. 4
( 8)


perception, or idea, is attended with a feeling of pleasure or of pain.”17
Even in this very brief passage, which suggests a version of the ideal
observer theory, we can find things for Moore to treat sympathetically.
Taylor talks about the ideal representation of an event, which perhaps in-
dicates that he is trying to guarantee complete impartiality in the con-
sideration of it and the entirety of its effects. While he may not fully re-
alize it, Taylor is attempting to eliminate special pleading in order to find
out whether something is good. It may also be that in speaking of approval
as the primary ethical datum and in his incorrect definition of it, Taylor
is confusedly trying to honor a point made by Moore, that a cognition of
good containing the “appropriate” positive emotional response is of
much greater value than a cognition of it lacking in emotion.18 Taylor

16 17 18
Ibid., p. 61. Ibid., p. 60. Ibid., pp. 189“90.
88 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

might also be groping for the point that our instinctive reactions have a
high enough degree of reliability about what is good to guide the more
contemplative intellect. So while not completely clear as to what he is do-
ing and no doubt making grave errors, Taylor does have points of con-
tact, at important places, with what Moore considers to be the truth.
Moving to another example, but for his hurry to impute the naturalistic
fallacy to T. H. Green, Moore might have considered more seriously the
distinction between the view that “˜good™ is merely another name for ˜de-
sire satisfying™” and the view that good is what satisfies the desire of a moral
agent.19 Even Mill, hapless by Moore™s lights, can be seen to have been
groping for insights consistent with Moore™s views. Despite the fact that he
chooses a profound mistake as his theoretical centerpiece, Mill does take
seriously the deep psychological fact Moore takes too much for granted,
that good deeply engages our desires. When Mill says that the only “proof”
that something is desirable is that it is desired, he was appealing, through
the fog created by his many errors, to our immediate inclination to desire
those things we find good. It may also be that without fully realizing what
he was doing, Mill, like Taylor, was recognizing the point that immediate
inclination is often a more reliable guide to what is good than a purely con-
templative grasp of it.
Such sympathetic readings would be more consistent with the Moore
who allows that there has been some progress over the years in ethics, the
one who says, just before he excoriates them, that in their half-hearted
recognition of nonnatural properties, metaphysical philosophers have
advanced beyond the naturalists.20 If he had fully engaged himself in
such readings, he would have made his history something more than a
catalog of folly. By shrinking the chasm between his insights and others™
failings, he would have made himself more the repairer of a tradition
than its destroyer. To have pointed to the insights shining through the
confusion would have made Moore™s overall argument more compelling,
as it would have supported his claim that no matter how confused they
get, philosophers never completely lose sight of good. With the distance
between himself and others lessened, it would have been easier for him
to show how others who assumed many different initial perspectives were
nevertheless groping for the insights he more completely reveals.
Had he taken this road, he might also have played a smaller role in the-
oretical developments he must have considered to be nihilistic. It is an
often-noted irony that much of Moore™s revolutionary impact was quite
other than what he envisioned or hoped for. Besides the contribution his
work has made to objectivist ethical theory, it has also given great suste-
nance to emotivists, prescriptivists, and other noncognitivists. Its contri-
bution to these vastly different ethical theories provides the basis for a

19 20
Ibid., p. 139. Ibid., p. 111.
the status of ethics 89

more radical critique of Moore than any we have yet considered. The his-
toricist moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that historical cir-
cumstances enter so deeply into moral concepts that it is not merely the
case, as Moore has it, that generalizations about the effects of certain
kinds of actions and virtues hold at one time but not another. Nor is it
merely as we have it, that the play of history makes it exceedingly difficult
for one to analyze completely the nature of certain goods. Rather, Moore
and all those who think of “˜moral philosophy™ as an independent and
isolable area of enquiry”21 are, because of their radically ahistorical and
individualistic approach to the subject, not even capable of understanding
the things these generalizations are supposed to be about. The very
meanings of the moral concepts, like the meanings of all concepts, are
tied to the ethoses and traditions that spawned them. This makes the eth-
ical concepts from different eras and traditions incommensurable.22 It
also makes “The notion that the moral philosopher can study the concepts
of morality merely by reflecting, Oxford armchair style, on what he or she
or those around him or her say and do . . . barren.”23 (MacIntyre clearly
includes Moore among those to be condemned even though his arm-
chair was in Cambridge.)
MacIntyre™s criticism of Moore works in two stages. First, he offers a cri-
tique of his procedure of rendering moral judgments as one that stifles
inquiry and real debate and finally, that undercuts the possibility of moral
judgments being rational. The emotivists and other noncognitivists, cor-
rectly thinking that Moore™s account of how we “find” good inhering in
things is not compelling as an account of cognition, but incorrectly think-
ing that it contains the germ of the correct account of moral “inquiry,”
offer their own explicitly noncognitivist views in its stead. The second line
of criticism follows upon the first. The reason Moore and his noncogni-
tivist followers are forced to rely on such a dead-end conception of moral
investigation is that they are part of a movement that has cut morality off
from the traditions and history that give it its lifeblood.
As has been argued for in the account of Moore on aesthetic appreci-
ation, noncognitivists, critics like MacIntyre, and many others who do not
often keep the same company embrace the same caricature, as simplistic
as any that has ever been foisted on a great thinker, of Moore™s views on
the procedures of moral investigation. This Moore embraces an extraor-
dinarily crude version of Robert Sylvester™s a priori method of cognition
of ethical propositions. He holds that all one needs to do is take a quick
moment to “look at” or “inspect” concepts. One then gets to decide with-
out further ado whether or not the simple property good attaches to
them. Upon doing that, one gets to make moral pronouncements ex cathe-
dra. In MacIntyre™s words,

21 22 23
Ibid., pp. 6“8.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. ix. Ibid., p. ix.
90 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

Propositions declaring this or that to be good are what Moore calls ˜intuitions™;
they are incapable of proof or disproof and indeed no evidence or reasoning
whatever can be adduced in their favor or disfavor. Although Moore disclaims any
use of the word ˜intuition™ which might suggest the name of a faculty of intuition
comparable to our power of vision, he none the less does compare good as a
property with yellow as a property in such a way as to make verdicts that a given
state of affairs is or is not good comparable to the simplest judgments of normal
visual perception.24
On this view, Moore™s theory, with its “highly impoverished view of how
˜good™ may be used,” is not merely barren, but irresponsible and perni-
cious. Precious aesthetes ask silly hypothetical questions rather than en-
gage in the serious work of limning the virtues. MacIntyre quotes Keynes
on the kind of empty-headed talk the Bloomsberries engaged in:
˜If A was in love with B and believed that B reciprocated his feelings, whereas in
fact B did not, but was in love with C, the state of affairs was certainly not as good
as it would have been if A had been right, but was it worse or better than it would
become if A discovered his mistake?™ Or again: ˜If A was in love with B under a
misapprehension as to B™s qualities, was this better or worse than A™s not being in
love at all?™25
Since there are no rational procedures for settling such “disagree-
ments” as these, the discussions concerning them degenerate into pos-
turing and browbeating. (With what zest would Nietzsche have railed!)
MacIntyre writes:
How were such questions to be answered? By following Moore™s prescriptions in
precise fashion. Do you or do you not discern the presence or absence of the non-
natural property of good in greater or lesser degree? And what if the two ob-
servers disagree? Then, so the answer went, according to Keynes, either the two
were focusing on different subject matters, without recognizing this, or one had
perceptions superior to the other. But, of course, as Keynes tells us, what was re-
ally happening was something quite other: ˜In practice, victory was with those who
could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and
could best use the accents of infallibility.™26
On MacIntyre™s reading, Moore™s theory immediately precedes the re-
ductio into emotivism of the Enlightenment project of “moral individual-
ism.”27 Upon the exposure of its cognitive bankruptcy, emotivism is seen
to be not Moore™s bastard, but his rightful heir.
We can agree that Principia suffers some impoverishment from Moore™s
failure always to add the detail that would give flesh to his thought. But
this weakness need not be endemic to his work. More likely, it is due to
the fact that he lacked a rich moral imagination “ which may have been
due to his innocence.28 In any case, he saw himself as writing a prole-

