. 5
( 8)


ethical importance between one™s interest and the interest of others.

The Contradiction of Egoism
Moore begins his discussion of egoism with some remarks on Sidgwick,
the philosopher he chooses as his foil. In them, he situates his argument
in relation to common sense and philosophy. As he does elsewhere,
Moore sees himself as a protector of the instinctively sound, though
rather unreflective moral thought of the “plain man” from philosophical
depredation. Sidgwick claims that the basis of ethical egoism lies in a dis-
tinction between oneself and others that common sense recognizes to be
of great ethical import. Moore can either accept Sidgwick™s claim and say
so much the worse for common sense, or he can dispute it. Without be-
ing completely explicit about it, he mostly disputes it. He also scolds Sidg-
wick for accepting a hedonistic account according to which one™s own
good or one™s own interest consists of one™s own pleasure or happiness.
He claims that this is not the view of the plain man “ in fact, the plain
man does not even consider his pleasure to be a part of his interest “ and
makes much of Sidgwick™s failure to note this.12
Moore seems to be saying that although it is natural on reflection to
profess that one™s interest consists of one™s happiness, it is, as with the the-
ory of psychological egoism, only natural to profess this on first reflec-
tion.13 These initial theoretical forays leave one farther from the truth
than when he started. (Once again, errors such as these threaten to make
ethics a dangerous activity.) Moore insinuates that there is something al-
most willfully primitive about Sidgwick™s identification of one™s interest
with one™s happiness, as ancient philosophers had already noted that
these things were not identical. Sidgwick gives an incorrect account of
why the ancients did not identify them, based on his confusion concern-
ing the notion ˜my own good™, and thus allows himself to continue in his
mistake. So he ends up being doubly damned. He gets wrong what the

12 13
Ibid, p. 98. Ibid., p. 68.
moore™s argument against egoism 119

ordinary person gets right and gets it wrong despite the warnings of
philosophers who had trod the ground before him.
This brings us to a troubling point that must be acknowledged. There
is an unseemly note of meanness and contempt in Moore™s discussion of
Sidgwick. Since he does give Sidgwick credit for being the first philoso-
pher to recognize the naturalistic fallacy and since he also borrows a great
deal from him, one might expect him to see himself as building upon the
great, albeit flawed, insights of his great teacher.14 But after giving him
credit for exposing the fallacy, Moore carps at him, even ridicules him,
on other occasions. If one may be allowed to speculate, there are proba-
bly extraphilosophical reasons for this. There are first the usual Oedipal
reasons; strengthening them is the fact that Moore seems to have disliked
Sidgwick.15 These combine with the fact that although he sees himself as
a conservator of ordinary moral thought, he has the temperament of a
revolutionary. As we saw in previous chapters, he prefers to see himself as
breaking new ground through his own efforts rather than as engaging in
a cooperative effort to build upon the work of others. Although Moore
was an Apostle, he was no disciple. In any case, his discussion of Sidgwick
on egoism is marred by an excess of rhetorical zeal.
He certainly gets carried away when he claims that the plain man does
not normally include his pleasure even as part of his interest. It seems
plain that we do not consider such things as “my own advancement, my
own reputation, the getting of a better income, etc., etc.,” as intrinsically
in ˜my interest™.16 It is the commonest of commonplaces that those who
consider wealth to be intrinsically in their interest are woebegone. How-
ever valuable as a means wealth may be, it is valuable only as a means. Were
one asked what made any of the things on Moore™s list in one™s interest,
he would be likely to reply with only the briefest of hesitations that it is
because they lead to pleasure or happiness. So even if he is not a thor-
oughgoing hedonist, the plain man certainly considers his pleasure to be
one of the things in his interest. Although this is by no means a decisive
point against Moore, it does make one less confident that hedonists, in-
cluding Sidgwick, are completely out of touch with the thought of their
fellows. So if the egoist makes her case with a hedonistic conception of
one™s own interest, she is not employing a notion of good that is utterly
foreign to everyday thought.
We turn now to Moore™s argument. In introductory remarks, Moore
makes a distinction between two different versions of egoism. According
to the first, egoism “is apt to denote merely selfishness. In this sense, a

Besides failing to acknowledge Sidgwick in his discussion of the goodness or lack thereof
of the “natural,” Moore also fails to acknowledge him in his discussion of chastity in Prin-
cipia, pp. 158“9; see pp. 328“31 of Methods. His discussion of the different kinds of ideals,
pp. 184“7, also seems to borrow from Methods, pp. 18“22.
15 The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, p. 16. 16 Principia, p. 98.
120 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

man is an egoist, if all his actions are actually directed towards gaining
pleasure for himself.”17 The second version of egoism tells each person
what she ought to do, namely, pursue her own interest. This anticipates a
distinction made years later by Brian Medlin between individual egoism
and universal egoism.18 The individual egoist is indifferent about how all
people should act. He offers no standard for all people to follow, but just
does what he wants. He could not care less whether he is “rational” or not;
whatever he has of a “code” is purely individual. According to Medlin, ar-
gument cannot touch this kind of egoist, but that is not philosophically
problematic, as he puts forward no argument himself. He is “vermin” upon
whom philosophers need waste no time.19 The universal egoist, however,
is caught in a logical impropriety, as she does offer an argument. By doing
so, she appeals to standards, accepts some condition of impartiality.
Moore also wishes to be concerned only with the egoist who argues. Ac-
cording to him, the flaw haunting the egoist™s argument is found in the
notion ˜my own good™. He notes that the conception ˜my own good™ or
˜my own interest™ is a common one, being one of the first people come
upon when they start to reflect on ethical matters. But even though he
says later in the text that there is a notion ˜my interest™ that does make
sense, the sense in which the egoist must employ the notion ˜my own good™
is incoherent. There is no way for something to be good just for me, for its
goodness to be mine. When I say that something is good for me all I can
mean is that the thing I get is good or that my getting it is good. And:
In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the
goodness of that thing or that possession. There is no longer any meaning in at-
taching the ˜my™ to our predicate and saying: The possession of this by me is my
good. . . . In short, when I talk of a thing as ˜my own good™ all that I can mean is
that something which will be exclusively mine, as my own pleasure is mine (what-
ever be the various senses of this relation denoted by ˜possession™), is also good ab-
solutely; or rather that my possession of it is good absolutely. The good of it can in no
possible sense be ˜private™ or belong to me; any more than a thing can exist pri-
vately or for one person only.20
Because there is no way for something to be good just for me, the notion
˜my own good™ just collapses into good. Given this fact, the argument runs
as follows:
The only reason I can have for aiming at ˜my own good,™ is that it is good absolutely
that what I so call should belong to me “ good absolutely that I should have some-
thing, which, if I have it, others cannot have. But if it is good absolutely that I should
have it, then everyone else has as much reason for aiming at my having it, as I have
myself. If, therefore, it is true of any single man™s ˜interest™ or ˜happiness™ that it
ought to be his sole ultimate end, this can only mean that that man™s ˜interest™ or

Ibid., p. 96.
Brian Medlin, “Ultimate Principles and Egoism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol.
35 (1957), pp. 111“18.
19 Ibid., p. 114. 20 Principia, pp. 98“9.
moore™s argument against egoism 121

˜happiness™ is the sole good, the Universal Good, and the only thing that anybody
ought to aim at.21
The conclusion that one person™s happiness or interest is the sole good
in the universe is silly enough to be laughed out of the court of philo-
sophical appeal. But however silly it is, it does not contain a contradic-
tion. The contradiction arises from the egoist™s requiring each person to go
through the same line of reasoning. This eventuates in the claim that
each person™s good, on the hedonistic conception, each person™s happi-
ness, is the sole good: “What Egoism holds, therefore, is that each man™s
happiness is the sole good “ that a number of things are each of them the
only good thing there is “ an absolute contradiction! No more complete
and thorough refutation of any theory could be desired.”22
Let us lay out the argument in order to examine it more closely:
1) The good of a thing can in no sense be private or belong to me alone.
2) Therefore, the only reason I can have for aiming at ˜my own good™ is
that it is good absolutely.
3) If it is good absolutely that I should have a thing, the reason that holds
for my having it also holds for everyone else.
4) If it is true of ˜my good™ that it ought to be my sole ultimate end, the
only thing I have a reason to pursue, then it is the sole good, the only
thing anyone has a reason to pursue.
5) Egoism holds that for each person, ˜his good™ is the sole ultimate end,
or the sole good.
6) According to Egoism, many different things are the sole good.
7) Egoism is absurd.
In our discussion, we shall be concerned with the argument™s first four
steps. If these can be established, the rest of the argument, which estab-
lishes the absurdity of applying the egoist™s individual line of reasoning
to every person, falls neatly into place. We can come to grips with the first
premise by noting the failure of fit between the property good and the
metaphysical notion of privacy. Moore has a fairly deep distrust of this no-
tion even though in 1911, in “The Subject Matter of Psychology,” he
speaks of the property some mental items have of being “mine.”23 In “The
Refutation of Idealism,” remember, he claims that merely to have a sen-
sation is to be outside the circle of sensations. Similarly, to have a per-
ception of good is to be outside the circle of one™s own perceptions and
in contact with good itself. This view is also in the spirit of the Moore who
wrote in “The Nature of Judgment” that truth does not depend upon the
relation of our ideas to reality. Clearly, Moore is uncomfortable with the

