. 1
( 8)



This is the first comprehensive study of the ethics of G. E. Moore, the
most important English-speaking ethicist of the 20th century. Moore™s
ethical project, set out in his seminal text Principia Ethica, is to preserve
common moral insight from skepticism and, in effect, persuade his read-
ers to accept the objective character of goodness. Brian Hutchinson ex-
plores Moore™s arguments in detail and in the process relates the ethical
thought to Moore™s anti-skeptical epistemology. Moore was, without per-
haps fully realizing it, skeptical about the very enterprise of philosophy
itself, and in this regard, as Brian Hutchinson reveals, was much closer in
his thinking to Wittgenstein than has been previously realized.
This book shows Moore™s ethical work to be much richer and more so-
phisticated than his critics have acknowledged.

Brian Hutchinson teaches in the philosophy department of the Univer-
sity of Iowa.

Resistance and Reconciliation

University of Iowa
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa

© Brian Hutchinson 2001

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2001

Printed in the United States of America

Typeface Baskerville 10/12 pt. System QuarkXPress [AG]

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Hutchinson, Brian.
G.E. Moore™s ethical theory: resistance and reconciliation / Brian Hutchinson. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
ISBN 0-521-80055-2
1. Moore, G. E. (George Edward), 1873“1958 “ Ethics. 2. Ethics, Modern “ 20th
century. 3. Moore, G. E. (George Edward), 1873“1958. Principia ethica. I. Title.
B1647 M74 H85 2001
171′.2 “ dc21 00-064189

0 521 80055 2 hardback
To Joyce, with love
The author wishes to thank Professor Richard A. Fumerton for his
criticisms, encouragement, and advice.

page 1
Introduction: Irony, Naïvet©, and Moore

1 16
Simplicity, Indefinability, Nonnaturalness
Lay of the Land
The Argument for Indefinability

2 39
Good™s Nonnaturalness
Later Refinements and Problems
Final Refinements

3 61
The Paradox of Ethics and Its Resolution
The Paradox of Ethics
Resolution of the Paradox

4 The Status of Ethics: Dimming the Future and
Brightening the Past
Dimming the Future
Brightening the Past

5 The Origin of the Awareness of Good and the Theory
of Common Sense
The Origin of Our Awareness of Good
Saving Common Sense

6 112
Moore™s Argument Against Egoism
Against a Metaphysical Self
The Contradiction of Egoism
Moore on Sidgwick

7 The Diagnosis of Egoism and the Consequences
of Its Rejection
Why Egoism Seems Plausible
Moore™s Greatest Revolution

8 146
Moore™s Practical and Political Philosophy
Necessary Rules
Nonnecessary Rules
Moore™s Conservatism

9 172
Moore™s Cosmic Conservatism
The Dialectic of Innocence
Moore™s Diagnosis
Critique of Religion

10 Cosmic Conservatism II 190
Art between Politics and Religion
Moore™s Solution and Its Consequences


Introduction: Irony, Naïvet©, and Moore

There is no purer expression of the objectivity of value than G. E. Moore™s
in Principia Ethica. We can best capture the purity of Moore™s vision by
reaching across the ages to contrast him to the philosopher with whom
he shares the deepest affinities, Plato. Plato trounces both the logic and
psychology of Thrasymachus™s confused and callow diatribe that the no-
tion of objective value is based on a hoax. Still, there are times when one
wonders whether he is just saying how he would manage the hoax were
he in charge. Even if Plato™s giving great lines to skeptical opponents is
finally not an expression of unease, but of supreme confidence in the
power of his thought and the beauty of his poetry to overwhelm the
gravest of doubts, this comparison highlights the fact that in Principia,
Moore never even entertains doubts about the objectivity of value. It is not
outright skeptics who catch Moore™s ire, but philosophers who refuse to
serve objectivism straight.
J. M. Keynes points in the direction of this fact about Principia in his
loving and clear-eyed memoir when he speaks of Moore™s innocence.1
How a man of thirty, especially one who kept the company Moore did,
could have remained innocent is a mystery difficult to fathom. Perhaps it
is to be savored rather than solved. Likely, it is no part of its solution but
only another way of pointing to the mystery to observe that Moore seems
to have been utterly lacking in irony. Because he was as he seemed, he
trusted things to be as they seemed.
Irony has been part of the stock in trade of philosophers since Socrates
captivated Plato and in this era irony has even greater currency than
usual. We thus have trouble believing that such a work as Principia could
be great. But its lack of irony is actually the key to Principia™s greatness.
Because the unwarranted, debilitating doubt that haunts others is the
one thing Moore is skeptical of, he is able to tell a simple and moving
story about how human beings constantly jeopardize the plain awareness
of objective value that is their birthright. He makes us ache at how much
unhappiness we cause ourselves by letting the simple truth about good-
ness, which should be nothing very hard to hold on to, slip almost entirely
away. At the same time, the simple and sophisticated philosophical con-

J. M. Keynes, “My Early Beliefs,” in Essays and Sketches in Biography (New York: Meridian
Books, 1956), p. 250.
2 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

ception of value lying behind his story makes him as tough-minded and
tenacious as Joe Frazier in stalking the doubts of others. Because the
deeper view, finally, is the one that comes to grips with doubts it has itself
felt, we are unlikely to agree with Keynes that Moore surpasses Plato.2
Nevertheless, we all have moments when the profoundest truths appear
to be the ones right on the surface, when the idea of depth seems illusory.3
Principia captures this thought as beautifully as any that has the depth to
defend it.
Its being an expression of the thought that wisdom lies in accepting the
simple, obvious truth makes Principia problematic to many philosophers.
Most philosophers instinctively regard themselves as challengers rather
than defenders of what all people, including philosophers, instinctively
believe. It is thus difficult for them to avoid concluding that even if these
beliefs are not simply to be jettisoned as terminally simpleminded, in the
service of offering a revelation, it is their duty to make them over so thor-
oughly as to leave them unrecognizable. But it may just be that the great-
est of iconoclastic acts is to renounce iconoclasm and to defend or, with
the thought that it is not really defending that they need, just completely
and confidently articulate the simple views that even philosophers hold
when they forget they are philosophers: Moore is not afraid to be a lonely
philosopher and stand with the crowd.
Those not given to irony make easy targets for it and history has tar-
geted Moore in a particularly delicious way. In very little time, it became
the received view that the philosopher who claimed to have cleared the
ground of the obstacles impeding the complete philosophical accept-
ance of objectivism inadvertently laid bare its untenableness. Within a
generation, two different ways of dismissing Moore™s positive views were
being rehearsed by those who accepted his negative arguments against
objectivist theories less robust than his own. Some, such as A. J. Ayer, while
finding much to praise in his making clarity the sine qua non of intellectual
seriousness, dismissed his positive views with a sneer. Others, like C. L.
Stevenson, posing as one who would eagerly look for the needle if only
Moore would tell him what it looked like, dismissed them with a shrug.4
The view that Moore™s thought was too barren to sustain objectivist
ethics became more firmly entrenched after the Second World War, even
as philosophers renewed their sympathies toward objectivism. Since
Moore had been responsible for scorching so much of the ground, he
could hardly be expected to help reenliven it. He rather deserved op-

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan and Company,
1953), p. 47.
Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Publications Inc.,
1946), pp. 32, 33“4, 68. C. L. Stevenson, “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms,” Mind,
Vol. 46 (1937), pp. 30“1.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 3

probrium for steering ethics into so horribly dead an end that emotivism
or some equally benighted offshoot seemed for a time to be the only way
out. It is in the work of the philosopher-historian Alasdair MacIntyre, with
a historical sweep and sense of Moore™s importance almost matching
Moore™s own, that the view of Moore as destroyer achieves its ironic
apotheosis. MacIntyre holds Moore to be a major figure not just in the
decline of English-language ethical thought, but in the moral deteriora-
tion of Western culture that has gone on for centuries.5 One might find
there to be a rough justice in the way history has come to look at Moore.
What has been done unto him is no different than what he, so melodra-
matically assuming the role of revolutionary, had done unto others.6 But
even if Principia is responsible for nothing but mischief, the least it de-
serves is something it has not received to this day “ a careful, reasonably
sympathetic, and thorough reading.7
No doubt Moore must receive some of the blame for the partial read-
ings his work has received. His overplaying his revolutionary part has
made it difficult for many to see that rather than destroying the Western
ethical tradition, which after all has for the most part been objectivist, he
actually sheds a light upon it that allows its objectivist outlines to stand
out more sharply than ever. By his own fiery words, he directs attention
to the part of Principia in which he is most melodramatically in opposi-
tion. This, of course, is the Open Question Argument. The attempt to un-
derstand great figures is often impeded by the overwrought praise of
early adulators who only half understand them. So it is no surprise that
the high repute in which so many prerevisionist admirers held that ar-
gument has abetted the overly great, far more critical attention it has re-
ceived in the years following.8 One of the aims of this book is to take that
very famous argument down more than a notch so that Principia and the
rest of Moore™s ethics may be more easily read as an organically unified
In this, the book employs the same strategy but a different tactic than
the one employed by a book to which this book, however much it might

