some length, his “business is not with its
proper use, as established by custom.” If language matters to
philosophy, it is not in the way it matters to linguists and

What we need, Moore begins, is “to distinguish clearly two kinds of
questions. . . . These two questions may be expressed, the first in
the form: What kind of things ought to exist for their own sakes? The
second in the form: What kind of actions ought we to perform?”
Surprisingly, once you understand the first question, it turns out
that there are no practical reasons that justify a judgment that
something is good for its own sake. The only reason for believing a
certain sort of thing ought to exist, just because of what it is, is
the immediate awareness of the goodness of the thing. If you attempted
to offer a justification — “because it helps others,” “because it
alleviates pain,” even “because it proclaims the glory of God” — you
would be shifting the reason why it should exist away from what it is
to what it does. But that is the domain of the second question.

Since we do say that certain things are good in themselves, we must be
reacting to an immediate awareness of goodness. Moore’s term for this,
taken from his teacher Henry Sidgwick, is “intuition.” Moore is
emphatically not attributing to himself, or to anyone, some occult or
mystical ability. The contrasting term is “inference.” When we infer
something we move from various bits of evidence to a conclusion that
was not immediately apparent. An intuition — he will subsequently use
the example of colors — is immediately present, without need of
inference. Look at a tomato, your hand, or the face of your friend;
there is no inference here. Moore would say that you know what it is

Moore has no theory of where these intuitions come from or how we
learn to recognize them. He is simply drawing out the implications of
what we are committed to by the common-sense ways we talk about our
world. Nothing about our intuitions guarantees their truth. As Moore
puts it, “in every way in which it is possible to cognise a true
proposition, it is also possible to cognise a false one.” To say that
something is true is to make a statement about the way the world is,
however we happened to learn it. This is why Moore’s view of ethics is
a form of “realism.”

The next thing to note is that good is simple; it has no parts. Since
it has no parts, it is not capable of definition. Moore offers the
analogy with “yellow.” To say that yellow is a color isn’t a
definition. To say that it is a primary color merely locates it in a
particular group of colors. We regularly perceive yellow, and most of
us can identify the yellow things (as opposed, say, to the puce
things) in our visual field immediately and with remarkable accuracy.
“Good” works the same way. If someone offers a definition — “good”
means “pleasant” — it is always legitimate to object that some things
may be pleasant to some people, at some times, but that doesn’t
necessarily mean that they are good. The would-be definer has
committed “the naturalistic fallacy.”

Exposing the “naturalistic fallacy” is the heart of Moore’s project. A
philosophically illuminating definition picks out essential
properties. To be pleased reports a psychological state, achieved by
particular persons in particular ways. It’s easy enough to see why it
is confused with good; we often say of pleasant experiences that they
are good. But when we’re talking philosophically, “‘Pleased’
nothing but having pleasure.” We may not be able to define
pleasure in any philosophically enlightening way, but any mature user
of the language knows that “pleasure,” or any other natural state you
might want to substitute, is not necessarily “good.”

Another way to put this is to say that it is always an open question
whether some particular thing, or state, or activity is actually good.
Moore considers “one of the more plausible, because one of the more
complicated,” philosophical attempts to define “good,” namely “that to
be good may mean to be that which we desire to desire.” The idea here
is that we often desire things we know we shouldn’t. When we notice
this, it’s not uncommon to think we should really want
something else instead. This looks like distinguishing the real from
the merely apparent good. “But,” Moore notes:

if we carry the investigation further, and ask ourselves ‘Is it
good to desire to desire A?’ it is apparent, on a little reflection,
that this question is itself as intelligible as the original question
‘Is A good?’ — that we are, in fact, now asking for exactly the
same information about the desire to desire A, for which we formerly
asked with regard to A itself.

If it is always an open question whether or not desiring, loving, or
any other imaginable act relating to anything is good for a particular
person, at a particular time, then “good” can’t be defined in the
proposed terms. That needn’t mean that particular states of affairs
can’t be good, only that they can’t, philosophically speaking,
the term.

Armed with these weapons — good as the simple object of intuition,
the naturalist fallacy, and the open question argument — Moore turns
his sights on the regnant schools of ethical theory. The various
versions of “naturalistic ethics typically commit the naturalistic
fallacy in its crudest form. Post-Darwinians of various stripes
identify the good with some physical, social, or psychological state,
but it “will always remain pertinent to ask, whether the feeling
itself is good; and if so, then good cannot itself be identical with
any feeling.” The Utilitarian John Stuart Mill “has made as naive and
artless a use of the naturalistic fallacy as anybody could desire.”
But even worse says Moore, in a caustic satire on Mill, he has sold
his “contemptible nonsense” to the public by trading on a confusion
between means and ends:

And the public haven’t noticed. Yet this is certainly what Mill has
done. He has broken down the distinction between means and ends, upon
the precise observance of which his Hedonism rests. And he has been
compelled to do this, because he has failed to distinguish ’end’
in the sense of what is desirable, from ‘end’ in the sense of
what is desired.