21 22 Ibid.
Ibid., p. 99.
Moore, “The Subject Matter of Psychology,” The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.
10 (London: 1909“10), p. 41.
122 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

view that there is a realm of “one™s own” private thoughts; what is “in” our
thoughts are the very things the thoughts are about.
But Moore does grant that at least some mental items are private. The
pleasure I feel is in some way mine and no one else™s. Good, however, is
not something that can be mine in that way or any way related to it. This
would seem to follow from its being nonnatural, or even just from its be-
ing nonmental. Being nonnatural, good does not exist in time, as men-
tal items do. Among temporal items, only mental ones have the requisite
privacy. (Because of their conflation of nonnatural and mental proper-
ties, we might expect egoism to have a peculiar attraction to metaphysi-
cal philosophers.) The thought that good is private is thus on a par with
the thought that numbers or physical properties are private. The notion
˜my good™ makes no more sense than the notion ˜my two™ or ˜my green™.
Another theme prominent in Moore™s discussion of Sidgwick is that just
from its being a universal, good is one and indivisible, and hence some-
thing incapable of being parceled out.
Although it is not a point he raises here, as we have seen from the pre-
vious section, Moore would also dismiss the thought that something can
become good merely by its becoming mine. What makes good my having
something rather than someone else™s having it are properties I just hap-
pen to have. For instance, it might be good that a father, a daughter, or a
citizen have something that it is not good for others to have. But even if
such good-making properties can be had by only one person and that per-
son is me, the goodness of my having it depends on the goodness of its
being had by the person with the relevant property, not the “property” of
being had by me. The special feeling and perspective I have about myself
plays no role in giving things their value. The properties upon which
value depends must be thoroughly transpersonally characterized.
2) is a conclusion drawn from 1). Since there is no sense in which good
can be mine (and adding the point just mentioned, no sense in which
something can become good just by becoming mine), my reasons for pur-
suing what is “my” good™ must connect to good “ period. It follows from
this, as stated in 3), that there can be no reason for pursuing this or any
good that holds for me alone. Since the properties upon which the good-
ness of anything depends are in the most important sense available to
everyone, even if it is the case that not everyone can instantiate them, the
reasons for acting they provide are also available to everyone. Everyone
has the same reason to pursue any instance of good as I have (recogniz-
ing that they may have overriding reasons to bring about a greater or
more likely to be realized good). Thus from 4), if “my” good is the only
thing I have reason to pursue, it is the only thing anyone has reason to pur-
sue. The contradiction comes when we repeat the same argument for
every single person. Upon repetition, many different things become the
sole good.
moore™s argument against egoism 123

The immediate worry is that in its formality, the argument wins victory
too cheaply; without further elaboration, it is not psychologically com-
pelling. Good is supposed to provide a reason for action and from this
purely formal perspective, it is difficult to see what that reason could be.
We can see this point by noting that instead of accepting 2) as it stands,
one could accept a conditional version of it while leaving it open whether
one accepts the antecedent: “If I have a reason to pursue ˜my own good,™
it is because it is good.” This would also suggest a twist for 3) that Moore
could not accept. Everyone has as much reason for pursuing ( just) ab-
solute good as I do “ no reason at all. If good need not provide one with
his reason for acting, it would appear that the egoist could put her point
in terms of one™s own interest rather than one™s own good. Moore™s slide
from talk about one™s good to one™s interest or happiness suggests that
he does not think this is possible. Indeed, he must finally maintain that
one™s reason for acting must necessarily be provided by good.
In response to the ontological claim that Moore™s view simply follows
from the fact that good is an indivisible and “public” universal, one can
argue that no matter what the ontology of the matter is, even though one
cannot distinguish “parts” of the universal qua universal, one can still dis-
tinguish between the universal and the different particulars exemplifying
it. One™s attention and concern is not drawn ineluctably to the universal
good that is one and the same in all its instantiations; rather, one can dis-
tinguish and concern herself with the instantiations that concern her.
When asked why she concerns herself only with those particular mani-
festations, the egoist answers, “Because they are mine.” To give her answer
metaphysical respectability, she can appeal to the sense of “I” noted by
Sidgwick and taken up further in subsequent discussion.
To try to make the fact that good is indivisible and “impersonal” less
mysterious, Moore™s defender might wish to make a comparison between
goodness and truth. Despite the protestations of intellectual faddists,
everyone recognizes that no sense attaches to the notion ˜my truth™. If
something is true, it is true and that is the end of the matter. Qua epis-
temic agent, the only relevant consideration for accepting a belief is its
truth. This is so even though we all grant our epistemic limitations, that
each person is in a better position to ascertain some truths than others,
and our epistemic imperfections, that sometimes we resist believing what
we do not want to be true. Nor do we let the epistemic fact that we can-
not distinguish between what we think is true and what is true affect our
understanding of truth itself.24 Similarly, we recognize that facts about our
own particular situation do not affect what is good. As impartial reason
requires us to believe only what is true, so does it require us to seek only
what is good.

Principia, pp. 132.
124 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

But this is where the egoist is going to find an important difference be-
tween truth and goodness. Even assuming what both the ethical egoist
and Moore will find debatable, that indivisible truth is the only criterion
for gauging the ultimate rationality of belief (sometimes the exigencies
of a situation make it better for one to believe what is not true), there ap-
pears to be a criterion other than goodness for measuring the rationality
of action. It is a truism not to be taken lightly that we are more affected
by certain goods than we are by others. It is implausible to think that we
are required to ignore this fact when we make our decisions about what we
ought to do. If from the standpoint of pure good or impartial reason it
makes no sense to note to whom the good “belongs,” that just shows a de-
ficiency in having human beings, with the full panoply of their inclina-
tions and desires, look at things solely from that perspective. If it is
granted that an instance of good does not become good just because it is
one™s own, then one™s reason for pursuing it is not only that it is good.
Moore™s defender might reply that once one recognizes good as the ul-
timate source of value, it is irrational not to base one™s morality on it com-
pletely. But this is just the point at issue. Why is this supposed to be so? Is
it held to be necessary to insure the accepting of a requirement of im-
partiality? If so, the egoist replies that she does offer a standard everyone
can follow. She allows herself nothing she refuses to others. Competition
is an ineluctable fact of life and it is a “fair” competition the egoist advo-
cates: Each person is to try to better his own life and let the chips fall where
they may.
In defense of her argument, the egoist can offer a thought experiment
similar to the one Moore offers in his Beautiful World Argument.25 The
experiment is best performed in the first person: Imagine two worlds con-
taining an equal amount of good. The first world consists of many beau-
tiful objects containing a great deal of good and my living a bad or un-
happy life. The lesser value accruing to the second world by its having a
smaller number of beautiful objects is balanced perfectly by the extra
good that comes to it from my living a good or happy life. Since by hy-
pothesis, the amount of good in the worlds is equal, from Moore™s point
of view, there is no reason for me to choose the second world rather than
the first. But to the egoist “ and the person of plain sense “ I would be
crazy if I failed to choose the world in which I live a happy life. That world
is better for me than the other. This suggests that there is a quasi-
indexical character lacking in epistemic reasons for believing that is had
by reasons for acting. Different instances of good attach more intimately
to different people, giving them reason to pursue some goods over other
equal or even greater goods. If it turns out not to be possible for each per-
son to pursue his own good, the egoist can shift her position slightly by ig-

Ibid., pp. 83“5.
moore™s argument against egoism 125

noring good and putting her point in terms of one™s interest or one™s hap-
piness instead. Even if we do not agree with the egoist, we know what
she means.
To sum up so far, the fear is that in order to defeat egoism, Moore has
desiccated good. To guarantee the heroic impartiality he thinks good re-
quires, he has made it too impersonal. There must be some sense in
which different goods attach more intimately to different individuals if
anyone is to have any reason to pursue good. This is not to say that ego-
ism must view good as a purely private item. It does not require some sort
of value solipsism where every instance of good gives a reason to no more
than one person to pursue it. It is to say rather that it is not a requirement
of rationality that we view things from a deeply metaphysically neutral
perspective, from Sidgwick™s “point of view of the universe.” Such a per-
spective, being one in which everyone is completely “outside himself,” is
one in which there are no interests “ is one in which it is impossible to
understand anyone as living. Rather than its being a perspective in which
each “I” is equal, it is one in which there are no “I”s.