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press,
1984), pp. 14“19.
For quotes from anonymous early reviewers of Principia who express grave reservations
about the accuracy of Moore™s history, see Tom Regan™s Bloomsbury™s Prophet (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1986), pp. 19, 196“7.
Regan is a great admirer of both Moore and his work, but his work is as much a spiritual
and intellectual biography as a philosophical study. Other sympathetic and more distinctly
philosophical studies of Moore™s ethical thought such as John Hill™s The Ethics of G. E.
Moore, A New Interpretation (Assen: The Netherlands, Van Gorcum and Co., 1976) and
Robert Peter Sylvester™s The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Philadelphia: Temple Univer-
sity Press, 1990), do not deal with Moore™s work in its entirety.
William K. Frankena, “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” in Readings in Ethical Theory, Willfred Sel-
lars and John Hospers, eds. (New York: Appleton-Crofts Inc., 1952), pp. 103“4, notes the
early uncritical praise for the OQA.
4 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

disagree with it, acknowledges a great debt, Tom Regan™s Bloomsbury™s
Prophet. Regan attempts to bring Moore back to life as a superb ethicist
whose work has profound and surprising ramifications for social and po-
litical philosophy. Coincident with that, Regan also presents Moore as a
figure whose personality and voice were compelling enough to dazzle a
coterie of interesting artists and intellectuals. But although he considers
the claim that good is an indefinable property to be of crucial importance
to Moore, Regan ignores the argument by which he attempts to prove it.
His single reference to this “particularly important argument” has to do
with Virginia Woolf™s vertiginous feelings of bafflement about it.9 There is
much to be said for Regan™s tactic. The argument is but one small part of
a grandly conceived book. The historical evidence amassed by Regan sug-
gests that the conception drove the argument, which is the opposite of
what the great critical emphasis on the argument suggests.10 Nevertheless,
this book chooses to confront the argument early on and acknowledge its
weakness as an argument. Later, it suggests ways to free it from the burden
of being the thing everything else depends on. Even if Moore placed great
weight on the definitiveness of the OQA for a time, in this most ironical of
ages we should be willing not to take a philosopher at his own word.11
One who wishes to deflate the OQA in order to revive interest in the
entirety of Moore™s theory faces imposing obstacles. A 1992 article on the
current state of ethics commissioned by The Philosophical Review in cele-
bration of its one-hundredth year may fairly be considered to represent
the age™s received opinion.12 In “Principia™s Revenge,” the very first sec-
tion of that article™s introduction, the authors observe that the contro-
versy initiated by the OQA is only slightly less old than the Review. While
celebrating the one “without reserve” they wonder whether they should
be “equally happy about the continuing vitality of the other.” They worry
that “Moore™s accident-prone deployment of his . . . argument . . . ap-
peal[s] to a now defunct intuitionistic Platonism.” Still they conclude,
“However readily we now reject as antiquated his views in semantics and
epistemology, it seems impossible to deny that Moore was on to some-
thing.” The sad truth then is that the OQA must be separated from the
rest of Principia because it is the one part of it time has not passed by. Al-

Bloomsbury™s Prophet, pp. 197“8.
10 Thomas Baldwin notes in G. E. Moore (London and New York: Routledge 1990), pp. 87“8,
that the section in which Moore presents the OQA is the only part of his early discussion
that does not come directly from his original book-length effort, The Elements of Ethics,
Tom Regan, ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991). But this seems rather ten-
uous evidence for his conclusion that “Moore felt that the argument . . . needed a more
careful statement than he had previously given it.”
11 G. E. Moore, Preface to Principia Ethica: Revised Edition, Thomas Baldwin, ed. (Cam-

bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 3.
Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, Peter Railton, “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some
Trends,” Philosophical Review (January 1992), pp. 115“89.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 5

though it does not lead these authors to wonder with any great humility
about what their own final philosophical destinations might be, the il-
lustriousness of Moore™s company in the graveyard might ease his disap-
pointment at being found inept and outmoded. Just possibly, it might
also suggest that for strong and compelling expressions of major philo-
sophical points of view, time™s sting is never quite permanent.
Much of the current age™s unease with Moore has to do with its obses-
sion with the thought that many different points of view may be taken
about anything at all and that none of them can be validated as present-
ing the world as it really is. Any attempt to assess the adequacy of a point
of view must be made from a different point of view; that point of view
must then be assessed from another, and so on and on. The thought nat-
urally arises that it is impossible for us ever to know that we have cognized
the world as it really is. When that thought is fully absorbed, a second one
naturally arises that there is no way the world “really is.” If, from the first
point of view, one considers Moore to be trying to present the world as
we would all acknowledge it to be but for our letting it get sicklied o™er
with philosophical thought, the response is that he actually just presents
us with another appearance of the world. If, from the more radical point
of view, one considers him without realizing it to be trying to present the
original appearance of value upon which all other appearances are wor-
ried elaborations, the first response is that there just is no such appear-
ance. But even if there were, no matter how ingenious and ingenuous his
re-presentation of it would happen to be, it would, since it lies on the
other side of doubt, have to be something different. So Moore makes not
one, but two, failed attempts to retrieve an incontestable starting point
for ethics: he gives us neither pure reality nor pure appearance.
Papers Moore allowed to gather dust show that for a time even he ad-
hered to such lines of thought as these. But in the same year as Principia,
he puts forward a view of consciousness that allows him to escape the per-
spectivalist conundrum.13 Rather than having “contents,” consciousness
is directed to objects lying outside it. There can thus be present to con-
sciousness (part of) the very world itself. It follows then that it is possible
for one who is not benumbed by doubts of philosophical making just to
observe how (part of) the world is. Turning to value, Moore does not then
just deliver to philosophers the perspective on the world taken by the naïve
and for that reason, clear-minded child “ he delivers them the world. The
joke turns out to be on those sophisticates who think that things must be
seen through rather than just seen. Although he came to be unhappy
with the particulars of it,14 once Moore offered his refutation of idealism,

“The Refutation of Idealism,” in Philosophical Studies (Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield and
Adams, 1965), pp. 1“30.
14 Preface to Philosophical Studies, p. viii.
6 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

he never looked back. As is suggested by Bertrand Russell™s moving com-
ments about the relief and joy Moore brought to him by enabling him to
trust again in the world™s reality, Tom Regan™s view that Moore is a “lib-
erator,” which we shall discuss at length and mostly oppose, seems in this
instance to be right on the mark.15
To someone with Moore™s views, the philosopher™s task is not just to de-
fend the claim that we are directly in touch with the things of the world;
it is also to show what these things are. The great difficulty has been that
philosophers suffer from a deep-seated impulse to obscure the things
they observe. He thus considers that his ruthless exposure of the “natu-
ralistic fallacy” by the OQA will give philosophers a chance to go back to
just before the moment when they made the first false judgment of iden-
tity that set everything off on the wrong foot “ and not make it. Previously
when philosophers had made such a judgment, whatever it happened to
be, they had never been able to completely unmake it. Their impulse had
always been to construct a philosophical system to mitigate their error
when only a renunciation of it would do.
The response to Moore™s argument that William Frankena has made
obvious is that any argument that sets out to prove that an identity judg-
ment is false must beg the question.16 This requires us then to go beyond
Moore™s express understanding of the OQA. Rather than see it as a failed
attempt to prove what he came close to recognizing as being unprov-
able,17 we should see it instead as something that helps us to get our bear-
ings about what we honestly find about value “ that it can be understood
in, and accepted on, its own terms only. The rest of Principia, by offering
a full-scale theory that makes rich sense of our honest findings, enables
us to answer the question whether any scruples we might have about them
can be so deep and well taken as to lead us to reject them. The answer is
the same as that concerning any scruples we might have suggesting that
we do not really have knowledge of the external world: “No.” So any read-
ing of Principia that, as the one proffered in The Philosophical Review does,
severs the OQA from its metaphysical and epistemological underpin-
nings, will leave it without the resources to address skepticism and all its
attendant feelings of bewilderment and loss.
Looking at Principia as entirely of a piece makes Moore interesting
company for Wittgenstein. Moore can be seen to anticipate Wittgen-
stein™s diagnosis that the philosophical intellect suffers a kind of be-
witchment that creates a deep and abiding sense of alienation. Like
Wittgenstein, Moore suggests a program of therapy whose aim is to re-
store to philosophers their sense of being at home in the world. But

