. 6
( 8)


He concludes his discussion thus:
It seems, then, that with regard to any rule which is generally useful, we may ob-
serve that it ought always to be observed, not on the ground that in every particu-
lar case it will be useful, but on the ground that in any particular case the proba-
bility of its being so is greater than that of our being likely to decide rightly that
we have before us an instance of its disutility. In short, though we may be sure that
there are cases where the rule should be broken, we can never know which those
cases are, and ought, therefore, never to break it.8
Note how uneasily these two sentences sit with each other. According to
the most natural reading of the first, all we need to justify breaking a rule
in a particular case is the knowledge that breaking it will probably bring
about the most good, not a guarantee that it would, whereas the second
sentence suggests that we do need such a guarantee. But however im-
plausible we take the claim to be that we need a guarantee of better con-
sequences before we can be justified in breaking certain rules, his ac-
cepting that claim explains his accepting what is also implausible, that we
are never, on utilitarian grounds, justified in breaking them.
Although Moore does not say what exactly are the rules covered by his
argument, he does say that “A similar defence seems possible for most of
the rules, most universally enforced by legal sanctions, such as respect for
property; and for most of those recognised by Common Sense, such as
industry, temperance and the keeping of promises.” He suggests that a
rule falls under his argument if it passes two tests: 1) its general obser-
vance is good as a means in any known state of society, from which it fol-
lows that 2) obedience to it can be defended independently of our hav-

Ibid., pp. 162“3.
150 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

ing correct views on the primary ethical question of what is good in itself.
If these conditions are met, then whatever happens to be intrinsically
good, we can be sure that we are fostering it by following those rules.
A host of questions centers around the claim that if there is to be any-
thing of value in a society, there are certain rules its people must always
follow. Consider Moore™s own example of a rule that is followed by all so-
cieties, the one prohibiting murder. It is certainly true that all societies
strongly prohibit many acts of homicide and that there would be little or
nothing of value in a society in which homicide was rampant. But it is also
true that different societies have different rules that allow for killing in
different circumstances. There just does not seem to be any one rule con-
cerning homicide that all societies follow, but instead a class of more or
less sharply delineated rules, different ones of which different societies
follow. If this is so then the claim upon which Moore rests the conclusion
that we ought always to obey certain rules “ that they are necessary for civ-
ilized life “ is false. The point is even more obvious if we consider others
of his “necessary” rules, for example, those enjoining respect for private
property. While it is highly likely that societies that allow and encourage
people to acquire and keep property have a better chance of flourishing
than those that do not, there are obviously many different property rules
with which a society can flourish.
Perhaps Moore wishes us to shift to a more Platonic understanding of
rules in order to find the necessary ones: Different societies agree on the
same rule forbidding murder, but disagree about which actions constitute
murder and thus have different ways of implementing it. This would raise
the immediate danger that the rules Moore has in mind are tautologous.
If “murder” means “An act of killing which is bad, which ought not to be
done,” he is telling us no more than that we ought not to kill people when
it is bad to do so. We then get none of the guidance such a rule is sup-
posed to provide: When is an act of homicide murder and when is it not?
Is it his view that one most effectively obeys the rule against murder by al-
ways obeying the version of it found in his own society? In support of this
view, one might note that in the paragraph immediately following his dis-
cussion of this rule, he suggests that we ought to obey the “common le-
gal rules” concerning private property. But in many cases the strategy of
following the version of the rule found in one™s own society would be
problematic. For one, one™s society may have set its standards too low (or
too high). For another, it is based on a failure, which Moore™s theory
seems susceptible to in any case, to recognize that societies make rules
with a sense of their imperfection. Rather than set them in stone, soci-
eties are more or less willing to revise their rules as they are found want-
ing. While it may be wise to be conservative in challenging a society on its
rules, we would not wish for there to be no challenges to them. Finally,
even if one decides that she ought to act in accord with her own society™s
moore™s practical and political philosophy 151

rules, in many difficult cases, she will have to decide what constitutes act-
ing in accord with them. But she will not then be following her society™s
rules so much as making a proposal, which the society may then either
ratify or reject, about what the rules should be.
At this point, one might object that to search for an overly refined un-
derstanding of Moore™s view is to lose sight of the value of the crude tenac-
ity of common sense. Nitpicking too often provides us with the means of
shirking our duty. We must then be bullheaded enough to put subtleties
aside and obey the rules we know to be sound. Those rules are best that
encourage honesty over dishonesty, respect for property over disrespect
for it, kindness over cruelty, and so on. But granting that we appeal far
too often to subtleties to let ourselves off the moral hook, given life™s
messy realities, in many cases we will have to engage in very subtle rea-
soning before we decide which complicated course of action is likely to
bring about the most good. Even at the most basic of levels, we will find
well-taken rules that call for conflicting courses of action: However wrong
in general it is to kill, civilizations that fail to defend themselves against
aggressors cannot survive long. Moore eventually came to accept the un-
tenability of the view that there are rules we ought always to obey. In Ethics,
without mentioning that he had once argued the contrary, he claims that
there are no such rules.9
The rather obvious problems with maintaining that there are any nec-
essary rules raise the possibility that Moore finds it necessary in Principia
to tell a noble lie for the sake of morality. Perhaps he actually thinks that
there are rare occasions when even the most “necessary” of rules ought
to be broken, but that it would be dangerous to admit this even to the
readers of Principia, since even this small admission would lead to their
being broken too often. Although he had allowed himself in 1901 to ad-
mit to an elite audience that the belief in the intrinsic worth of virtues
and duties “is an illusion, which the preacher does well to encourage,”10
he thinks that the consequences of breaking the necessary rules are just
too grim to allow the illusion of their necessity to suffer any exposure “
even silent exposure to oneself.

Nonnecessary Rules
Given the depth of Moore™s conservatism with regard to the rules he calls
necessary, one might conclude that he would have to be schizophrenic in
order to argue that there is no presumption in favor of obedience to a so-
ciety™s nonnecessary rules. There is certainly textual support for the view
that he argues for some presumption in favor of obedience to these rules.
Most strikingly, he says that although the utility of nonuniversal rules can-

9 10
Ethics, pp. 111“12. Regan, Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 162.
152 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

not be proved in exactly the same way as the utility of universal rules, they
can get a “defense valid for many conditions of society.”11 He even thinks
that bad rules, such as certain ones enjoining theft, can have some pre-
sumption in their favor.12 He is maddeningly reticent about the nature
of the defense of nonuniversal rules, but since he classifies rules by de-
gree of universality (however he understands that problematic notion),
it seems that the strength of the presumption in their favor is at least
partly a function of their closeness to that mark. To defend obedience to
a rule on the grounds of its near universality, one would argue that its
near universality is a sign that the rule plays an important preservative
role in the societies in which it is found. The rule is likely to concern mat-
ters lying very deep in the thoughts and desires of many or most of the
people of those societies. So in the absence of evidence that it is actually
detrimental, in most cases the rule ought to be obeyed. With a rule less
frequently found, one argues that it still plays some preservative role in
the societies having it. Because the people have gotten used to obeying
the rule, there will be some social dislocation on its annulment, which
makes for a smaller presumption in favor of obedience.
This argument would be strengthened by being explicitly joined to an
argument in the spirit of Moore™s defense of obedience to universal rules:
Even though the particular rules guiding a society™s behavior in a certain
realm of life are not necessary, it is necessary for there to be some rules
regulating behavior in that realm. To take Moore™s own example, al-
though it is “not difficult” to imagine a society raising its children effec-
tively in the absence of a particular set of chastity rules, it is difficult to
imagine a well-functioning society having no rules concerning what sex-
ual relations its members, especially its parents and prospective parents,
may enter into. As strong as they no doubt often are, parental bonds can
still corrode in those whose sexual attention wanders. In order to defend
obeying the actual rules in place in a society, one need not decide what
things are intrinsically good (this will be important in contending Re-
gan™s view), but can argue instead that since a society must have some
rules if it is to manifest the level of civilization necessary to bring about
any of the great intrinsic goods, social inertia favors obeying the rules al-
ready in place. Because it is difficult to replace rules successfully, the pre-
sumption in favor of the actual rules remains even if we believe that things
would have worked out better had different rules been put in place orig-
inally. We thus do not allow the best to be the enemy of the pretty good.
This defense of nonuniversal rules would actually be the strongest that
could be provided for any rule if there are no universal rules.
These lines of thought take very seriously the fear of special pleading
that Moore expresses in his discussion of universal rules. We may, in fact,