Moore on Sidgwick
To investigate further the commitments of Moore™s argument, we turn to
his critique of Sidgwick™s defense of the rationality of egoism. Sidgwick
claims that our ability either to distinguish between parcels of good that
affect different people or to delineate spheres of private concern that do
not have to do with good is connected to our ability to delineate a sense
of self that separates our concerns from the concerns of others. This is
the burden of a sentence Moore does not quote, although it follows one
he does quote. Moore™s failure to deal clearly with the issues raised by this
sentence haunts his entire discussion and keeps him from seeing the ex-
tent of the ethical revolution he effects:
It would be contrary to Common Sense to deny that the distinction between any
one individual and any other is real and fundamental, and that consequently “I”
am concerned with the quality of my existence as an individual in a sense, fun-
damentally important, in which I am not concerned with the quality of the exis-
tence of other individuals: and this being so, I do not see how it can be proved
that the distinction is not to be taken as fundamental in determining the ultimate
end of rational action for an individual.26
It is because of this fundamental distinction between oneself and oth-
ers that, as Moore quotes Sidgwick, The egoist “˜may avoid the proof of
Utilitarianism [Sidgwick™s rational alternative to Egoism] by declining to
affirm,™ either ˜implicitly or explicitly, that his own greatest happiness is
not merely the ultimate rational end for himself, but a part of Universal

Methods, p. 498.
126 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

Good.™”27 Moore quotes Sidgwick further as saying, “It cannot be proved
that the difference between his own happiness and another™s happiness
is not for him all important.”28
We can read Sidgwick as providing the egoist with two ways of “declin-
ing to affirm” any important connection between his own greatest hap-
piness and Universal Good. The first even grants that his well-being is
good and that its goodness gives him his reason to pursue it and also
makes it a part of Universal Good. Still, he “declines to affirm” that its be-
ing a part of Universal Good is what gives him his reason for his acting as
he does. His reason for acting is that it contributes to his own good, in dis-
regard of the fact that it is a part of Universal Good. This allows a theory
according to which rationality requires the pursuit of good, but not the
pursuit of all good. This version of egoism would be consistent with Sidg-
wick™s claim that both egoism, which he calls Rational Prudence, and an
ethic of impartiality, which he calls Rational Benevolence, are rational.
Rational Benevolence is rational only if there is such a thing as Universal
Good to care about. We can get some sympathy for this position by shift-
ing the emphasis in one of Moore™s statements: “that it is truly good in it-
self means that it is a part of Universal Good.” So long as one can distin-
guish “his good” as a distinct part of Universal Good, he will violate no
canon of rationality if he concerns himself with only that part of it. We have
a sense of self strong enough to ground the thought that different things
come out better and worse for oneself and others, that makes it reason-
able for one to pursue only those instances of good that concern oneself.
The second option is just to ignore the thought that something is part
of one™s own good and to use instead some such notion as one™s happiness
or one™s interest to make one™s point. Again, it is a sense of self that en-
ables one to spell out such a notion. Whether it is good “universally” or
“locally” or not at all, it is rational to bring happiness to oneself, to en-
able one™s own interests to flourish. On this interpretation, Sidgwick en-
ables one to deny Moore™s claim that “By no possible meaning, then, . . .
can the Egoist escape the implication that his own happiness is absolutely
good. . . .”29 One would put forward this view if he agreed with Moore
that the recognition of such a thing as Universal Good would require one
to care about it, but who also thought that the notion of Universal Good
had no purchase. Moore does not worry enough about this version of the
egoistic argument, but what he says can be extended to cover it.
Moore seems to waver between weaker and stronger responses to the
egoist in his discussion of Sidgwick. The weaker response begins by grant-
ing the possibility of one™s carving out spheres of private concern. The
stronger response is that it is not possible for one to do this. To attempt
to carve out spheres of private concern is to operate under a deep and

27 28 29
Principia, p. 99. Principia, p. 101.
moore™s argument against egoism 127

lasting illusion. The only thing, finally, we are even capable of being con-
cerned about is good. There is just good and bad as it redounds to the
whole world. Although in this discussion Moore is not very explicit about
it, given the first part of his argument concerning the notion ˜my good™,
this must finally be his position.
That Moore wavers in his response can be seen by investigating a
lengthy piece of his reply to Sidgwick. Moore analyzes two phrases used
by Sidgwick, (that the egoist™s happiness can be his) “ultimate rational
end” and “the difference between his own happiness and another™s is for
him all-important.” Moore claims that no analysis of these phrases enables
the egoist to make his case. We begin with his discussion of the first phrase:
Is there any sense in which a thing can be an ultimate rational end for one per-
son and not for another? By ˜ultimate™ must be meant at least that the end is good-
in-itself “ good in our indefinable sense; and by ˜rational,™ at least, that it is truly
good. That a thing should be an ultimate rational end means, then, that it is truly
good in itself; and that it is truly good in itself means that it is a part of Universal
Good. Can we assign any meaning to that qualification ˜for himself,™ which will
make it cease to be a part of Universal Good? The thing is impossible: for the Ego-
ist™s happiness must either be good in itself, and so a part of the Universal Good,
or else it cannot be good in itself at all: there is no escaping this dilemma. And if
it is not good at all, what reason can he have for aiming at it? how can it be a ra-
tional end for him? That qualification ˜for himself™ has no meaning unless it im-
plies ˜not for others™; and if it implies ˜not for others,™ then it cannot be a rational
end for him, since it cannot be truly good in itself: the phrase ˜an ultimate ra-
tional end for himself™ is a contradiction in terms.30
In this passage, Moore does say that if one is concerned with any “part”
of good, one must be concerned with all of it, that if the egoist uses good
to delineate the spheres of private concern, he will inevitably be swept up
by Universal Good. Let the egoist waive this and put forward the second
position, saying that he does not care then whether his happiness or self-
interest is good. His happiness or interest is his end in any case; let other
people have their own happiness or interest as their end. Moore attempts
to fend off this response with a pair of rhetorical questions: “And if it is
not good at all, what reason can he have for aiming at it? how can it be a
rational end for him?”
What does Moore mean by “reason” and “rational” in these questions?
Does he mean just that there cannot be a moral reason that fails to con-
nect to Universal Good, or does he mean that there cannot be any kind
of reason that fails to connect Universal Good? Is an end irrational merely
for its failing to lead to good or irrational in a more coldly logical sense
that it cannot really be willed despite initial appearances to the contrary?
If Moore means only that there can be no moral reason that does not con-
nect to good, the egoist will just continue to recommend to each person
that she pursue her own end (even if he is not allowed to use the word
Ibid., p. 100.
128 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

“ought” to make his recommendation) and just not worry about whether
he is “moral” or not. Following Philippa Foot, if this is all that is meant by
the claim that the egoist is irrational, we do not in any way show the ego-
ist to be inconsistent when we call him this.31 As long as sense can be
made of personal benefits and harms, egoism is a code that can be stated
and followed and that is what interests the egoist. He will cheerfully agree
that he is not rational in Moore™s sense because he is confident that every-
one still understands what he means.
In the discussion of the second phrase, “the difference between his own
happiness and another™s is for him all-important,” Moore says some things
that suggest only the weaker claim and some others that suggest the
stronger. He offers four possible analyses of this expression. The first of
these is “that his own happiness is the only end which will affect him” and
the third is “that it is only his own happiness which he cares about.”32 Ini-
tially, these analyses seem to allow the possibility of someone being con-
cerned with or caring about the way in which things redound to one in
disregard of their universal goodness. If the egoist uses the third analysis,
she is recommending that each person pursue what is important to him
without any concern for its universal goodness.
Moore writes immediately after offering the four analyses:
And none of these propositions, true as they may be, have the smallest tendency
to shew that if his own happiness is desirable at all, it is not a part of Universal
Good. Either his own happiness is a good thing or it is not; and, in whatever sense
it may be all-important for him, it must be true that, if it is not good, he is not jus-
tified in pursuing it, and that if it is good, everyone has an equal reason to pur-
sue it so far as they are able and so far as it does not exclude their attainment of
other more valuable parts of Universal Good.33
So far, Moore could still just be saying that one is not morally justified
who chooses not to bring about the greatest good. To this, the egoist re-
peats what we had her say previously. But against Moore™s stipulative
analysis of justification, she also pushes her point that there is a sense we
all recognize in which she can justify herself. Moore himself implicitly
recognizes this when he distinguishes between what is important for one
and what is good. The egoist can justify herself because her pursuit of her
own ends, her pursuit of what is important for her, makes sense, is expli-
cable to impartial observers, whether it leads to Universal Good or not.
So is her recommendation to others to do the same, even if they happen
to think that to act in accord with it is wrong. This sense of “justify” con-
nects to explanation. To explain an agent™s action is to connect it to the
agent™s thoughts about good or to her own ends. What would be inexpli-
cable is action that has nothing to do either with what one considers to
be required by Universal Good or with what one considers to be impor-
Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” p. 161.
32 Principia, p. 101. 33 Ibid.
moore™s argument against egoism 129