Bertrand Russell, “My Mental Development,” in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, Paul
Arthur Schilpp, ed. (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1972), p. 12.
16 “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” p. 113. 17 Principia, p. 143.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 7

rather than requiring philosophers to do what Wittgenstein himself could
never do “ give up philosophy “ Moore assumes that his therapy will al-
low them to continue to philosophize. It will do so by giving them the
means to keep their nerve in the face of the doubts that are the source
of their alienation: Moore holds that it is only an impulse philosophers
give in to while doing philosophy that is alienating, not philosophy itself.
But given his claim that all philosophers prior to Sidgwick had given in
to this impulse, he should have been at least a little bit troubled by the
possibility that philosophy itself is the source of alienation.18 It ought to
have occurred to him, as it did to Wittgenstein, to wonder whether a skep-
tical metaphilosophy must go all the way down with philosophy. Moore™s
belief that the philosophical impulse to obfuscate can be eliminated with-
out trace merely by his exposure of it is very naive. It turns out then, and
for similar reasons, that Moore™s relation to Wittgenstein is similar to his
relation to Plato. Wittgenstein™s willingness to raise doubts about philos-
ophy, when combined with his penetration and immense poetical gifts,
gives his investigations a tragic grandeur that Moore, who left no room
for tragedy in the world, cannot sustain.19
Wittgenstein is said to have remarked of Moore that he showed how far
one could get in philosophy without a great intellect.20 Even if he did not
mean this remark to be a compliment, there is a way to read it as such: It
takes a very great prosaic mind to withstand the philosophical temptation
to try to make things more or less than they are. Likely, it was this re-
markable cast of mind that also enabled Moore, of all those who knew
Wittgenstein, to take his measure most accurately for philosophy, to in-
dulge in neither hysterical denunciation nor sycophantic adulation when
he began his great therapeutic exercises. It is a literary staple that a side-
kick knows some things the hero does not. Does Moore, in his insistence
that the world has a nature that is not to be shaped by what we say or think
about it, not only express the view we cannot help but accept when we are
not philosophizing, but also the wiser philosophical view? When the cri-
tique that philosophical attempts to explicate reality are the result of
tricks played by language is itself subject to critique, is not Moore™s naïve
view that the world has an ultimate, explicable nature the one left hold-
ing the field? Irony, understood as the attempt to hide from and ac-
knowledge failure simultaneously, only makes sense if we know there is a
reality we must try to live up to.
One way of responding to such questions as these is to refuse their
terms. Philosophy consists of a series of negotiations between di-
chotomies, with the ones it must negotiate at any particular time being

Ibid., p. 17.
19 Ibid., p. 219. We discuss Moore on tragedy in the book™s last chapter.
Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 187.
8 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

bequeathed to it by history. As it has been for more than half a century
now, the task of objectivist ethical theory is to find a way of chastening
Moorean confidence with Wittgensteinian humility. As the authors of
The Philosophical Review article explain, many philosophers consider it
to be their task to show “morality [to be] a genuine and objective area
of inquiry,” that need not appeal to any grand notions of an “inde-
pendent metaphysical order.”21 One might continue in this vein by say-
ing that because they have learned from Wittgenstein how to be suspi-
cious of them, philosophers now have a better chance of avoiding the
stupefying commitments that traditionally have been made in the name
of such an order. Being more careful of the dangers they themselves cre-
ate, they will be more disciplined in their refusal to make use of notions
they have officially discounted. Nevertheless, as long as they exercise ex-
treme caution, they may “ must “ borrow from the tradition of which
they are so wary. Although the scale of the resulting theories will be
smaller than what generations of earlier philosophers have been used
to seeing, they will, for that very reason, be more human and more plau-
sibly sustained.
The refusal of duly chastened philosophers to make use of grandiose
notions will lead many nostalgic philosophers to worry that what is lack-
ing in these accounts is just what is most important. Therefore, a crucial
part of these projects will consist of debunking, of applying the Wittgen-
steinian insight that the monsters philosophers have tried to keep at bay
by creating adamantine metaphysical structures, are really just the shad-
ows of those structures. Once started on the project of building such a
structure, at no matter what stage they find themselves in it, philosophers
have been unable to put to rest their fears that something is amiss with it,
that it is not yet strong enough really to keep those monsters out. These
fears spur further efforts at construction and repair, which create more
shadows in a never-ending dialectic of futility.
It goes against received opinion to recognize that for the most part,
Moore stands up well to criticisms of this kind. Although there are times
when he suffers from a somewhat prolix and gnarled style, in his hands
it does not make the truth seem baffling or obscure. His style is rarely sug-
gestive of one who must first convince himself before he can convince
others. His plain words bespeak his fundamental conviction that good-
ness is simply there “ we find it. His great confidence does often serve him
poorly as a critic, however, making him much too impatient of those who
have failed to see as clearly as he. On too many occasions, he takes a ham-
mer to views that call for a scalpel. Especially in his discussion of evolu-
tionary ethical theories, his impatience leads him to smash away at points
that would, when properly understood, serve his own views.

“Toward Fin de siècle Ethics,” pp. 130“1.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 9

One place where we do find him straining is in his discussion of ethi-
cal egoism. This is not surprising, as it is over this issue that the encounter
with moral skepticism becomes most troubling. The fear of being played
for a sucker looms large both in everyday life and philosophy. Still, the
indignant tone Moore takes in this discussion poorly serves what is sup-
posed to be a purely logical demonstration “ he seems to be trying to
badger the egoist into silence. His constant repetition of the charge that
the egoist is “irrational,” invoked almost as if it were a mantra, suggests a
certain amount of desperation; even if he is at ease with his argument, he
rightly senses that others will not be. It might be that Moore™s straining
shows him to suffer a weakness that sends him to the wrong place in his
attempt to understand and deal with egoism™s attractions. Perhaps the
flaw in our thinking that makes egoism enticing has to do with a flaw in
our character that his moral psychology is either not rich enough or not
worked out enough to come to grips with fully.
Occasionally, Moore uses odd figures. Consider, for instance, his claim
that good is something we are unable to pick up and move about with
even “the most delicate scientific instruments.”22 Such figures have a
charm that heightens Principia™s quality of innocence; this very prosaic
mind still leaves a great deal of room for wonder. As Keynes notes, his in-
nocence adds a most touching quality to his discussion of love and friend-
ship.23 At first, his tone appears to be much too abstract to tell us any-
thing interesting about the flesh and blood of real life. But eventually one
comes to wonder whether that tone enables him to find an element of
purity that is common to our most mundane personal transactions and
our most intimate and passionate moments. And although he writes dis-
tantly and diffidently of these things, his insistence on the indispensabil-
ity of the body in love makes him one naïf who does not blush.
His ability to express his views in terms that do not stray beyond the re-
sources of his philosophy also serves to keep Moore rather immune from
self-deception. He is one philosopher who does not fall into the traps he
most warns others against. In this, he compares favorably to some of his
debunkers. He would never, for instance, think that the metaphysical-
moral commitments of objectivity can be rendered less troubling by the
simple expediency of having the “objective, categorical demands . . . ul-
timately issue from deep within the moral agent” rather than from the
“external” “metaphysical order.”24 Surely, the skeptic™s catcalls upon be-
ing told of objective moral “demands” has little to do with the “place” of
their origination. Moore would have called those so easily impressed by
their own metaphors “naïve and artless.”25