11 12
Principia, p. 158. Ibid., p. 164.
moore™s practical and political philosophy 153

be even more susceptible to special pleading when a rule is not universal
than when it is. We can tell ourselves that since the rule™s nonuniversality
guarantees that society will not collapse upon its falling by the wayside, it
cannot “really” hurt to allow ourselves a small exception to it. In order to
combat the possibility of special pleading, we add enough extra value to
obeying the rule to lead to the conclusion that we ought to obey it even
in some of the situations in which our best attempt at honest, impartial
calculation calls for disobedience. Still, since that which would be left in
the wake of the demise of a nonuniversal rule would have some value, we
do not conclude that we ought always to obey it.
One who confronts Tom Regan™s view of Moore on rules of this type
faces the same problem as one who confronts Moore™s view directly.
There are many passages, such as the one following, in which it is diffi-
cult to weigh the fervor against the qualifications: “Just as the Science of
Morals cannot rationally justify general adoption of a new set of rules, so
it cannot rationally defend uniform conformity to the old set of rules that
define the conventional morality of one™s society. . . . Moore™s funda-
mental point is that in the vast percentage of cases the individual does “
and should “ get along just fine without trying to conform to any rule, old
or new.”13 The second sentence must be an overstatement “ Moore sim-
ply thinks that there are rules we ought always to conform to. But con-
forming to, or obeying, these rules does not require “uniform conform-
ity.” Rules may leave a great deal of leeway about how they are to be
obeyed. There are many different ways of being temperate or faithful, for
instance. Having no interest in turning rules into straightjackets, a con-
servative will also cheerfully agree with Regan that many, even all, of a so-
ciety™s rules admit of some exceptions and are thus to be observed gener-
ally rather than uniformly. But he will put his foot down against Regan by
insisting that from the fact that a society doing without a certain rule
ought not to implement it, it does not follow at all that a society whose
members™ desires and expectations have been shaped by that rule ought
to jettison it.14 The law of social inertia works in different directions in
the two cases.
Regan™s central claim is that it is Moore™s view that since those who de-
fend obedience to a nonuniversal rule cannot argue that it is necessary
to preserve civilized life, their only recourse is to show first, what the great
intrinsic goods are and second, that the rule in question leads most effi-
ciently to the creation of those goods. This is a task Moore thinks no one
has even really tried to do, let alone succeeded in doing.15 Because no

Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 227.
So the decisions we would imagine any group of ur-humans to make about the rules in
their society are of little or no relevance to the rules that ought to be adopted by other
15 Principia, p. 166.
154 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

defense of obedience set within these narrow parameters is likely to suc-
ceed, it follows that people ought not to consider the effects of their ac-
tions upon such rules, but instead just ought to do some good directly.
Regan™s argument that this is the only defense available for obedience
to such rules is based primarily on a misreading of a single passage in Prin-
cipia. In this passage, Moore considers chastity rules as an example of
ones not necessary for all societies. Since it is important to place Moore™s
discussion in context, we shall quote the full paragraph in which it ap-
pears, which comprises the entirety of Section 96, and place within sin-
gle quotes that part of it which Regan quotes:
But not by any means all the rules commonly recognised combine these two char-
acteristics [of concerning desires which all people can be presumed to have and
of being defensible without a knowledge of what things are intrinsically good].
The arguments offered in defence of Common Sense morality very often pre-
suppose the existence of conditions, which cannot be fairly assumed to be so uni-
versally necessary as the tendency to continue life and to desire property. Such
arguments, accordingly, only prove the utility of the rule, so long as certain con-
ditions, which may alter, remain the same: it cannot be claimed of the rules thus
defended, that they would be generally good as means in every state of society: in
order to establish this universal general utility, it would be necessary to arrive at a
correct view of what is good or evil in itself. This, for instance, seems to be the
case with most of the rules comprehended under the name of Chastity. ˜These
rules are commonly defended, by Utilitarian writers or writers who assume as
their end the conservation of society, with arguments which presuppose the nec-
essary existence of such sentiments as conjugal jealousy and paternal affection.
These sentiments are no doubt sufficiently strong and general to make the de-
fense valid for many conditions of society. But it is not difficult to imagine a
civilised society existing without them; and, in such a case, if chastity were still to
be defended, it would be necessary to establish that its violation produced evil ef-
fects, other than those due to the assumed tendency of such violation to disinte-
grate society.™ Such a defence may, no doubt be made; but it would require an ex-
amination into the primary ethical question of what is good and bad in itself, far
more thorough than any ethical writer has ever offered to us. Whether this be so
in this particular case or not, it is certain that a distinction, not commonly recog-
nised, should be made between those rules, of which the social utility depends
upon the existence of circumstances, more or less likely to alter, and those of
which the social utility seems certain under all possible conditions.
Regan™s gloss on the part of the passage he quotes is this:
Not all moral rules, certainly not even all those claimed on behalf of Common
Sense, are so firmly rooted in desires at once so strong and universal. Many hu-
man desires are alterable in a variety of ways, and any rule that is connected with
a malleable desire may itself change without posing any threat to the stability of
society. Whether such a rule should remain in force thus depends on which things
are great goods, which great evils. If the general observance of such a rule does
produce the most good, then the Science of Morals, having been properly re-
formed and assigned its “humbler task,” can offer its defense; if not, not. Moore,
in short, is so far from offering a blanket endorsement of conventional morality
that he assigns to the practitioners of the Science of Morals the task of ferreting
out those rules that are generally observed but that are not productive of good
moore™s practical and political philosophy 155