tant for oneself “ that is, perfectly haphazard action “ and a recommen-
dation to others that they be equally haphazard. Thus Sidgwick™s conclu-
sion that egoism and altruism are both rational.
But in the very next sentence, Moore seems to claim that the thought
that something can be important for one independently of its universal
goodness is contradictory: “In short, it is plain that the addition of ˜for him™
˜for me™ to such words as ˜ultimate rational end,™ ˜good,™ ˜important,™ can
introduce nothing but confusion.” If, as seems necessary, this is to be
connected in the strongest way possible to the argument against egoism,
Moore must mean that it is just as much of a confusion to think that some-
thing can be important for one as it is to think that something can be
good for one. The phrases “ultimate rational end for me” and “important
for me” are “confusing” because “for me” is either senseless or superflu-
ous. For “important for me” to have sense, it must reduce without residue
to “important” and that must reduce to “good”. This makes it an analytic
truth that for something to be important for one is for it to be good and
thus to contribute to Universal Good.
If this is so, then Moore is making a stronger claim than that morality
requires one always to be concerned with Universal Good. There is a con-
tradiction and not merely a mistake in the thought that something can be
important for one without contributing to Universal Good. Notice that
Moore claims that one of the possible meanings to be had by the thought
that something is an end for one is “that the thing is what he desires or
thinks good.”34 The context pretty clearly requires Moore to consider
that to desire something and to think it good are one and the same thing.
Using that point to give life to the strongest claim about the connection
between thinking something important and thinking it good: If we think
that we are thinking about something other than a thing™s contribution
to Universal Good when we desire it or think it to be important, we are
wrong in the same way as when we think that the very same thing is both
a square and not.
This interpretation requires that the next two sentences also be read
in the strongest way possible: “The only possible [emphasis added] reason
that can justify any action is that by it the greatest possible amount of what
is good absolutely should be realised. And if anyone says that the attain-
ment of his own happiness justifies his actions, he must mean [emphasis
added] that this is the greatest possible amount of Universal Good which
he can realise.”35 Even though his use of “justify” suggests that he has not
yet fully confronted his own point, Moore has finally got to be saying that
it is not just that other sorts of justifications for action fail to measure up
to the high standards set by morality, but that they cannot even be offered. To
make the words of the egoist contradictory, it must be the case that to jus-

34 35
Ibid., p. 100. Ibid., p. 101.
130 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

tify our actions and to make sense of them are the same thing. To do that
one thing, we must connect our actions “ with no qualifications whatso-
ever “ to good. So the egoist who thinks of herself as recommending that
we not concern ourselves with Universal Good is thinking of herself as
recommending something she cannot.
On this interpretation, Moore™s claim is stronger than that the egoist
issues a recommendation that makes sense but necessarily cannot be fol-
lowed. That claim would hold if it were a synthetic necessary truth rather
than an analytic truth that for something to be important for one is for
it to be good. If it were a synthetic rather than an analytic truth, it would
be possible for one to think that what is important for one is not what is
good, just as it is possible for one to think the necessary falsehood that a
triangle that has the property of being equiangular does not also have the
property of being equilateral. We can think this of this pair of properties
because even though whatever has the one property also necessarily has
the other, the properties are different. Similarly, if being important and
being good were different although necessarily connected properties,
the egoist would not be contradicting herself, but “merely” recommend-
ing something impossible. If we are to take Moore at his word about what
we must mean, we must see him as embracing the stronger of these views.
The Diagnosis of Egoism
and the Consequences of Its Rejection

Why Egoism Seems Plausible
The stronger view is something very difficult to accept. To get into a po-
sition to accept it, one will have to engage in a great deal of psychologi-
cal and anthropological reflection to wean oneself from the thought that
there is sense in such notions as ˜my own good™ and ˜important to me™:
Why do such notions lodge so deeply within us if finally they make no
sense? Moore™s attempt to engage in these reflections and answer this
question in the rest of his discussion of Sidgwick is disappointing.
Sidgwick™s concern has been to come to grips with the felt conflict be-
tween duty and self-interest, between what he calls Rational Benevolence
and Rational Prudence. He holds that because it is rational to act in ac-
cord with either of these opposing positions, there is a “contradiction” in
ethics. He suggests a way to resolve this contradiction by reconciling the
two positions. If there is a Deity who insures that actions done in accord
with the dictates of Rational Benevolence are the same as those done in
accord with Rational Prudence, there would never be any difference in
what the two principles require. Thus the contradiction would evaporate.
Moore argues that this suggestion is misguided on a number of different
counts. First, Sidgwick™s view that there is a contradiction in ethics is born
of his failure to realize that egoism is contradictory. Second, if there were
a contradiction in ethics, nothing Sidgwick could say or God could effect
could make it disappear. After disposing of Sidgwick™s false reconcilia-
tion, Moore attempts to pinpoint the real nature of the difficulty Sidg-
wick has misidentified.
On the first point, Moore is overcome by his mean-spiritedness. He says
that when Sidgwick calls upon the Deity to insure that what gives pleas-
ure to others also gives pleasure to oneself, “he overlooks the fact that
even this exercise of Divine Omnipotence would leave in Ethics a con-
tradiction, in comparison with which his difficulty is a trifle “ a contra-
diction, which would reduce all Ethics to mere nonsense, and before
which the Divine Omnipotence must be powerless to all eternity.”1 Moore
is not here criticizing Sidgwick for failing to deal adequately with the
problem Sidgwick thinks he has identified, but for failing to deal with the
real problem Moore has identified. The use of “overlooks” is particularly
Principia, p. 103.
132 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

vitriolic and inappropriate. Recalling for the reader the paradox of ethics
and indulging in a bit of vitriol ourselves, if his scolding of Sidgwick for
“overlooking” something is well taken, then his own argument against
egoism cannot have been all that pioneering.
This is not to say that we should not ourselves be troubled by Sidgwick™s
“solution.” Although his own tone suggests that he is perfectly capable of
looking at the world with a cold eye, many who try to “change the facts”
to make self-interest and duty coterminous simply cannot accept the fact
that people are often harmed by their goodness and rewarded by their
badness: we should not believe in God simply to brush a harsh fact under
the rug. Consider how Sidgwick™s proposal looks to one who, after con-
sidering the conflict fully, comes to accept one or the other of these con-
flicting principles. First, take the attitude of one who accepts the princi-
ple of Rational Benevolence. She thinks that Sidgwick loses sight of what
is most moving about people “ that they have the capacity to and often
do sacrifice themselves for others. She finds that in his fear of self-
sacrifice, Sidgwick embraces the morality of a pinch-penny accountant.
Meanwhile, the egoist admires those with the courage to put themselves
above others. Their principled indifference is hard-won. It is an achieve-
ment to see through the herd morality of the Sunday school teachers and
go out and get for oneself. (The universal egoist may well share Medlin™s
disgust with the individual egoist.) In the eyes of these antagonists, Sidg-
wick™s solution is most hollow, as it deprives human beings of the issue in
life upon which they can take their deepest stand, or if that is too exis-
tential and antiintellectual a way of putting it, as it removes from life that
fact about which their disagreement can be most profound. But Moore
too threatens to take that away from us.
The rest of Moore™s response to Sidgwick is confusing and unconvinc-
ing. By his own lights, he is right to consider it a “mere fact” and not a
contradiction “that our own greatest happiness and that of all do not
seem always attainable by the same means.”2 But he then grants a great
deal more to Sidgwick than he should. He says, “This fact [that one™s own
greatest happiness and the happiness of all are not always attainable by
the same means], if Happiness were the sole good, would indeed be of
some importance; and, on any view, similar facts are of importance.”3
This signals a recognition that if good could be parceled out, there would
be a conflict between duty and self-interest. It also seems to grant that the
thought that good can be parceled out is reasonable on the supposition
that happiness is the sole good. His argument seems to be this: If happi-
ness were the sole good then since it can be parceled out, so too could
good. If good could be parceled out, there would then be a conflict be-
tween bringing good to oneself and bringing it to the whole world. This

2 3
Ibid., pp. 103“4.
the diagnosis of egoism 133

interpretation of Moore™s claim is consistent with his earlier criticism of
Sidgwick for failing to note that ordinary ethical thought does not iden-
tify ˜my own interest™ with ˜my own pleasure™. Moore claimed there that
Sidgwick™s failure to note this was due to his confusion about the notion
˜my own good™. The notion ˜my own interest™ seems less easily separable
when its meaning contains “my own advancement, my own reputation,
the getting of a better income, etc., etc,” but not my pleasure or happi-
ness. He had brought the matter up there because he thinks that if Sidg-
wick had realized that ˜my own interest™ is not (so easily) separable, he
would have come to realize that ˜my own good™ is also not separable.
But Moore just seems to be inconsistent with his own deepest princi-
ples when he says that this fact about the relation between one™s own hap-
piness and the happiness of others would be important if happiness were
the sole good. Even if happiness were the only thing to have the property
of being good, it would remain that happiness and good are different
properties. The logical point that there is no sense in the notion ˜my own
good™, depending as it does solely on the indivisible property good, would
remain completely unaffected by the fact that happiness happened to be
the only thing to have that property. By Moore™s argument, the goodness
of a thing would then lie in its being an instance of happiness, not in its
being an instance of my happiness. ˜My own good™ would cease to be an
incoherent notion only if good and happiness were identical. But to ac-
cept this identity is, of course, to commit the naturalistic fallacy. In his
confusion, then, Moore commits the very same fallacy as the “character-
istic fallacy of Empiricism” he scolds Sidgwick for committing. Just as the
empiricist thinks that a change in facts could make a contradiction dis-
appear, so too does Moore. But if Moore™s argument against egoism is well
taken, changing the facts to make happiness the only good thing leaves
the contradiction of egoism completely untouched.
Moore goes further astray when he says that on any view, “similar facts”
are of importance. He does not give any example of such facts, but seems
to be suggesting that on any view, there are facts suggesting that good is
divisible, that it is something different people can have more or less of.
But if this is what he means, he had no prior right to consider it to be a
major matter that Sidgwick misidentifies one™s interest with one™s pleas-
ure. He is now saying that Sidgwick could reasonably have been tempted
to embrace egoism on any ethical view he held.
Moore does grant that we feel there to be a conflict between duty and
self-interest. No matter how badly he smudged it, Sidgwick had put his
finger on a crucial point. He tries to identify “the one important fact”
Sidgwick was after but did not capture. That fact is:
that in this world the quantity of good which is attainable is ridiculously small
compared to that which is imaginable. That I cannot get the most possible pleas-
ure for myself, if I produce the most possible pleasure on the whole, is no more
134 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