22 23 “My Early Beliefs,” p. 250.
Ibid., p. 124
24 “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics,” p. 137
The phrase comes from his critique of Mill, Principia, p. 66.
10 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

He would also have been skeptical about the claim that although the
weight of objectivity cannot be borne by goodness, it can somehow be
shifted onto the entire corporate body of ethical concepts. As was recog-
nized by Aristotle, the philosopher in whose name this claim is so often
made, all the other finely honed notions used in the making of ethical
judgments are forever in service to one basic question: Is a thing good or
is it bad? Difficult philosophical questions about the nature of good can-
not be made to disappear by having good slip into the crowd of the con-
cepts it leads. And if we remain focused on the master ethical concept, we
will be less likely to think that truisms about how each of us is accultur-
ated into some particular ethical scheme both render us credulous with
regard to that scheme and incapable of understanding any other. Moore
was never so naïve as to think that the solution to moral-epistemological
worries lies in making self-satisfaction and a lack of imagination prereq-
uisites of moral understanding “ skeptics will consider themselves vindi-
cated to be told that there are different logically impregnable ways of mak-
ing morality up. Once again, Moore insists on the truth of something we
cannot help but believe (but not that it is true because we cannot help but
believe it): There is a world independent of any of the ethical schemes we
happen to employ to which they must all be responsible.
But if Moore avoids falling into the conservative metaphysical-
epistemological trap of thinking that whatever different people cannot
think their way beyond is true (“for them”), many philosophers seem to
assume that the weight of his thought makes him far too eager to embrace
a more conventional kind of political-social conservatism. Their fear is
that his metaphysics and epistemology lead him to radically underesti-
mate the intrinsic worth of the fully “autonomous” moral agent. This in
turn makes him far too acquiescent in whatever rules, arrangements, and
mores a particular society happens to have. The line of thought that leads
to this conclusion starts with the observation that in order to engage in
serious moral reflection, one must be searching and fearless; one must
be willing to explore the possibility that anything might be good. Even
though Moore admits this possibility as far as logic goes, the suspicion re-
mains that he loses his nerve and forecloses too quickly on fearless moral
exploration.26 The psychological logic of his view, wedded as it is to the
metaphor of having one™s reflections and decisions guided by the prop-
erty good, finally leaves him overly beholden to the established orders
that “guide” one in so many different ways. Lying in the background of
this criticism is the paradoxical and quintessentially modern thought that
the fundamentality of the value(s) of autonomy and freedom requires
people to choose the values by which they are to be guided.

Abraham Edel, “The Logical Structure of Moore™s Ethical Theory,” in The Philosophy of
G. E. Moore, Paul Schilpp, ed. (Evanston and Chicago, 1942), pp. 170“6.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 11

Tom Regan, who both admires Moore and sympathizes with accounts
that seek to “liberate” moral agents from various forms of authority, cat-
egorically denies that there is anything in Moore™s philosophy commit-
ting him to any such form of conservatism. In fact, he argues the oppo-
site case: Moore™s metaphysics and epistemology protect the freedom of
the individual “ there are places where Regan makes Moore sound like
an existentialist in extremis.27 This book rejects such an interpretation of
Moore. Although we deal with Regan at length in the main body of the
text, we shall take a moment here to look at one line of his thought in or-
der to show just how far removed Moore is from some of this age™s most
characteristic preoccupations and confusions.
As Moore himself does, Regan attaches great importance to the inde-
finability of the property good. He starts with the familiar observation
that if good were definable in either naturalistic or metaphysical terms,
it would be a “closed question” what things are good. “The Science of
Morals” would cease to exist, as experts from the defining science would
take it over completely. But Regan goes beyond what Moore explicitly says
when he emphasizes the importance of good™s being indefinable even in
nonnatural terms. Nonnaturalistic indefinability protects the moral judg-
ment of the individual from encroachment by moral science. He writes:
At the deepest level it is the autonomy of individual judgment about what has in-
trinsic value . . . that Moore relentlessly seeks to defend. Individuals must judge
for themselves what things . . . are worth having for their own sakes. No natural
science can do this. No metaphysical system can do this. Not even the Science of
Morals can do this. Every attempt to take this freedom (and this responsibility)
away from the individual rests on the same kind of fallacy. . . . The raison d™être of
Ethics is to prove that there are some things “ and these the most important things
in human life “ that no science can prove.28
The first thing to say is that Moore would simply be bewildered upon
being told that the fact that “individuals must judge for themselves”
whether something is valuable is of any import. This is something that is
true of all judgments, whether their predicates be definable or indefin-
able, ethical or nonethical, scientific or nonscientific. The mistake of at-
taching significance to the fact that individuals “must” make “their own”
judgments is similar to the psychological egoist™s mistake, exposed long
ago by Butler, of attaching significance to the fact that individuals have
“their own” desires. As a desire™s being one™s own does not foreclose on
the possibility of something other than oneself being its object, so does a
moral or other kind of judgment being one™s own not foreclose on the
possibility of its being based on what somebody other than oneself judges.
One who “judges for himself” that it is better to defer to the judgments

Especially in the chapters “The Autonomy of Ethics” and “The Liberator,” pp. 183“250.
MacIntyre offers roughly the same reading of Moore from the negative side.
28 Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 204.
12 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

of others lets those others “make his judgments for him.” There is then
no fuel for Promethean fires in the fact Regan makes so much of. This is
a good thing. As Aristotle might have asked, if individuals were on their
own in some deeper way than this, how would the young ever learn from
the old? How would the foolish ameliorate their foolishness? How would
even the wisest of us get along?
Above all else, Regan seems to fear a theory that would have moral
questions settled by something akin to an algorithm. His worry is that this
would make acts of moral judgment lifeless and mechanical. But this fear
is not Moore™s; he thinks that there is a set of moral truths that, had we
complete knowledge of it along with all relevant nonmoral information,
would provide an exact answer to every moral question. It is nothing
metaphysical that prevents our reaching these answers, but the fact that
the world is rich and our knowledge of it “ including our knowledge of
our own creative capacities “ limited. Regan™s fear of scientific thinking
seems to be based on the crudest of caricatures, according to which it em-
braces the ethos of conformity to the point of tyranny. But even in nor-
mal scientific times, there is contention and creativity in the sciences
every bit as exciting as any to be found in philosophy or the arts. This is
so even though all scientific controversialists recognize themselves as be-
ing obligated to follow certain (unclosed) canons of thinking in the pur-
suit of truth. As science makes room for both truth and gadflies, so too
can ethics.
Even if we allow Regan to be exaggerating for effect when he claims that
the raison d™être of ethics is to prove that there are things about life no sci-
ence can prove, he does think that the unprovableness of its judgments is
what saves ethics from being soul deadening. Because it cannot be proved
to one that her moral judgments are false, no army of soldiers, scientists,
or priests can make her think otherwise. Regan also suggests that the un-
provableness of a moral judgment is connected to the indefinability of its
fundamental term. But Moore insists that whether their terms be inde-
finable or definable, a great many nonmoral judgments are also unprov-
able.29 And even though they are unprovable, since the moral judgments
of the hidebound and the free spirited alike must stand before the bar of
truth, truth trumps authenticity. To judge (not “for oneself”) what is good
or bad is in no way to choose what shall be good or bad. To think otherwise
is to remain under the influence of that most powerful and pernicious of
twentieth-century philosophical spells, verificationism.
If Regan is wrong, are other critics right who maintain that the weight
of Moore™s philosophical apparatus forces conservatism on him? Moore
would indeed be nonplussed by the thought of a serious person finding
the murder of an elderly shopkeeper to be an admirable expression of