24 25 Ibid., pp. 16“17.
Ibid., p. 15.
26 27 Ibid., pp. 14“19.
Ibid., p. 17.
Levy, Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, pp. 11, 135“6, 293. Stuart Hampshire argues that
Moore™s innocence was a theoretical weakness in “Liberator,” p. 39.
the status of ethics 91

gomenon. If we bring to Moore the imaginative expansiveness he lacked,
even the questions about love and illusion Keynes and MacIntyre have
such fun with seem less misbegotten.29 They begin, in fact, to sound like
the stuff of great comedy and tragedy. Upon doing this for Moore, we are
much less likely to think with the noncognitivists that his belief in a cog-
nitive component in the answer to these questions is just an exercise in
delusion or as MacIntyre, borrowing from Nietzsche has it, an exercise in
the will to power.30
We can also grant to critics like MacIntyre that if not as a matter of
logic then of temperament, Moore does not always seem to leave room
for dialectical interplay between one™s original intuitions and the (one
hopes) coherent principles one develops as a result of reflection.31
Moore makes few if any explicit comments about how to achieve “re-
flective equilibrium,” how to settle the disputes sure to occur between
our views on particular matters and our most thoughtful principles. This
is odd, as this is an issue that exercised his great teacher Sidgwick. Again,
perhaps he was overconfident about how neatly things would fall into
place once he had cleared the field of ethics of its rubble. But Moore
does actually provide some guidance on these sorts of issues, as Sylvester
shows.32 Certainly, his actual procedure is not nearly so vapid as the one
upon which MacIntyre pours his scorn. When, for instance, he seeks to
convince that Sidgwick is wrong about pleasure being the only good, he
does not ask us just to “inspect” pleasure and “see” that the proposition
“Pleasure is the sole good” is false. Rather, he makes a distinction in the
philosophy of mind between pleasure and the consciousness of pleasure
and offers a counterexample concerning the goodness of noncognized
beautiful objects. In other words, he argues that Sidgwick™s view does not
cohere with our most considered moral and philosophical judgments.
He provides us with a larger framework for the intuition about beautiful
objects that helps to explain why Sidgwick is wrong and also why he
makes this mistake. Perhaps Moore™s Beautiful World Argument sounds
prissy and unconvincing to the modern reader as Moore presents it. But if
we consider that flesh and blood people actually do worry about pre-
serving parts of the environment they or very few other people will ever
enjoy, it acquires no little poignancy.33 Certainly, Moore does enough
here and elsewhere to show the careful reader that he has paid heed to

If Moore had been more expansive, it is likely that he would not have been able to muster
the bull-dogged focus that he brings to issues in his later work. What Moore points out
about the virtues on p. 166 of Principia is true of philosophy as well. The diversity and
complexity of the subject requires a diversity of talents and a division of labor.
30 After Virtue, p. 22.
31 Baldwin would be another such critic. See G. E. Moore, pp. 68“9.
32 Sylvester, The Moral Philosophy of G. E. Moore, pp. 38“9, 60“9.
33 Butchvarov, Skepticism in Ethics, p. 88.
92 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

his own warning that “We must not . . . look on Intuition, as if it were an
alternative to reasoning.”34
We can then uncover a Moore who allows for a great deal of give-and-
take between opposing positions. Arguments that proceed in a piece-
meal fashion are of lesser moment than those that tie many different
points together. If we are concerned with an individual point of con-
tention, we need to know how various proposals to deal with it fit into
the entire moral landscape. It is not inspection but connection that is
primary. We may surrender a deeply felt intuition if it does not fit into
our always developing conception of the whole of the terrain. We are not
locked forever into our initial prejudices.35 Nevertheless, it must be em-
phasized that people can and do take stands on individual issues of
greater or lesser moment and scope. One person “sees” as a general mat-
ter and in particular cases that individual liberty, being a great intrinsic
good, takes precedence over security concerns while another “sees” that
the benefit of the doubt must be on the side of security. At some point,
moral discussion can and often does break down.36 These claims are
surely not shocking. The thought that there was once and can be again
a golden age when ethical theory provided a framework for generating
comforting solutions to difficult questions is as fatuously nostalgic as any
that nestled in the bosom of Rousseau. Nor does the recognition that
there never was nor ever will be such a time bring strong objectivist ethics
into disrepute. It is not a requirement of ethical objectivism that it make
either ethics or life easy.

34 Principia, p. 144.
This is to disagree again with Hill, who argues in The Ethics of Moore that on Moore™s view,
there can be no changes made in our commonsense moral beliefs as the result of ethi-
cal reflection. See pp. 33“4, 37“40, 74“5, 110, 120, 123“5.
This to register disagreement with another of Hill™s claims in The Ethics of Moore, pp.
123“5, that Moore is committed to holding that there can be no moral disagreements
among people who agree on all the nonmoral facts. In making this claim, Hill forgets
Moore™s warning on p. x of the preface to Principia “that in every way in which it is pos-
sible to cognise a true proposition, it is also possible to cognise a false one.” Interestingly,
Hill anticipates some of MacIntyre™s arguments in these pages, the last of his book.
The Origin of the Awareness of Good
and the Theory of Common Sense

The Origin of Our Awareness of Good
In the first part of this chapter, we examine Moore™s views on the origin
and development of our awareness of good and the way in which that
awareness is connected to action by the will. We will see how Moore is able
to allow that the commonsense awareness of good we bring to philo-
sophical reflection is more provisional than one who only listens to him
at his most stentorian would think possible. Though common sense leaves
us with very strong beliefs about good and the goodness of certain things,
since they are not grounded in sustained reflection, they are jumbled to-
gether and in fact, are likely to be inconsistent. These facts give ethics its
job and the parameters within which to work. Although the beliefs left to
ethics by common sense undergo a great deal of change as they are scru-
tinized, defended or discarded, and systematized, the general picture in
ethics is one of refinement, not revolt: Too much change and we will have
switched the subject. In the chapter™s second part, we flesh out this con-
ception by suggesting avenues of argument Moore incorrectly disallows
himself that show how a commonsense awareness of such natural goods
as health provide a guide to ethical reflection. In doing all of this for
Moore, we make him less revolutionary and more appealing.
The remarks most pertinent to the subject of our awareness of good
and its connection to the will are found in Sections 77“85 in the chapter
“Metaphysical Ethics.” Moore is more concerned in these pages to argue
against certain views than to put forward his own. Perhaps it is for this rea-
son that his remarks are brief and provisional. But whatever the reasons,
it follows that gaps and uncharacteristic hesitancies appear in the state-
ment of his views. Also, what he says there is not always consistent with
what he says elsewhere. So parts of our interpretation and some answers
to important questions will have to be speculative.
The target of Moore™s attack is Kant™s “Copernican revolution.” At the
heart of that revolution is the supposition that the primary task of phi-
losophy is to examine “Cognition, Volition and Feeling . . . three funda-
mentally distinct attitudes of the mind towards reality,” rather than real-
ity itself.1 Kant and his idealist successors make the fatal mistake of

Principia, pp. 129“30.
94 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

“supposing that to ascribe certain predicates to a thing is the same thing
as to say that the thing is the object of a certain kind of psychical state.”2
In epistemology, they make the “very natural, though . . . utterly false sup-
position that for a thing to be true is the same thing as for it to be per-
ceived or thought of in a certain way.”3 In ethics, the relevant psychic
states are considered to be ones of will or feeling. In his discussion of he-
donism, Moore had already dismissed the view that good is to be analyzed
in terms of the feeling of pleasure. So here he focuses on what he calls
“the commonest assumption of Metaphysical Ethics at the present day,”
that good must be analyzed in terms of will. If such a view were correct
then an investigation of the “fundamentally real Will” would yield ethical
conclusions. But because it is not correct, no such investigation is of “the
smallest relevance to the proof of any ethical conclusion.”4
The fundamental mistake of these views stems from their assumption
that “preference” or will, “seems roughly to stand in the same relation to
thinking things good, in which the fact of perception stands to thinking
that they are true or exist. . . .”5 Given this assumption, it is natural to sup-
pose that a thing™s being good is “identical with its being preferred in a
certain way.”6 But the most that could be shown is that our preferring or
willing something in a certain way is a criterion of its goodness “ and is very
unlikely even to be that.7 As the mistake about cognition renders worth-
less “the whole mass of modern literature, to which the revolution has
given rise, and which is called Epistemology;” so does the analogous mis-
take in ethical works keep them “from making the smallest contribution
to the solution of ethical problems.”8
The Open Question Argument fells this entire movement with one
quick stroke: “That the assertion ˜This is good™ is not identical with the as-
sertion ˜This is willed,™ either by a supersensible will or otherwise, nor
with any other proposition has been proved; nor can I add anything to
that proof.”9 But fortunately, Moore does not rely solely on the OQA. He
anticipates and meets two responses to his denial of the identity between
being good and being willed:
(1) It may be maintained that, nevertheless, they really are identical, and facts
may be pointed out which seem to prove that identity. Or else (2) it may be said
that an absolute identity is not maintained: that it is only meant to assert that there
is some special connection between will and goodness, such as makes an enquiry
into the real nature of the former an essential step in the proof of ethical con-
Moore meets the first objection in Section 79 by showing what the possi-
ble connections between the will and goodness are. Although none of
these connections allow for an identity between the two, some of them
2 3 4
Ibid., p. 129. Ibid., p. 133. Ibid. p. 129.
5 6 7 Ibid., pp. 133, 137.
Ibid., p. 133. Ibid.
8 9 10
Ibid., pp. 133, 139. Ibid., p. 129. Ibid., p. 129
the origin of the awareness of good 95

“may easily be confused with the assertion of identity; . . . therefore the
confusion is likely to have been made.” Against the second objection, he
argues, mostly in Sections 83“84, that no connection but that of absolute
identity has the slightest relevance for any ethical conclusion.
Let us now turn to Section 79, the one containing his suggestions about
the origin of our awareness of good. Immediately, the section presents an
interpretive dilemma. On the most literal reading of it, its two paragraphs
contradict each other. We shall first present Moore™s discussion, reveal-
ing the contradiction. We shall then suggest some adjustments to his dis-
cussion that remove it. These adjustments, based on an assumption that
he misspeaks slightly, are rather mild and in the spirit of his summary of
this section, found in Section 82. But it must again be noted that there is
no way of making all of his scattered remarks on the will™s relation to the
perception of good consistent. This is most likely due to the fact that they
are indeed scattered about. Because his main concern always lies else-
where, he does not see fit to work out a detailed view in any one place.
Moore begins by considering the claim that willing (or a certain kind
of feeling) is the source of “philosophical knowledge” of good. Main-
taining the analogy with Theory of Knowledge, one who holds this may
mean the following:
just as, by reflection on our perceptual and sensory experience, we become aware
of the distinction between truth and falsehood, so it is by reflection on our ex-
periences of feeling and willing that we become aware of ethical distinctions. We
should not know what was meant by thinking one thing better than another un-
less the attitude of our will or feeling towards one thing was different from its at-
titude towards another.