consequences. Ethics does have a role to play in the effort to reform the existing
rules of society, by using its principles to either modify or to abolish them.16
From a conservative point of view, the line of reasoning rehearsed by
Regan is quite untenable. To start, the second sentence expresses much
too shallow an understanding of some of the “malleable” desires and is
thus too blithe about the consequences that follow from changes in the
rules regulating them. It seems, for instance, to consider one™s switching
the object of one™s sexual interest to be of no greater moment than one™s
switching one™s brand of breakfast cereal. But however malleable sexual
desires may be, however often their objects may change, their depth is
something a society can ill afford to take lightly. In fact, it is just the com-
bination of malleability and depth in these desires that makes it neces-
sary for societies to have some rules to guide the behavior of parents and
prospective parents. If the entire array of rules involved in the imple-
mentation and perpetuation of a society™s familial arrangements were to
change quickly, the society would have no guarantee that it would be able
to institute new arrangements for the care of its children before it col-
lapsed or had its stability undermined to a very dangerous extent.
In order to justify a concern about the effects on societal stability of the
breaking of such rules, one need have no more refined an awareness of
the great intrinsic goods than is needed to justify concern about the ef-
fects of breaking the universal rules (assuming there to be any). In this
regard, note that Moore says only that the nonuniversal rules do not com-
bine the two conditions of concerning desires all people can be presumed
to have and of being defensible without knowledge of what things are in-
trinsically good. Since he is discussing rules he considers not to meet the
first condition, it is possible that he does consider them to meet the sec-
ond. Certainly, it takes no great understanding to conclude that whatever
happens to be intrinsically good, children must be fed and clothed and
loved if a society is to harbor any of it. Regan™s argument also misses the
fact that because of the malleability of desires, rules can help shape de-
sires as well as rein them in. Moore seems to endorse this point in a sen-
tence we shall examine again for other reasons. He says that when we say
that something is a moral rule, we mean that it is such that “almost every-
body can observe by an effort of volition, in that state of society to which
the rule is supposed to apply.”17 It seems obvious that what makes people
capable of obeying a rule in one state of society but not another is the
conditioning their desires have undergone.
It does not follow from what has been said that all rules need to be en-
forced with an iron hand. The ideal is to minimize the friction between
inclination and rule by having peoples™ inclinations so shaped by rules
that they do not feel them to be a burden. There can be many rules that
16 17
Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 234. Principia, p. 160.
156 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

gently encourage people to develop their natural affections for their
children and that reward them for staying in marriages. If people are
raised from childhood to find marital fidelity important, most will em-
brace monogamy or failing that, put some limits on their wanderings.
One might protest that by doing these sorts of things, society imposes a
kind of false consciousness on people that keeps them from exploring all
the goods the world has to offer, that prevents them from discovering
all available avenues to happiness. But one can reply that the imposition
of this kind of consciousness is necessary, since children need so much
care. Further, since desires and attitudes are subject to shaping whether
by rules or other means, there is always going to be “false consciousness.”
Societies might just as well make intelligent use of this fact.
Having examined and found wanting the argument of Regan™s Moore,
we must now consider whether the argument is Moore™s: It is not. Regan
fails to take seriously the second sentence he quotes, which states that a
defense of chastity “valid for many conditions of society” may be offered.
This sentence, along with the second and third he does not quote, sup-
port an interpretation according to which there are defenses of rules that
follow their gradations in universality. Moore is saying that although
before much reflection we mistakenly take certain rules to be universally
defensible, they are actually defensible only for as long as certain facts “
which may last a very long time “ obtain.
What leads Regan astray is his failure to note that in the passage, Moore
indulges in another of those startlingly casual additions to his official
view. Although everything Moore has previously said has prepared the
reader to think that he will offer two different ways of defending rules,
the passage actually offers three different ways of defending rules “ two
ways of defending them when they have “universal validity” and one way
of defending them when they do not. The first universally valid defense
is the one concerning rules all societies can be presumed to have. The
second universally valid defense is offered for rules like those concerning
chastity, which all societies cannot be presumed to have. It is because all
societies cannot be presumed to have these rules that Moore envisages
their defense as taking place in “a civilised society existing without them.”
Using different senses of the word, this is a universal defense of a nonuni-
versal rule. This defense is conflated by Regan with Moore™s nonuniver-
sal defense of nonuniversal rules. But these two defenses must be differ-
ent. The first of them always holds, being based on universal truths about
what things are intrinsically good and bad, while the second holds “only
so long as certain conditions” obtain. Because he fails to separate these
two different defenses, Regan pays insufficient heed to what Moore says
concerning rules whose defense “depends upon the existence of circum-
stances, more or less likely to alter.”
That Moore is considering three and not two defenses of rules is made
moore™s practical and political philosophy 157

clearer by the summary of the argument he provides in the first para-
graph of Section 98. The last sentence of that paragraphs reads:
Others [rules failing to meet the first test of universality] seem to be justifiable
solely by the existence of such more or less temporary conditions, unless we aban-
don the attempt to shew that they are means to that preservation of society [emphasis
added], which is itself a mere means, and are able to establish that they are di-
rectly means to good or evil in themselves, but which are not commonly recog-
nised to be such.
Although Moore is skeptical of there being many instances where one
can successfully defend the introduction of a rule to a society that does
not already follow it, he might be suggesting that the defense of chastity
rules provides one such instance. Although such a defense “require[s] an
examination into the primary ethical question of what is good and bad
in itself, far more thorough than any ethical writer has ever offered to us,”
he might think that he provides the groundwork for that examination in
Principia™s last chapter, where he cites “the love of love” as one of the
world™s two greatest goods and “lascivious behavior” as one of its greatest
evils.18 Although Moore™s remarks about love and lasciviousness are too
brief for any interpretation to be defended with great confidence, it is not
unreasonable to read him as saying that monogamous sexual relation-
ships provide by far the greatest instances of the good of romantic love.
Thus rules requiring monogamy can be defended for all societies.
Let us note also that this interpretation would remove an important
piece of evidence from Alasdair MacIntyre™s brief charging Moore with
provincialism and bias in favor of his own class, the “aesthetic rich.” Ac-
cording to MacIntyre, Moore™s view is that socialists are not to complain
about the accumulation of private wealth, as it is essential to the Blooms-
bury way of life, and prudes are not to say a word about the Bloomsber-
ries™ licentious mores, as they bring into being that love of love whose
value is beyond their paltry comprehension.19 Although it is worth point-
ing out that Moore shows little interest in some of the most interesting
moral and social criticism of his time, we might reasonably conclude that
one has been overcome by animus who reads him as saying that while oth-
ers may not covet his neighbor™s goods, his neighbors may covet their wives.
We turn now to Regan™s reading of Moore™s claim that there are many
situations in which we ought just to do some good directly without wor-
rying about the effects of our actions upon rules. Does it follow that in
most situations we ought not to consider the effects of our actions on non-
necessary rules? As Regan notes, at one point Moore says the following:
“It seems, therefore, that, in cases of doubt, instead of following rules, of
which he is unable to see the good effects in his particular case, the in-
dividual should rather guide his choice by a direct consideration of the

