. 3
( 8)


is how to make the truth or falsity of certain beliefs intrinsic properties of
acts of aesthetic appreciation. Consider the act of appreciating a portrait
painting. A part of that act of appreciation could be one™s belief that the
painter accurately captured the subject™s character, her role in society,
and so on. The value of the act thus waxes and wanes with the truth and
falsity of those beliefs.54 But their truth or falsity do not seem to be in-
trinsic properties of these beliefs. The belief that the subject of a certain
painting married into a family of prosperous merchants, for instance, is
the same belief whether it is true or false. Returning to the language of
“Conception,” calling a belief true does not seem to describe it (which
again seems to jeopardize Moore™s claim that the ascription of goodness
is uniquely nondescriptive). If its truth is not an intrinsic property of the
belief, then it does not seem that it can be an intrinsic property of the
state of affairs of which the belief is a constituent. Since the value of the
state of affairs is partly dependent on this property, it would appear to fol-
low that the value of the state of affairs is not solely dependent on its in-
trinsic properties.
One deals with this problem by making a point similar to the one
Moore made when responding to Broad about the pleasantness of things.
There are two different kinds of states of affairs to which the truth of a
belief is importantly related. The first of these, analogous to the first kind
of pleasant object Moore discusses, consists of just the contemplation of
the work. The truth (or falsity) of the belief is extrinsic to this whole just
as the pleasantness is extrinsic to the first whole Moore describes to
Broad. The second, larger state of affairs, analogous to the whole con-
sisting of the tasting of caviar plus the enjoyment of it, consists of the ap-
preciation of the work plus the truth of the relevant belief. The truth of
the belief is intrinsic to this whole. Just as a state of affairs in which the
tasting of caviar is being enjoyed differs from one in which the tasting of
caviar is not being enjoyed, so does a state of affairs that has among its
constituents a true belief that Y differ from one exactly like it but for its
containing a false belief that Y.
One might find there to be something worrisomely artificial about
such objects. Is it possible really to focus on just that state of affairs or must
we implicitly be thinking about it as a part of something larger? One
might worry that because the facts that make the belief true lie outside
the act of appreciation, we cannot envisage that act existing by itself. If
this is so, it seems to undermine the method of isolation as a test for in-
trinsic value and also to suggest that there is something ontologically in-
complete about such acts of appreciation. To understand the thought ly-
ing behind this worry, consider an “object” consisting of a circle and its
relation to the field within which it lies “ minus the field. This is a kind of

54 Principia, p. 195.
58 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

quasi-entity standing between the smaller whole consisting of the circle by
itself and the larger whole consisting of the circle-within-the-field. One
fears that in like manner, the act of appreciation-plus-truth is a quasi-
entity standing between the act of appreciation taken without its truth
and the larger whole that contains the facts that make the beliefs true.
Must we really be thinking about one or the other of these things?
We can begin to dispel this worry by refining the isolation test for in-
trinsic value. When we wish to know whether a state of affairs consisting
of an act of appreciation is valuable in and of itself, we do indeed think
of it in and of itself. But we can do this while putting aside our knowledge
that in fact, its existence is dependent on other things. This should arouse
no more suspicion than our ability to focus our attention solely upon
(and find value in) a single event, call it E, even as we recognize that be-
cause it was the effect of something, it could not have existed alone. The
genetic dependence of E on its cause does not affect the fact that by it-
self, it is both conceptually and ontologically independent of it. It might
seem that the analogy between E and an act of appreciation does not
hold. The cause of E is only externally related to it while the relation of
the fact to the belief it makes true is more intimate than that. To counter
this worry, remember our brief discussion of the nature of belief. Even
though we can only characterize an instance of belief by saying what it is
about, the belief does not “contain” what it is about. Although we recog-
nize that there must be something that makes a belief true, we need not
be thinking of it when we think that it is true. Just as the larger causal
nexus of which E is a part does not leak into its nature, so does the larger
whole the belief is about not leak into the belief™s nature. We can thus
recognize the truth of a belief to contribute to the value of a whole with-
out having to make that of which the belief is true a part of it.
The ontologically self-contained character of an act of appreciation
holds despite what we might call its epistemic incompleteness. Even
though the truth of the belief is a constituent of the larger, valuable act
of appreciation, the one doing the appreciating cannot tell, just by per-
forming the act, whether the belief in question is true or not. One can-
not completely catalog the items comprising the whole from within, but
has to look outside the complex to see whether it has truth or falsity. This
makes the epistemic situation quite unlike the one found in the state of
affairs consisting of one™s enjoyment of the tasting of caviar. In that case,
one does know, just by having the experience, that it is enjoyable “ al-
though one does not know thereby that it is worthy of being enjoyed. To
the extent that the value of an act of appreciation depends on the truth
of the beliefs contained in it, there is always a danger that we shall suffer
deep and abiding illusion when we attempt to gauge its value. But that
we are subject to illusion should be nothing surprising to a philosopher.
Let us turn to another issue concerning the relation of intrinsic value
good™s nonnaturalness 59

to states of affairs. If an object A (or its existence) is good, is there also a
state of affairs consisting of the goodness of A™s being good (or bad)? And if
there are such states of affairs consisting of the goodness of a thing™s
goodness, are there higher-order states of affairs consisting of the good-
ness of the lower-order states of affairs™ goodness? Though the regresses
created by these states of affairs would perhaps not be vicious, it is put-
ting it mildly to say that they would raise considerable difficulties. One re-
sponse to these questions is that it is simply a category mistake to ascribe
goodness or badness to the goodness or badness of something. If some-
one were to ask whether it is good that friendship is good, one might well
find herself at a loss about what to say, just as she would be if she were
asked whether the sweetness of something is sweet. What would it mean
either to affirm or deny such a thing?
But perhaps there is a sense, and a most important one at that, ac-
cording to which it can be either good or bad that certain things are good
or bad. Many, for instance, appear to have found reason to regret that
friendship is one of life™s great goods. It is something sad, something “too
bad,” that human finitude imparts a troubling exclusivity to friendship,
makes it to some degree selfish. One thus concludes that because the ex-
istence of this great good requires the existence of something bad, a
world of perfect goodness is impossible. Or the thought may go in the
other direction. In the last two chapters of this book, we shall consider
what is perhaps the predominant view of Western casuistry “ that it is good
that the world contains evil. Many have held this view because of a belief that
the manifestation of evil enables human beings to have a deeper and
more valuable kind of awareness than any they would otherwise have
been able to have.
Perhaps one can respond to the claim that it is bad that friendship is
good by saying that what is really being regretted is nothing about friend-
ship, but rather something about the limits of ourselves or the world that
stifles its fullest flowering “ the love of all. Or one might say that what is
confusedly being noted is the fact that the pursuit of the intrinsic good
of friendship can be extrinsically bad because of ways in which it leads to
the ill treatment of those who are not friends. To the claim that it is good
that the world contains evil, one might respond, as Moore does, that
though the act of recognizing something to be good or bad can itself be
intrinsically good, a thing need not exist for us to recognize this fact about
it.55 But finally, suppose it to be granted that a state of affairs having good-
ness or badness as a constituent can itself be good or bad. In the spirit of
Moore, it would still seem that its goodness or badness follows from its
constituents with a different kind of necessity than do the other proper-
ties that are intrinsic to it. The difference, for instance, between such a

55 Ibid., p. 219.
60 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

state of affairs™ being second-order (or higher) and its being good is suf-
ficiently similar to the difference between an object™s being colored and
its being good to preserve the difference in necessity.
We close by reiterating a suggestion we made at the end of the first sec-
tion of this chapter. When it comes to uncovering the value of things, the
horse does not always go before the cart. We do not always first grasp a
natural object and then discover its value. Sometimes, our sense of what
things are objects is informed by our sense of what things are valuable.
Using one of the preceding examples, it may be that we recognize the
state of affairs of a belief™s being true to be a self-contained object because
of our implicit awareness that that is something where good is to be
found. We think naturally and easily of the state of affairs containing the
truth of the belief just because we have a strong, if originally inchoate,
sense of the goodness of truth. To repeat, this is to raise the possibility,
which we shall consider further in Chapter 5, of there being a great many
different kinds of natural goods of which we have a deep instinctive
The Paradox of Ethics and Its Resolution