Principia, pp. 143“4.
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 13

antiauthoritarianism.30 Since he does think that responsible behavior
must be guided by goodness, he conveys no sense at all that we are mak-
ing moral law when we decide what is best. It is no surprise then that he
finds freedom to lack intrinsic value. Still, even if he refuses to join in the
rush to make the poorly understood values of freedom and autonomy the
centerpieces of morality, his conservative political-philosophical views are
in no way forced upon him by his metaphysics or his metaphors. Al-
though he rejects it, his theory leaves open the possibility that freedom is
a part of organic unities having great intrinsic value. He allows for and
perhaps accepts the thought that freedom is very good as a means.31 But
finally, on the paramount conservative issue of stability versus change,
with eyes wide open, Moore does conclude that complacency toward
standing orders is less dangerous than complacency toward untested new
orders. A century has just closed in which fatuous optimism about the ef-
fects of unmooring people from their characteristic patterns of thought
and behavior has helped to free them to carry out programs unprece-
dentedly bloody for regimes unspeakably dreary. His recommendation at
the beginning of that century that we be very careful about risking those
admittedly imperfect moorings seems then not to be naïve, but prescient.
We shall begin to bring this introduction to a close by considering the
earlier hint that although he does not realize it, the deepest impulse of
Moore™s philosophy is, as Wittgenstein™s is, to end philosophy. Moore™s
great aim in ethics is to expose and expunge philosophy™s revisionary im-
pulse in order to defend the things we know to be irreplaceable in any
sane way of life. This requires a transformation of philosophy so pro-
found as to be impossible for most philosophers to envisage: Some things
philosophers must simply accept. But promulgating such a position
within philosophy appears to undermine it. Even as he purports to locate
the things lying not so much beyond as before dispute, he invites dispute.
To make an official philosophical pronouncement that certain things are
not open to serious question is to raise the suspicion that really, they are.
Moore might try to defend his own philosophizing against this line of
thought by saying that his metaphysical explications of the things we
know provide the means of permanently silencing the skeptic. With their
metaphysical lines permanently protected, ethicists will now be able to
proceed to the work in casuistry that has been too long neglected. He
could also note that it is no part of his view that all the parts of a philo-
sophical theory must be uncontroversial because the things it serves are.
However difficult it has been for philosophers to do it, as he tries to
show in his own career, one can prevent uncertainty in the philosophical

Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” in Advertisements for Myself (New York: G. P. Putnam
and Sons, 1959), p. 347.
Principia, p. 186.
14 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

sphere from leaking into the sphere of what is known prephilosophically.
But Moore needs to be more alert to the possibility that one explores the
philosophical sphere only if one thinks of the prephilosophical sphere as
needing explication or “support.” That possibility makes the known the
merely knowable. One who really thinks of the known as needing no sup-
port, as “going without saying” “ would say nothing.
Moore is certainly naïve if he thinks for even a moment that an impulse
as deep as the skeptic™s could ever be eradicated. Since it never will be
eradicated, it could turn out, on the metaphilosophy he seems most
committed to, that philosophy will continue to have a role to play in hu-
man life, albeit one much less exalted than what it has usually reserved
for itself. According to this view, the only worthwhile form of philosophy
is reactionary; the sole job of philosophy is to resist philosophy. Because
ordinary thought™s inarticulateness provides it with some protection
against skepticism, it is not something to be bemoaned. Nevertheless,
once it is taken in by skepticism, its inarticulateness leaves ordinary
thought incapable of responding to skepticism with anything but a sput-
ter. It is, therefore, the job of reactionary philosophy to offer resistance,
usually piecemeal, to revisionary philosophy™s illegitimate encroach-
ments on ordinary thought. Even if reactionary philosophers do on
occasion put forward large-scale positive theories, being in the form of
preemptive strikes against various skeptical challenges, they remain de-
fensive in character. One who comes to such a view of philosophy might
find Moore™s exclusion of philosophy from the catalog of things having
intrinsic value to be most revealing and most moving. Philosophy is good
only as a means to the dissolution of intellectual clots that the wrong kind
of philosophy creates. This would suggest that Moore pursues philosophy
not because he finds it to be intrinsically interesting, but because he rec-
ognizes an obligation to help others dissolve the clots they suffer from.
His long philosophical career is then an impressively patient and quiet
one of self-sacrifice.
One might find this entire line of thought to be troublingly antiintel-
lectual. By its lights, the highest form of wisdom is not merely to accept
that things are what they are; it is never even to consider that they could
be anything else “ it has the pig defeating Socrates on both counts. We
can safely assume that Moore would have been disconsolate to have
found his thought leading to such a conclusion. A way of fending it off
that is suggested by other, related lines in his thought is to see philoso-
phy and other intellectual activities as purely aesthetic in character, to see
them, that is, as concerned solely with beauty and not at all with truth.
This enables human beings to rise above the pig without suffering alien-
ation and also allows philosophy and other refined modes of thought
more freedom than views do that see them as engaged in the pursuit of
truth. One might find that this makes the quarantining of philosophical
introduction: irony, naïvet©, and moore 15

thought from ordinary thought beneficial to both. One might also find
that by not having been too hasty in accepting the values of freedom and
self-creativity, Moore is able to uncover the realm in which these goods
are to be found in their purest, most precious form “ it is in thought that
we are at our freest and most creative. Still, we are likely to conclude that
the price of severing philosophy from truth is one Moore would have
found too high. At the end of this book, we consider a way of maintain-
ing a connection between philosophical and other kinds of systematic
thought and truth. If successful, this would enable philosophers and oth-
ers of the intellectually engaged to have, along with the boldness of free
imaginative flight, less dangerous commitments to puzzlement and truth.
Perhaps it will not be amiss to close this introductory discussion by al-
lowing Moore his own irony. Whatever its origins finally happen to be, a
philosophical program of skepticism can only be sustained by the pro-
foundest kind of credulity. It must be something extraordinary that al-
lows one to maintain, in the face of the direct awareness that good is what
it is and not another thing, such propositions as that good is set by the
course of evolution, or that it is nothing but pleasure, or that it waits upon
the will of God or man. But as Moore had occasion to observe in his own
work in the history of ethics, no matter how sharp the skeptical edges of
their intellects be, philosophers™ theories are finally blunted by their own
rock-headed good sense. The credulity that sustains skeptical philosophy
never goes all the way down to the bottom of things. This might appear
to provide us with only the smallest of comforts, as the depth philosoph-
ical credulity does reach is enough to make the human condition one of
bewilderment and woe. But it does leave open the hope that we all have
moments of peace when, with guards down, we find ourselves humbly ac-
cepting the reality of goodness and the world™s many good things.
Simplicity, Indefinability, Nonnaturalness

Lay of the Land
The revolution G. E. Moore wishes to effect in Principia Ethica begins with
his famous claim that the property good is simple, indefinable, and non-
natural. Upon their full recognition and acknowledgment that good has
these properties, philosophers will no longer commit the “naturalistic fal-
lacy” of identifying or confusing good with anything else.1 This will re-
store to philosophers the plain truth they have mysteriously lost sight of,
that good, the property in which all value is grounded, is utterly unique.
The importance of this for ethics cannot be overestimated. Having wan-
dered for twenty-five-hundred years in a fog of their own making, philoso-
phers have now been given a chance to achieve not only a fully satisfac-
tory understanding of good, but also a fully satisfactory understanding of
the things that are good. The sense of dissatisfaction that has clung to
ethics with the fog will disappear as intellect discovers what instinct has
always known, that there are things enough to make life worth living.
Visionaries are not always patient. So it is no surprise that Moore™s Prin-
cipia account fails to do full justice to the nature of these properties and
the role they play in the determination of good™s nature. The sketch of-
fered here, to be fleshed out in future chapters, seeks to correct this de-
fect. Very broadly, Moore argues that good™s logical and ontological in-
dependence from all other properties is grounded in its simplicity and
indefinability, with indefinability being much the more important of the
two. He appeals mostly to nonnaturalness to explain why philosophers
have failed to grant good its independence. Moore™s official views are that
to be simple is to have no parts and that to define a thing is to list its parts
and their arrangements. So what is simple is indefinable and conversely;
in fact, based on this account, the two properties could be identical. Al-
though that is probably not his view here, he does glide blithely from one
of these properties to the other in his early discussion of them.2 By a non-