the profoundest problem of Ethics, than that in any case I cannot get as much
pleasure altogether as would be desirable.4
The first thing to note about this reply is that no matter how much
more goodness we imagine the world as having, as he had previously rec-
ognized, it will still be “ridiculously small” compared to other larger
amounts we can imagine it as having.5 The fact Moore has pointed out is
simply one of mathematics and lacks the poignancy of the fact that so
troubles us. A thought experiment similar to the one employed by Moore
in his Beautiful World Argument shows the inadequacy of his character-
ization of the problem. We can imagine that the universe contains worlds
of great beauty and hence great goodness. (Such a thought is not at all
fanciful to an astronomer lost in the beauty of the universe™s starry
reaches.) This makes the world™s value seem less “ridiculously small” with-
out at all easing our problem. This “faraway” goodness does nothing to
allay the fact that here some people get a great deal of good and others
get too little. Bringing the point closer to home, consider that innumer-
able people are creating works of great beauty on earth. We will still re-
main troubled for as long as some people are getting good and others
getting bad. It is not then just the amount of the world™s goodness that
troubles us, but its distribution. Meanwhile, in a world without much good,
the egoist who has many good things will remain untroubled by its over-
all scarcity.
Moore seems to think that if there were more good in the world, we
would no longer have to compete for it. There would then be enough for
everyone to get as much as she needed. But this, of course, is not a
thought he can really endorse. Depending as it does on the thought that
good is something different people can have or lack, it is senseless on
Moore™s view, no matter how much or how little of it the world contains.
Thus his substitute thought must fail to pinpoint where the real worry
lies. To see to what lengths Moore will go to glide over the facts of com-
petition and maldistribution, consider his next sentence: “It only states
that, if we get as much good as possible in one place, we may get less on
the whole, because the quantity of attainable good is limited.”6 First, we
note that good is not the sort of property that Moore can really allow to
be in a place. The thought that good can be in a place is as contradictory
as the thought that people can have it. Even if we could give some sense
to the notion of good being in a place, it is not its place we worry about,
but the fact that not everyone can be “at” that place.
We hope we shall not be accused of cruelty to a dying horse if we point
out that the last sentence of Moore™s discussion is also suspect: “To say
that I have to choose between my own good and that of all is a false an-

4 5 6
Ibid., p. 104. Elements of Ethics, p. 186. Principia, p. 104.
the diagnosis of egoism 135

tithesis: the only rational question is how to choose between my own good
and that of others, and the principle on which this must be answered is ex-
actly the same as that on which I must choose to give pleasure to this per-
son or to that.” Given his argument against egoism, the reason that this
is a false antithesis must be that the notions ˜my good™ and ˜the good of
all™ make no sense: There is just indivisible good. But this is not what he says
here. He suggests by his use of italics that the falsity of the antithesis has
rather to do with the fact that it is set up between oneself and all rather
than oneself and others. But since ˜the good of others™ also makes no
sense, that antithesis is false on the very same grounds.
If these antitheses were to be real, that is, if there were to be a way of
making a point about a conflict of interests that does not fall prey to a
contradiction, the more important one would be the one that sets one-
self against all rather than against others. Duty does not require of one
that he not consider the consequences of his actions on himself, but that
he not consider only those consequences. Thus one who dutifully won-
ders what to do considers himself to be one among all of those who will
be affected by his action. Perhaps what Moore is not quite clearly asking
is that each person pretend for a moment not to be affected by his ac-
tions in order to avoid the temptation of special pleading. That this is the
weight he is asking his distinction to carry is suggested by the last inde-
pendent clause of the sentence: “the principle on which this must be an-
swered is exactly the same as that on which I must choose to give pleas-
ure to this person or to that.” He is suggesting that upon the removal of
oneself from the picture, it is easier to see that good alone provides the
reason for deciding what to do. But removing oneself in this way need
not remove the temptation for special pleading for the egoist. He can ar-
gue that it is reasonable for him to weigh the scales in favor of the peo-
ple he likes “ egoists do leave wills. If he is asked to imagine himself as so
far removed from the world as never to have been or be in it at all, the
egoist will say that he then has no reason to choose according to any prin-
ciple. Perhaps he will choose in accord with good or perhaps he will favor those
with brown eyes or blue, or perhaps those with freckles. Most likely, he
will refuse to choose, explaining that it is idle to consider choosing for a
world in which one has never existed nor ever will exist.
The general problem with Moore™s discussion of Sidgwick is that
his own argument against egoism makes his strategy misconceived. He
grants that a certain line of thought has a psychological hold over us,
even though it ultimately turns out to be illogical. But his substitute line
of thought just does not capture what we worry about, nor could any that
fails to make distribution and competition fundamental matters. He has
a great deal more work to do, both excavational and therapeutic, if he
is to expose the deeper philosophical mistakes that seem to give sense to
the contradictory notions behind egoism. Until he does that work, we
136 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

are unlikely to escape the grip of thinking that Sidgwick is on to some-
Perhaps we can best encapsulate Moore™s difficulty by noting that at the
very beginning of his argument, he states that the confusion of the no-
tion ˜my own good™ “has, perhaps been more clearly perceived by Plato
than any other moralist.”7 Despite his scathing comments about other
philosophers and his claim that not until Sidgwick did any philosopher
clearly recognize the naturalistic fallacy,8 Moore avoids criticizing Plato
anywhere in Principia. And is there any philosopher to whom he is closer?
Is there anyone else who emphasizes so strongly that Good is part of “the
furniture of the world.” But the reference to Plato as offering an antidote
to the confusion regarding the perceived conflict between Good and Self-
Good is puzzling. In the Republic, Plato takes as his charge showing that
justice is in the interest of the just person, that justice is good for him. So
Plato™s most famous work seems to rest on the very confusion he was sup-
posed to have seen so clearly.9
No doubt leavening this fact is the thought running throughout the
Republic, culminating in the comparison of The Good to the sun, that the
person who becomes absorbed by The Good loses that narrow sense of
self that wears so heavily on the unenlightened. But still, Plato considers
the losing of that sense of self to be good for the one who loses it. In the
third proof in Book IX of the superiority of justice to injustice, where he
suggests that not even pleasure can be measured or understood in purely
interior, “private” terms, Plato continues to maintain that the superior in-
terior life of the just person is a benefit to that person. Remember also
that he insists that philosophers must sacrifice by taking their turn and
reentering the cave. At no point in the Republic then does Plato express
the thought that for the philosopher, the thought of good things hap-
pening to one becomes completely chimerical. Nowhere is a concern for
one™s own good shown to be contradictory. It appears then that Moore is
all alone in having seen with complete clarity the confusion lying behind
egoism. Given this fact, one does not know whether to be dismayed by the
superior air he takes toward all the rest of us or to be dazzled by his in-
nocent boldness in thinking that he could dispel such a deep illusion in
such a small number of pages.

Moore™s Greatest Revolution
As even Hume recognized, even if it is without philosophical depth, we
all do still have a very strong sense of self. So strong is this sense of self
7 8 Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 98.
In this regard, see H. A. Prichard™s “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?,” in Moral
Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 2, for his criticism of Plato for at-
tempting to justify morality by an appeal to self-interest.
the diagnosis of egoism 137