The Paradox of Ethics
The Open Question Argument (OQA) juxtaposes for us in the most dra-
matic way imaginable the revolutionary and conservative features of
Moore™s thought. Moore is a revolutionary in presenting an argument
that lays bare the pretensions of a twenty-five-hundred-year-old discipline
and at the same time, paves the way for great progress in it. The argument
by which he achieves this breakthrough does not require that we wend
our way carefully through labyrinthine passageways of premises, scholia,
and subconclusions. On the contrary, it supposes no more acumen than
can be mustered by a six-year-old child. At the same time, the ease of his
argument highlights Moore™s fundamental conservatism. His simple way
of cutting through all manner of philosophical obfuscation restores to
philosophers the things they knew when they were six.
For Moore™s revolutionary argument to have this kind of conservative
import, it must be the case that very early in our lives, before we are very
self-conscious, we develop a very deep connection to good, which, be-
cause it is not developed in much reflection, cannot be completely lost
to it. His argument reminds us of things we know in practice but have
been unable to retain in theory. In order to explain this chasm between
our sound ordinary understanding of good and our unsound philo-
sophical understanding of it, Moore™s view would seem to require that
there be two rather distinct modes of awareness of good. Unfortunately,
he does not offer anything nearly approaching a fully worked out view on
the nature of our awareness of good. In his book on Moore, Robert
Sylvester seeks to rectify this omission.
Sylvester finds that Moore leaves open two possibilities about how the
mind comes to cognize the truth of propositions about the goodness of
things. He calls these two different modes of cognition the a priori mode
and the a posteriori mode. The a posteriori mode works upon concrete
existents. Sylvester™s example concerns one™s cognition of the goodness
of kindness: “There may be an actual occasion when a moral agent acts
with kindness to another and where an observer sees the act and judges,
correctly, that the act exemplifies value.”1 These rather immediate and
Robert Peter Sylvester, The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, pp. 72“3. Sylvester™s view is that
Moore “seems to be closer” to a posteriori propositions than a priori ones.
62 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

instinctive judgments would seem to be the ones out of which our prere-
flective awareness of good is comprised. After encountering a number of
such occasions early in our lives, the goodness of kindness becomes one
of the myriad of things we know of which we take no particular note. The
a priori mode of cognition comes afterward and is more reflective. It is
engaged in the entertaining and making of judgments in the abstract on
the goodness or badness of things. The consideration and ordering of
such propositions is part of the work Moore calls casuistry, work we all un-
dertake to varying degrees. It is when we are in this mode of reflection
that we become aware of the necessity that obtains between various con-
cepts and their goodness.
Using this distinction on the OQA (which Sylvester does not do), we
can then say that our original insight that two questions are different
comes from the a posteriori mode of awareness. This insight, captured in
our linguistic intuitions according to Snare and Ball, acts as a guide for
our reflective a priori understanding, enabling us to see that any identity
proposed for good does not obtain. Moore™s more general aim is to ef-
fect a synthesis between the two modes of the cognition of good, to en-
able the reflective intellect to provide the philosophical underpinnings
for what we know immediately and instinctively.2 He wishes to take the
instinctive insights that come to us in a piecemeal fashion and make them
part of an articulate casuistical system. This is achieved by the discovery
of the principles that reveal the unity behind disparate moral phenom-
ena. Because he has uncovered the naturalistic fallacy, the unity Moore
discovers, unlike the ones his predecessors have sought to impose, will
not be a straight jacket.
It is because of our early un-self-conscious acquaintance with good
through particular instantiations of it that Moore is so optimistic about
the possibility of his argument showing the way to great theoretical
progress. Progress only requires that we go back to something we have
never completely left behind. To recall, immediately after presenting the
OQA, he expresses his optimism in these words:
Every one does in fact understand the question ˜Is this good?™ When he thinks of
it, his state of mind is different from what it would be, were he asked ˜Is this pleas-
ant, or desired, or approved?™ It has a distinct meaning for him, even though he
may not recognise in what respect it is distinct. . . . Everybody is constantly aware
of this notion, although he may never become aware at all that it is different from
other notions of which he is also aware. But, for correct ethical reasoning, it is ex-
tremely important that he should become aware of this fact; and, as soon as the
nature of the problem is clearly understood, there should be little difficulty in ad-
vancing so far in analysis.3

In The Ethics of G. E. Moore: A New Interpretation, John Hill endorses the second clause of
the sentence as an accurate description of Moore™s project without speaking to the first.
3 Principia, pp. 16“17.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 63

This passage provides a way of posing a very difficult problem for Moore:
How is he to reconcile his optimistic belief that ethical progress will fol-
low once the relatively easy task of distinguishing good from everything
else is performed with his pessimistic observation that that task has been
botched for over two millennia? There are places in Principia where it is
extraordinary how Moore manages not to be bothered by or even to seem
to notice how much tension between pessimism and optimism his
thought embodies. The satire in which he likens a dispute about differ-
ent definitions of good to an argument about whether a triangle is a
straight line or a circle precedes by only six pages the optimistic summa-
tion of the OQA we have just noted. The difficulties involved in retaining
hope that people this befuddled will have “little difficulty advancing so
far in analysis” is something he does not consider. In Section 36, the first
of the chapter “Hedonism,” he calls the failure to distinguish between ap-
proval, the feeling that something is good, and enjoyment, which does not
contain any thought of good, a “vulgar” mistake and implies that with a
little care it can be avoided. He says this in a sentence immediately fol-
lowing one in which he says that it is very difficult to distinguish between
the two! Some of the tension of these passages is no doubt due to the su-
perior tone he assumes in order to separate himself from his misbegot-
ten forbears. But the problem remains even after we remove the venom
from his remarks.
The fact that it has led so many astray from what they knew originally
suggests that ethics can actually be dangerous to society. There is first the
danger that the naturalistic fallacy will lead to the denial of a plurality of
goods: “If we start with the conviction that a definition of good can be
found, we start with the conviction that good can mean nothing else than
some one property of things; and our only business then will be to dis-
cover what that property is.”4 The thought of the great impoverishment
the world has suffered because of the many artists and art lovers who have
surrendered to hedonism makes Moore™s example of the happy drunk-
ard breaking crockery while passing on King Lear very unhappy.5 The
troublesome relation between reflection and common sense can also
lead to a problem quite the opposite of close mindedness. In an 1895
paper entitled “The Socratic Theory of Virtue,” Moore contrasts the
“faith” of the “honest workman” which, based on “long experience . . . is
likely to be right in the main” to the dangers of free thinking: “By open-
ing all moral conduct free to speculation . . . it may lead narrow men to
wrong conclusions, and conclusions often changed.”6 As an example of
this kind of danger, we may consider the great harm that vulgarized ver-
sions of existentialism have done to modern life by placing “authenticity”

4 5 Ethics, p. 147.
Ibid., p. 20.
Levy, G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, p. 157.
64 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

above simple decency. “The White Negro,” by Norman Mailer, a writer
whose great talent has often dissipated in fad, perhaps provides the most
striking American example of this kind of thing.7
Moore also suggests that ethics is dangerous to society at the end of his
1899 lectures The Elements of Ethics. In fact, he there expresses a conser-
vatism so extreme as to confine ethics to the ash heap. He ends his lec-
tures with this admonition:
The pity is that some of the best minds are the most likely to be influenced by the-
ories “ to think a thing is right, because they can give reasons for it. It is some-
thing important to recognise that the best reasons can be given for anything what-
ever, if only we are clever enough: sophistry is easy, wisdom is impossible, the best
that we can do is to trust to
Since these lectures were presented to “honest workmen,” it is an irre-
sistible temptation to point out that if he had followed his own advice and
canceled them, he would have avoided the misunderstandings and ill will
they appear to have generated.8
No doubt, Moore thinks that any danger from these various quarters
will lessen now that he has given us the key to progress. But if he fails to
open philosophers™ eyes, ethics will continue to be dangerous. Dangers
remain even after philosophers come to the right conclusion about good™s
indefinability. Remember that Sidgwick was still so confused as to em-
brace hedonism and to fail to reject ethical egoism. There remains a
problem even if it is granted, as it must be if our instincts are to be capa-
ble of leading us out of philosophical darkness, that the instincts of de-
cent people are not likely to be overly corrupted by reflection. That be-
ing so, the proper kind of reflection can do no more than return to us in
a slightly stronger fashion the insights that were lost by improper reflec-
tion. So the risks of reflective engagement with good still seem to out-
weigh the benefits.
These remarks suggest a defense of philosophy that is paradoxically
based on the dangers of philosophy. It is inevitable that the mistakes of
philosophers will escape the study, which is after all only a few steps from
the pub and editorial office. Once it loses its immunity to the dangerous
conclusions of reflection, instinct is incapable of returning to health by
itself. There is thus a grave need for a distinctly philosophical antidote to
reflection of the kind Moore provides in the chapter “Ethics in Relation
to Conduct.” This will consist of reflections that give to those whose in-
stincts have been threatened the intellectual encouragement they need to
trust in them again. These reflections will restore to them their confi-