18 19
Ibid., pp. 203“5, 209“10. After Virtue, pp. 16, 107.
158 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

intrinsic value or vileness of the effects which his action may produce.”20
In defending the view that Moore thinks that such cases arise often and
are in fact the norm, Regan makes much of a statement found in the pre-
ceding paragraph: “The extreme improbability that any general rule with
regard to the utility of an action will be correct seems . . . to be the chief
principle which should be taken into account in discussing how the in-
dividual should guide his choice.”21 But the context of this remark ap-
pears to make it more of a firecracker than a firebomb. In the sentence
immediately following it, he writes, “If we except those rules which are both gen-
erally practised and strongly sanctioned among us [emphasis added], there
seem to be hardly any of such a kind that equally good arguments cannot
be found both for and against them.” And the sentence after that, in
which he complains about “the contradictory principles which are urged
by moralists of different schools as universal duties,” suggests that his con-
cern is more to oppose philosophers™ new rules than society™s old ones.
The paragraphs containing these remarks are the second and third of
Section 100. In the first paragraph of that section, Moore announces that
he will discuss “the method by which an individual should decide what to
do with regard to possible actions of which the general utility cannot be
proved.” Immediately, he sounds quite conservative. He writes, “Accord-
ing to our previous conclusions, this discussion will cover almost all ac-
tions, except those which, in our present state of society, are generally
practised.” Then he becomes ambiguous: “For it has been urged that a
proof of general utility is so difficult, that it can hardly be conclusive ex-
cept in a very few cases. It is certainly not possible with regard to all ac-
tions which are generally practised; though here, if the sanctions are suf-
ficiently strong, they are sufficient by themselves to prove the general
utility of the individual™s conformity to custom.”
On one reading, the second of these remarks is quite a bit less conser-
vative than the first: There are cases where the only reason to conform to
rules is to avoid various kinds of punishment. But another reading of this
remark also seems plausible. In the first sentence, Moore has partly in
mind the necessary rules, the only ones whose general utility can be
proved conclusively, that is, shown always to hold. This gives the qualify-
ing function of “all” in the second sentence, where his attention is more
fully on nonnecessary rules, a more conservative flavor. Also, since this
sentence immediately precedes a reference to the only available strategy
for arguing in favor of rules not already in place, the emphasis on “are”
suggests again that his skepticism is directed more toward the third class
of innovative rules than toward the second class of rules already in place.
Moore can thus be read as saying that if we cannot even defend all of a

20 Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 238. Principia, p. 166.
Bloomsbury™s Prophet, pp. 237“8.
moore™s practical and political philosophy 159

society™s actual rules, we can hardly be expected to defend very many
merely possible rules. We shall return to these important paragraphs after
looking at the rest of Moore™s discussion. We hope to show that when
placed in their widest context, these passages are part of a very conserva-
tive attitude toward nonuniversal rules.

Moore™s Conservatism
What seems clearest in the murk so far is that Moore™s opinion about the
number of nonnecessary rules to which we ought to show deference and
the extent of the deference we ought to show them depends on what he
thinks it is for a rule to be “generally practised and strongly sanctioned.”
The more relaxed he is about what it is for a rule to meet these condi-
tions, the greater the number of rules he would require us to take account
of when deciding what we ought to do. The more stringent he is, the
fewer the rules he would think we need to defer to. Unfortunately, he
makes us tease out his views on these matters, although he is perhaps a
bit more direct on what constitutes a rule™s being strongly sanctioned
than he is on what constitutes its being generally practiced. Recall that by
sanctions, he does not mean only legal sanctions. He has already stated
in Section 95 that the universal rules enjoining promise-keeping, indus-
try, and temperance ought to be obeyed even though they are not legally
sanctioned. In Section 97 he speaks of the “sanctions of legal penalties,
of social disapproval, and of private remorse.” It is true that he states that
by themselves, sanctions are not a sign that obeying a rule has utility in-
dependently of the fact that those who break it suffer by being punished.
He recognizes the possibility of a society™s being wrong in disapproving
of and punishing certain actions and thus the possibility of a person™s be-
ing wrong in feeling remorse upon performing them. He might well
think that some or all societies ought to loosen the grip of at least some
of their rules. But these passages do not by any means suggest that the
only reason to obey a nonuniversal rule is to avoid getting into trouble.
We must next ask what Moore considers to constitute a rule™s meeting
the standard of general obedience. It is unlikely that the only thing re-
quired for a rule to meet this standard is that most people follow it most
of the time. Considering only the percentage of the time a population
follows a rule fails to capture the importance it attaches to following it. A
rule might count as being generally obeyed even if it is broken by many
or even most people on some occasions, if many or most of the people
who do occasionally break it think that they and others ought to break it
less often than they do, and if they feel remorse on some of the occasions
when they break it. Almost certainly, these are the conditions to be met
with in rules requiring honesty. Almost all of us have failed to be honest
at times when we thought we ought to have been; perhaps like St. Peter,
160 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

we felt ashamed almost at the moment of our failure. One must beware,
of course, of severing too sharply the general observance of a rule from
people™s actual behavior in particular situations. The fact that many or
most people “break” a rule in a certain situation (as when they tell a “lit-
tle white lie” to spare someone™s feelings) is often a sign that a consensus
has arisen that the rule does not apply there. But we must also be careful
about how many exceptions or refinements to a rule we consider a soci-
ety to allow. Would we want to say that if almost everyone who can get
away with these things skims a bit on taxes or pads insurance claims, then
society has reached a consensus that these are legitimate exceptions to
the rule forbidding theft? Would we go so far as to say that these are ex-
amples of the kinds of theft there is a presumption in favor of performing?
Moore™s brief discussion of temperance, which, as tolerance is, is open
only to incomplete assays, encapsulates the difficulties to be encountered
in steering through the shoals of strictness and laxity. At first glance, one
might think that Moore considers the obligation to be temperate to be
extremely demanding. Since temperance is enjoined by a universal rule,
we ought always to be temperate. But what would it be always to be tem-
perate? Is it temperate never to leave work early or take one drink too
many, or, following Aristotle, is such unyielding behavior one of temper-
ance™s extremes, the one toward which most of us do not incline? Moore
says of temperance that it “merely enjoins the avoidance of those ex-
cesses, which, by injuring health, would prevent a man from contributing
as much as possible to the acquirement of those necessaries [of civiliza-
tion].”22 The expressions “merely” and “avoidance of excesses” suggest
that he is rather relaxed about the requirements of temperance “ just
avoid having too many nights in a bar. But then one wonders whether even
one night out keeps a person from contributing “as much as possible” to
the necessaries. To follow Aristotle again, negotiating these sorts of diffi-
culties requires good judgment, which one develops only by acting tem-
perately: Do your work while also enjoying the fruits of civilization your
work has contributed to.
At this level of generality, such recommendations are neither objec-
tionable nor interesting. Controversy arises only when we consider dif-
ferent strategies of implementation. Does Moore think that people ought
to decide for themselves on such matters as the right proportion between
work and play or does he think that they ought to show some deference
toward the standards set by their society? The quick answer is that he ar-
gues for deference. The place to start looking at how he uses a sense of
what a society generally observes in order to determine what an individ-
ual ought to do is in his discussion of moral rules found in Section 98.
He claims there that it is very important for societies to have rules that

Ibid., p. 157.
moore™s practical and political philosophy 161

most people are capable of observing. Too much moral exhortation con-
sists of advocating actions that “are very commonly such as it is impossi-
ble for most individuals to perform by any volition,” requiring as they do,
a “peculiar disposition, which is given to few and cannot even be ac-
quired.” In order that too much not be asked of people, “it should be
recognised that, when we regard a thing as a moral rule or law, we mean
that it is one which almost everybody can observe by an effort of volition, in
that state of society [emphasis added] to which the rule is supposed to ap-
ply.” Still, even though a rule ought to be such that it is possible for most
people actually to follow it, it seems that it should demand of people a lit-
tle bit more than they would give if there were not a rule “ otherwise, why
have it? The phrase “by effort of volition” helps capture the thought that
we use rules to demand and get that little bit extra from ourselves and
others that it is possible to give. Although one wants to leave the office
early, one recalls the rule to get a certain amount of work done every
workday and thus polishes another paragraph. One who respects a gen-
eral rule requiring honesty decides not to cheat on an insurance claim
even though “no real harm” is done by the theft of a few dollars. Even if
most people do steal in such situations, they could easily refrain from do-
ing so if they made the small effort to follow a rule forbidding it; thus they
too can be forbidden to steal.
This strategy avoids the futility of acting in accord with rules whose gen-
eral observance would be beneficial, but whose observance the individ-
ual can do little or nothing to help implement. As Moore notes:
The question whether the general observance of a rule not generally observed,
would or would not be desirable, cannot much affect the question how any indi-
vidual ought to act; since, on the one hand, there is a large probability that he
will not, by any means, be able to bring about its general observance, and, on the
other hand, the fact that its general observance would be useful could, in any case,
give him no reason to conclude that he himself ought to observe it in the absence
of such general observance.23