that we might call it inalienable. Intrinsic to it is our feeling that we are
each self-contained and separate from our fellows. With this sense of the
separateness of self comes “selfishness” in all its variegated forms. Al-
though this is not to justify selfishness or egoism, its philosophical
spokesman, it is to say that they are attitudes or points of view that can be
taken without contradiction. Let us recall Sidgwick™s observation that a
sense of self grounds the egoist™s claim that rationality does not require
one to be concerned about others. Although he does not fully realize it,
in arguing against the rationality of “I” having a special concern for my-
self, Moore attacks this sense of self. Upon the success of this attack, he
must change the explications of many notions crucial to human life. By
making partiality rest upon a confusion, he does not allow for it to be ap-
pealing or even plausible to one who is fully clearheaded. He has it that
anyone with a correct understanding of the matter will recognize impar-
tiality to have no cost to oneself. With no sense attaching to the notion of
good accruing to one person rather than another, a fully rational person
realizes that she does not ever sacrifice anything by bringing about the
greatest good.
Let us start with the point, recognized by Moore in “The Subject Mat-
ter of Psychology,” that, whatever its correct philosophical explication
happens to be, there is some sense in which pleasures, pains, and other
feelings are “one™s own.” Although we all feel pleasure and pain, each of
us feels only a very tiny subset of the world™s total. These are the pleasures
and pains in which our most immediate perceptions of good and bad are
rooted. It is also through them that the connection between the percep-
tion of value and the will is made. At least originally, without the words to
state it, we consider good and pursue that which gives us pleasure and
consider bad and avoid that which gives us pain. However subtle the prop-
erties good and bad happen to be, however abstract and intellectual a way
of cognizing them we eventually come to have, the primal connection be-
tween our perception of these properties and our own pleasures and
pains is never completely severed. We never turn into, nor ought to turn
into, affectless value-calculating machines.
The original connection of the perception of value to pleasure and pain
contributes to our self-regard. This is not originally a matter of “selfish-
ness,” even if it provides the basis for the theory of egoism; our self-
regard precedes our having any articulate sense of self. It is a brute fact
that because we feel our own pleasures and pains, we are moved by them
immediately, whether in conjunction with a perception of good and bad
or not. The good and bad that arises from our own inner life is by neces-
sity more intimately connected to us than the rest of good and bad. The
fact that we take our own feelings so seriously is as brute as the fact that we
have them; as they are a part of us, we cannot help but be moved by them.
So our tendency toward self-partiality, stemming from the way we are con-
138 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

stituted and not from faulty logic, does not make us irrational. Because it
is rooted in our nature, argument and insight cannot wash it away.
One might reply for Moore that he does not consider this original un-
reflective partiality to be irrational. We become irrational only when, after
becoming more self-conscious and more deeply aware of good, we philo-
sophically defend our partiality and hold on to it in the face of our aware-
ness that good ranges far beyond the small concerns of self. What is irra-
tional is to assume an impersonal point of view in order to defend what
is ineluctably personal. But even if Moore grants that our original unre-
flective behavior is arational, it still follows on his view that we must change
if we are to become rational. This is enough to make his theory troubling.
As we become more reflective about good, we also develop a more re-
flective and sophisticated sense of self. With this sense of self and a sub-
tler conception of what constitutes its well-being, we stand up to the
larger sense of good and continue to see ourselves as receptacles of value.
It thus continues to make sense to suppose that each person™s life can go
better or worse for him or her. Even if we grant that morality requires us to
sacrifice our own concerns for the sake of the greater good, it follows
from its being a sacrifice that we clearly recognize our not doing so to be
a real option. So we are with Sidgwick at least to the extent that we find
two opposing ethical theories to make sense, even if one of them turns
out to be wrong.
One may say for Moore that this is just to point out that the head fails
to persuade the heart, that the hold of an incoherent moral conception
is very strong. But it is more plausible to say that if the head cannot
change the heart, there is something wrong with its argument. Even if
one cannot pinpoint the flaw in the argument, if he remains unable to
live in accord with it, he does not really find it compelling after all. This
is analogous to what Moore says concerning the naturalistic fallacy and
in his later defenses of our commonsense knowledge of physical objects.
No argument, however powerful it originally seems to be, can stand up
to the facts that we know good to be unique and know there to be physi-
cal objects. Similarly, we know that value does connect in some way to in-
One might find that in separating good from the original source of its
cognition in what is “one™s own,” Moore is simply fighting on one more
front the tendencies toward idealism and monism. Even if the perception
of value is clothed originally in pleasure and pain and keeps a personal
flavor throughout, we must, as we do with all other notions of philo-
sophical interest, clearly distinguish value from everything it is not. As
Moore tells us many times, we must not commit the naturalistic fallacy.
But as the poet tells us, we must be careful not to murder what we dissect.
If we lose sight of the personal flavor of good and bad, we are left with a
distorted picture of how we actually think about ourselves and others.
the diagnosis of egoism 139

Among other problems, we fail to capture what makes becoming impar-
tial such a difficult achievement. By the terms of Moore™s argument, im-
partiality is no more than a matter of thinking clearly and performing the
proper logical operations upon a concept. This is despite his admission
that most of us are utterly incapable of complete impartiality, that we are
moved more by the instances of good and bad affecting us than by those
affecting others.10 That admission should have provided him with the
clue that something more than an intellectual cramp explains egoism™s
In claiming that no sense attaches to the notion of ˜my good™, Moore
is forced to give unsatisfactory accounts of the notions of benefit and well-
being, as well as of such negative notions as suffering and harm. The
point is put more dramatically in the negative. It would seem that the
most plausible account of suffering includes the fact that something bad
happens to the one who suffers. But because he rejects the notion of good
and bad being had by anyone, Moore cannot say this. Although he would
agree that something bad happens, he must say that the badness re-
dounds no more to the one who suffers than to anyone else. This claim
sounds draconian and preposterous, even insane, on its face. It makes it
wrong to say that a person just struck by a car, lying in a pool of blood and
moaning in agony, has had something bad happen to him. Nor can we say
that a mother who loses her child suffers because of her loss. But if there
is no sense in which good or bad can be had by anyone, this extreme con-
clusion forces itself on us.
It seems that Moore must say something like this: Even though the bad
of the suffering is no more one™s own than anyone else™s, one cannot help
but have her attention absorbed by what she mistakenly comes to con-
sider her own. This suggests that Moore is committed to saying that our
views about the “suffering” one undergoes or the state of “well-being” one
achieves are based on an illusion brought about by attention too narrowly
focused. With a properly wide philosophical understanding of good and
bad, we see that that which is really good or bad is either everyone™s or
no one™s. But if the badness of suffering is everyone™s, then if we are ra-
tional we must all be equally moved by its different instances. If it is no
one™s, we must be equally unmoved by them. We deny the facts of suffer-
ing on either alternative. It is part of the very concept of suffering that it
is personal, that it especially attaches to one or some but not others. If we
do not see what is special for the one who suffers, we do not see the suf-
fering. Without an allowance for some kind of “selfishness,” Moore™s ac-
count becomes not just inhumane, but incoherent.
A plausible psychology must recognize that if we did not each have our
own brute concerns, there could be no possibility of our extending sym-

10 Ibid., pp. 166“7.
140 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

pathy to others. To extend sympathy to someone is to show concern for
his well-being “ and not just as this contributes to overall good. A similar
recognition of brute personal concern is necessary for a proper under-
standing of the great good of friendship. Analyses are incomplete that ac-
count for a person™s special concern for her friend solely in terms of its
being a means to the greatest good. On such accounts, the special con-
cern is justified on the grounds that it is wiser for each of us to concen-
trate on certain goods that, for whatever reasons, are easier than others
for us to bring about. Having accepted such an account, we may then re-
solve in reflective moments to cultivate friendships because of the great
amount of good they enable us to bring into the world. But even if our
long-standing motive is then just to bring about the most good overall,
we must at times lose sight of that justification for friendship and concern
ourselves with our friends or else remain bereft of them.
Moore does not explicitly consider suffering, but he does employ the
notion of sacrifice. He tells us in Section 102 in the chapter “Ethics in Re-
lation to Conduct” that not only does the notion of sacrifice make sense,
but that sacrifice is required. He spells out the notion of sacrifice in terms
of what is in one™s interest. Because of his earlier argument against ego-
ism, he must be a very adept juggler in his discussion of sacrifice and in-
terest. He must somehow connect the notion of one™s interest to good be-
cause without such a connection, the notion of interest is irrelevant to
ethics and indeed, action. But he must do this in a way that does not al-
low the egoist to reargue her case. To see how difficult his task will be, we
note that at the beginning of his argument against egoism he writes, “The
conception which is, perhaps, most closely associated with Egoism is that
denoted by the words ˜my own interest.™”11 Clearly, if this association can-
not be severed, his later discussion must fail.
He starts the later discussion by saying:
When we ask the question, ˜Is this really to my interest?™ we appear to be asking
exclusively whether its effects upon me are the best possible; and it may well hap-
pen that what will affect me in the manner, which is really the best possible, will
not produce the best possible results on the whole. Accordingly, my true interest
may be different from the course which is really expedient and dutiful.
Immediately, this seems to give the egoist a chance to make his case.
Even if he had been wrong to put his point originally in terms of a good
he could have, he will happily put it in terms of a good that affects him.
To forestall this response by the egoist, Moore rehearses his earlier argu-
To assert that an action is ˜to my interest,™ is, indeed, as was pointed out . . . to as-
sert that its effects are really good. ˜My own good™ only denotes some event af-
fecting me, which is good absolutely and objectively; it is the thing, and not its