Mailer, “The White Negro,” pp. 337“58. In Mailer™s defense, his own very fine The Execu-
tioner™s Song provides the materials for as pitiless a dissection of the fatuities of “The White
Negro” as any critic could wish for.
Elements, pp. xix, 41.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 65

dence in the value of the small goods they still grasp immediately but no
longer sufficiently believe in. They will contain reminders not to think
themselves out of pursuing such small goods for the sake of elusive and
perhaps even illusory larger ones. Alas, the ease with which so many
philosophers and intellectuals of the last century found “the best reasons”
to abandon these small goods and the insane constructions with which
they replaced them suggests the paucity of the resources that philosophy
makes available for combating philosophy.
Sooner or later (likely sooner), philosophers are going to seek to en-
large the scope of the defense of their discipline by arguing that the sys-
tematic, articulate knowledge of value is an intrinsic good much greater
than that which can be provided by the commonsense awareness of it. Ei-
ther it belongs to a third great class of goods, knowledge, mysteriously dis-
missed by Moore in his last chapter “The Ideal,” or it belongs to his first
class of goods, the contemplation of beauty, or aesthetic appreciation.9
(A set of complexly related truths, being something it is good to con-
template, can be counted as an aesthetic object.) This defense of ethics
enlarges the scope of intrinsically valuable activity and thereby deepens
the contribution Moore™s work can make to casuistry. Since it is always
possible that the greatest overall good requires that some intrinsic goods
not be pursued, it will be an important part of the defense of allowing
ethical theorizing that some people have a philosophical impulse they
cannot suppress and that allowing others to try to suppress it would cause
more harm than good. (The argument would be similar to the one Moore
makes that for as long as people have the desire to live, murder is wrong
even if human life is bad.)10 This suggests that Moore™s ideal of the rela-
tion of philosophy to society at large is rather the opposite of Plato™s.
Philosophers are to be allowed to pursue their thoughts, but must keep
mostly to themselves. Concerned as they are with general knowledge,
philosophers are not to give any advice on particular matters.11 Given the
dangers of ethical theorizing, it might even be wise to encourage the dis-
dain that thinkers and doers have for each other.
Let us now turn to the more distinctly intellectual problem the practi-
cal problem stems from. Moore must explain why some “ highly intelli-
gent “ people are unable to recall something they never completely for-
get. Since the different awarenesses they are unable to reconcile all have
the same object, it appears that Moore™s explanation will have to exploit
differences in the modes of those awarenesses. His choice of words occa-
sionally suggests ways of doing this. Remember that in Section 36, while
discussing hedonism, he describes approval as the feeling that something
is good. Also, in Section 79, in a discussion of the metaphysical philoso-
phers he says, “It does seem to be true that we hardly ever think a thing

9 10 11
Principia, pp. 199“200. Ibid., p. 156. See Chapter 8. Ibid., p. 3.
66 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

good, and never very decidedly, without at the same time having a special
attitude of feeling or will towards it.” These passages suggest a line of
thought according to which the original a posteriori apprehension of
good has an emotional or conative element. Although this apprehension
is tied to feeling or action, it contains the seed of its own transcendence
in a purely intellectual apprehension. Going further than Moore could
have, one might argue that the only way of achieving this purely intellec-
tual apprehension is to become so puzzled or confused about one™s orig-
inal apprehension of good as to no longer take it for granted “ and to stay
puzzled about it for a very long time. This would be to make skepticism
and self-misunderstanding prerequisites of philosophical understanding.
Suggesting an account for Moore that hinges on such remarks as these
is very speculative. As he does so many times, he says enough to tantalize,
but no more. Because he uses suggestive words offhandedly and does not
explore their implications very far, we do not know whether to give them
much weight. If this is maddening, it is also very moving: He manages to
suggest solutions to problems he does not fully see. In this, Principia differs
radically from his later work, so famous for the thoroughness, sometimes
lapsing into tediousness, with which he explores every nook and cranny of
his thought. It is as if Moore embodied in his own career Principia™s dual-
ity between spontaneous, confident awareness “ which his achievement in
Principia is to express philosophically “ and studied, worrisome awareness.
The speed with which he changed his manner of working after Principia
suggests how sharp the break can be between the two kinds of awareness,
and the fact that he came to consider the plodding Ethics better than Prin-
cipia suggests just how much can be lost when the studied awareness of
value so completely takes over from the spontaneous.12
The line of thought we have suggested would help to support a theme
in Moore™s critique of the metaphysical philosophers and to a lesser ex-
tent, the hedonists. This is that they fail to distinguish clearly the object
of consciousness from the act by which it is cognized. That we must make
this distinction is of course one of the great themes of Moore™s work at
this time, both here and in “The Refutation of Idealism;” it is the pre-
scription grounding the heroic realism for which he is so famous. The
fact that our original awareness of good is closely tied to action helps ex-
plain why philosophers fail to distinguish good from the awareness of it.
When the metaphysical philosophers find in our original cognition of
good an element that inclines one to action, it becomes too easy for them
to treat the entire act of cognition as an indissoluble unity and the fun-
damental object of ethical theory. Finding ethics to be an inquiry “prop-
erly confined to ˜practice™ or ˜conduct™”13 they fail to analyze all the way

Moore, “An Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, p. 27.
Ibid., p. 2.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 67

down to the simple, indefinable component that would take them out of
the practical sphere to the contemplative one of ethics proper. Mean-
while, the hedonists lose sight of good in the wake of the pleasant feeling
its cognition engenders. Since pleasure so often arises upon the percep-
tion of good, hedonists wind up conflating good with pleasure. They then
find pleasure to be the only justifiable end of action, the only thing in-
trinsically worthy of approval. They concern themselves with what ap-
proval has in common with enjoyment, pleasantness, while losing sight of
its distinguishing feature, the thought that something is good.
The development of these suggestions, besides providing another way
of tying together the mistakes of two of the great philosophical schools,
also gives Moore his best chance of providing a reasonably charitable ex-
planation of why the mistakes of the philosophical tradition are both
ubiquitous and simple. Philosophers systematize the confusions that arise
from their taking their early practical awareness of good as fundamental
and then just never get beyond them. The incorrect philosophical theo-
ries they embrace too early in their studies prevent them from looking at
the particulars of their own life with a clear gaze. Still, even if we can be-
gin to make some sense of philosophers™ initial puzzlement, there re-
mains the trouble of explaining why they have remained puzzled for so
long. At some point, the unreflective awareness they never completely
lose that good is different from everything else should have intruded
upon their systematically misleading philosophies and gotten them to
recognize that they have erred. Until the dawn of the twentieth century,
this never happened. Yet now philosophers are going to be struck like
Keats upon reading Chapman. So Moore™s problem remains even after
we suppose him to have sharpened in this manner the distinction be-
tween the practical and the theoretical awareness of good.
The place where Moore comes the closest to resolving the difficulties
we have been exploring is Section 87, in the chapter “Ethics in Relation
to Conduct.” While acknowledging that error has been rampant in the
tradition, Moore expresses his great confidence that philosophers will
soon agree with him on the self-evident principles of ethics. He tells us in
the first sentence of that section that the reason philosophers will come
to agree with him on these propositions, despite the fact that they cannot
be proved, is that he has now proven “that good is good and nothing else
whatever.” Later he writes:
Certain it is, that in all those cases where we found a difference of opinion, we
found also that the question had not been clearly understood. Though, therefore,
we cannot prove that we are right, yet we have reason to believe that everybody,
unless he is mistaken as to what he thinks, will think the same as we. It is as with
a sum in mathematics. If we find a gross and palpable error in the calculations,
we are not surprised or troubled that the person who made this mistake has
reached a different result from ours. We think he will admit that his result is
wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him. For instance if a man has to add up 5
68 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

+ 7 + 9, we should not wonder that he made the result to be 34, if he started by
making 5 + 7 = 25. And so in Ethics, if we find, as we did, that ˜desirable™ is con-
fused with ˜desired,™ or that ˜end™ is confused with ˜means,™ we need not be dis-
concerted that those who have committed these mistakes do not agree with us.
The only difference is that in Ethics, owing to the intricacy of its subject-matter,
it is far more difficult to persuade anyone either that he has made a mistake or
that that mistake affects his result.
The passage lends itself to two different interpretations, depending on
whether or not the misunderstandings and mistakes referred to in its first
two sentences are taken to suggest that previous philosophers have been
misled by a distinctly different kind of awareness of good than the ordi-
nary. The first reading does not find such a suggestion. Moore is simply
expressing his optimism about the future of ethics now that he has
cleared it of its fundamental mistake. The reason for his confidence is ex-
pressed in the first sentence. Unlike previous philosophers, he is not con-
fused about what questions he is trying to answer. (But how could philoso-
phers have been so long confused about their question?) This reading
would be more apparent if in the second sentence Moore had dropped
the phrase “unless he is mistaken as to what he thinks” or had written in-
stead “unless he is mistaken in what he thinks.” Since it is obvious that if
he is right then everyone who disagrees with him is wrong, we can sim-
plify the second sentence to: “Although we cannot prove we are right, we
are confident that philosophers will come to agree with us upon our hav-
ing cleared matters up.”
The second reading finds a suggestion of a sharp distinction between
the practical and the theoretical awareness of good. Previous philoso-
phers have actually at the unreflective level accepted the conclusions
about the nature of good that Moore is the first to formulate explicitly.
But upon engaging in theory, they misread their own thoughts and failed
to see that they held them. This interpretation is supported by the com-
parison Moore makes to arithmetical error. An educated person who sim-
ply miscalculates really does agree that the correct sum in his example is
21. So Moore is suggesting that we have unreflective, “sub-conscious”
thoughts that we misidentify when we try to characterize and systematize
them.14 By making two changes in the first sentence, emphasizing “what”
and adding “explicitly” before “think,” we can make this reading clearer:
“Though, therefore, we cannot prove that we are right, yet we have rea-
son to believe that everybody, unless he is mistaken as to what he thinks,
will explicitly think the same as we.” A freer translation is: “Though, there-
fore, we cannot prove we are right, everybody who does not misread his
thoughts will explicitly agree with us.” This interpretation has Moore self-
consciously playing the role of Socratic midwife.
Moore™s theory of desire, p. 68 ff., also seems to require a great deal of unconscious men-
tal activity.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 69