See G. E. Moore, Preface to Principia Ethica, Revised Edition, p. 17, where he makes the dis-
tinction between identifying and confusing two properties much more explicitly than in
the pages of Principia. See also Frankena, “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” pp. 108“10.
Panayot Butchvarov, “That Simple, Indefinable, Non-Natural Property Good,” Review of
Metaphysics, Vol. XXXVI (Sept. 1982), p. 57 and Skepticism in Ethics (Bloomington, Indi-
ana: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 60. For Moore™s sliding, see especially pp. 6“8.
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 17

natural property, Moore means one that is outside time. It is because a
confusion of good with some temporal, natural property finally lies be-
hind every attempt to define it that Moore calls them all instances of the
naturalistic fallacy.3
Matters are far too complicated, however, for good™s independence
from other properties to fall into place so neatly. Many properties meet-
ing Moore™s official criteria of simplicity and indefinability lack the full
ontological independence he considers good to have. But there is a sec-
ond conception of indefinability he implicitly and at one point, rather ex-
plicitly, appeals to that enables a case to be made for good™s being uniquely
independent of other properties. When he appeals to this conception of
indefinability, he either fails to notice or to acknowledge completely how
different it is from his official one. This one weakens or perhaps even sev-
ers for all properties the connection between indefinability and simplic-
ity his official view posits. It also, in the case of good, makes for a strong
connection between indefinability and nonnaturalness. Moore develops
these hints in detail in later work, where he focuses exclusively on non-
naturalness as the source of good™s independence.4
From Principia on, Moore is adamant about distinguishing real defini-
tions, which he later came to call analytic definitions, from verbal defini-
tions, which tell how a certain word is used, or what things are called by
a word.5 One way to describe the difference between the two kinds of def-
inition is to say that if his ontology of value allowed it, real definitions
would be immeasurably more important than verbal definitions: They re-
veal to us reality itself rather than reality as filtered by a language. Many
who have absorbed the doubts raised by a further century of philoso-
phizing about language will look with suspicion or something stronger
on the claim that it is possible to get beyond language to “reality itself.”
They are reminded that this most penetrating and scrupulous of thinkers
addressed similar doubts concerning the relation of thought and lan-
guage to reality and stood his ground against them for the remaining half
century of his career.
It is only in the sense of a real, or analytic, definition that Moore holds
good to be indefinable.6 (Presumably, every word, including the word
“good,” has a verbal definition.) For a thing to be analytically indefinable
is for it to be an ultimate constituent of reality.7 The claim that good is in-

Principia, p. 13.
4 “The Conception of Intrinsic Value,” in Philosophical Studies, pp. 253“275 and “Meaning
of “natural”,” in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. (Evanston, Illinois:
Northwestern University Press, 1942), pp. 581“92.
“Analysis,” in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, p. 661 and “What is Analysis?,” in Lectures on Phi-
losophy, (New York: Humanities Press, 1966), p. 159.
6 Principia, p. 6.
Ibid., pp. 9“10. It is a nice question whether Moore would consider this statement to be
analytic or synthetic.
18 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

definable thus takes us to the heart of Moore™s ethical project and its most
dramatic problem. Before he writes a single word, by his choice of Bishop
Butler™s maxim as the book™s motto, he takes himself to be proclaiming
that ethical wisdom lies in simply accepting good™s ultimacy. But it has been
just about impossible for philosophers to do this. What is it that so con-
fuses philosophers that they are led to deny good™s ultimacy, or even just
to puzzle about it, when at a level more basic and important than the
philosophical they never for a moment lose sight of it? And what should
we conclude about the nature of ethical understanding if it depends on the
denial of good™s ultimacy? Is it then based entirely on illusion?
According to Moore™s official conception of indefinability, the one
mostly guiding his understanding of how good is to be distinguished from
the properties determinative of other sciences, a property™s ultimacy lies
in its having no parts to be parsed. He suggests early in the text that it fol-
lows for any property meeting this condition that there are no other prop-
erties in the light of whose nature it can be explicated, but at other places
he shows some awareness that it does not. Although he never states it out-
right, its not being explicable in terms of other properties eventually be-
comes not a consequence of its having no parts, but a further, separate con-
dition of indefinability. Although this is not a matter he discusses, this
condition enables there to be degrees of ultimacy, as things may be un-
derstood in terms of other things to greater or lesser extent. Had he
brought this condition more to the forefront of his discussion, it would
have given even greater resonance to his claim that good can be under-
stood in no other terms.
The model guiding Moore™s official account of definition is provided
by that which he does on concepts of ordinary spatio-temporal objects.
Being in too much of a hurry, he fails to deal sufficiently or perhaps at all
with the fact that he is drawn to two different conceptions concerning the
kinds of things of which these objects are composed, which their defini-
tions or analyses must therefore mention. Officially, he starts where or-
dinary thought does in its conception of what the parts of such things are.
In his own example, he considers the parts comprising a horse to be “four
legs, a head, a liver, a heart, etc. . . .”8 We might call these the literal parts
of a thing. Moore does not take his example of analysis any further than
this, but since these parts are themselves complex, he must assume that
8 Ibid., p. 8. This is an appropriate time to remember that according to Moore, although
concepts or properties may be objects of thought, their natures are completely indepen-
dent of thought and language. In order to aid the reader, this book shall adopt the con-
vention of employing single quotes when these nonlinguistic items are being represented
and double quotes when words are being represented. This is to deviate from Moore,
whose use of quotes varies from work to work. (In Principia, he tends to use single quotes
indifferently.) Occasionally, to avoid clutter, when it is clear that a nonlinguistic concept or
property is being referred to, words referring to them will appear without quotes.
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 19

it is possible to burrow beyond them to the simple and indefinable parts
of which they are composed. Many would think that such burrowing will
eventually bring us to the subatomic particles of physics, but this is not
the direction in which the thought of this unscientific thinker goes.9
When he offers an example of a simple, indefinable property to shed light
on what he says about good, he famously “ or is it infamously? “ offers the
property of being yellow, which he claims to be different from any prop-
erty happening to correspond to it in physical space.10 This example
strongly suggests a conception, one in terms of sense data, for example,
according to which simple and purportedly indefinable qualities like col-
ors, smells, and textures are the kinds of things of which objects are com-
posed.11 Moore fails to consider the difficulties involved in reconciling
these two different accounts of what it is to be a part of an object. In effect
having two different ways of understanding the nature of definition and in-
definability, he winds up with two different conceptions of what it is for a
property to be logically and ontologically independent of other properties.
As we follow Moore™s official account to the place where it falters, we
shall explore certain issues in his metaphysics, epistemology, and philos-
ophy of science in more detail than he himself does. Our aim is to get a
sense of how on his view the logical relations between the different prop-
erties of a science provide the materials for a systematic understanding of
the world. Although he fails to consider matters beyond the level of gen-
erality provided by his example of the concept or object ˜horse™, we can
see what a definition of a more general object like ˜animal™ would be like.
Because it is more abstract, we need to make use of a more abstract no-
tion of parts in order to define it. Rather than listing such parts as legs
and livers, the definition lists such “parts” as being self-locomotive and
food-taking. Although they are obviously not the literal parts of any ani-
mal, for an animal to instantiate such properties it must have certain parts.
While the definition of ˜animal™ leaves open what more specific parts are
required for a thing to instantiate these properties, the definition of a kind
of animal such as ˜horse™ does not. Having four legs, etc. is a horse™s way
of being self-locomotive. So whether we start with the more general defi-
nition in the zoological chain of being and look down, or with the less
general definition and look up, it is a matter of the respective definitions
that horses are animals. We shall return to this most important point

Suitably, Moore™s reference on p. 4 to the ether is shortly to be rendered anachronistic.
10 Principia, p. 10.
Further evidence that he was drawn to this conception at the time of Principia is provided
by his saying later in “Meaning of “natural”,” p. 582, that he no longer holds the view ac-
cording to which brown and round are “parts” of a penny. But even though he says this
here, he seems to have remained attracted to such views his entire career.
20 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