Principia, p. 97.
the diagnosis of egoism 141

goodness, which is mine; everything must be either ˜a part of universal good™ or
else not good at all; there is no third alternative conception ˜good for me.™
This shows that Moore recognizes the temptation to see the notions
˜my interest™ and ˜my good™ as the same. But he claims that there is a dif-
ferent way of understanding ˜my interest™ that keeps it from falling prey
to his original argument. He writes, “But ˜my interest,™ though it must be
something truly good, is only one among possible good effects; and
hence, by effecting it, though we shall be doing some good, we may be do-
ing less good on the whole, than if we had acted otherwise.” Only after
this remark does he go on to speak of sacrifice, saying that:
Self-sacrifice may be a real duty; just as the sacrifice of any single good, whether
affecting ourselves or others, may be necessary in order to obtain a better total
result. Hence the fact that an action is really to my interest, can never be a suffi-
cient reason for doing it: by shewing that it is not a means to the best possible, we
do not shew that it is not to my interest, as we do shew that it is not expedient.
Moore takes these remarks to contain the insight upon which adequate
notions of interest and sacrifice can be built, that enable him to spell out
the way in which one™s own interest can be good and yet in conflict with
the greatest overall good. The challenge is to get clearer on this unre-
flective notion of interest in order to see whether it withstands philo-
sophical scrutiny. Moore does not take great pains to demarcate the dis-
tinction with complete clarity, but it seems that it stems only from a
conflict in points of view. When I think of “my own” interest, I am think-
ing of a part of the world that consists just of me and the effects of things
upon me. This part of the world holds the good that, epistemically speak-
ing, is closest to me. When I think about a good extending beyond my in-
terest, I think about the larger world that contains more than me and the
things affecting me. Since many of the items in the larger world are far
from me, I do not know them easily. The good or bad of them does not
seem to affect me and thus is of less concern to me. Even though the good
of the smaller world is less than the good of the larger world, everything
in it, including the good of it, seems to flow toward me. Because the good
of that world is in this sense greater for me, it is in my interest to bring this
world about.
Moore must be careful in using this notion of interest. Certain wholes
of which a person is a part would by his lights be good even though they
seem not to be in that person™s interest. For instance, Moore finds the
sorrowful and sympathetic awareness of another™s plight to be an intrin-
sic good.12 Obviously, we are very reluctant to say that this state is in the
interest of the sorrowful person. But note that the good of this state de-
pends on what it is about. Following the way of distinguishing between
different wholes containing belief that was explored in Chapter 2, we can
Ibid., p. 217.
142 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

specify a smaller whole that has nothing to do with what the state is about
that connects more intimately to the person “ just the sorrowful state. Qua
sorrowful state, that smaller thing is bad and not in the person™s interest.
Conversely, the pleasure one feels in another™s pain is bad, but qua pleas-
ure it is good, and thus can be considered to be in one™s interest. For the
sake of our discussion, we shall assume that there is always some intrinsi-
cally good or intrinsically bad whole, however tiny, that can be found to
be in accord with our intuitions about whether something is in a person™s
interest or not.13
Spelling out the notion ˜my interest™ in this manner seems to provide
the most plausible sense according to which the good of things can be
mine, or alternatively, a sense according to which the things comprising
this smaller world affect me to the exclusion of other things. With myself
as the only person in this world, the good is not “mine” in any illicit meta-
physical sense, but only in the sense that there is no one else affected by
it. This also insures that the conflict between the smaller and greater
good does not have any deep metaphysical foundation. There is no con-
flict in good as it is exemplified in the two different worlds (because the
universal good cannot be “in conflict with itself ”) but conflict only in that
the two worlds cannot both be the entire world. Immediately, it seems that
from the point of view Moore has explicated, I can concern myself with
the smaller good and remain rational. Although I am irrational if I try to
concern myself with one good to the exclusion of other goods, in the
world I envisage, there is no other good I exclude. So this one good I en-
visage is no different to me than any other. I thus think exclusively of the
good that redounds to me without violating any canon of rationality by
thinking of it in opposition to other goods.
But however ingenious this conception of ˜my interest™ may initially ap-
pear to be, it finally falls apart. When I consider the larger world in which
I actually exist, I cannot distinguish sharply enough between those things
that have an effect upon me and those that do not. The crucial difference
between the smaller whole whose good seems to have a greater effect
upon me and the larger whole whose good does not seem to have so
strong an effect is that I know more readily about the smaller one and its
effects. But if I am a rational agent, the good of all things, whether I know
of them or not, is of concern to me “ all things affect me qua rational
moral agent. Finally then, there can be no real clash between my own in-
terest and overall good on this conception. As a rational agent, I see that
I do not lose anything at all if I “give up” what from a mistaken perspective
appears to be my interest. Because I cannot as a rational agent stand in
some personal and philosophically respectable relation to the limited

We do not imply that there will be unanimous agreement on what whole is relevant for
determining this in any particular situation.
the diagnosis of egoism 143

good of the first world in which I do not also stand to the greater good of
the larger world, the smaller good does not hold any special benefit for
me. This is just to say that the good in that smaller world must obey the
dictum Moore cites in his argument against egoism. The good is still not
my own in any sense that from a rational perspective makes it more worth
pursuing than other goods. If we wish to use the notion of benefit at all,
we must say that the larger world, since it contains more good, is actually
more beneficial to me. The benefit of something can be very difficult to
know, as it can be difficult to observe. But a benefit is good “ not good for
me “ whether I see it or not.
It is only if the good I bring about in the smaller world were the most
good I could bring about that it would be in “my interest.” But this is not
the world I actually find myself in; the smaller whole is contained by the
larger one. This fact gets finessed in the original description of the two
conflicting points of view. The smaller world is, as it were, set off to the
side of the larger one. Setting it aside, I momentarily forget or pretend
that if I choose to bring that limited good about, I do not also bring
about the rest of what I bring about outside of it. But, of course, I can-
not keep this pretense up. Once I give it up, I must strive as a rational
agent to do what brings about the most good. By doing this, I do what
benefits me, what is in “my interest.” When it comes to good, the effects
of all things upon me are relevant in direct proportion to the amount of
good they bring to the world. We must refuse then to accept in any form
whatsoever the notion of people having separate interests. What is in the
interest of everyone is the very same “ the creation of as much good as
To see more clearly that this is what Moore is committed to, let us re-
turn to his claim that “To assert that an action is ˜to my interest™ is . . . to
assert that its effects are really good.” He wishes this to be the assertion
of the principle that it is a necessary condition of a thing™s being in my
interest that it be good. Stating only a necessary condition, it allows some-
thing besides a thing™s goodness “ for Moore, its “proximity” to me “ to
contribute to a thing™s being in my interest. But if something besides its
goodness contributes to a thing™s being in my interest, it would seem that
if it obtains to a great enough degree, something could be in my interest
even when its overall effects were bad. The small change from the least
good to the least bad should not have such epochal consequences as to
make in my interest a whole containing a good for me and the least good
overall, but not in my interest another whole containing a much greater
good for me and the least bad overall. So Moore™s claim contains the
seeds of the stronger principle that a thing is in my interest in direct pro-
portion to its overall goodness.
That nothing but its goodness contributes to a thing™s being in my in-
terest is also supported by the claim, “hence the fact that an action is really
144 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

to my interest, can never be a sufficient reason for doing it. . . .”14 If there
were other factors that contributed to a thing™s being in my interest, they
should, if found in great enough degree, provide me with a sufficient rea-
son for performing an action even when that action did not bring about
the greatest good. If they cannot, in no matter how great a degree they
are found, weigh more heavily than the tiniest amount of overall good in
giving me a reason to act, then they do not form any part of my reason
for acting. Something™s being in my interest provides me with only a pro-
visional reason for acting. To say that it is in my interest to perform a cer-
tain action is, whether I fully realize it or not, only to say that so far as I
have been able to determine, the action brings about the most overall good.
Because the effects of the action upon me are the easiest to see, they are
the ones I note most readily. True, I often fail to examine the further ef-
fects of an action after I determine it to be in my interest, but this does
not mark a difference of philosophical significance. So ˜my interest™ re-
ally has nothing to do with the effects of the action upon me “ has noth-
ing to do with my interest.
At the end of the section, Moore comes close to recognizing the empti-
ness of his own notion of interest. He writes:
And the chief distinction conveyed by the distinct words ˜duty™ and ˜interest™
seems to be not this source of possible conflict, but the same which is conveyed
by the contrast between ˜duty™ and ˜expediency.™ By ˜interested™ actions are mainly
meant those which, whether a means to the best possible or not, are such as have
their most obvious effects on the agent; which he generally has no temptation to
omit; and with regard to which we feel no moral sentiment. That is to say, the dis-
tinction is not primarily ethical. Here too ˜duties™ are not, in general, more use-
ful or obligatory than interested actions; they are only actions which it is more
useful to praise.
Moore tells us here that two different things can be meant by the dis-
tinction between duty and interest, the one he has just finished explain-
ing and the one he now mentions. He also calls the distinction he now
mentions the “chief one.” This is quite odd. Why discuss at length the dis-
tinction that is not responsible for the more important conflict and only
mention in passing the one that is? But actually, there are not two sources
of conflict, but one. The distinction he describes in passing, which “is not
primarily ethical,” that is, which does not have to do with the ontological
explication of good, is the same one he has been describing all along.
When I try to spell out ˜my interest™ in terms of a thing™s effects on me, I
am actually spelling it out in terms of the obviousness of its effects on me.
But the obviousness of effects, obviously enough, is not sufficient to make
for a distinction that carries ontological weight, even if, as does the ego-
ist, I think it does. It merely has epistemological and, from that, psycho-
logical weight.
14 Principia, p. 171.
the diagnosis of egoism 145