The rhetoric of the rest of the passage reveals a great deal of tension
about the prospects for the future of ethics on either reading. At one
level, the comparison of philosophical to arithmetical error introduces a
note of optimism. Because of Moore™s breakthrough, the errors that have
been committed are now as “palpable” as the arithmetical error. Thus
Moore™s thought that one who has been wrong “will admit that his result
is wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him.” But after a moment™s
thought, one wonders just how much reason there is for optimism.
Moore™s comparison expresses contempt for previous philosophers. They
have failed at something ridiculously easy and have never bothered to re-
think their results. If the simplicity of their errors is of this order, some-
one with sense should have exposed them long ago. Now that they have
finally been exposed, why should we think that their exposure will be ac-
cepted by them? The only plausible conclusion is that philosophers are
hopeless and Moore should despair of showing them anything.
But just when one comes to this view of the matter, Moore suggests that
he was only making a logical point with the comparison, thus allowing
philosophers to be subtler in their mistakes. The subject is intricate and
it is not easy to see where ones goes astray. Of course, this also leaves lit-
tle room for optimism. Why should we expect that all of a sudden Moore™s
argument will lead philosophers out of the darkness? Cassandra was not
listened to and epiphanies are not guaranteed. (Again, as a matter of his-
torical fact, Moore™s work did, by his own lights, lead ethics into even
greater darkness than it had previously been in.) So pessimism is the
more appropriate response to either conclusion, that philosophy is easy
and previous philosophers have been idiots or that philosophers have
had a modicum of sense but the subject has remained beyond them.
There is another way in which Moore™s comparison to arithmetic is
problematic. The price of committing the naturalistic fallacy in mathe-
matical theory is not nearly as high as it is in ethical theory. The intrica-
cies of philosophical-mathematical problems and the many different
false opinions philosophers have about the nature of mathematical enti-
ties have no effect on their explicit awareness of a great many mathe-
matical truths. Absent an explanation why philosophical error has prac-
tical ramifications in ethics it lacks in mathematics, Moore™s comparison
does little to help him resolve his dilemma.

Resolution of the Paradox
“The Conception of Intrinsic Value” is much more in the spirit of the view
that the everyday awareness of good is not so simple and straightforward
as Principia makes it out to be. Nowhere in that paper does Moore sug-
gest that we have an immediate awareness of good that contains every-
thing we will ever be able to or need to know about it, that preempts any
70 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

philosophical qualms we might come to have regarding it. He accepts his
views to be controversial and offers no quick proof of them. In fact, he
does not attempt to prove them at all. To bring this spirit of tentativeness
to Principia, we must interpret the OQA in a way that weakens it, perhaps
along the lines of Ball and Snare, or perhaps even abandon it. The great
interest other philosophers have taken in the OQA might suggest that it
is the linchpin of his work. But the absence of any mention of the argu-
ment in The Elements of Ethics, much of which Moore carried over verba-
tim to Principia, shows it to be rather an afterthought.15 A fully satisfying
understanding of good is not something that comes to one in the shaft
of light provided by a single argument, but is something that dawns on
one during the course of an exhaustive investigation of it.16 We must then
find some way of allowing in Moore™s name that earlier philosophers who
spent years of their lives on the subject of value were not guilty of failing
to note a simple point they already thoroughly knew as children.
One might object, quite fairly, that respect must be paid to the
metaphilosophical problem upon which Moore has, even if a bit heavily,
put his finger. Most of us do have an understanding of good that for the
most part works reasonably well in ordinary life, but that refuses to yield
easily to philosophical reflection. About our suggestion one has every
right to ask, Why does a satisfactory philosophical understanding of value
come slowly and with difficulty when we make judgments about the good-
ness or badness of things every day of our lives? Similar problems arise,
of course, with regard to the philosophical and scientific understanding
of properties other than good. But the way in which its simplicity, inde-
finability, and nonnaturalness combine to make good unique perhaps
makes this problem more troubling in its case than in others. For in-
stance, immediately it does not seem open to one to say that we originally
have a many-leveled gestalt awareness of good, which we then refine more
or less successfully, as we do in the case of animality and perhaps causal-
ity. Because properties such as these are not so ontologically distinct from
the things instantiating them as good is supposed to be, it is not surpris-
ing that we have both a deep and a confused awareness of them.
But perhaps there are other ways of looking at good that allow philo-
sophical confusion not always to be mere obtuseness, that allow the philo-
sophical understanding of good to be a significant advance on the ordi-
nary understanding of it. Although in developing these ways of looking
at good we will take advantage of its simplicity and indefinability, we are
not always going to be concerned with sharply distinguishing between
these two properties. It is part of these ways of looking at good that it is

This to disagree with Thomas Baldwin. See note 10 to the Introduction.
G. C. Field, “The Place of Definition in Ethics,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.
XXXII (London: 1931“2), p. 84.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 71

not useful or even possible at every stage of inquiry to make a sharp dis-
tinction between them. In fact, we do not have a ready-made under-
standing of these properties to be applied straight off to properties of the
order of subtlety of good; rather we must be ready to refine our under-
standing of them in the light of the difficult cases that good and other
properties present. Since we do to some extent use our understanding of
these properties to help us get clear about good, the very important con-
clusion follows that at the outset of philosophical inquiry, we lack the in-
tellectual equipment needed to have an understanding of good on the
order of sophistication and clarity that Moore thinks is possible.
This should be no surprise. If our immediate understanding of good
were sophisticated and clear, ethics would be easy. Moore creates unnec-
essary problems for himself by tying himself to the thought that if we are
to make distinctly philosophical progress, we must clearly see the inde-
finability of good at the very beginning of our inquiry. He seems to feel
that there is something about philosophical investigation that makes us
unable to clarify our fuzzy intuitions, or the notions we use to clarify
them, as we go along. He seems almost Kantian on the matter, writing as
if it were an a priori psychological truth that philosophical reason will
reify rather than correct the errors in what it proposes. But the most he
can be taken to have uncovered, the most he could have wished to have
uncovered, is a contingent fact about how most philosophers have failed.
His own criticism of Aristotle indicates that philosophers who commit the
naturalistic fallacy need not set their mistakes in stone. He criticizes Aris-
totle for being unsystematic, which weakness he connects to the fallacy.17
Aristotle™s lack of system, even if it poses other problems, should have in-
dicated to him that it is possible to philosophize in a provisional manner.
Moore™s particular fear is that if we are not perfectly clear about good™s
indefinability at the very outset of inquiry, we will forever be seeking to
deny our unreflective insight that value is unique and intrinsic. But how-
ever right we are to have this unreflective feeling about the distinct na-
ture of good, it is mixed up, as anyone knows who has taught an intro-
ductory course in ethics, with other inconsistent opinions about it. The
thought that good is utterly distinct from all else can only be clearly suc-
cessfully articulated when it comes in sophisticated philosophical dress.
Moore would have been better advised to have offered, in the spirit of
“Conception,” a hypothesis about the features good must have if (some of )
our unreflective thoughts about it are to be refined and justified.18 Work
of great dialectical skill, on the order of the work he performs in that pa-
per, is necessary to spell out the conditions that justify them.
Principia, p. 176.
It is the heart of Hill™s thesis in The Ethics of Moore that this is what Moore actually does.
But this way of reading Moore ignores the OQA. It is, we are arguing, what Moore should
have done, not what he actually does.
72 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