According to Moore, this just gives the “psychological fact that it is only
because we will or feel things in a certain way, that we ever come to think
them good; just as it is only because we have certain perceptual experi-
ences, that we ever come to think things true.” This he says is just a “causal
connection “ that willing is a necessary condition for the cognition of
goodness.” Because there is a causal connection between willing and
thinking good, it would seem that there cannot even be a partial identity
between them. If the first is a distinct thing necessary to bring the second
thing into being, the two things must have natures independent of each
But if this is what Moore means by calling the connection causal, he is
inconsistent with what he says in the next paragraph. He begins there by
considering those who say:
further that willing and feeling are not only the origin of the cognitions of good-
ness; but that to will a thing, or to have a certain feeling towards a thing, is the
same thing as to think it good. And it may be admitted that even this is generally
true in a sense. It does seem to be true that we hardly ever think a thing good,
and never very decidedly, without at the same time having a special attitude of
96 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

feeling or will towards it; though it is certainly not the case that this is true uni-
versally. And the converse may possibly be true universally: it may be the case
that a perception of goodness is included in the complex facts which we mean
by willing and by having certain kinds of feeling. Let us admit then, that to think
a thing good and to will it are the same thing in this sense, that wherever the lat-
ter occurs, the former also occurs as a part of it; and even that they are generally
the same thing in the converse sense, that when the former occurs it is generally
a part of the latter.

Even though he begins this paragraph by examining the claim that
there is more to willing than its being the cause of the cognition of good-
ness, it follows from the rest of the paragraph that willing cannot be the
cause of this. Ignoring the qualification which he repeats but nowhere
discusses, he says here that it is possible that thinking something good is
a part of willing it. If there is just one complex, it would seem that the two
parts of it cannot be distinguished from each other as cause and effect.
Or, if there is a causal relation between them, it has been reversed. Rather
than willing being a necessary condition for the cognition of goodness,
as he first had it, he now has it that thinking something good is a neces-
sary condition for willing and certain kinds of feeling.
The way out of the exegetical dilemma is to realize that without being
fully explicit about it, Moore is speaking in the two different paragraphs
of two different stages of moral awareness. In the first stage of awareness,
which is his topic in the first paragraph, we will without any (explicit)
thought of good; willing is the cause of our ever coming to think certain
things good. As we mature, reflection on our acts of willing creates in us
a general awareness of good; we then reach the second stage in our voli-
tional life, discussed in the second paragraph. In this stage, a thought of
good does become a “part” of willing. A general connection is set up be-
tween the will and a thought of good such that a thought that a thing is
good precedes and leads to our willing it. So by the lights of this discus-
sion, some version of what we may call the Socratic theory of the will, ac-
cording to which we will what we think to be good, can be false originally,
but becomes generally true upon the attainment of a certain level of ma-
turity and awareness. (Once again, Moore nowhere explains the nature
of the exceptions. This is one very important reason why we can only spec-
ulate about what his fully developed theory would look like.)
This interpretation of the history of the connection of the will to the
cognition of good is consistent with Moore™s summary of his position,
found in Section 82. There are two important points he wishes to em-
phasize there. The first, which we now see to hold for the first stage, is
“that it is only because certain things were originally willed, that we ever
came to have ethical convictions at all.” The second, which is about the
second stage, is this: “It may be further maintained, with some plausibil-
ity, that to think a thing good and to will it in a certain way are now as a
the origin of the awareness of good 97

matter of fact identical.” Still, Moore insists that no matter how close that
connection between the thought of good and the will becomes in the sec-
ond stage, “the two things are not, in the strict sense, identical.” This is
because there remains a distinctly noncognitive, volitional element in
willing. We are now in a position to explain the fundamental error of
the metaphysical philosophers who define good in terms of the will. Not
going back far enough in time to the point before which the will was fully
mature, they fail to distill from it that distinct element, the thought of
good, that is not only logically separate but at one time actually was sepa-
rate from volition.
Any interpretation of Moore on the issue of the connection between the
thought of good and the will must be made with great humility, however.
There are formidable difficulties to be found within these few sections
alone. Let us consider sentences from Sections 79 and 82, respectively. In
Section 79, he writes, “It does seem to be true that we hardly ever think a
thing good, and never very decidedly, without at the same time having a
special attitude of will or feeling towards it; though it is certainly not the
case that this is true universally.” The first thing to note is that Moore re-
peats his denial that the connection between thinking good and willing is
universal even in the second stage, but is silent again about what prevents
or breaks it. Nor does he say what it is “decidedly” to think that a thing is
good. Does this just mean that one is very confident that a thing is good
or does it suggest something more reflective, a self-conscious and carefully
wrought decision that something is good? This does not seem likely, as our
most carefully thought-out decisions are often the ones we are the least
confident about. Most people are not so strong and confident in their own
judgment that they are always inclined to follow through on their most
considered, most difficult, decisions about what is good or best.
Moore is also silent about what it is to have a special attitude of will or
feeling. Does “special” here just mean positive or does it refer to some-
thing more unique? If he is speaking of something more unique, his view
is greatly qualified. The connection hardly ever breaks down within a spe-
cial, limited class. And how much of a qualification to the stipulation of
a connection between the thought of good and an act of will is brought
about by the addition of the phrase “or feeling”? Are they just feelings or
do they also contain a conative element? If there is a conative element,
would the importance not then lie in it rather than in the feeling? If they
do contain a conative element, what prevents them at times from issuing
in action? If there are just feelings, do they necessarily lead to action if they
reach a certain strength? How much would that possibility weaken the
connection between the thought of good and the will? What importance
would these feelings have if they do not lead to action?
Similar questions arise for this sentence from Section 82: “It may be ad-
mitted that when we think a thing good, we generally have a special atti-
98 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

tude of will or feeling towards it; and that, perhaps, when we will it in a
certain way, we do always think it good.” If there is an airtight connection
between only a certain kind of willing and a thought of good, the Socratic
element of the theory is in danger of being so qualified as to be nullified.
And how are we to characterize this kind of willing independently of its
issuing in action? Is Moore in danger of giving a tautology the status of a
profundity, saying that when we will something in a certain way “ the way
following upon a perception of its goodness “ we do always think it good?
These sentences show Moore to be uncharacteristically hesitant in stat-
ing his views on these matters. No doubt it is a difficult subject about
which we need to tread very lightly.
We must also recognize that at least one passage in another part of Prin-
cipia cannot be made consistent with the view he suggests here. In a dis-
cussion whose conclusion is that the virtues lack intrinsic value, Moore
writes, “There is no doubt that a man™s character may be such that he ha-
bitually performs certain duties, without the thought ever occurring to
him, when we wills them, either that they are duties or that any good will
result from them.”11 He says that these actions are “like many of the op-
erations performed in the putting on of clothes.” The best way to deal
with this passage is to argue that he fails to see to the bottom of the situ-
ations he is describing. Because “a great economy of labour is effected
when a useful action becomes habitual or instinctive,” the virtuous per-
son learns not to have to rehearse to himself, before he performs the ac-
tion, the good it brings about. Still, if he is asked why he performs these
actions, he can easily cite that good. To use Moore™s own example, for
reasons of health, sexual comportment, and aesthetics, it is quite easy to
explain the good that comes about from the putting on of clothes. In fact,
one of the reasons such actions become habitual is that the good they ef-
fect is so obvious.
Putting aside the qualifications and dealing with the contradictory pas-
sage, we have the following model for the natural history of the connec-
tion between the will and the cognition of good. At first, we just pursue,
“make for,” the things we want. Given what he says in his discussion of psy-
chological egoism, Moore could say that originally, we just pursue those
things the thought of which create a pleasure in us. We pursue them with-
out any thought about receiving pleasure from them, let alone any
thought that they are good.12 Becoming more reflective as we grow up,
we begin to take account of the following facts, which have not yet be-
come truisms. Sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we do not;
sometimes getting what we want satisfies us and sometimes it does not.
Some things we desire for ourselves and some we desire for others; some
things, perhaps, we want for no one in particular. We also notice that