We avoid these difficulties, which much beset the philosophical innova-
tor, by noting that since most people already generally observe a closely
related rule, they only need to extend a little more effort to obey the
slightly more stringent rule that oneself already observes and lobbies for.
Having considered how not to pitch rules too high, we now consider
how not to pitch them too low. A danger we must consider is that in or-
der to get general compliance from those least inclined to give it, rules
will have to be such that many, perhaps even most, people will find them
requiring less than they would be naturally inclined to give. If we ask peo-
ple only to meet minimum standards, standards will wane; to use Senator
Daniel Patrick Moynihan™s memorable phrase, we will begin to “define
23 Ibid., p. 161.
162 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

deviancy down.” To deal with this problem, we need to make a small ad-
justment to Moore™s theory and then to bring another feature of it out
further into the light.
The adjustment is to Moore™s statement that those with the “peculiar
disposition” enabling them to obey the more demanding rules proposed
by reformers ought to obey them. Although he speaks here of a single dis-
position, there are surely a great many virtuous dispositions. Further, they
are not such as to be had completely by such people as Mother Theresa
and not at all by the rest of us, but are such that the graphs representing
the different degrees in which they are instantiated make bell curves.
Saints and heroes have one or more of them to a very great degree, most
of the rest of us bunch up in the middle with them, and a few others are
extremely deficient in them. (Perhaps the curves are imperfect, as the
number of those significantly bereft of a virtue is greater than the num-
ber of those significantly endowed.) With this adjustment, Moore can be
seen to recommend that rules be pitched to the particular abilities of each
individual. Rather than think of rules as asking for a little bit more from
one than what the least impressive among us is naturally inclined to give,
one sees them as asking for a little bit more from one than oneself is nat-
urally inclined to give, and also as asking for a little bit more from others
than they are inclined to give. Thus do Moore™s compromises with the
crooked timber of humanity attempt to avoid the pitfalls of complacency.
Further guidance in setting rules is provided by the observation that
any large society is actually comprised of many different smaller societies
and subcultures, each of which has its own rules that members are ex-
pected to follow with greater or less rigor. Since peoples™ characters are
shaped to some extent by the rules of the groups and subcultures in which
they find themselves, the strengths and weaknesses of the members of a
variegated society can be expected to differ widely. So rather than have
rules that demand uniformity from an entire society, let peoples™ differ-
ent group memberships play a role in determining the proper expecta-
tions to be placed on them. This highlights Moore™s suggestion, which ap-
pears in a paragraph we have already discussed, the second of Section
100, that we further explore the viability of the principle of the ethical
division of labor, according to which different people are encouraged to
follow different rules and exemplify different virtues. In this passage,
which seems to have been foreshadowed by his early discussion of the per-
ilous state of casuistry,24 he writes:
The most that can be said for the contradictory principles which are urged by
moralists of different schools as universal duties, is, in general, that they point out
actions which, for persons of a particular character and in particular circum-
stances, would and do lead to a balance of good. It is, no doubt, possible that the

Ibid., pp. 4“5.
moore™s practical and political philosophy 163

particular dispositions and circumstances which generally render certain kinds
of action advisable, might to some degree be formulated. But it is certain that this
has never yet been done; and it is important to notice that, even if it were done,
it would not give us, what moral laws are usually supposed to be “ rules which it
would be desirable for every one, or even for most people, to follow. Moralists
commonly assume that, in the matter of actions or habits of action, usually recog-
nised as duties or virtues, it is desirable that every one should be alike. Whereas
it is certain that, under actual circumstances, and possible that, even in a much
more ideal condition of things, the principle of division of labour, according to
special capacity, which is recognised in respect of employments, would also give
a better result in respect of virtues.

Moore does not then reject outright the attempt to formulate wide-
ranging moral principles, but rather the attempt to formulate principles
for people of all types of character in all circumstances. He does, of
course, find there to be an important place for such universal principles
as “Do no murder” and such virtues as temperance. But even one™s at-
tempt to delineate the universal must be played off against the moral un-
derstanding and resources he has inherited from his own particular
tribe(s). Rather than bemoan the need to pay heed to what is more par-
ticular, Moore recommends to philosophers and leaders of ordinary
moral opinion alike that they welcome the particular as a way of uncov-
ering and allowing to flourish many different ways for people of different
temperaments and circumstances to be good.
Moore™s point about expecting different things from different people
may be extended by noting that those who have the best sense of what
can be expected of a person in a particular situation are the ones closest
to her in that situation. This will usually consist of other members of the
group who in that situation are most directly affected by her actions. If
this suggestion is on the mark, then an interesting twist is to be given to
the sentence immediately following the previously cited passage, which
is another of those that Regan considers to be supportive of his inter-
pretation of Moore as liberator: “It seems, therefore, that, in cases of
doubt, instead of following rules, of which he is unable to see the good
effects in his particular case, the individual should rather guide his choice
by a direct consideration of the intrinsic value or vileness of the effects
which his action may produce.” What Moore is suggesting is that many
cases of doubt arise because individuals are burdened by overly general
rules that require them to consider distant consequences too difficult to
measure. But if rules are made more specific, are drawn up with an eye
on their more immediate consequences, individuals will suffer fewer
cases of doubt, will more often be able to see the good effects of follow-
ing them. Further, because the more immediate consequences are closer
to the agent than the consequences that guide philosophers in the mak-
ing of their rules, these rules will be easier for imperfect humans to abide
by, being in accord with Moore™s observation that egoism is superior to
164 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

altruism as a doctrine of means. Desirable psychological consequences
will also come from following this recommendation. Closing the distance
between inclination and rule is crucial to the formation of well-integrated
personalities capable of sustained, disciplined, and confident pursuit of
various goods. So rather than posing a stark dichotomy between follow-
ing rules and following inclination and siding with inclination, Moore
suggests a way to make the distinction less troublesome by closing the gap
between them.
In fact, Moore seems to imply that in the performance of every action,
human beings of even minimal acculturation both pursue some good to-
ward which they have an inclination (or avoid some bad toward which
they have an aversion) and take some account of what rules in the cir-
cumstances it would be beneficial to follow. His discussion of necessary
rules would seem to commit him to the truth of the second claim. Hav-
ing been duly acculturated, it is so obvious that we ought to perform only
actions that are in accord with the rule prohibiting murder that we hardly
ever bother to note we are following the rule; still, we never rightly act in
total disregard to it. But neither do we ever just follow rules, as rules never
specify how exactly they are to be followed. Even a positive rule such as the
one requiring us to tell the truth leaves open what our tone of voice
should be when we take up the unpleasant subject, whether we should be
frank or tactful, etc.
It is our blessing and our curse that since we think as we act, even as we
perform the actions that satisfy our strongest, deepest desires, we are al-
ways subject to the thought that there is something better we could be do-
ing. Offering the G-rated version of this: In going into the kitchen to get
some ice cream, we notice the cookies that provide a lesser good that is
easier to effect, and also the chocolate syrup and cherries that can with
more effort be added to the ice cream to provide a greater good. In
choosing among possible courses of action, we must decide, using the
amount of time that seems appropriate, which of the available courses is
likely to bring about the best consequences overall “ and then abide by that
decision. So even the most instinctive of our actions must be subject to
some discipline, which seems to put them under the purview of rules.
That the notion of totally pure spontaneity in the pursuit of good fails to
hold up is perhaps at the heart of Socrates™ argument against Thrasy-
machus. Some limits must be respected by anyone who is to enjoy any
good. To reach for every good one glimpses, no matter how fleetingly, is
to suffer from a self-defeatingly short attention span, is to make a course
of action impossible “ is finally to make one™s life incoherent.
The flip side of the problem faced by the Thrasymachean is the one
faced by the person suffering from Hamlet™s syndrome. Rather than hav-
ing one™s actions constantly buffeted this way and that by every glimmer
of good, one never starts a course of action because of his fear that there
moore™s practical and political philosophy 165