Let us begin by trying to undo the damage wrought by Moore™s unfor-
tunate comparison of good to yellow.19 This comparison does much to
make it seem as if the grasping of the simple, indefinable property good
is an all-or-nothing matter. As with yellow, one either sees good or is blind
to it.20 If one is blind, there is nothing more to be said. If one sees it, there
is also little to be said: “If I am asked ˜What is good?™ my answer is that
good is good and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked ˜How is
good to be defined?™ my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is
all I have to say about it.” Since these words appear on Principia™s sixth
page, Moore must really think that there is much more to say about it,
which highlights our problem. There is little to say about yellow and pace
Moore, no sophisticated systematic “science” of yellow.21 Even if it is sim-
ple and indefinable, good is elusive, subtle, and rich in a way that such
determinate natural properties as yellow are not.
The reader may protest again that this is fine to say, but how can it be
so? To say it is only to name the mystery. To meet this worry, we shall have
to develop subtler conceptions of the properties of simplicity and inde-
finability as they are instantiated by good. We can begin to do this by
pointing out a way in which the comparison of good to yellow also steers
us wrong on the issue of good™s simplicity. Moore says that to be simple is
to have no parts “ no parts. The comparison to yellow puts this fact in the
wrong light. There is a very important sense employed by Moore accord-
ing to which yellow actually has one part. This is the sense that is high-
lighted by the claim that the most determinate natural properties are the
parts of which a complex natural object is composed. If these properties
had no parts, then the complex objects composed of them would also
have no parts. But that would make these complex objects simple. There
must then be some very important sense in which at least the most de-
terminate natural properties of a thing have one part rather than none.
Let us recall the ontology of “Identity” to get clearer on the difference
between the simplicity of the determinate natural properties and the sim-
plicity of good. Even if the different fully determinate universals referred
to by the word “yellow” have no parts rather than one, these universals,
unlike the universal good, determine the nature of particulars that do
have one part. Because of this fact, there is a sense in which any under-
standing we have of the universal yellow or the particulars instantiating it
must be complete. Following “Identity,” since the particular yellow only dif-
fers numerically from the universal yellow, we think of the universal through
the particular. If one thinks of or perceives a simple particular yellow, one

Butchvarov, Skepticism in Ethics, p. 61; G. C. Field, “The Place of Definition in Ethics,” p.
91, Moral Theory (New York: E. P. Dutton and Sons, 1921), p. 57.
See Moore, The Elements of Ethics, p. 17, where he speaks explicitly of our not being blind
to good. See also Frankena, “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” p. 112.
Principia, p. 14.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 73

also thinks of the universal. If one has a simple particular shade of yellow
or its universal in mind at all, one has all of it in mind. But because good
does not stand in any such relation to simple particulars, one cannot
think of it through a particular in the same manner. There is nothing one
can grasp all of in order to grasp “all” of good.
This difference also makes unhelpful Moore™s point that we cannot ex-
plain but only ostend to one who has never perceived it, what yellow is.
Even if we need some mastery of the “language game” of color in order
to ostend yellow, once this mastery is achieved, ostending it is easy. But
this is clearly not the case with good. We can point easily enough to things
that are good, but not so easily, if at all, to good itself. In a very important
sense, we show that we do not have a completely satisfactory under-
standing of good if we even try to ostend it, even if only to ourselves in
the “mind™s eye.” Making the same point in a different way perhaps, the
spatial notions borrowed from properties such as yellow throw us off in
our attempt to explicate the nature of good.22 Because of the different
relation(s) in which good stands to individual goods, we cannot “hold”
good in mind in the same way we “hold” yellow in mind. This difficulty
about good distinguishes it not only from such natural properties like yel-
low, but also from other such nonnatural (or, if only value is nonnatural,
nonexistent) items such as numbers. Of all the things there are, good is
among those least like an object to be singled out. So when we talk of fix-
ing the property good before our minds, of its being a simple object of
thought, we must be extremely careful not to be taken in by any of these
terms™ misleading connotations. If we are ruthless in purging these con-
notations from our understanding of good, we will be less inclined to
think of it as something of which our awareness is all or nothing. We will
grant that depending on what other things we know, there are many dif-
ferent degrees of attention we can fix on it.
If indefinability plays a crucial role in describing what is at issue in the
claim that good is unique and independent of other properties, it is not
obvious what role it plays in the early stages of a philosophical inquiry in
justifying or defending this claim. Consider the following propositions:
1) Good is what the rational will strives for; 2) Good is what we desire to
desire; 3) Friendship is good; and 4) Good depends solely upon natural
properties for its exemplification. Moore says explicitly that the first,
third, and fourth of these are true and the second he might consider to
have a role to play in moral psychological theory. With the possible ex-
ception of the second then, all of these are propositions we must know in
order to have a philosophically interesting conception of good. Having

It might also be that a great deal of facile criticism of Moore™s theory as requiring a “free-
floating” property would be avoided if unsuitable spatial metaphors were avoided more
assiduously by critics.
74 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

moved so far from the idea of the parts in the definition of an object be-
ing related to physical parts, can we not consider these to be “parts” of a
very complex definition of good?23
Presumably, Moore would insist that even if these propositions tell us
things that are completely true of good, they still do not describe its na-
ture.24 It is because of what good is that these things are true. So even if
they help us to discover what good is, they do so by helping us to pick out
good (in whatever attenuated sense it is possible to do that) rather than
by defining it. In this, these statements are comparable to the statement
that orange is the color most like yellow and red. In order to grasp the
truth of that statement, we must already be acquainted with or become
acquainted with orange as well as yellow and red. Besides the four we have
already mentioned, there are indefinitely many other more or less inter-
esting things we can say about good that can be helpful in picking it out.
We do not wish to give any of them or all of them together pride of place as
the definition of good, but wish rather to say that singly and in combina-
tion, they point us to that property of which they are all true.
But let us reconsider the preceding proposition about orange. Suppose
we are able to recognize the color orange but have never noticed that it
is more like yellow and red than it is like other colors. Are we not then
learning something about the intrinsic nature of orange “ and yellow
and red “ when we notice this?25 (And when we assert this proposition,
is there not a sense in which we are describing orange?) Learning this
proposition is certainly unlike learning the contingent proposition,
which does not teach us anything about the color, that a certain piece of
paper is orange. All or most of the propositions involving good are at least
a little bit like the first of these propositions, not the second. Even the
humble particular fact that appreciating a certain well-made artifact is
good, pointing as it does to the doctrine of organic unities, reveals some-
thing about good™s rich a priori character to us.
The difference, already noted, between our awareness of a specific
color and our awareness of good, that it is much easier to isolate and hold

23 Field, who on pp. 55“6 of Moral Theory wonders why on Moore™s account “rational end”
is not a complex definition of good, sums up his discussion thus: “Mr Moore really finds
it difficult himself to think consistently of goodness as a simple, indefinable quality, and
is being constantly compelled, without realizing it, by the force of facts to introduce some
other elements into his idea of it.”
Principia, p. 36.
25 We should probably amend our earlier statement that there is little to say about and no
science of yellow. If there are, for example, objective facts about what colors “match” or
“go well” with other colors, there might be a quite complex aesthetic science of color.
Much of painting and the other visual arts would then presumably be an exploration of
this subject. Ultimately, this science would be subsumed under the science of beauty and
thus also subsumed under ethics, the science of good. But to connect this thought to the
point we were making earlier, the more interesting point of comparison would not be
between good and yellow, but between good and color.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 75

the color before our minds, makes the distinction between definitional
and other necessary truths clearer in the case of a color than it is in the
case of good. In spite of the difficulties we have just considered in fully
making good on this claim, it is tempting to hold, as Moore does, that by
holding it before our minds we can just see that orange is an indefinable
and “distinct entity,”26 even as we grant that there are more necessary
truths to learn about it. Since we cannot hold good in mind in the same
way, we cannot just see this about it. Moore implicitly recognizes this when
he offers the OQA as an argument. If it is an argument with premises that
take us beyond our ability to inspect properties, it appeals, as we have dis-
cussed, to controversial views in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and se-
mantics. Until we know more about the mode of reference for such so-
phisticated terms, we do not know exactly what they mean or what
properties they refer to (assuming them to refer at all). This returns us
again to the dialectical point that before we decide what we have before
our mind when we think about good, we need to refine the philosophi-
cal notions we bring to bear on it. Speaking with Wilfred Sellars for a mo-
ment, this makes Moore™s claims about the nature of good “promissory
notes” to be cashed upon further philosophical rumination. Speaking
with Wittgenstein, we must get away from the “picture” of there being an
acute inner faculty that enables us to see good once and forever. We do
not think about good simply by “inspecting” it.
One speaking for Moore might say that even if we do not at first hold
good before our minds with perfect clarity, we must still be able to distin-
guish truths about good itself from truths about the necessary relations
with other things into which it enters. Lacking this ability, we shall be
sucked into the morass of monism. Thus we must have some sense that the
truths about good are not a matter of definition. But Moore must allow,
even if he does not realize it fully, that in the prephilosophical mode of
awareness, we do not know exactly what the terms are of the propositions
we are considering. We can cognize the truth of a proposition that, for in-
stance, friendship is good without knowing what exactly good or friendship
is. If this were not possible, there really would be no point to analysis, as the
questions suitable to it would already have their answer. Moore must allow
for the possibility that over time, we become more adept at sifting good out
from the cluster of goods we come to know it by. Our knowledge of good
and the good must grow together. This last point is of crucial importance
to moral epistemology. We do not just happen to spot good and then note
that it is exemplified by friendship or the other things that are good.
Rather, we are directed to good, however haphazardly, by good things.
Nor is the epistemic dependency all on the side of good. If we do not
recognize such things as happiness and health to be good, we do not cor-