11 12
Ibid., p. 175. Ibid., pp. 69ff.
the origin of the awareness of good 99

other people have desires that can either be aligned with or clash with
ours, and that different desires we have may clash. In short, we realize that
we need to make many distinctions about our desires and the actions we
take in their service if we are to get about in the world.
At the same time that we are learning to make these distinctions, we
also learn to judge things from the point of view of others. Finally, we be-
gin to develop the ability, quite limited in most of us, to make decisions
from an impartial point of view, what Sidgwick calls the “point of view of
the Universe.” At a certain level of moral and intellectual maturity, we re-
alize the need for an overarching distinction, that between good and bad,
to provide a completely satisfactory schema that not only classifies but
guides the actions we and others perform. Because we have not yet (fully)
discovered the property good, we cannot articulate to ourselves what ex-
actly we are looking for. But the observations and distinctions we have al-
ready made give us some sense of what we need. They encourage us to
look to a less immediately personal, more abstract level than we have hith-
erto used; we begin to move into the realm of the nonnatural. At first,
perhaps we just postulate that there are the properties good and bad that
make the ends of actions more or less reasonable. Perhaps it is only after
postulating good that we come fully to “observe” it in particulars, al-
though it is likely that moments of recognition of good have guided our
journey into maturity. Having in some sense observed good, we now be-
gin to act in ways we consider to be in accord with it.
Although the description of the growth of our awareness of good has
been put in individualistic terms, much of it is as a result of training by
those who raise us and the culture at large. This training is neither very
orderly nor intellectual, but is more in the way of “propaganda.” Its pri-
mary purpose is not to get us to observe a property or to accept a theory
on intellectual grounds, but to get us to behave in certain ways. Most im-
portant for this task is its getting us to assume in some small degree a
standpoint of impartiality. Although this is perhaps most successful if
there is some intellectual component to the training, if we get some
glimpse, however fleeting, of the property that is to guide our action, it
is not necessary that we see good isolated from all else (even assuming it
can be so isolated) in order to reach the requisite level of impartiality. As
far as we can tell, the reach of the vast majority of our actions is quite lim-
ited. Thus it is usually enough, safer even, just to focus on a good that is
near to one and engaging than on a more distant greater good that is not
so immediately engaging. So our everyday awareness of good can be “self-
ish” to some degree, tangled up in our own individual desires. To antici-
pate, this can help Moore explain why the realization of ethical egoism™s
contradictoriness has been so long in coming.13 The limited contact that

Ibid., pp. 97ff.
100 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

develops in the ordinary course of life between the will and the cognition
of good by no means guarantees our achieving a fully reflective, philo-
sophical understanding of value.
This general theory must face the question, When do we become aware
of the properties good and bad? Two different answers can be given to
this question. As Moore states the position in Section 79, we are not even
unreflectively or subconsciously aware of good when we will originally.
We rather achieve an awareness of good at some unspecified point in
time. Surely, it is not a matter of our waking up one day and finding our-
selves aware of the property; the awareness dawns on us gradually. As chil-
dren, we may have a deep awareness of the goodness of cookies while be-
ing blissfully unaware of the goodness of tact. The second answer is that
we have always at some level been aware of the property good, have had
an innate idea of it. Willing is then a cause of our recognition that we al-
ready think things good, not of our actually thinking them so. To mature
is to become self-conscious about what we have already been conscious
of. This view requires that we make nondrastic changes in three sentences
of Section 79. The sentence beginning with “But so far” must have the
ending of its first part changed to “it is only because we will or feel things
in a certain way, that we ever come to recognize that we think them good.”
We change the end of the last sentence to “that willing is a necessary con-
dition for the recognition of the cognition of goodness” and make a similar
change in the first sentence of the second paragraph.
Our reading of Moore™s view on the relation between perception and
truth varies according to the two different possibilities on the time when
we become aware of good. According to the first interpretation, we orig-
inally perceive without having any awareness at all of the properties truth
and falsity. Our perceptions leave us with expectations and beliefs, some
of which are met and some of which are not. In order to explain this most
important difference, we postulate that there are the properties truth and
falsity. It is only after we have come to feel the theoretical need for these
properties that we look for and discover them. On the second interpre-
tation, we read the comparison in this manner: Insofar as we instinctively
trust our perceptions, we already think them true, even though we are not
explicitly aware of ourselves as using the concept truth. Reflection on the
fact that perceptual experiences sometimes guide us correctly and some-
times mislead us makes us explicitly aware of the properties of truth and
falsity we have already been calling upon.
One might use features common to goodness and truth to support the
first interpretation. Since these properties are insubstantial and atempo-
ral, it likely takes a certain amount of conceptual sophistication on our
part even to be subconsciously aware of them. Since goodness and truth
are logically independent of the properties that make a thing good or
true, we can think of those properties without in any way thinking of their
the origin of the awareness of good 101

goodness or truth. Others might find those who hold this view to be guilty
of failing to distinguish between consciousness and self-consciousness.
Despite the fact that it does not know that this is what it thinks, even a fox
thinks that it is true that there is a chicken about and that it will make good
eating. Some might object to this view as being too Kantian in spirit. It
makes the deepening of our moral awareness a matter of uncovering a
priori modes of thought “ just the sort of view Moore is opposing here.
If we think of ourselves as having such an a priori awareness of good, it
becomes too tempting to say that good is a category of the understand-
ing we “impose” upon the world, and that we must look to ourselves
rather than to the world for enlightenment. But as difficult as it might be
on this account not to fall into it, one need not fall into the trap of con-
flating good with our awareness of it, just as, assuming the same sort of
view to be true for mathematical consciousness, one need not deny her-
self the right to think about numbers themselves rather than her innate
awareness of them.
There may be a very important general philosophical reason for hold-
ing the second view, despite its difficulties. For the purposes of providing
a unified philosophical account, one might find it necessary to embrace
a Socratic theory of the will for the entirety of our lives and for all con-
scious beings. One might hold that such a universal law must be invoked
in order to account for the action-guiding character of good. It becomes
difficult or impossible to account for the fact that we generally will in ac-
cord with our perception of good if we do not become aware of good un-
til we are some years along in life. Without explicitly realizing it, we must
have felt the tug of goodness all along if we are ever to be self-consciously
guided by it. Why else does our late self-conscious discovery of it come to
engage us so deeply? Turning to a question that is crucial to Moore, why,
unless we already have some implicit awareness of good, would he con-
sider us to be able to recognize so immediately that ethical accounts in
terms of other properties are lacking?
Before moving to a discussion of our awareness of good and its growth,
let us take one more look behind. The point we have labored long to
make “ that Moore is mistaken in thinking that we have a deep and in-
eradicable awareness of the simplicity, indefinability, and nonnaturalness
of good that somehow we lose sight of when we philosophize “ holds on
either of these versions of the history of the development of our ethical
awareness. In order to be attracted by good and get about in everyday life,
we do not need to have a conception of it of such a clarity that we can
simply see it to be simple, indefinable, and nonnatural. Again, we are able
to see the naturalistic fallacy in a new light, one making the errors of ear-
lier philosophers much more reasonable. On neither version does the fal-
lacy consist of philosophers making the bizarre error of conflating two
properties they have already recognized to be distinct. Rather, the fallacy
102 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

follows from the fact that philosophers have just never completed the dif-
ficult conceptual investigation that is necessary for seeing that good is ut-
terly distinct from such properties as being pleasurable or desired or
willed. Philosophers fail to see that any property other than good will fail
to ground a complete ethical system. Because there is a great deal that one
can do without being complete, we can still treat the efforts of earlier
philosophers with respect. What Moore thinks he can establish at the be-
ginning of his investigation can only be established at the end.
But at the same time that we see how our commonsense awareness of
good is provisional, we also see that by the time we come to perform
more distinctly philosophical reflection, we have a vast store of material
upon which to work. We inherit from our elders an elaborate, if disor-
derly, casuistical system and theoretical understanding of good before
we ever begin self-consciously to philosophize. The very richness of our
commonsense moral awareness makes for the philosophical difficulties
Moore so pitilessly dissects. There is much that must be gotten right and
many ways to go wrong even before we can begin to clothe our thought
in reflective philosophical dress. Many conflicting intuitions need to be
made consistent, requiring detailed examination of the ethical concepts
of everyday life. The thoughtful nonphilosopher must work very hard to
achieve reflective equilibrium! Moore offers a couple of very valuable
tools to help us achieve a more deeply satisfying state of equilibrium, the
isolation test and the doctrine of organic unities. Many confusions will
be ameliorated by their judicious application, more perhaps than will be
ameliorated by rigorously following his strictures against committing the
naturalistic fallacy.