is always some greater good he could bring about if only he looked and
thought a little more carefully. (Perhaps we can say that such a person™s
thought suffers buffeting.) One can suffer “paralysis by analysis” in one of
two ways. One can be forever unable to start a course of action because
he is never satisfied that he has weighed the different goods and the prob-
abilities of their obtaining carefully enough, or one can be kept from act-
ing because he is unsure whether or not an action is in accord with the
most well-considered of rules. The person suffering the syndrome in its
first manifestation will not order a martini for fear that a gimlet would
taste better, or be easier on his liver, etc. The person suffering from it in
its second form will never get a drink because of his inability to decide
whether it is best to follow a rule that allows him to imbibe alcohol (or
orange juice or soda or . . .) just before dinner or after, in company or
alone. . . . The conception of complete indecisiveness in the face of good
is as incoherent as the conception of complete spontaneity in the face of
it, if for no other reason than that to postpone a decision is itself to take
a stand on some good, is to decide that it is better to wait. We are never
literally doing nothing.
Despite the incoherence of supposing that one could be guided by one
of these poles exclusively, it is possible for one to set her course too closely
to one relative to the other. The way to avoid doing this is to bring the
poles closer together. It is easier to do this on Moore™s account of rules
than on some others because he does not make a sharp philosophical-
psychological distinction between acting from inclination and following
a rule. He offers nothing like a Kantian account according to which fol-
lowing a moral rule is distinguished from acting from inclination as the
expression of both a priori moral insight and moral autonomy. For
Moore, rules are simply tools that help us to maximize the amount of
good we bring about in the face of both our epistemic and moral imper-
fection. Rules summarize calculations, performed when we are not un-
der the gun and are thus less prone to error, about what actions are most
likely to bring about the most good in different circumstances. Adhering
to rules also makes it easier for us to act with consistency in the many dif-
ferent situations where, within a certain range, what particular course of
action is adhered to is much less important than that one is.
At times when we must make difficult decisions about how to act, even
if we sincerely mean well, we cannot always bring to mind the overall best
consequences we have coolly summarized in a rule. Somehow, evoking
the rule at the moment of decision gives motivational strength to our
belief that a course of action is best, even if the full weight of the more
distant consequences does not readily come to mind. It is as if we trans-
fer the future good that comes from following the rule to the present by
attaching it to our just following the rule. This helps us to close the motiva-
tional gap between the greater faraway goods and the lesser but closer-
166 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

to-the-present goods that alternative actions have as consequences. If we
were not able to use rules in this way, we would have to aim at even smaller
goods than the ones we currently aim at. Further, rules help us to be more
impartial between ourselves and others. Whatever philosophical account
we give of this crucial fact, it is our common experience that we are all
selfish to varying degrees, inclined to benefit ourselves at the expense of
others. Somehow, by invoking rules, we manage, without extending our
concern to everyone, to act less self-interestedly than we would were we
just to pursue some good directly. We manage to succumb less often or
to a lesser degree to the temptation of favoring ourselves and those clos-
est to us.
To sum up, rules help us to maximize utility in the face of our various
imperfections by enabling us to ignore lesser but more naturally attention-
engaging goods for the sake of other greater goods. If this broad under-
standing of the nature and role of following rules is correct then, against
Regan, it follows that there are no responsible human actions that do not
fall under the purview of some rules. Importantly for our discussion, even
though people are naturally differently disposed toward different goods,
the formation of their characters must be understood in terms of their
acceptance and rejection of various rules. Although Moore insists on the
wisdom of respecting our different natural inclinations, these inclina-
tions must be subject to some discipline by rules whether or not we are
very aware of their being so. It is only by subjecting our inclinations to
rules that we develop the characters that enable us successfully to pursue
relatively settled sets of goods over other possible sets. Moore™s general
recommendation is that we lessen the tension between inclinations and
rules by becoming more pluralistic and allowing different people to be
subject to different rules. Since rules are to shape, not stifle, peoples™ nat-
ural inclinations, there should be a great many different rules for all the
naturally different types of people there are.
We begin to bring this conception of rules to life at a society-wide level
by making rules more local than wide-ranging. Rather than have rules
that require people to aid all of humanity, have ones that require them
to aid their friends and neighbors. Anyone who has negotiated a snowy
sidewalk with a bagful of groceries is confident that one who shovels her
sidewalks and helps her elderly neighbors with theirs does more good
than one who pickets about the plight of strangers in far-off lands. Al-
though the cognitive and motivational gap between inclination and rule
is never completely closed as long as we are epistemically and morally im-
perfect “ and if we were perfect we would not need rules “ such rules are
formulated with an eye on the goods we know better and have a better
chance of effecting. Because we know the people of our own groups and
care more about their well being and their opinions of us, we have a bet-
ter sense of what will do them good and are also more inclined actually
moore™s practical and political philosophy 167

to do it. Even heroic actions are more likely to be done for the sake of
smaller and more immediate goods than for larger and more distant
ones. Those who throw themselves on grenades do so to save their bud-
dies in the foxhole, not their country or democracy. This conception
gives us what Regan calls for, spontaneity in the pursuit of good, but with
an increase in discipline and steadiness. Once we start on a course of ac-
tion, our commitment to rules gives us the momentum that stifles for a
time the natural inclinations that so often keep us from completing the
course. It would also seem that this sort of policy enables us over time to
extend the range of our concern. While not doing the impossible of man-
ifesting a concern for everyone who will ever live, we do manage to ex-
tend our concern beyond family and friends to neighbors, colleagues, fel-
low citizens of town and nation, coreligionists, and others.
No doubt, a defense of this sort of particularist program faces a num-
ber of important objections. For one, it appears to be a prescription for
draconian Balkanization. One wants to ask: Can a society afford to go with-
out a large common space in which all its citizens interact with each other
as members of a common polity? One begins a response to this question
by asking a question of one™s own: Is it really advisable to attempt to cre-
ate such a space by formulating from on high a single set of standards that
all people shall be expected to follow? Beyond the insistence that certain
necessary rules of decency prevail, it is hard to see how standards appro-
priate to all the vastly different people of a large society can even begin to
be formulated. It is much wiser to see a society™s common space as being
composed of many overlapping smaller spaces that different people carve
out for themselves by creating their own rules and expectations.
This also suggests that the way to minimize the friction bound to arise
between people of different groups and subcultures is to leave some
space between the spaces. Much is to be said for quietude; one lives in one™s
own milieu and ignores without fuss or fume the rules that do not apply
to him. But even though fences often do make good neighbors, it would
neither be possible nor desirable to make our fences gateless. To get
about successfully in all the different spaces we inhabit, we must play up
or down the different sides of our character while heightening and light-
ening our different allegiances. It is worth noting that this is how all of
us, except perhaps a tiny few whose single-mindedness makes them fa-
natics and boors, actually do behave. People do not find a certain amount
of tact and discretion to be overly chafing or in bad faith. In fact, it is
surely to the benefit of individual flourishing that there be different
spaces in which one can emphasize the different sides of her character.
So if to live in this way with an eye on the ways of one™s fellows is to sur-
render authenticity and autonomy, then these are values that both soci-
ety and the individual can well do without.
We have not yet confronted Moore™s most difficult problem. Often-
168 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