26 Principia, p. 16. Moore says this of pleasure.
76 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

rectly identify them either. This epistemic interdependence between good
and the things that are good holds even if we finally decide that they are
metaphysically independent of each other. Knowledge of this metaphys-
ical independence is hard won, not the first step in philosophical under-
standing. We might say that since good “lurks” within these clusters, we
are not able to and need not be able to identify good precisely in order
to have some knowledge of the systematic relations that obtain between
it and the various good things. This enables our epistemic situation with
regard to good to be similar to what it is with regard to the definable prop-
erties determinative of other sciences. Just as we have a fairly wide-
ranging but rough-and-ready knowledge of different sorts of animals and
animality in general before we attempt precise analyses of them, so can
we know many truths about good without knowing whether it has an
analysis or is unanalyzable.27
For the purposes of ordinary life, it is unimportant whether good is
complex or simple, with the complexity being found in the relations that
obtain between it and the various goods. Our vast if shallow knowledge
of good enables us to render most of our decisions concerning it with
some degree of adequacy “ we do not often need to test the limits of our
everyday understanding of good. We can even get along moderately well
with a somewhat egoistic conception of good, one allowing us to be
mostly concerned with the effects of our actions upon ourselves and our
loved ones. We can also get by with an unsophisticated, even primitive,
casuistry. Even when it comes to the daunting task of raising a child, we
can for much of the time act as if hedonism were true, as it is very im-
portant for any number of reasons to make a child™s life pleasant. Al-
though we also recognize the need to foster other goods such as knowl-
edge and moral probity, we can give them all their due, more or less,
without a great deal of conflict. For one, we realize that such things as
knowledge and moral probity are indispensable to a truly pleasant life.
Of course, there are the times that so engage novelists and playwrights
when conflicts arise and our store of moral knowledge becomes depleted
quite quickly. If we faced these crises more regularly, we would be less
likely to think of our ordinary awareness of good as satisfactory.
At a more advanced stage of inquiry, there may be an important philo-
sophical point that can only be carried by good™s simplicity and indefin-
ability. Recall again that Moore holds that the demands of the objectivity
of value leave no room for special pleading “ even though we all engage
in some of it. Plain people have something on the philosophers who be-
come skeptical of this and flirt with ethical egoism. But once the skepti-
cal questions about egoism have been raised, it is not possible to go back

In “A Defence of Common Sense,” pp. 57“9, Moore makes a similar claim, that we know
there to be physical objects without knowing their analysis.
the paradox of ethics and its resolution 77

to the innocent but ignorant stage of understanding that preceded it. As
Moore does in his refutation of egoism, one must answer the skeptic in a
distinctly philosophical manner that calls upon the simplicity and inde-
finability of good. On Moore™s view, the fact that good is a universal, in-
divisible and one, grounds the point that it cannot be had by anyone. The
fact that this point can only be made at an advanced stage of reflection
may explain why Sidgwick mistakenly felt that both egoism and altruism
were philosophically respectable positions. We must, as Sidgwick does
not, consider metaphysical matters far beyond the purview of common
sense in order to resolve the false conundrum with which he ends The
Methods of Ethics.28
This general conception of ethical inquiry seems to require a more ho-
listic Moore than the one we are used to seeing. This is a Moore who in-
sists that we get a sense of the forest before we study the individual trees.
Of course, after we have become familiar with the whole, reflection on var-
ious individual issues will further sharpen our large-scale understanding.
We must not, however, impose on this more holistic Moore Kuhnian im-
plications he could not possibly have countenanced. If we wish to stay
within the spirit of Moore, we must reject the suggestion of Alasdair Mac-
Intyre that from certain vantages, different large-scale ethical theories are
incommensurable.29 Moore is nothing if not a realist about good. As a re-
alist in the philosophy of science takes up the tasks of showing how the
entities of science exist independently of human beings and their theo-
ries, and how even incorrect theories can be about entities that really do
exist, an ethical realist takes them up with good. Two theories positing rad-
ically divergent goods are nevertheless both about good. And even if we
happen to accept some ethical claims on the grounds of overall coher-
ence, it does not follow that we accept a coherence theory of moral truth.

Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp.
496“509. For a further discussion of Moore on Sidgwick, see Chapter 7.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 6“8. For further discussion of MacIntyre, see Chapters 4
and 5.
The Status of Ethics: Dimming the Future
and Brightening the Past

Dimming the Future
This chapter continues the work of Chapter 3 by considering what a more
realistic assessment of both the past and future of ethics will look like
once we reject Moore™s explanation that the difficulties of the field have
been due to the endless making and remaking of a simple mistake. For
the most part, Moore™s account posits an ethical future whose brightness
is matched only by the darkness of its past. But the denial of his claim that
a simple mistake, in a plethora of forms, has made for a violent rupture
in the consciousness of value enables the contrast between the past and
future of ethics to be made much less stark. First, Moore™s dawn of the
century optimism receives a cold but welcome dose of reality. Since the
publication of Principia, ethics has not benefited from an epochal break-
through. Its difficulties and complexities continue to make such a break-
through highly unlikely. At the same time, the reasons for tempering his
optimism about the future are reasons for allaying his pessimism about
the past. The numberless errors of previous generations of philosophers
are what we should expect from the application of fallible, if impressive,
intellect to a difficult domain. The future is not so bright nor the past so
dark as this still young philosopher thinks.
Before we begin examining the complex of attitudes Moore brings to
the past and future of ethics, we wish to make a metaphilosophical point
about the value of progress in this and other philosophical fields. There
is another standard of merit to accompany the progressivist standard, sit-
ting so uneasily with his view that we all have a perfectly adequate
prephilosophical awareness of good, that Moore borrows from the natu-
ral sciences. This emerges from a consideration of the point made in the
first chapter that any well-wrought philosophical theory requires worthy
alternatives. Since the various alternatives must be in fundamental dis-
agreement about fundamental matters, it cannot be that their worthiness
depends solely on their truth. In fact, when we are presented with a truly
compelling philosophical conception, the question of its truth to a cer-
tain extent becomes niggling.1 (Although there is something deeply mov-
ing about theories of great depth being deeply wrong.) Much of the in-

Butchvarov, Skepticism in Ethics, p. 101.
the status of ethics 79

terest of a work in ethics lies in the dramatic quality of the sense of life it
conveys, of the vision it presents of the human intercourse with good,
whatever good happens to be. As with great literature, certain achieve-
ments, including Principia, stand on their own feet. There is simply no
“progressing” beyond them. Because there is this more aesthetic dimen-
sion of merit in ethical and other fields of philosophy, there will never be
a time when each philosopher simply stands on the shoulders of her pred-
Although it is likely not the result of conscious deliberation, Moore™s
work is the aesthetic expression of the thought that something more im-
portant than progress is involved in the attainment of life™s most important
truths “ namely, return. Principia beautifully brings to life the great dialec-
tic of resistance and reconciliation concerning the simple truths about
good and evil we all do somehow know. In Chapter 10 of this book, we shall
say a great deal more about the incompletely realized non-progressivist
elements of Moore™s conception of ethics. The most extreme way available
to him of preserving the integrity of prephilosophical thought against
philosophical confusion is to make philosophy something purely aesthetic “
something concerned with truth and reality not at all. The discussion in this
chapter, however, is appropriate to a strategy less extreme than that. It is
important to offer such a discussion because whether or not he has the
right to, Moore consciously adheres to a conception of ethics that makes
it capable of discovering the truth about reality.
Let us begin by considering Moore™s attitudes toward the history of ca-
suistry, the branch of ethics concerned with the questions, “What things
are good in themselves?” and “What things are a means to good?” His at-
tack on earlier casuistical work is rather confused and not entirely fair. At
one point in his final chapter, “The Ideal,” he proclaims that earlier at-
tempts by unnamed authors to “construct an Ideal . . . omit many things
of very great positive value. . . . Great positive goods . . . are so numerous,
that any whole, which shall contain them all, must be of vast complexity
. . . it is sufficient to condemn those Ideals, which are formed by omis-
sion, without any visible gain in consequence of such omission.” He con-
cludes that “no ideals yet proposed are satisfactory.”2 This claim is curi-
ous. Since his own view is that there are only two great intrinsic goods,
friendship and aesthetic appreciation, he seems to have left himself sub-
ject to his own criticism. To the immediate charge of inconsistency,
Moore™s defender will point out that he allows, and in the case of aesthetic
appreciation, insists that there are not only many different particular ways
of instantiating those goods, but many different genres and subgenres of
them. But once this response is used in his defense, it is fair to use it in
the defense of others. So he is here arguing against “men of straw.”