Saving Common Sense
Having some sense of how one™s unrefined moral awareness is shaped
during maturation by humanity™s common understanding of good and
bad, we now have the resources to deal with the second stage of Alasdair
MacIntyre™s argument against Moorean ethical theory. MacIntyre sees in
Moore the culmination of a movement that opposes all appeals to tradi-
tion, whether by philosophical theory or common sense. On MacIntyre™s
view, Moore™s is a radically individualist theory making each of us her own
supreme moral judge. We each decide “for ourselves” what things are
good and bad.14 MacIntyre has it that in order that our moral opinions
be “our own,” Moore finally requires us to turn our backs on common moral
opinion, as well as on previous philosophical attempts to articulate the
moral notions. This dismissal of tradition in the shaping of moral thought

As we saw in the introduction, Regan has similar views about Moore on these matters,
but unlike MacIntyre, he approves of them.
the origin of the awareness of good 103

carries a steep price. MacIntyre seems to suggest that by appealing to pu-
tatively universal intuitions that are yet inherently of the individual,
Moore merely enshrines the views of his own class, the “aesthetic rich,”
as the views correct for all times and places. By refusing to make a place
in ethics for sociology and history, Moore manages the well-nigh impos-
sible feat of joining nihilism to a stultifying provincialism.
We have already argued in Chapter 4 that a Moore who is more gen-
erous to the distinctly philosophical tradition can be brought to life and
have also seen how often he appeals to common sense. There are other
places in Principia in conflict with this portrait of one who is a foe of all
tradition. He offers a sketchy but interesting account of the different ob-
ligations the individual has toward different kinds of societal rules that
we shall argue is very respectful of tradition.15 On the penultimate page
of Principia, he says that though his results may seem strange to philoso-
phers, they will not appear so to common sense. Still, it must be admit-
ted that in one place in Principia, he seems to hold that commonsense
moral thought is beset by errors so profound as to require its complete
abandonment. If we cannot soften or even eliminate this particular ar-
gument of his, not only will MacIntyre be right about the radical nihilism
of Moore™s ethics, it will be that Moore™s thought is in its own terms deeply
and obviously incoherent. There will be no sound, if inarticulate, judg-
ment for him to return us to upon his exposure of the distinctly philo-
sophical mistakes of the past. But if we can excise this radical argument,
we will not only save, but improve upon Moore™s ethical theory. We will
be able to present a Moore whose eyes are opened wider to the fact that
there are many more intrinsic goods and a much richer interplay be-
tween them than he officially allows for in his “Ideal,” a Moore who can
make better on his claim that the ideal contains many goods of vast com-
plexity and who can show more convincingly that we have a deep native
awareness of this vast realm of good.
If he had not brought forward his questionable argument, Moore
might also have achieved a deeper insight into the methodology of the
validation of common moral insight. He might have seen more clearly
how our original, instinctive knowledge of the goodness of certain com-
plex wholes guides us in our analysis of these complexes as well as in our
attainment of a richer awareness of good. In many cases, we know
prephilosophically that a certain complex is good, even though we do not
know what exactly the complex in question is or, for that matter, what
good is. We use our knowledge of the goodness of such complexes to help
ourselves to a more exact philosophical knowledge of them and good.
The operating thought is that the analyses of such ordinary notions as
health and happiness must have it that they are good. Any analysis deny-

The argument is found in Chapter 8.
104 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

ing the goodness of these things may be dismissed out of hand. This pro-
vides the most convincing demonstration of the place of common sense
in ethics. Most of ethics lies in the sharpening of insights whose origins
are in our ordinary awareness of good and bad.
The argument, the more reasonable portions of which come unac-
knowledged from Sidgwick, forbidding this line of thought begins in Sec-
tion 27 of Principia.16 Its conclusion is a denial that we can have knowl-
edge of a nontautologous proposition that health is good, but his
introductory remarks show that he considers it to apply to all approaches
that “point to a vague notion that there is some such thing as natural
good; to a belief that Nature may be said to fix and decide what shall be
good, just as she fixes and decides what shall exist.” He denies the fol-
lowing supposition: “that ˜health™ is susceptible of a natural definition,
that Nature has fixed what health shall be: and health, it may be said is
obviously good; hence in this case Nature has decided the matter . . .”
Such an appeal to nature annuls the logical autonomy of ethics. It makes
it the case that “we have only to go to her and ask her what health is, and
we shall know what is good: we shall have based an ethics upon science.”17
Moore says that originally, such a proposition as “Health is good” is
empty because originally “health” just means a certain natural complex
that is good. Later, when it comes to mean a different complex, the
proposition is false. He writes:
It may be true, indeed, that by ˜healthy™ we do commonly imply ˜good™; but that
only shews that when we so use the word, we do not mean the same thing by it as
the thing which is meant in medical science. That health, when the word is used
to denote something good, is good, goes no way at all to shew that health, when
the word is used to denote [what he claims is the scientific definition!] something
normal, is also good.18
Thus according to Moore, anyone who proceeds by trying to refine our
rough-and-ready evaluative concepts in the manner we have suggested,
who tries to use their goodness to pin them down more firmly for analy-
sis, is guilty of equivocating: “We might just as well say that, because; bull™
denotes an Irish joke and also a certain animal, the joke and the animal
must be the same thing.”
In this discussion, Moore turns the defense of common sense we have
suggested on its head. If we are wrong about the goodness of health, what
are we ever going to be right about? More generally and more deeply, on
the matter of the methodology of analysis, by Moore™s lights there is lit-
tle or no possibility of our being able to start with a somewhat imprecise
understanding of a complex and refining it as we go along so that our
judgment continues to be about the same thing. “Refinement” leads
rather to the judgment™s being about something else entirely. This calls

16 17 18
See Methods, pp. 80“3. Principia, p. 42. Ibid., p. 43.
the origin of the awareness of good 105

into being an extremely revolutionary methodological principle that
clashes with his own optimism about the prospects for philosophical
progress. New discoveries cannot build upon and add to old ones, but
can only overthrow them.
If this dismissal of common sense is right, then the profound impasse
MacIntyre considers to beset the moral thought of this particular age per-
vades moral understanding at all times. MacIntyre fears that all that is
available to the moral understanding of this age are bits of flotsam from
previous competing traditions and ethoses. Upon their detachment from
the larger social contexts that gave them life, they have become not merely
anachronistic, but unintelligible to us. The problem bringing one nearly
to despair is that the different traditions from which they have come are
incommensurable with each other. Hence we cannot construct a new and
coherent large-scale theory by a reenlivening historical synthesis of the dif-
ferent traditions. “Dialogue” between proponents of these incommensu-
rable and now inadequate theories creates rancorous gibberish instead of
consensus. But by the lights of Principia™s Section 27, the impasse would
be even more extreme than this. It would have it that this is how things are
for each individual person. One™s own previous opinions are not built upon
but razed, with the rubble providing the materials for later futile efforts at
construction. Presumably, since one will not fully realize that the different
stages of understanding she has reached are incommensurable with each
other, the moral code of each individual will consist of “a series of frag-
mented survivals” from her own past. Each person talks past herself!
Even though it seems to take only a few childhood bouts with illness to
grasp the very important distinction between health and sickness and
their respective values, Moore holds that our thought that there is such
a good as health is the product of hallucination. He does not tell us where
we get such a profoundly misguided idea or how we can continue to have
any confidence in our everyday judgments upon the exposure of its
emptiness. Obviously, this claim is very much at odds with the confidence
he expresses in the reliability of our ordinary judgments in other places.
It is certainly in striking opposition to his claim that when many people
profess to find beauty in something, they are likely to be right.19 Despite
his appeals to the initial superiority of common sense to philosophy,
Moore now has us at sea when it comes to the commonsense awareness
of value. This radical conclusion might have given him pause about the
standing of his own judgments of intrinsic value. How can he be so sure,
for example, that his conclusions about the goodness of friendship and
aesthetic appreciation would survive his becoming a theist?20

Ibid., pp. 200“201.
Ibid., pp. 195“8. Also, see Chapter 9 for a discussion of Moore on friendship and reli-
106 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

It seems that Moore is unaware of just how radical an argument he is
offering in these pages. He lifts most of the argument verbatim from The
Elements of Ethics, which ends with the extremely conservative defense of
common sense we noted in Chapter 3.21 If he had fully understood this
argument™s implication that there is no possibility of our having any na-
tive awareness of natural goods, he could not have been any more san-
guine in that work about common sense than he was about philosophi-
cal theory. His remark near the end of the long passage we subsequently
quote, “But it does not follow, except by virtue of the naturalistic fallacy,
that those things, commonly thought good, are therefore bad,” might
suggest that he takes his argument to be iconoclastic concerning theory
but anti-iconoclastic concerning common sense. To support the claim
that he let himself go too far in this discussion, we note that it occurs at
the very beginning of his critical history of ethical theory. Having grand
revolutionary designs upon that subject, he starts with the most grandiose
of proclamations: Everybody has been wrong about everything.
We can begin the task of rescuing Moore from his disastrous argument
by pointing out that he just cannot be right in thinking that the ordinary
person and the doctor do not mean the same thing when they talk of
health. Grant that when a lay person speaks of health, he does not have
exactly in mind the doctor™s much more precise understanding of it. But
if the doctor is not just refining, but actually replacing the lay notion, we
cannot make sense of the communication between doctors and patients.
It would then be the case that when a doctor gives a patient the news that
he is healthy, they only appear to understand it in the same way. Their both
considering it to be good news would then be an incredible coincidence.
In actuality, doctors are in a position no different from zoologists who talk
to the laity about horses or sociologists who discuss friendship. Although
the ordinary person defers to these experts on what the details of these
complexes are, the experts are still responsible to the ordinary notions as
they go about refining them.22 This point goes back at least as far as the
Republic. Remember Plato™s concern at the end of Book IV to assure the
reader that his account of justice is in accord with the everyday under-
standing of it.23
Immediately preceding the passage about equivocation quoted previ-
ously, Moore writes:
But what is this natural definition of health? I can only conceive that health
should be defined in natural terms as the normal state of an organism; for un-
doubtedly disease is also a natural product. . . . When therefore we are told that
health is natural, we may presume that what is meant is that it is normal; and that