Since the definition of a more general, higher-order object contains
fewer parts than the definition of a less general object, there is a sense in
which the more general object is simpler. But since the instantiation of
each of its parts requires the instantiation of lower-order parts, in a
deeper sense, it is not. The highest-order object in a chain would remain
definable even if it were to have just “one” “ extremely complex “ prop-
erty. The mind™s ability to treat a complex general property as (relatively)
simple by ignoring (most of) the details involved in its instantiation is in-
dispensable if we are to discover the real order that makes the world
something other than a booming, buzzing confusion. But it will con-
tribute to serious error if it encourages philosophers to reason by anal-
ogy that although good may appear to be simple, really, it too is complex.
The natural hierarchies of objects or properties that we have appealed
to in order to flesh out Moore™s official account of definition provide us
with a way of understanding his claim that a definition states the parts that
invariably compose a whole.12 It might sound as if Moore holds that for
any particular thing to be a horse, it must have four legs. But consider that
these general objects are ideals that particulars fit more or less closely.13
Any particular horse having fewer than four legs we recognize as lacking
in something. Adding this extra Platonic flavor to Moore™s account makes
it possible for particulars to belong to kinds to greater or lesser degree,
which seems right. Although we would not wish to say that a creature be-
comes less of a horse by losing one of its legs in an accident, we might con-
clude that an embryo or very deformed creature is not fully a horse.
Moore says very little about the relations between analytic and verbal
definitions. It is a rare word that sets necessary and sufficient conditions
for the objects it refers to. Also, it will often be indeterminate whether or
not certain properties belong in the cluster of properties gathered up by
the definition. Is it possible that there is also some looseness in analytic
definitions? Immediately, it would seem to be most in the spirit of
Moore to deny this possibility “ words may be vague, but nature is exact.
He seems to take it for granted that without exactness in nature, there is
no possibility of truly systematic knowledge of it. This seems to leave one
with two alternatives concerning the vast array of inexact verbal defini-
tions we use to come to try to understand the world: Either dismiss the
pretensions of the “sciences” trying to make use of them, or make what
must appear to be utterly arbitrary decisions about what the exact ana-
lytic definitions are around which the inexact verbal definitions hover.
Although it is not just definitions of such sociological words as “game”
that appear to be inexact, we need only to consider them to see why Moore

Principia, p. 8.
We shall have much to say about Moore on the nature of ideals in the book™s last two
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 21

would dismiss the first of the above alternatives out of hand. His certainty
that certain of these objects, namely (the appreciation of) art objects, are
good leaves him certain that they are. So is he then forced to accept the
dissatisfaction engendered by the conclusion that these things have ex-
act natures that remain forever beyond our intellectual grasp? Finally, al-
though he does not seem fully to realize that his view has this implication,
Moore must allow that the natures of these objects are not completely de-
terminate. A spirit of artistic innovation makes it impossible for one to
specify once and for all the properties a thing must instantiate in order
for it be a piece of music, or sculpture, or any other kind of art object. Al-
though the following Platonic suggestion might be one that Moore could
not accept (and one that most twentieth-century tastes would find insuf-
ficiently “hard-headed”), some might find that it is a dynamic quality of
good itself that makes for the indeterminacy of good things. It is the good
of human creativity that keeps the nature of art objects forever open. In a
casuistic system more plentiful than Moore™s, life is too rich for biology to
be perfectly neat. With this thought in mind, one could very cheerfully
accept the Aristotelian recommendation that we look for no more ex-
actness in a science than is appropriate to it.
This sketch of Moore™s theory is consistent with his discussion of the
different meanings that are had by the question “What is good?” An an-
swer to this question can specify particular existents, which are not of in-
terest to the science of ethics, or concepts of varying degrees of gener-
ality that have the property of being good, or finally, it can say how “good
is to be defined.”14 The same sorts of answers can be given to the ques-
tion, “What is an animal?” One can point to a particular animal, with
which, except as a representative, the science of zoology is not inter-
ested, or one can describe a species or broader class of animal, or lastly,
one can give the most general definition of animality. Moore finds there
to be a crucial difference between the two sciences, however, which he
considers to stem from the fact that in zoology the master concept is de-
finable, while in ethics it is indefinable. Because ˜animal™ is definable, all
such propositions as “Dobbin is an animal,” “Horses are animals,” and
“Mammals are animals” are analytic. Assuming for the sake of the exam-
ple that friendship is good, the concomitant ethical propositions “Dora™s
(particular) act of friendship is good”; “Romantic friendship is good”;
and “Friendship is good” are all synthetic. Although a thing™s being good
follows from its being an instance of friendship, one does not logically
imply that it is good when one asserts it to be an instance of such. A dif-
ferent kind of necessary relation obtains between being a kind of friend-
ship and being good than obtains between being a horse and being an

Principia, pp. 3“6.
22 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

The language of parts gives us a way of describing this difference in re-
lation. The analytic necessity of propositions in the nonvalue sciences has
to do with there being mapping relations among the parts of the objects of
different generality that comprise the natural hierarchy. For instance, the
part ˜self-locomotive™ found in ˜animal™ maps on to the parts ˜hoof™, ˜leg™,
etc. found in horse. These parts in turn map on to the parts of particular
horses by virtue of which they are self-locomotive. Each part, ˜leg™, ˜self-
locomotive™, etc. is at home at some level in the hierarchy. This is the level
that contains the object of which, in Moore™s sense, it is most a part. But be-
cause a part maps on to the parts of objects found at other levels, in an at-
tenuated sense it is also a part of those objects. ˜Good™, however, lacks any
parts for mapping. So the necessity that obtains between a thing™s goodness
and its good-making properties has to be maintained in some other way.
But if the notion of parts provides a means of understanding the way
in which good™s independence from these sorts of properties is main-
tained by virtue of its indefinability, it cannot account for its indepen-
dence from other sorts of simple properties found in the hierarchy of
qualities, for instance, the properties ˜yellow™, ˜color™, and ˜quality™. We
can begin to account for the difference between good and these proper-
ties by noting that even though they lack parts, the properties on differ-
ent levels of these hierarchies must be partly understood in terms of one
another. Despite what Moore says early in Principia, in order to know what
yellow is, it is not enough to attend only to that about it that is “simply dif-
ferent from anything else.”15 One must also attend to that which it has in
common with many other properties, starting with its being a color. (It is
difficult to envisage how one could attend to yellow at all who did not also
at least subconsciously attend to its being a color.) Going in the other di-
rection, one cannot know what color is without attending to the fact that
there are different ways of being a color, although it is true that one need
not attend directly to any one of these ways. This provides a sense in which
yellow and color are mutually definable, with yellow being more depen-
dent on color than color is on yellow.
Near the end of Principia, Moore appeals to a kind of definition quite
similar to this. Even though his example concerns the nonnatural prop-
erty ˜beauty™, nothing seems to preclude it from being applied, after
tweaking, to natural properties as well. According to Moore, beauty is de-
finable in terms of good. For a thing to be beautiful is for it to be some-
thing it is intrinsically good to appreciate. He says that this definition:
has the double recommendation that it accounts both for the apparent connec-
tion between goodness and beauty and for the no less apparent difference be-
tween these two conceptions. It appears, at first sight, to be a strange coincidence,
that there should be two different objective predicates of value, ˜good™ and ˜beau-

Principia, p. 10.
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 23

tiful,™ which are nevertheless so related to one another that whatever is beautiful
is also good. But, if our definition be correct, the strangeness disappears; since it
leaves only one unanalyzable predicate of value, namely ˜good,™ while ˜beautiful,™
though not identical with, is to be defined by reference to this, being thus, at the
same time, different from and necessarily connected with it.16
The reader gets no hint about whether to be startled by Moore™s not
noticing how different this kind of definition is from his official account,
or by his noticing it but not finding it to be anything worth mentioning.17
Its having parts or not is on this account irrelevant to beauty™s definabil-
ity. What make beauty definable are the relations of metaphysical and
epistemological dependency in which it stands to good. We can neither
know what it is to be beautiful nor identify something as beautiful except
in its terms. The fact that the definitional dependency between beauty
and good goes in only one direction enables us to locate more accurately
the difference between good and the simple natural qualities. Good is the
only one of these properties whose nature is not at all implicated in other
properties. Because higher- and lower-order natural properties differ in
their degree of mutual dependency, they differ in their degree of ulti-
macy, with none of them being ultimate. Good, though, is ultimate.
The order of ultimacy between natural properties we find here is the
reverse of the one we find when we look to Moore™s official account of in-
definability. On that account, natural properties, being the ones of which
natural objects are composed, are the ones giving natural objects their
substance. Take the natural properties away and not even a bare substance
remains.18 Moore must allow either that the substantiality of a natural
property is in inverse proportion to its generality or that all of a natural
object™s substance comes from its most specific properties. In either case,
this provides a sense in which the less abstract lower-order natural prop-
erties are more ultimate, more a part of the world, than the higher-order
ones. This gives us a means to highlight even further the difference be-
tween good and natural properties: Good™s ultimacy in no way dimin-
ished by its insubstantiality and abstractness.
Despite his acceptance of an instance of a definition of one thing in
terms of another as being philosophically important, Moore does not try
to fit these kinds of definition in with or alongside parsing definitions in
his official account. On the contrary, he insists in the first chapter that even
the definitions of objects of which it would ordinarily be said that it is in
their nature to be a part of other objects, are not at all in terms of the ob-
jects of which they are parts. Failing to consider that it will be in a sense