times, societies do not just require people to show “tact,” but rather re-
quire them to stifle themselves to the edge of endurance, to live in vari-
ous conditions of physical and spiritual blightedness. This will not occur
in the ideal version of Moore™s social-political conception, because of the
way in which it allows for a steady stream of small adjustments to a soci-
ety™s rules. Because the adjustments are steady and small and negotiated
by the people who are to live in accord with them, the shaping will not
be a misshaping. At any particular time, it will be seen that most or all of
a society™s rules from an earlier period have undergone a great deal of
change or have even been abandoned. But Moore should realize more
than most that the most important criticism to be made against the uni-
versal rules of philosophers is also to be made against local rules “ ideals
and reality always collide.25 It is a most culpable naïvet© to think that
there is any sort of invisible hand to ensure the course of small adjust-
ments always being smooth. A series of small changes often leads to con-
ditions far too horrible for anyone of good faith ever to have wanted. So
societies cannot afford to focus only on the small and the specific, but
must also develop a keen sense of their overall pattern of development.
This will require them to look outside themselves, to engage in com-
parative casuistry that instills and keeps alive an awareness that there are
other ways of doing things than their own. This is to grant that well-
functioning societies must make room for reformist sensibilities and must
occasionally allow for reform on a grand scale.
One might wonder how one can even speak of such reform in Moore™s
name, since he appears so troubled by innovation. The first thing to re-
member is that he does not require people always to follow the nonnec-
essary rules. Badly considered or badly functioning rules ought some-
times to be overthrown “ even, if they are sufficiently threatening to the
necessaries, at the cost of a great deal of social dislocation. As the defense
of nonnecessary rules need not be grounded in deep or abstruse reflec-
tion on what things are intrinsically valuable, so may it occasionally be
with the critique of such rules. In many instances, it will strike one that it
is the defense of a nonnecessary rule that has become overly abstruse;
common sense will then be on the side of its reform.
But, when great reform does become necessary, it is wise to undertake
it in the conservative spirit of Moore. In order to lessen the amount of so-
cial dislocation brought about by reform, reformers are advised to tailor
their efforts to local conditions. It does not appear to be too large a con-
cession to common sense to assume that in most instances, the people of
a culture can be trusted still to have within themselves resources to be uti-
lized in the reform effort. Reformers should be willing to accept a steady

25 We discuss this point about the clash between the real and the ideal in the next two
moore™s practical and political philosophy 169

stream of input from the people of the society undergoing the reform,
including even the people whose interests appear to lie in opposition.
Such a course will often help to lower resistance to reform or at least to
head off disaster. Reformers who trust too much in their own good in-
tentions and sagacity are far too likely to miss the warning signals emit-
ted by all failed experiments in living.
Adjusting reform efforts to local conditions in this manner is likely to
make reform piecemeal. This might increase the risk of inefficiency, as
momentum from a reform in one area is allowed to dissipate by a lack of
follow-up in another. It might even happen that uncoordinated efforts
will work at cross-purposes with each other. But smaller and more con-
centrated efforts are also less likely to be swallowed up into amorphous-
ness and thus are more likely actually to do some good. Further, one small
success can often breed another. As the affected people note the im-
provements that have been made in a certain area of society, they will of-
ten take it upon themselves to make similar improvements in others. Still,
reformers must remember to be patient. Since people can only change
their standards and their behavior gradually, reform will inevitably pro-
ceed in fits and starts. All of this is to say that reformers will have to trust,
in the spirit of democracy, that a localized process, although often mad-
deningly slow and inefficient, is in the long run more efficient at bring-
ing about good than is the process of reform by imperial edict.
In any case, the fact that the course of reform is often disastrous re-
quires a great many impediments to be placed in the way of its totalizing
impulse. A reform that does not reach into every nook and cranny of a
society is far less likely to leave it devastated. In this regard, it is well to
remember that the deformations wrought by the last century™s “ which is
to history™s “ most murderous, tyrannous, and drabbest regimes were
mostly in the name of universal reform, not parochial tradition. Re-
formers must learn then not just to be humble about the amount of pos-
itive good they can effect, but also to be even warier of themselves than
they are of those they seek to reform. They must do what so many in the
last century failed to do “ resist the temptation to violate the necessary
laws against murder and mayhem in the name of (allegedly) great and
distant goods. And apologists who normally pride themselves on their
skepticism must resist their impulse to be credulous toward reformers.
When reformers do engage in wide-scale violations of the necessary rules,
they must not close their eyes to it or pretend that it is simply a matter of
breaking eggs.
Many are likely to be worried that doubts about reform are piling up
almost as high as the doubts Moore piled up around the breaking of nec-
essary rules. There is going to be a great deal of resistance to reform even
when those who benefit from the old ways of doing things retain a mod-
icum of interest in making things better. When such good faith is lacking,
170 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

ceding so much to caution will give the resisters a permanent upper hand.
We must accept that at times, reformers will have to resort to drastic meas-
ures and even bloodshed to bring about needed changes. But since blood
more often waters the tree of tyranny than the tree of liberty, it is wise to
sound notes of extreme caution before any of it is allowed to flow. Although
it does not do to blink at tragedy and sounds unexceptionable to say that
rigid societies ought to be made to ease up on those they oppress, re-
formers must honestly acknowledge that catastrophe often awaits those
who simply barge in. Perhaps in most cases, in order to get a toehold that
provides for a reasonable chance of success, outside reformers must wait
upon the self-directed stirrings of those they would help. This might seem
again to rig the argument in favor of stasis, as Moore does not counsel
the dominated of a society to butt heroically against their unjust condi-
tions. But perhaps he would respond that people in very difficult situa-
tions first need many small and local acts of resistance to pave the way for
reform. If there has been little or no local resistance, it is unlikely that
even the supposed beneficiaries of the proposed reform effort will look
upon it favorably.
Let us conclude this chapter by again comparing Moore™s views to
Plato™s. Both Plato and Moore recommend that there be strong commu-
nal ties among those bound together by rules. They also agree that if a
society takes care of the big (the necessary) things, the little things will
pretty much take care of themselves. But since Moore thinks that rules lo-
cal in conception as well as enforcement work better than rules formu-
lated and enforced from on high by philosophers, he is much more of a
multiculturalist than a monoculturalist. His defense of common sense
also makes him more of a democrat than an aristocrat. The moral insight
captured by universal rules is available to everyone “ it takes no expert to
know that it is wrong to kill and steal and cheat. The more detailed knowl-
edge a society requires, having as much to do with the nuances of local
mores as with a systematic, universal psychology, is also suffused through-
out the entire society.
Moore™s great concern with the particular does make him amenable to
the Platonic view of justice as doing one™s own work and minding one™s
own business. It might even be that this conception of justice is taken fur-
ther by Moore than it is by Plato, just because he would never approve of
a society™s having philosopher-rulers whose business it is to get involved
in everyone else™s business. As he resists the monistic strain that leads
philosophers to commit the naturalistic fallacy, so does he resist the strain
in Plato that finds it desirable for all societies to live according to the same
blueprint. Moore™s suggestion that philosophers make greater use of the
ethical division of labor also seems to be a radical extension of Plato™s tri-
partite division of labor. Everyone needs the virtues of temperance,
moore™s practical and political philosophy 171