Elements, pp. 31“3.
Field argues on pp. 85“7 of “The Place of Definition in Ethics” that the ethicist has even
less leeway than the scientist in offering definitional revisions.
23 Plato, Republic, 442e“3b.
the origin of the awareness of good 107

when we are told to pursue health as a natural end, what is implied is that the nor-
mal must be good. But is it so obvious that the normal must be good? Is it really
obvious that health, for instance, is good? Was the excellence of Socrates or of
Shakespeare normal? Was it not rather abnormal, extraordinary? . . . Yet it may
be said that nevertheless the normal is good; and I myself am not prepared to dis-
pute that health is good. What I contend is that this must not be taken to be ob-
vious; that it must be regarded as an open question. To declare it to be obvious is
to suggest the naturalistic fallacy: just as, in some recent books, a proof that ge-
nius is diseased, abnormal, has been used in order to suggest that genius ought
not to be encouraged. Such reasoning is fallacious, and dangerously fallacious.
The fact is that in the very words ˜health™ and ˜disease™ we do commonly include
the notion that the one is good, and the other bad. But, when a so-called scien-
tific definition of them is attempted, a definition in natural terms, the only one
possible is that by way of ˜normal™ and ˜abnormal.™ Now, it is easy to prove that
some things commonly thought excellent are abnormal; and it follows that they
are diseased. But it does not follow, except by virtue of the naturalistic fallacy, that
those things, commonly thought good, are therefore bad. All that has really been
shewn is that in some cases there is a conflict between the common judgment that
genius is good, and the common judgment that health is good. It is not suffi-
ciently recognised that the latter judgment has not a whit more warrant for its
truth than the former; that both are perfectly open questions.
In this passage, Moore runs together many problematic claims that we
shall consider in turn. To begin, it only takes a moment™s reflection to see
the falsity of his claim that the only plausible candidate for a scientific def-
inition of health is of that which is normal. Such a definition prevents us
from saying what we would sometimes need to say, that most of the mem-
bers of a certain group are or were unhealthy. In making meaningful
statements unutterable, Moore commits the equivalent of the naturalistic
fallacy on the complex natural property health. He accepts this inade-
quate definition of health because he thinks that the only other candi-
date for it is of that which is natural. He finds this definition to fall by the
wayside because disease is also natural.
It is certainly useful to note that because the word “natural” is slippery,
it is open to a great deal of abuse and must be used with extreme care “
Moore himself is not wholly innocent on this count. But he fails to con-
sider that because of the different senses “natural” has and because of the
different things it can be applied to, there can be definitions of both
health and disease in terms of what is natural, in different senses of the
term. With a modicum of care, the different senses can be sorted out with
the conclusions being nothing very shocking. In one sense of the term,
for a single organism to be healthy is for it to develop in accord with the
standard set by the laws of development for members of its species. It is
for it to flourish, to reach its potential, to fulfill its telos. To be diseased is
to be impeded in this development. In this sense, health is natural and
disease unnatural. From larger perspectives, where we consider what is
natural for an entire species or some larger unit, including nature as a
whole, it is perfectly natural that some individuals be healthy and others
108 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

be unhealthy. For reasons of increasing the diversity of the gene pool, it
might be healthier for the entire species that some individuals be un-
healthy. We can grant Moore™s point that in this sense of “natural,” disease
is also natural, while denying that this precludes a definition of health for
an individual in terms of what is natural in the other sense. If a definition
of health in terms of what is natural equivocates, so does a definition of it
in terms of what is normal, as normality is similarly relative.
In “The Conception of Intrinsic Value,” Moore expresses more clearly
than he does here the fear that the sorts of views he is discussing jeop-
ardize the possibility of a thing™s intrinsic value being fixed solely by its
own nature rather than by its relations to other things. Since it is possible
for the laws of nature to be different from what they in fact are, it is pos-
sible for something that is healthy by the actual laws of nature not to be
so. Thus the conclusion that the state of its health cannot be an intrinsic
natural property of a thing. To allay this worry, we note that the property
of being healthy is similar to the property of being true that we discussed
in Chapter 2. As its truth is a “part” of a belief without the facts that make
it true being a part of it, so is its health a “part” of an organism without
the external facts upon which its health depends being a part of it. So it
is possible for the state of its health to be an intrinsic natural property of
an organism.
Moore also rejects the claim that we know health to be good because
he thinks that it commits us to the view that nothing unhealthy, or ab-
normal, can be good. Thus his rhetorical question about the excellence
of Socrates and Shakespeare. But a number of points can be made that
allow one to ward off this unpalatable consequence. First, one is com-
mitted only to the claim that health is a good among possibly many other
and greater goods. Moore thinks that the view he is opposing forces one
to “hold that there is only one kind of fact, of which the existence has any
value at all,” that there is a “sole good.” He seems to think that the ac-
ceptance of natural goods requires one to define good in terms of one of
them! If this is so, then this is the only place in Principia where he un-
derestimates the importance of his discovery of the naturalistic fallacy.
Even if many philosophers, including the ones he proceeds to attack,
have made this particular error, his exposure of the fallacy should have
enabled him to see how it is possible for others to follow his strictures
against it, while also showing how our natural awareness of many goods
such as health provides the foundation for our more sophisticated value
Moore also fails to see how his own doctrine of organic unities can save
one from the unpalatable conclusion that an unhealthy Shakespeare writ-
ing his plays is not good. Even though Shakespeare™s being diseased is
bad, the larger whole of a diseased Shakespeare writing his plays is far bet-
ter than the whole consisting of a healthy Shakespeare not writing
the origin of the awareness of good 109

them.24 Curiously, he also ignores what can be done with the distinction
between ends and means. Shakespeare™s being diseased would have been
bad as an end, but good as a means to his writing his great work. Perhaps
even more surprisingly, he fails to remember that it is his own view that
it can be both obvious and an open question that something is good. At the
heart of his work is the distinction between a platitude and a tautology,
which those who try to define good confuse.
It is also odd that Moore objects to the claim that “Nature may be said
to fix and decide what shall be good.” His entire approach seems to re-
quire that in some sense Nature does “fix” what is valuable. Value is part
of the “natural order” and we must be guided by it. It is not an arbitrary
“decision” by nature that health is good. As is made clear in Section 30,
the “modern vogue of ˜Evolution™” feeds Moore™s recurring fear that any
concession at all to biology or any other science as being relevant to ca-
suistry will lead to its taking it over completely. But rather than stand our
ordinary notions of good and bad on their head, biology is in service to
them. We already know before we ask about its details that health is a
good. We use our knowledge of its goodness to characterize it more pre-
cisely. Without knowing the details of health, we can all usually distin-
guish, usually by nothing more than their look, healthy plants and ani-
mals from unhealthy ones. We certainly know, from the time we are
children, when we “feel good” and when we do not. The sophisticated re-
flections of the scientist remain comfortable in these humble abodes. If
there is subsumption of one science by another, ethics subsumes biology,
the science of the great good of life.
This last point also speaks to the fear that any appeal to evolution must
make us fatalistic and close minded. Many fear to this day that since there
is a sense according to which everything happens in accord with nature,
views taking evolution seriously force the conclusion that “Whatever
evolves, is right.” But our sense of what is good and bad in nature need
not be so strongly tied to the contingent course of evolution. It is certainly
possible for a species to deteriorate over time and for us to think that this
has happened and is bad. Those who presently fear the course of the evo-
lution of the environment do not thereby abandon evolutionary theory.
It is also not the case that we are somehow locked in completely by our
original views about what health and natural goodness are. In the face of
experience, we can decide that a definition is inadequate and change it
as well as any other view we happen to hold. Small changes in definition
do not make for equivocation. If there is a danger of equivocation when
definitions undergo such change, it plagues all inquiry.
Moore wishes to oppose any view that has the proposition “Health is