2 Principia, pp. 185“6.
80 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

Moore, who speaks so boldly at the beginning of Principia of both the
disrepute of earlier efforts in casuistry and the great progress to follow
upon his work, in later passages occasionally reveals ambivalence about
its future, and even some ambivalence about its past. He says early that
the defects of casuistry are due to a lack of knowledge, an inability on the
part of casuists to “distinguish . . . those elements upon which . . . value
depends” and insinuates that by the end of Principia, his work of clarifi-
cation will have gone a long way toward clearing these matters up.3 But
he lowers expectations for the future of casuistry in his summary at the
end of the book™s final chapter. He speaks there of the field™s great diffi-
culties as requiring “patient enquiry” and says that he is more concerned
with revealing the proper method for dealing with the issues than he is
with establishing his own “platitudinous” conclusions.4 Clearly, then, de-
spite some strong claims, he is not completely confident about the nature
of the impact of his work on casuistry.
He makes no bones about the difficulties faced by the second branch
of casuistry, the one that takes up questions concerning the causes or nec-
essary conditions of the intrinsic goods. There are obvious reasons why
judgments in this field will remain provisional and controversial:
It is certain that in different circumstances the same action may produce effects
which are utterly different in all respects upon which the value of the effects de-
pends. Hence we can never be entitled to more than a generalisation “ to a propo-
sition of the form ˜This result generally follows this kind of action™; and even this
generalisation will only be true, if the circumstances under which the action oc-
curs are generally the same. This is in fact the case, to a great extent, within any
one particular age and state of society. But, when we take other ages into account,
in many most important cases the normal circumstances of a given kind of action
will be so different, that the generalisation which is true for one will not be true
for another. With regard then to ethical judgements which assert that a certain
kind of action is good as a means to a certain kind of effect, none will be univer-
sally true; and many, though generally true at one period, will be generally false at
We might think that the situation is different in the first branch of
casuistry, concerned as it is with the discovery and ordering of the in-
trinsic goods. It is plausible to hold that the study of friendship, being
quite general in nature, need not be much concerned with the particu-
larities of different eras and cultures and situations. The proposition that
friendship is good is not merely an empirical generalization. Because we
cannot envisage life as not being enriched by friendship, our confidence
in the goodness of friendship withstands the thought that we could never
gather up all the different kinds of friendship for a summary judgment.
Still, it seems that Moore is overly confident about how much agreement
to expect with propositions ranging beyond his two platitudes. There will

3 4 5
Ibid., p. 5. Ibid., pp. 222“3. Ibid., p. 22.
the status of ethics 81

certainly be disagreement over the details of any analysis one offers of
friendship or aesthetic appreciation. One might even wish to contend the
claim that friendship is good by noting, as Moore does, that certain deep
and abiding human relationships are rooted in evil.6 Although some will
reply that these kinds of evil relationships cannot be friendships, perhaps
because they lack some necessary ingredient such as love or mutual re-
spect, others will charge that this is to be guilty of legislating that only
worthwhile human relationships are to count as instances of friendship.
One could strengthen worries along these lines by noting ways in which
Moore includes their goodness in the description of both of his goods.
Among their constituents are an “appropriate” emotion, one that in the
circumstances is good, and the cognition of a “truly beautiful” quality, one
it is good to admire. In effect, Moore secures agreement with his casuisti-
cal propositions by making them tautologies. A lack of controversy is thus
a sign that further work needs to be done “ what makes an emotion ap-
propriate or a quality beautiful? It will not be the result of any work done
in this field that it leads us to change our mind and hold that these things
are not great goods after all. But we will never reach full agreement on
the details of the subject; a richer understanding is always a more con-
tentious one.
We also increase the possibility of casuistical controversy by going back
to and expounding on a point Moore recognizes, that there are many dif-
ferent intrinsic goods. Moore mostly ignores these other goods because
he considers a chasm to lie between them and the two greatest goods. But
it seems more likely that the world™s goods belong on something more re-
sembling a continuum. By ignoring all the many other goods, which in-
clude the virtues and such things as health and (the consciousness of)
pleasure, Moore loses out on much of what makes life worth living. Fur-
ther, as we have already suggested and shall argue for more explicitly in
Chapter 5, the acknowledgment of a more continuous arrangement of
the world™s goods enables us to present a more coherent picture of the
way in which our awareness of good and the good develops.
Given the appeal common sense has for Moore, he might easily have
come to consider the virtues to have intrinsic value. We often find our-
selves with very strong opinions about the goodness of a particular coura-
geous act or the admirableness of a particular kindly person. Given the
unknowability of the future, we cannot account for these opinions by say-
ing that they are concerned with what is merely good as a means. We can
also make use of the doctrine of organic unities to alleviate concern about
the inner qualities of criminals and thugs: Their courage is good even if
it is part of a larger whole that is bad. The doctrine of organic unities and
the larger sense of ˜object™ we have explored in Chapter 2 gives us the re-

Ibid., p. 210.
82 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

sources to argue that Moore is wrong in thinking that virtuous action, that
is, action done habitually without any explicit thought of good, is not in-
trinsically valuable.7 The whole consisting of a person doing some good,
of which, because of the training she has undergone and thinking she has
previously performed, she need not be explicitly aware, is a complicated
organic unity different from and having more value than the whole con-
sisting of a person just happening to do some good. It might be that
Moore is too concerned to separate himself from previous philosophers
who in his eyes had overvalued the virtues. He wants to avoid the trap
Kant has often been thought to have fallen into, of forgetting that there
is more to life than being a dutiful grind. Moore rightly opposes those
(who are they?) who think the virtues are the only things of value, but
overdoes the criticism.8
Just the admission of more items into the catalog of goods makes more
complicated the relation of Moore™s work to past and future casuistical
efforts. His history becomes less condemnatory as the errors of previous
casuists become subtler and more reasonable than he credits. In a world
filled with such a great number of goods, there are so many points to ex-
amine and considerations to bring forward that it cannot be surprising
that there have been many false steps on the road to ethical knowledge.
For instance, there can be a great deal of disagreement over different at-
tempts to classify and rank the virtues just because, as Moore points out,
there are so many of them that they cannot all be exemplified by one per-
son9 or even by one culture. This fact about the variety of the virtues,
when extended to all the intrinsic goods, points to the possibility that
change, even when things are going well, might be desirable, as it in-
creases the number of different goods the world instantiates. (This ver-
sion of the principle of plenitude, along with views about what fairness
requires, and, it must be said, more than a little resentiment, seems to in-
fuse much of the so-called multicultural movement.) Of course, these
changes must not come too fast. The deepest plumbing of value requires
that individuals and cultures settle in for the long haul. The world needs
hedgehogs more than it needs foxes.
Moore says that ethics is like chemistry and physics in its concern for
generality and not at all like history and geography, which he considers
to be concerned solely with particulars.10 But there remains an inex-
haustible set of peculiar “objects” of special interest to historians, an-
thropologists, and sociologists “ ethoses; societal and individual ideals;
norms and forms of life “ that must also be of concern to ethicists. Their
interest lies not only in the crucial role they play in the formation and
perpetuation of value, which makes them relevant to the second branch
of casuistry, but also in the fact that they may themselves be things of

7 8 9 10
Principia, pp. 175“6. Ibid., p. 173. Ibid., p. 166. Ibid., p. 4.
the status of ethics 83

intrinsic value, either good or bad.11 Given human inventiveness in the
face of changing circumstances, we can never be confident that all pos-
sible ideals and forms of life have been exhausted “ in fact, we can be
quite confident that, as is the case with art forms, these things are inex-
haustible. History and other disciplines show us that there are many more
kinds of valuable things than have been dreamt of in our philosophy.12
Because of the kinds of things they are and the various ways in which
they get tied to particular historical circumstances, it is untenable to think
that there can ever be fully settled analyses of these sorts of cultural ob-
jects. There will certainly never be the consensus about them that there
is about so many of the objects of the natural sciences. Because they are
ideals, an awareness born of the fact that their complete instantiation is
impossible must be brought to bear upon them. Even those who attempt
most heroically to practice in accord with ideals recognize that breathing
room must be provided for the messy realities of life. Further, especially
as one is concerned with ideals tied very closely to a particular time and
place, it is going to be an open question whether certain things are really
parts of the ideal or just accidents of history “ do the horrors of Bolshe-
vism redound poorly on socialism or just on the Bolsheviks? One must
also look at roads not taken by history in order to study the unrealized
potentialities that might be a part of an ideal. Obviously, no particular ne-
gotiation of any such set of conceptual issues, to say nothing of any gen-
eral set of recommendations for dealing with them, will ever come close
to attaining unanimous assent. Another related source of disagreement
is that certain other possible goods, such as tolerance and freedom, have
a kind of logical incompleteness to them. The old saw about toleration re-
quiring that limits be placed on the toleration of intolerance shows that
because of its nature, no perfectly complete conceptual analysis of toler-
ation can be assayed.
Even if at a particular time there were to be a great deal of consensus
on any of these sorts of social objects, it remains that social innovations
and the rise of new ideals imparts a retrodictive character to the study of
them. New forms cast shadows on the old, requiring us endlessly to revise
our judgments about them. To cite a contemporary concern, traditional
notions of honor and courage embodied by certain military and quasi-
military institutions have come under feminist fire for the prejudices, lim-
itations, and unfairnesses they are supposed to harbor. But some of those