In November of 1900, Moore read his final original paper to the Apos-
tles, entitled, “Is It a Duty to Hate?” In that paper he wrote:
For good is not a private thing, like pleasure and pain, of which you can say, “So
much belongs to each man”. . . . Thus it may quite well happen that to put your
enemy to the most excruciating tortures, ending in death, even though he is per-
fectly innocent, and without any chance of a future life, may be to do him the
greatest possible good.15
Although he attempts to avoid this appalling conclusion in Principia, he
is finally unable to do so.
To finish, we speculate about what motivates Moore™s attempt to give
sense to the notion ˜my interest™. Obviously, it is due to his recognition
that for each one of us, some goods carry more weight than other equal
or greater goods. Moore tries to make this fugitive thought respectable “
but not too respectable. If he had seen all the ramifications of his argu-
ment against egoism, he would have given up the attempt. This leads us
to pose a dilemma for Moore. Either the notion ˜my interest™ makes sense
or it does not. If it does make sense, then his argument against egoism
fails. But if it does not make sense, he is a much greater radical than he
ever acknowledges in Principia. Far from returning us to common sense,
he stands on its head one of its most fundamental presuppositions “ that
as a brute matter of fact, different people really do have different inter-
15 Levy, Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, pp. 220“1.
Moore™s Practical and Political Philosophy

In this chapter, we consider Moore™s views on practical and political phi-
losophy, which he presents in Principia™s fifth chapter, “Ethics in Relation
to Conduct.” Our focus will be on his discussion of the proper attitude to
take toward the vast array of moral and social rules we confront as we
make our decisions about what we ought to do. As we have elsewhere, we
will find his thought to manifest both conservative and revolutionary im-
pulses, with some of the things he says bespeaking a great deal of respect
for rules and others sounding as though he considers most of them to be
quite unimportant to morality and perhaps even an impediment to it.
To resolve this tension, we must explore the distinctions he makes be-
tween three broad, rather vaguely delineated classes of rules: 1) Rules
found in all societies that must be widely followed if there is to be the civ-
ilized life necessary for there being much or anything at all of value. 2)
Rules in place in various societies that are not absolutely necessary for
there being civilized life. 3) Rules not in place in a society that some
philosopher or philosophically minded reformer wishes to impose on it
or perhaps even on all societies. It is uncontroversial that Moore is con-
servative with respect to the first and the third of these classes of rules.
He argues that we ought always to obey the necessary rules and he op-
poses attempts by philosophers to persuade us to impose new rules on
ourselves. His argument for universal compliance with the first class of
rules can be seen to stem from his defense of common sense as a primary
source of ethical insight. The plain person understands perfectly well that
whatever slight exceptions or small refinements we allow, the funda-
mental importance of such a rule as “Thou shalt do no murder” makes it
applicable to everyone. His rejection of the innovative, finely honed rules
of philosophers is born of the same suspicion toward moral monism as
he displays in his rejection of the naturalistic fallacy. Human nature, es-
pecially as it undergoes different patterns of acculturation, is just too var-
ied for the one-size-fits-all conception of morality that philosophers ap-
peal to in proposing their new rules.
There is, however, controversy over Moore™s attitude toward the second
class of rules. Is it more like his attitude toward the rules of the first or
the third class? This issue has recently been explored by Tom Regan in
moore™s practical and political philosophy 147

his book Bloomsbury™s Prophet. Regan wishes to supplant what has been the
received view, given early expression by Bertrand Russell in a letter to
Moore upon publication of Principia. According to this view, Moore is, to
use Regan™s word, an “insipid” conservative completely in thrall even to
those of society™s rules that are not necessary for the maintenance of civ-
ilization.1 But according to Regan, a reading that pays sufficient attention
to the “details and subtlety” of Moore™s argument, which follows it in all
its “rigor, precision, and analytical power,” reveals him to be not a hide-
bound conformist to “the moral status quo,” but something akin to a
1960s radical.2 According to Regan, Moore wishes to protect the indi-
vidual from the “moral imperialism” of rule makers.3 His “mission is to
liberate his readers from those chains of lies by which both preachers and
would-be scientific moralists would keep them in bondage”; he aims to
enable them to achieve “a liberation of the self from the habitual drudg-
ery of conventional morality, heavy with the burdens of conforming to a
proliferation of rules of duty. . . .”4 Regan maintains that Moore holds the
number of rules in the first class to be very small. Further, Moore applies
to the second class of rules the argument that the received view consid-
ers to apply only to the third class. He thus concludes that Moore™s view
is that we “almost always must decide what we ought to do independently
of what moral rules prescribe.”5
Pending a more detailed and theoretically reflective discussion than
Moore provides in Principia of the exact nature of common sense, one
might plausibly argue that either the role of attacker or defender of such
rules is in accord with it. One might argue from common sense in oppo-
sition to nonuniversal, or nonnecessary, rules that our plain ability to de-
tect instances of good and bad and act upon them is hindered if we allow
our thinking to get tangled up in a vast array of rules. But another might
reply that it is plain that a well-functioning society requires a great many
rules to help people get about in their interactions with each other. Com-
mon sense thus puts the onus on those who wish us to ignore or over-
throw those rules. Moore seems to hold the second of these opinions
about what the view of common sense is, as he speaks of both the neces-
sary and the nonnecessary rules as being within the province of com-
monsense ethics.6 So if Regan™s interpretation is correct then by his own
lights, Moore™s defense of common sense in Principia is diminished an-
other little bit.
We disagree with Regan™s interpretation and shall use it as a foil for our
own. But we concede that any answer to the question of Moore™s position
on rules of this type must be tentative. His discussion is very sketchy and
he does not always provide much guidance on how to flesh out his sketch.

1 2 3 Ibid., p. 227.
Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 221. Ibid., pp. 228, 234, 236.
4 Ibid., pp. 223, 240. 5 6 Principia, p. 158.
Ibid., p. 259.
148 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

This sketchiness is combined with the rhetorical overkill that mars Prin-
cipia in other places. Certain of his pronouncements lead one to think
that he is going to blow down the walls of Jericho, until he mutes his trum-
pet with the qualifications that make his views both less dramatic and
more respectful of society™s established ways. Regan often fails to note
Moore™s qualifications and so gives some of his stronger sounding pro-
nouncements more weight than they deserve. By giving a more nuanced
account of the psychology of rule following than Regan™s articulation of
the dichotomy between conservative and liberator would suggest, Moore
actually closes much of the gap that Regan supposes to lie between fol-
lowing a rule and following individual inclination. He thus goes no little
distance toward synthesizing views that appear originally to be in dra-
matic opposition. Still, after acknowledging the nuances, Moore remains
recognizably conservative. The best interpretation sees him as suggesting
that although by definition, no rules of the second class are absolutely
necessary for the maintenance of society, many of them play an impor-
tant role in preserving one member of a (likely open-ended) class of so-
cial arrangements or practices, one of which must be instantiated if there
is to be much at all of value in a society. There can thus be great pre-
sumption in favor of obeying such a rule, with the strength of the pre-
sumption depending on how important a role the rule plays in preserv-
ing such an arrangement or practice.

Necessary Rules
Given the view that he argues for twice, that ˜ought™ means productive of
the most good, one might expect Moore to be deeply skeptical about the
possibility of our ever coming to know what we ought to do.7 Since the
most innocent of actions might turn out some day to have disastrous con-
sequences, not only can we never know of any possible action that it is the
one having the best consequences, we can never even know that it is not
the one having the worst. But Moore is no skeptic. He says that we can
first conclude that, in general, we ought to obey certain rules. Although
at first sight this conclusion appears to be rather weak, as it does not seem
to enable us to know on which particular occasions we ought to obey
them, he argues that it actually leads to the strongest possible conclu-
sion “ that we ought always to obey these rules.
His statement of this position is found in Section 95, where he takes the
rule prohibiting murder as his example of a rule found in all societies. Al-
though his argument appears germane only to this particular rule, he says
that a similar argument can be constructed for all the necessary rules. He
begins with the striking claim that the rule against murder is useful even

For Moore™s arguments, see Principia, pp. 24“7, 147“8.
moore™s practical and political philosophy 149

though the contention of the pessimist that human life is bad has not
been proven wrong. If human life is bad, ought we not commit murders
in order to contribute to humanity™s demise? He responds that since most
peoples™ desire for life is too strong for them to acquiesce in the actions
required by such a project of extermination, the actions committed in its
furtherance would only serve to increase life™s misery. So in general, acts
of murder are bad. From this it follows that there is always a presumption
in favor of obeying the rule prohibiting murder. Considerations must be
brought forward to override this presumption in any particular case. The
uncertainty of our knowledge of both the effects of our actions and their
value makes it highly unlikely that we shall ever be able to do this.
Two further general facts appear to Moore to clinch the argument that
we ought never to break any of the necessary rules. First, our concluding
in a particular case that we ought to break one of them is likely to be the
result of bias in our own favor. Second, the example we set by breaking
such a rule when there is justification for doing so will be overly encour-
aging of ourselves and others to break it when there is not justification.


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