24 Butchvarov, Skepticism in Ethics, p. 15. Butchvarov speaks of an unhappy Wittgenstein
rather than a diseased Shakespeare.
110 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

good” or any other proposition containing good as being analytic. At
the beginning of inquiry, an answer to the question “What is the good
of health?,” being rather general, vague, and uninformative, does come
close to being analytic. But even at its vaguest, the proposition that health
is good must have health be the good that has to do with one™s living a
long and vigorous life, being physically comfortable, and so on. So there
is never a time when “Health is good” just means “That which is good, is
good.” Although our opinions will change as we advance in our study, it
is hard to envisage our changing our understanding of health to such an
extent that we decide that it is not, after all, something good.
Moore should not object to a procedure that starts by decreeing health
to be good and then uses its goodness to keep it pinned down for further
study. He would have to do the same with friendship were he to go into
more detail in his discussion of it. We have already noted that he leaves
himself open to the charge that he makes it a tautology that friendship is
good. He holds friendship to be similar to aesthetic appreciation but with
an additional element: “the object [that is being appreciated, the friend]
must be not only truly beautiful, but also truly good in a high degree.” To
give a nontautologous account of this good, he must say what the features
are that make an “object” “ a person “ truly beautiful and truly good.
Without this, the statement that friendship is good is completely unin-
formative: “Those relations between good people that are good, are
good.” What he can say is that originally, almost all that we know ourselves
to mean by friendship is that many of its instances are complexes involv-
ing good personal relationships. However far we go in our study of friend-
ship, we never leave this thought behind.
Even while acknowledging the possibility of there being bad kinds of
friendship, it remains a part of our human heritage to feel quite strongly
that friendship is a natural social good. Young children who suffer the
misfortune of being in the care of adults with sordid personal relation-
ships realize that they are being cheated and yearn for decent personal
relationships around which they can center their lives. Our concern then
is to uncover those natural social kinds, to formulate nontautologous true
propositions of the form “Personal relations having conditions X, Y, and
Z instantiate a kind of friendship that is good.” Quite likely, one of the
conditions of a kind of friendship™s being good is that the relations com-
prising it be healthful and the result of and conducive to virtuous behav-
ior. Thus the reason that our understanding of greater goods is depen-
dent on our understanding of lesser goods is that the very natures of the
greater goods are dependent to some extent on the lesser goods. The
greater goods are organic unities having lesser ones as parts.
If this discussion has been well taken, we can make Moore much more
consistently friendly to common sense than his own discussion would in-
dicate. We can thus allow the flexible, democratic, and generous Moore
the origin of the awareness of good 111

who lurks in Principia™s shadows to come out further onto center stage.
This Moore is open to the insights of previous philosophers and ordinary
persons alike. However deeply mistaken in detail were earlier naturalist
philosophers, even they had focused on a part of the world having real
value. The judgments of humble people about certain humble values are
also vindicated. Although it may pale in the face of great art and the
friendship of the high-minded, there is much to be said for “enjoying and
appreciating the lesser goods which do and will exist.”25 Life is worth liv-
ing not just for the happy few. The limitations of Moore™s personal moral
insight need not plague his overall theory.26 When we separate Moore™s
theory from the limited and fallible statement and application of it in
Principia, fill in some of its details, remembering that after all he consid-
ered it to be a prolegomenon,27 we find it to be very rich indeed. We also
find it to be more down to earth than earthshaking. This all adds a most
attractive conservative flavor to his theory.

25 Principia, p. 195.
26 In Essays and Sketches, p. 254, Keynes, who admired Moore greatly and defended his over-
all ethical conception, writes that “there are many objects of valuable contemplation and
communion beyond those we knew of” from Principia.
27 Principia, p. ix.
Moore™s Argument Against Egoism

In the next two chapters, we discuss Moore™s argument against ethical
egoism “ the view that each person ought only to be concerned with and
pursue his or her “own” good. This is his one argument that makes Moore
incontestably revolutionary not just against philosophy, but also common
sense. He argues not merely that ethical egoism is wrong, but that it is ir-
rational “ egoists contradict themselves when they try to state their view.
From this the conclusion follows, despite Moore™s efforts to avoid it, that
the distinction enshrined by common sense between one™s interests and
the interests of others, between goods that affect oneself and others that
do not, is illusory. The changes in the understanding of ourselves and our
fellows wrought by recognition of this fact are so momentous that what
remains seems hardly human.
In the first part of this chapter, we examine assumptions about the na-
ture of the self that lurk in the background of Moore™s argument against
egoism. In the second part, we first consider how his presentation of his
argument against egoism sheds further light on the tension between his
conservative and his revolutionary impulses, and then examine and eval-
uate the argument. In the third, we consider more exactly what his argu-
ment commits him to by examining his critique of Sidgwick™s view that
egoism is rational. In the first part of Chapter 7, we explore his attempt
in his critique of Sidgwick to explain and weaken the psychological hold
that egoism has on us. In the second part, we do two things. First, we ex-
amine more exactly the features of human life his argument threatens.
Second, we look at his explication, in a later section of Principia, of a no-
tion of self-interest that, if successful, would weaken the revolutionary
force of his argument. We argue that because that explication does not
stand up, the force of his argument remains extreme.

Against a Metaphysical Self
Let us turn now to the brief remarks Moore makes in Principia on the na-
ture of the self. Although they are nowhere close to being fully worked
out, his argument against egoism does seem to be informed by a view of
the self that is suggested by these remarks. Every step away from the no-
moore™s argument against egoism 113

tion of a perduring, substantial self is a step away from the thought that
there is anything capable of “having” “its own” good. So the dismissal of
egoism fits more comfortably with looser than with tighter views of the
self, and most comfortably with a Humean view of the self, a view quite
inimical to common sense. This point is brought home nicely by Sidg-
wick. He writes:
It undoubtedly seems to Common Sense paradoxical to ask for a reason why one
should seek one™s own happiness on the whole; but I do not see how the demand
can be repudiated as absurd by those who adopt the views of the extreme empir-
ical school of psychologists, although those views are commonly supposed to have
a close affinity with Egoistic Hedonism. Grant that the Ego is merely a system of
coherent phenomena, that the permanent identical ˜I™ is not a fact but a fiction,
as Hume and his followers maintain; why, then, should one part of the series of
feelings into which the Ego is resolved be concerned with another part of the
same series, any more than with any other series?1
Sidgwick does not pursue the matter, as it is not his concern to chal-
lenge commonsense notions of the self and self-interest. But since Moore
chooses him as his foil, it is odd and perhaps troubling that he does not
address it more directly in his attempt to remove egoism™s surface plau-
sibility. Perhaps it is because he is very unsure about the nature of the self.
Thomas Baldwin observes that although he once claimed the problem of
the self to be one of the two he was most interested in, he wrote very lit-
tle on the subject. He did, however, flirt with Humean views of the self at
different times in his career.2 We may say with confidence that Principia
rejects a number of “metaphysical” conceptions of the self, as well as the
thought that any such conception could be relevant to ethics. His re-
marks on the self in Principia are part of a larger attack on the general no-
tion of substance as something it is necessary or even possible for any kind
of property to inhere in. This attack informs his act-object view of con-
sciousness, which in its denial that there are any such things as mental
“contents” needing something to “contain” them, perhaps fits most eas-
ily with a Humean view of the self.
Moore™s rejection of metaphysical notions of the self follows directly
from what he means by calling a notion metaphysical. Metaphysical
philosophers are distinguished from naturalist philosophers by their
recognition of nonnatural objects: “I call those philosophers preemi-
nently ˜metaphysical™ who have recognised most clearly that not every-
thing which is is a ˜natural object.™”3 But after we credit the metaphysi-
cians for advancing beyond the naturalists in recognizing the being of
such objects, we must remember that they misunderstand the nature of

Methods, p. 418“19.
Baldwin, G. E. Moore, pp. 54“5. Baldwin™s discussion, pp. 50“5, Consciousness and the Self,
is most helpful on this subject.
3 Principia, p. 110.
114 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

these objects quite badly. The deepest symptom of their misunderstand-
ing is that they find it necessary to provide “metaphysical underpinnings”
or “foundations” for them. Instead of taking these objects simply for what
they are, objects that do not exist in time, that depend on nothing, they
allow themselves to become puzzled by them. To ease their misguided
puzzlement about them, metaphysicians employ roundabout strategies
to characterize them finally in terms of existent, temporal properties.
They do this by appealing to what Moore calls super-sensible objects, objects
that although “beyond” ordinary temporal objects, maintain enough of
a conceptual connection to temporal objects that temporal objects ulti-
mately become the ground of nonnatural objects™ intelligibility. So as we
have seen, instead of recognizing numbers to be atemporal objects that
are independent of all other things, metaphysicians attempt to explicate
them as quasi-temporal objects that exist eternally in the mind of God or
as an a priori form of human understanding, etc.4 Metaphysicians think
that this lets them have their cake and eat it too. They grant these objects
the eternality and necessity that is their due, but in ways they presume to
be less mysterious than they would otherwise have to credit. But accord-
ing to Moore, philosophical notions of super-sensible existents are just
notions of ordinary existents tarted up. So the metaphysical philosophers
make no real advance beyond the cruder, straightforwardly existential ex-
plications of nonnatural objects that naturalist philosophers proffer.
Moore™s account of metaphysical explications of the self is complicated
by another of those throwaway elaborations that make his accounts richer
than they would be were he to stay within the bounds of his official view.
In the continuation of the passage quoted previously, he writes:
˜Metaphysicians™ have, therefore, the great merit of insisting that our knowledge
is not confined to things which we can touch and see and feel. They have always
been much occupied, not only with that other class of natural objects which con-
sists in mental facts, but also with the class of objects or properties of objects,
which certainly do not exist in time, are not therefore parts of Nature, and which,
in fact, do not exist at all.
This passage suggests that what distinguishes metaphysicians from nat-
uralists is not their correctly upholding as the most fundamental onto-
logical distinction the one between natural and nonnatural properties,
but in their incorrectly upholding as most fundamental the distinction
between one of the subsets of natural properties “ the spatio-temporal prop-
erties “ and all others. This way of accounting for the distinction between
metaphysical and naturalist philosophers enables Moore to differentiate
more accurately the three fundamentally different ways of doing philos-
ophy he considers there to be. Naturalists do philosophy in the crudest
way possible. They attempt to reduce all of reality to a single space-time