Although difficulties in construing such large cultural objects as instances of friendship
or aesthetic appreciation might lead Moore to deny that they have any great positive value.
Butchvarov™s remarks on p. 113 of Skepticism in Ethics about our ignorance of “the good
of a society qua a society” are appropriate to this discussion. We are in part exploring the
possibility that there are types of societies that differ from one another in philosophically
important ways and hence the possibility that there are different goods for different types
of societies.
84 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

who have looked at different institutions and realms of life where such
ideals have become less prominent than they used to be have concluded
that these ideals are richer and more important than the critics have cred-
ited. An argument occasionally heard against the critics is that they have
ignored the depths of the particular human imperfections these ideals
are trying to rein in. If these ideals more effectively accommodate the
world™s imperfections than other ideals whose level of a priori perfection
is too high for most people to live by, they are likely to win at least a tem-
porary vindication. In general then, a warning similar to one issued by
Sidgwick in his discussion of utopian thought is most appropriate: There
are many ways for those who construct and quarrel over ideals to com-
promise with imperfect reality.13 For as long as both theoretically minded
and practically minded people keep promoting and exploring new ideals
and old, there is no hope of these kinds of controversy ever being settled.
This, of course, is not something to bemoan.
Let us briefly consider another controversy of many centuries standing.
In philosophical and political commentary written at all levels of abstrac-
tion and difficulty, we find a debate between two camps we can call the ro-
mantics and the pragmatists, or the liberal optimists and the conservative
pessimists. The romantics find that as an expression of a grand ideal,
something, the French Revolution say, has great value and is worthy of
both the great sacrifices that brought it into being and the great sacrifices
it brought into being. One of the things giving value to this ideal is the
way in which it points to the world™s betterment. This gives the ideal value
as a means, but also something more. It imbues the actions constituting
the ideal™s expression with a meaning and hence with a positive value they
would not otherwise have. The suffering created by the admittedly flawed
bringing to life of the ideal is not mere suffering, but is a part of a vast or-
ganic whole instantiating a great deal of goodness. Meanwhile, the prag-
matists find the ideal to be very pernicious. In fact, they find that the more
captivating it is in its purity as an ideal, the worse it becomes. Members of
the revolutionary avant garde appeal to ideals in order to clothe their
meanness and will to power in moralistic garb. And even if the revolu-
tionary persecutors are “well-meaning,” irony makes it crueler to be mur-
dered by a Jacobin than by a more common thug. Obviously, there are
dangers in each of these attitudes of which any sensitive person must be-
ware. At how much murder and mayhem have liberals winked because of
their captivation by the socialist ideal. And for how long did conservatives
tolerate such evils as slavery and Jim Crow because of the failure of their
imagination and their lack of nerve in contemplating new ideals.
In the delineation of the strengths and weaknesses of ethoses, ideals,
and all other such forms of object, the obligation to respect incomplete-

Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 21“2.
the status of ethics 85

ness and life™s messy realities, and to provide the resonant, living detail
that comes only from paying close attention to particulars, makes history,
which is concerned with both particular and general matters, a more use-
ful model for ethics than physics and chemistry. Because there is no easy
way of comparing different individual and societal conceptions of the
good, we must tread lightly with any conception of the subject according
to which we might one day discover a neatly ordered table of the ethical
elements. As in the study of history and literature, we must tolerate a great
deal of ambiguity. Ethics must remain fluid; sensitivity and an eye for nu-
ance and paradox must always accompany analytical rigor.
When we consider whether all of these road blocks to consensus should
lead us to despair about the state of ethics past or future, we can re-
member a point Moore makes concerning instances of disagreement
about whether or not a thing is beautiful. Moore claims that in most cases
where large numbers of people find a thing to be beautiful, they are likely
to be right:
differences of opinion seem to be far more often due to excessive attention, on
the part of different persons, to different qualities in the same object, than to the
positive error of supposing a quality that is ugly to be really beautiful. When an
object, which some think beautiful, is denied to be so by others, the truth is usu-
ally that it lacks some beautiful quality or is deformed by some ugly one, which
engage the exclusive attention of the critics.14

If we apply a similar thought to ethical controversy “ it certainly applies
to disputes between liberals and conservatives “ we do not conclude that
previous theorists and writers have been completely wrongheaded, but
that they have said some things that are true but in need of further elab-
oration, and have mixed them up with other things that are false. This
enables Moore to say what we all know: Although the field of casuistry is
fraught with difficulty, much light has already been shed on it.
Further, any light that has gone out over the years can be rekindled by
sympathetic historical investigation. It takes but a moment™s considera-
tion to conclude that it will ever be thus. In considering what is possible
for ethical theory at all its different levels, Moore might have taken heed
of the admonition of the “highly unsystematic and confused” Aristotle
that one should look for no more exactness in a science than it allows.15
The reason why there cannot be great exactness and agreement in ethics
is actually a cause for intellectual and perhaps even practical optimism.
The world is such a rich and interesting place that it pays endless exami-
nation and reexamination. Ethicists, like historians, anthropologists, and
other students of humanity, will never run out of interesting things to say,
nor people of interesting ways to live.

14 15
Principia, pp. 200“201. Ibid., p. 176.
86 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

All of this suggests an approach more welcoming to controversy and
disagreement than the one Moore seems officially to countenance. It is
not obvious that the field proceeds best when all ethicists think of them-
selves as involved in one great common labor. Even if from a god™s eye
perspective there is a perfectly ordered ranking of the world™s goods, the
facts about the largeness of the field and the limits of human under-
standing might require a pluralistic methodology that remains uncon-
cerned with how things appear to that eye. Rather than have philoso-
phers embrace a cooperativist and progessivist conception most at home
in the physical sciences, rather than have them work on tidying up one
great system, ethics is better off with many competing systems and views:
“Let a thousand flowers bloom.” This advice holds for the obvious Mill-
ian reasons. Any one system, however grand and sophisticated, is likely
to leave out a great deal of the truth. The truth is better served when peo-
ple put their views up against opposing ones. It also holds because it
makes it more likely that when grand syntheses such as the one in Prin-
cipia are assayed, there is much for them to synthesize. An approach
friendly to controversy is also welcome for the fact that a great deal of
beauty is lost when writers sacrifice their individual visions to normal eth-
ical science. The cooperativist vision can easily become much too con-
servative, totalitarian even.

Brightening the Past
As the fluidity of ethical investigation works to temper Moore™s optimism
about the great progress to be made following the shedding of philo-
sophical blinders, it also ameliorates his pessimism concerning the his-
tory of the subject. If the field™s richness keeps us from attaining exact
knowledge and large-scale agreement, it also makes the mistakes of pre-
vious philosophers other than irretrievable. Earlier philosophers have
had many worthwhile things to say even when their work was riddled with
error. As is shown by the example of Sidgwick, even so deep an error as
hedonism need not vitiate the rest of a philosopher™s work. (Sidgwick also
shows that a philosopher™s avoidance of the naturalistic fallacy does not
foreclose on the possibility of his committing other serious errors.)
Moore allows himself this kind of generosity but is too overwhelmed by
the discovery of the naturalistic fallacy to take advantage of it. Consider
the following remark about the methodology and history of ethics he
makes near the beginning of the chapter “Hedonism.” In this passage, he
explains and defends the methodological principles he uses in doing the
history of ethical philosophy and exegesis on particular works:
It is, indeed, only when we have detected this [naturalistic] fallacy, when we have
become clearly aware of the unique object which is meant by ˜good,™ that we are
able to give to Hedonism the precise definition used above, ˜Nothing is good but
the status of ethics 87

pleasure™: and it may, therefore, be objected that, in attacking this doctrine
under the name of Hedonism, I am attacking a doctrine which has never really
been held. But it is very common to hold a doctrine, without being clearly aware
what it is you hold; and though, when Hedonists argue in favor of what they call
Hedonism, I admit that, in order to suppose their arguments valid, they must have
before their minds something other than the doctrine I have defined, yet, in or-
der to draw the conclusions that they draw, it is necessary that they should also
have before their minds this doctrine. In fact, my justification for supposing that
I shall have refuted historical Hedonism, if I refute the proposition ˜Nothing is
good but pleasure,™ is, that although Hedonists have rarely stated their principle
in this form and though its truth, in this form, will certainly not follow from their
arguments, yet their ethical method will follow logically from nothing else.16
Moore embraces what might be called the method of negative synthe-
sis. He distills out of the work of previous philosophers the mistaken core
that he considers to vitiate the entirety of their work. But the admission
that they also held doctrines other than the false ones he examines pro-
vides him with the chance to use a different, positive methodology. In-
stead of concerning himself only with the way in which the naturalistic
fallacy infects their work, he could have tried to tease out the other in-
sights, consistent with his own, that their work embodies in spite of the
fallacy. If he had taken this tack, he might have been able to provide a
deeper understanding, by more closely investigating the places where dif-
ferent working philosophers actually go off the track, of the pitfalls
philosophers face in trying to get a properly reflective understanding of
good. But his obsession with a mistake he considers to be primitive keeps
him from reading other philosophers with the requisite sympathy, as an
examination of his discussions of any number of them shows.
For a quick example, consider his remarks on A. E. Taylor. Moore
quotes and derogates the following passage: “The primary ethical fact is,
we have said, that something is approved or disapproved: that is, in other
words, the ideal representation of certain events in the way of sensation,


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