The Utilitarian maxim that the pleasure of the many should be
maximized seems to be about what is actually desired, but this
naturally leads critics to ask whether or not what would please the
many is truly good.

In chapter four, having dispatched the various forms of “naturalistic
ethics,” Moore moves on to its “metaphysical” forms. The main
protagonists here are the idealists, a loose group having its origins
in Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831), with
their British followers T. H. Green (1836-1882), F. H. Bradley
(1846-1924), and Moore’s teacher James M. E. McTaggart (1866-1925).
Moore describes as “metaphysical” the ethical theories which ground
their positions in “something supersensible which they inferred to
exist, and which they held to be perfectly good.” This commits the
naturalistic fallacy, ironically, by denying that the physical world
is really real and then identifying the good with metaphysical
reality. This not only commits Moore’s key fallacy, it also reduces
our earthly strivings to mere means of attaining that ultimate ideal.
But if the metaphysician “holds, not only that such an eternal reality
exists, but also, as is commonly the case, that nothing else is real.
. .then truly it will follow that nothing we can do will ever bring
any good to pass.” Metaphysical ethics, then, is not only fallacious
in its foundations, but it reduces us to moral impotence.

Principia Ethica, through the first four chapters, is bracing
stuff. It is also, if you enjoy philosophical invective (e.g. Mill’s
“contemptible nonsense”) pretty funny. But for the denizens of what
would become Bloomsbury, the best was last. Tom Regan records that,
“writing to Leonard Woolf just after Principia‘s publication,
Strachey enthuses about ’the last two chapters’ (emphasis
added), proclaiming ’glory alleluiah!'” At first blush it seems
hard to derive from Principia “an ethic of individual
liberation.” Moore himself insists that “no dutiful action can
possibly have unique value in the sense that it is the sole thing of
value in the world.” This seems to give us a very restricted and
localized utilitarianism. Because we can never really know whether a
particular act is a duty, “a virtue, if it is really a virtue, must be
good as a means. . .but it is not better as a means than
non-virtuous dispositions; it generally has no value in itself.” The
ultimate end, if there is one, is irrelevant. There is no moral law.
Virtue, philosophically speaking, is worthless.

And that, precisely, is where liberation lies. Moore provides Strachey
and his friends the philosophical justification for their break with
tradition, their disdain for middle-class morality, and their embrace
of what the early twenty-first century has come to call alternative
sexual lifestyles. The Bloomsberries (as Mary McCarthy would come to
call them) called it “buggery.” “The arguments offered in defence of
Common Sense morality,” writes Moore:

very often presuppose the existence of conditions, which cannot be
fairly assumed to be so universally necessary as the tendency to
continue life and to desire property. . .this, for instance, seems to
be the case with most of the rules comprehended under the name of

Perhaps defenders of the middle-class status quo can’t imagine
any viable alternative, but that, Moore seems to suggest, is their
problem. As for providing a proper Christian upbringing, deep devotion
to the teachings of the church “may lead the believer to perform
actions of which the actual consequences, supposing no such God to
exist, may be much worse than he might otherwise have effected.” Since
our duty is to encourage those acts that have some probability of
bettering the whole, “we should hesitate to encourage the Love of God,
in the absence of any proof that he exists.”

What, then, is intrinsically good? “By far the most valuable things,
which we can know or can imagine,” writes Moore, “are certain states
of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of
human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.” Such a
conclusion, particularly coupled with Moore’s reservations about God
and chastity, might well have provoked Strachey’s “alleluiah!” Moore’s
ideal dovetails precisely with the aesthetics of Clive Bell, Virginia
Woolf’s brother in law. The practical result was solidarity with
like-minded friends. Everyone else was a philistine.

Almost eighty years later, Alasdair MacIntyre saw in this the rise of
an elite, aestheticized, emotivism:

Keynes emphasised the rejection not only of the Benthamite version of
utilitarianism and Christianity, but of all claims on behalf of social
action conceived as a worthwhile end. What was left? The answer is: a
highly impoverished view of how ’good’ may be used.

On MacIntyre’s account, Moore’s assault on the tradition cut away so
much of our ordinary moral vocabulary that the Bloomsberries, and the
philosophical emotivists who were Moore’s immediate academic heirs,
found themselves unable to invoke anything beyond their own emotions
and introspective judgments. What contemporary neo-conservatives decry
as the erosion of civic virtue, and usually trace back to the 1960s,
was, on this reading, already in evidence at the turn of the twentieth
century. Liberation or solipsism? The question remains a matter of
contentious debate, but for many of the figures who define English
modernism, its theorist was G. E. Moore.

G. Scott Davis is the Lewis T. Booker Professor of Ethics and
Religion at the University of Richmond. He writes on moral theory, the
history of ethics, and the ethics of war.