4 Ibid., p. 110.
moore™s argument against egoism 115

grid, to turn the three most basic kinds of being into one “ matter.
We may thus call these philosophers naturalist-materialists. Metaphysical
philosophers recognize a reduction this heroic to be impossible. Still,
since they cannot get themselves to fully credit nonnatural properties,
they embrace a program that seeks to reduce all of reality to two, the
natural-material and the natural-mental. We may then call them naturalist-
dualists. Finally, the much too infrequently inhabited third class of phi-
losophy that Moore practices makes both distinctions properly. We may
call these lonely figures nonnaturalist-dualists.
Although metaphysical philosophers are to be credited for resisting
materialism, Moore considers their incorrect categorical placement of
the mental to cause them to make a terrible hash of the self. Given that
he officially finds their basic error to be the explication of the nonnatural
in terms of the natural, one might expect him to find their treatment of
something mental and thus natural, even if turns out to be incorrect, at
least to be in the proper sorts of terms. But although he does not state
this outright, his account has them committing the further error of char-
acterizing the mental in terms of the nonnatural. Since they lump these
two kinds of thing into one category, this error is not unreasonable. Still,
it creates an extraordinarily vicious circle: the natural is used to explicate
the nonnatural at the same time that the nonnatural is used to explicate
the natural.
Almost always, an impossible temporal notion is considered to be the
glue that holds the different parts of a metaphysical object together. The
logic behind the impossible appeal to time lies in this: Nonnatural prop-
erties are eternal in that they have no relation to time. Their having no
relation to time is the gnat metaphysicians find themselves straining at.
They thus misconstrue the being out of time of nonnatural objects as in-
finite duration in time. Since they realize that nonnatural objects are
nothing “we can touch and see and feel,” they seek to turn them into men-
tal constructs of infinite duration. This creates in philosophers a sense of
a realm of being much grander than that of ordinary temporal objects.
They feel that if any ordinary temporal objects are to be invested with
value, they must somehow be made to be part of that super-temporal
realm. Natural objects are thus turned into super-natural objects, pro-
found in the seeming but empty in the actuality.
There is yet another and more damaging level to the confusion that
metaphysical philosophers bring to ethics. Applying the same misguided
dialectic to good, they come to believe that its very being depends on one
of the objects of their fancy. This goes a great distance toward explaining
one of the subjects of Principia™s last chapter and our last two chapters,
the deep-seated sense of disappointment with the world so many philoso-
phers suffer from. Unable to shake completely their awareness of the
nonbeing of the objects upon which they purport the nature of good to
116 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

depend, they sense the world in its present configurations not only to not
contain any value, but to be incapable of containing any value. They thus
come to believe that the world requires a profound transformation if its
existence is to be justified. Alas, the nature of the objects upon which good
is purported to depend makes the required transformation impossible.
As an example of a metaphysical view, Moore considers the one held
by “modern writers” according to which “the final and perfect end is to
realise our true selves “ a self different both from the whole and from any
part of that which exists here and now in Nature.”5 One who accepts with
perfect consistency all the implications of this view is forced to accept eth-
ical fatalism. As we have seen, the realm occupied by such an “eternally
real”6 self should properly be understood as being out of time rather than
as having infinite duration in time.7 But if this realm out of time is what
is real, then “nothing either has been, is now, or will be real in time. . . .”
From this, the conclusion follows “that nothing we can do will ever bring
any good to pass. For it is certain that our actions can only affect the fu-
ture; and if nothing can be real in the future, we can certainly not hope
to make any good thing real.”8
Because it is easier to believe a contradiction than a plain piece of
philosophical nonsense, metaphysicians continue inconsistently to main-
tain “that there is some reality also in the temporal. . . .”9 But really to al-
low reality to the temporal, they must grant what puts their theory on the
rocks, “the distinction between a real subject and the character which
that real subject possesses.”10 Since the “real subject” to which they look
originally for value is out of time, its valuable characteristics must be sep-
arable from it if there is to be anything good in temporal reality for us to
aim at. But the separability of these characteristics insures “that the eter-
nal reality cannot possibly be the sole good.”11 What is good is good
whether it is attached to something eternally real or to something that
passes into and out of existence. Once one is no longer mesmerized by
the thought of the eternally real as being the sole good, looking there for
any good ceases to be plausible. And once it is granted that good can be
found elsewhere than in the eternally real, it becomes implausible to sup-
pose that the nature of good depends on anything there. Good is what it
is and we find it where we find it.
Moore™s argument can be made to range beyond the bounds to which
he here confines it. It provides the means by which to separate all prop-
erties, value and nonvalue properties alike, from all subjects, personal or
impersonal. In short, it threatens even the least pretentious of meta-
physical accounts of substance. Let us note first that nothing in Moore™s
argument hinges on the eternally real subject being personal or on its

5 6 7
Ibid., p. 113. Ibid., p. 120. Ibid., p. 115.
8 9 Ibid., p. 116. 10 Ibid., p. 120. 11 Ibid.
moore™s argument against egoism 117

separable properties being value properties. So the metaphysician who
attempts to account for the universe™s infinite temporal duration by ap-
pealing to an “eternal” impersonal subject or substance must grant that
its modes are separable from it as soon as he grants sense to the thought
that it is possible for the universe to undergo change. But it is then no
longer the case that the sole reality is eternal, and so the eternal subject
is again threatened with superfluity. Anything temporal that appears to
be part of something eternal is a philosophical illusion “ the gulf between
the temporal and the eternal is unbridgeable.
Now suppose someone to try to account in metaphysical terms for the
permanence and change of things while lowering the metaphysical flame.
In an attempt to make one thing both permanent and subject to change,
the subject having the properties is no longer held to be eternal, but is in-
vested instead with a less elevated nontemporal dimension as well as a tem-
poral dimension. The problem with this is that there is nothing to give the
subject a temporal dimension but the temporal properties it is supposed
to have. These properties are once again separable from the subject and
thus this subject is again threatened with superfluity. When it is realized
that the properties had by the different-in-kind “subject” must always be
able to sheer off from it, the grip of the thought that there is a need for
such a subject to “have” them begins to loosen. Literally, there is nothing
that remains the same while changing: What is in time are just collections
of instantiated properties. Accounting for the relative permanence of
things through change is the fact that the properties of collections do not
go into and out of existence at the same time. It is no surprise then that
in Principia, Moore rejects a substance ontology for natural objects.
A separation problem also haunts the egoist, who needs to be able to
make sense of the thought that good is something that can be had by a
single subject. For the egoist to be able to think that there is something
that one ought to do, the thing that is good has to be separable from the
subject that has it on the lines of thought rehearsed in the preceding ar-
gument. But it then follows that the nature and value of that thing is ut-
terly independent of the subject it is “had” by. If the egoist tries to say that
even though the thing is separable from the subject, the thing does not
become valuable until it is had by that subject, she must explain why that
subject™s having any one thing is more valuable than its having any other
thing. This will not be easy to do. If the characteristic only becomes good
upon its being had by that one particular subject, then its being had by
that subject is what makes it good. But from this it follows that whatever that
subject has is good. The egoist thus falls into a trap similar to the one the
metaphysician of the “eternally real” falls into: As long as one keeps one-
self alive, it is indifferent how one acts, as any action one performs brings
about an equal amount of good.
This discussion clears the way for the view that what brings value to the
118 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

world is not the “having” of certain characteristics by any particular sub-
ject, but the existence of certain characters or properties taken alone or
in combination. The possibility is slipping away of any kind of subject play-
ing a role in the exemplification of value in the world. Because good is a
separable property, there is no place where it can be hoarded or hidden.
Even if each of us comes to have a sense of an “inner” self whose devel-
opment in one direction rather than another has value, this develop-
ment, as anyone who has ever loved another knows, is available to others
to take an interest in. There is nothing in the notion of a self to give the
notion of one self enough depth to make for a distinction of fundamental


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