Ibid., pp. 201“2.
He had also, at p. 60, defined approval as the feeling that a thing is good without men-
tioning its deviation from his standard kind of definition. We shall see that these are not
the only places where Moore casually adds to his official view.
Principia, p. 41.
24 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

much different than the literal one that a thing™s being a part of something
is a part of its definition, he claims that such definitions lead to the self-
contradictory notion of a part (such as an arm) containing the whole (the
body) of which it is a part.19 The context of his discussion makes it clear
that he fears the monistic strain in the thought of the British Hegelians. If
the requirement that definitions be in terms of other things is taken to the
farthest reaches, we will not be able to understand anything until we un-
derstand everything. Appearance and reality will then collide; instead of
there being many discrete things, there will be only one thing. Although
this is not the only place where we find Moore™s thought to be marred by
a fear of views, which could, in certain hands, have such unpalatable ram-
ifications, this might be the place where it is the most marred.
Having brought Moore™s half-articulated thoughts on definition and
ontological independence closer to the surface, we can now do the same
for his thoughts on the unconscious strategies of dissimulation that are
both served by and serve all the various attempts to define good. Moore
is insistent that a denial of good™s uniqueness and ultimacy is ultimately
a denial of its being. Whether or not philosophers acknowledge it, the
end of all definitions of good is the same “ the elimination of good from
the inventory of things found in the universe.20 It is putting it mildly to
say that our very deep awareness of good puts obstacles in the way of all
such definitional projects. Philosophers thus try to soften that awareness
by effecting good™s elimination in a series of steps. It is as if they think
that good™s final disappearance will not be noticed if its nature is attenu-
ated gradually enough.
Without offering a reason for his opinion, Moore suggests that at-
tempts to identify good with a complex property have a greater initial
plausibility than attempts to identify it with a simple property.21 Perhaps
he thinks that it is easier to have our awareness of good trail off into wisps
as a result of our tracking something complex and often very general
than it is to have it be completely swallowed up by something simple and
oftentimes quite immediate. One might respond to this suggestion that
the hard work of keeping a complex property in mind alongside of good
should make it obvious that the complex is something different from
good. But such a response loses sight of the insidiousness of the defini-
tional project. The more we ponder a purported definition of a thing, the
more does our confidence in our immediate and instinctive awareness of
that thing wane. The awareness that has been immediate will no longer
appear to be so. And even if it does still appear to us that our awareness

Ibid., pp. 33“4.
At the very beginning of Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London: George Allen & Un-
win Ltd., 1953), Moore states that providing such an inventory is the main task of phi-
21 Principia, p. 15.
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 25

of good is immediate, we will remind ourselves that appearances are of-
ten deceiving.
Another might think that on Moore™s official account of definition,
projects that seek to identify good with another simple property lack the
plausibility to be taken seriously for even a moment. On that account,
those who purport to have discovered such an identity could only be do-
ing one or the other of two things. First, they could be offering a verbal
definition, which in these cases would take the form of a synonym. But
such a claim as that “good” and “pleasant” are synonyms is decisively de-
feated by appeal to standard usage. Further, the claim that the expres-
sions are synonymous undermines the revisionary nature of these proj-
ects, since the only way to make sense of these projects is to suppose that
they are motivated by the thought that the theory of value embodied in
ordinary thought and language is profoundly in error.
The second possibility is that such philosophers are attempting to
promulgate what for simple properties is the analogue of a real defini-
tion. But the project of promulgating a definitional analogue must also
be revisionary (whereas the complexity of items subject to real definitions
makes it possible for them to be directed toward discovery as well as re-
vision). If the proponents of such an analogue are not merely to be ut-
tering the banality that something is the same as itself, they must be say-
ing that what we have mistakenly thought to be a distinct entity really is
not, but is some other thing whose existence and nature is less contro-
versial. Immediately, it appears that its element of revisionism under-
mines this project as well. The simplicity of such things as good and pleas-
ure makes it easy for one to think of them simultaneously. Since
recognizing their nonidentity is as easy as thinking of them, anyone who
tries to identify them would appear to be subject to instant ridicule.
But this is where an appeal to Moore™s unofficial kind of definition
gives the proponents of such identity claims the wiggle room they need.
First, they can try to get us to accept some degree of attenuation of good™s
nature by having us think of good in terms of the defining property rather
than as that property. Remember also that most or all instances of these
kinds of definition reveal relations of mutual dependency between prop-
erties. So we can also be encouraged to think of a defining property, say
pleasure, in terms of good “ we might, for instance, be told about differ-
ences in the quality of various pleasures. Or perhaps pleasure will have its
nature attenuated by being identified with some other thing, something
complex perhaps, say happiness (which might, as beauty and approval
do, have to be explicated in terms of good). Inevitably, although not log-
ically so, these stratagems result in pleasure, “which is easily recognised
as a distinct entity,”22 absorbing good completely. Good is sooner or later

Ibid., p. 16.
26 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

explained away in terms of pleasure “ it is said that good is merely pleasure.
Thus do philosophers say in a roundabout way what they do not have the
self-awareness or courage to say outright: Good is not. And thus do clev-
erness and intelligence become not aids to clear thinking, but impedi-
If Moore gets a great deal of mileage out of the claim that good is in-
definable, he also creates serious difficulties for himself when he lets in-
definability completely overshadow nonnaturalness in his early attempts
to establish good™s independence from other properties. Good™s inde-
pendence is at least as much an ontological as a logical matter and the
ontological issues are at least as approachable by an investigation of non-
naturalness as by an investigation of indefinability.23 Passages on pages
11 and 14“15, where Moore discusses some of the problems he takes to
arise from the failure of philosophers to see that good is indefinable,
nicely illustrate the problems his single-mindedness creates. Far more
troubling than their unpleasant tone of hyperbolic denunciation is the
despair over the history of philosophy that tone is born of. By likening
previous disputes about the nature of good to one about whether a tri-
angle is a circle or a straight line and by claiming that to view yellow as
definable commits one to “hold[ing] that an orange [is] exactly the same
thing as a stool, a piece of paper, a lemon,” Moore turns philosophy into
an exercise in pathology. He denies to philosophers the ability even to no-
tice, let alone correct, the mistakes that arise in the course of their in-
quiries. He has them suffering from an irresistible compulsion to end-
lessly iterate their mistakes as their theories recede ever further from
reality. His impatience with dialectical thinking, so odd in one who is him-
self a master dialectician, suggests that the proper procedure for under-
standing the world is not to investigate and analyze, but simply to wait for
the insight that sets everything right. This is to abandon the way of the
philosopher for the way of the mystic, or perhaps for the person who does
not think very much. Philosophy™s debt to the shattering insight is unde-
niably great. But as Moore himself exemplifies so well in most of his own
career, unless there is argument and counterargument and patient, de-
tailed explication, there is no tribunal for that insight and hence no phi-
These passages also show how perilously close Moore comes to main-
taining that the failure of a philosophical work to be absolutely clear at
its very outset about the logic of its inquiry causes it to deal completely in
illusion. But if in spite of their many errors earlier philosophers have not
managed to hold on to important insights about the very same thing as

But see Thomas Baldwin, who writes on p. 30 of his “Ethical non-naturalism,” in Exercises
in Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), that the distinction between
natural and nonnatural properties is primarily logical rather than ontological.
simplicity, indefinability, nonnaturalness 27

he is describing, Moore™s exposure of their errors becomes, if not unin-
telligible, pointless. Their work would be no more relevant to his work
than a child™s gibberish is. On the other hand, if even the most wrong-
headed of philosophical theories remain in touch with reality, then what-
ever their flaws, there is a chance for them to provide support for his own
theory. For one, they can vindicate his faith in the irrefragableness of our

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