courage and reason, but they and all the other virtues are best distributed
nonuniformly across as well as within cultures. Finally, Moore™s parochial-
ism is one of great optimism and tolerance. Whatever be their rules and
way of life, most cultures can be trusted to bring about, in the infinity of
its manifestations, some good.
Moore™s Cosmic Conservatism

The Dialectic of Innocence
In Principia™s final chapter, “The Ideal,” Moore completes his project
of revolutionary conservatism by responding to skeptical-philosophical
challenges to commonsense casuisitic knowledge. He maintains that a fis-
sure in the thought of philosophers similar to the one that causes them
to lose sight of the truth about good also causes them to lose sight of the
truth about the good. He attempts to provide philosophers with the
means to repair that fissure so that they may once again fully trust their
everyday judgments about the good things the world has to offer. Despite
his warning against overestimating the value of unity in ethics,1 this
makes Principia the expression of a unifying vision and a special kind of
moral prophecy. Moore™s is a work of cosmic conservatism. For no one,
least of all philosophers, is it possible to compartmentalize neatly one™s
way of understanding the world and one™s way of being in the world. By
exposing to them their tendency to falsify the entirety of moral reality,
Moore gives philosophers the chance no longer to fall prey to their own
subterfuge. Showing them that the world as it is has enough of value to
make life worth living, he enables them to escape from the perpetual state
of disappointment with the world they have considered to be the badge
of their superiority.
Upon nurturing, the sense of disappointment philosophers suffer
from becomes the fundament of profoundly reformist religious and po-
litical philosophies we shall call ideologies. Because ideologues come to
radically underestimate the amount of value that is contained “ that could
be contained “ by the world in its present configurations, they suffer from
a deep-seated, ever to be frustrated feeling that it stands in need of a spe-
cial kind of transformation, or that it must somehow be transcended, if
human life is to be made worth living. The unique feature of the sought-
for change is that it depends on a thoroughgoing reconception of the world.
Their thought is that since the value of the things in the world as we
presently conceive it to be is insufficient, we must conceive it wholly anew
as the first step toward remaking it if we are ever to discover the things
that would give it sufficient value.

Principia, p. 222.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 173

Moore responds to this not always articulate line of thought by arguing
that such a reconception is not merely unnecessary and self-defeating, but
the cause of great unhappiness. Whatever value is had by the things pur-
ported to be utterly new really results from their being one of the things
human beings have known to be good from time immemorial. Thus to try
to make any of these things into something never before beheld is to try
to make something into what it is not. This attempt to make a contradic-
tion true results in double frustration. We must become disappointed in
those moments when we admit to ourselves that the new things we have
posited to be are not. But because we also think we see these ever elusive
new things lying unrealized within things that actually do exist, we cannot
shake the thought that their reality is just one crystallizing transformation
away. We are thus always looking at the world™s truly valuable things with
an eye toward their transformation. Our attitude toward them must then
be one of denigration rather than enjoyment.
Although it is not always easy to do so in particular cases, logically, we
must distinguish the sense of cosmic malaise Moore wishes to speak to
from other kinds of large-scale disaffection. Most importantly, we must
distinguish cosmic-political disappointment from more purely political
kinds of disappointment. However much a person feeling purely politi-
cal disappointment wishes for change, she wishes for it so that more of
the good things the world already has to offer might be brought into be-
ing. Although it likely is true as a psychological matter that Moore™s cos-
mic conservativism both influences and is influenced by his political con-
servatism ( just as we find similar relations of influence in the thought of
many radicals), these mutual relations are not inevitable. Logically, it is
quite open to one to be a cosmic conservative and a political radical, to
argue that the good things the world already has to offer are in insuffi-
cient quantity because political arrangements are in place which require
very great change. Moore is speaking here only to those who wish to deal
with the world™s perceived inadequacies by bringing forth something they
consider to be totally new.
To begin our investigation of Moore™s thought on the nature and ori-
gin of philosophical disappointment with the world, we note something
quite startling: He does not play up, or even seem to notice, the similar-
ity between the urge of philosophers to reconceive the world and their
urge to reconceive good. But if philosophers allow the nature of other
things to leak into good when they philosophize, surely they are also go-
ing to be mistaken about some of the things whose natures they allow to
leak. It is also plausible to suppose that a sense of disappointment with
the world lies behind the attempt of philosophers to turn good into some-
thing other “ something “more” “ than it is in a desperate bid to fill a
void. But just as philosophers never completely lose their sense of the
uniqueness of good even as they try to turn it into something else, so also
174 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

do they never completely lose their sense of the world™s good things as
they try to turn them into something else. So once again, Moore™s aim is
to return philosophers to a place they never completely leave.
However disappointed we might initially be at Moore™s failure to ex-
plore the various relations between these impulses (more likely, one im-
pulse with two ways of manifesting itself), it is of the utmost importance
that we not understand it merely as something that could have been rec-
tified if only the psychological currents of his thought had run a little
more deeply. It is integral to Moore™s vision that any psychological ex-
planation he offers of the tendency toward philosophical disappointment
be such as to be described from other vantage points as requiring him to
“skim along the surface.” But before we plumbers of the depths allow this
fact to make us disappointed with Moore, we must recognize that this
points us to what is finally most interesting and moving in his moral vi-
sion. Recall the observation of John Maynard Keynes that, especially in
the sixth chapter, Principia is the expression of great innocence.2 The
final and greatest manifestation of Moore™s innocence is that he does not
think of himself as one who, following the lead of so many others, deliv-
ers to humanity the means of redemption. If he were to think of himself in
those terms, it would be necessary for him to think that there is some in-
escapable and tragic feature of the world we need to be delivered from.
But this is just what his cosmic conservatism is in denial of “ what he
wishes to “deliver” us from is the thought that there is any such thing as, or
need for, redemption. And for it even to seem possible that this thought is
what we need to be delivered from, it is necessary to think of it as resting
on a simple, easily rectifiable, innocent misunderstanding of the world.
To understand this point more fully, it will be helpful to contrast
Moore™s vision to more familiar ones concerning innocence lost and re-
demption won he does not accept. (It will become clear shortly that he
cannot be completely self-consciously in opposition to them.) Although
thinkers who maintain that there is a state of either religious or secular
redemption that human beings can achieve or have delivered to them
recognize innocence to be of very great value, they finally accept that los-
ing it is the price we must pay for the deeper and more satisfying under-
standing of and relation to the world that comes from achieving re-
demption. The paradoxical thought they embrace is that finally, the loss
of innocence, the awareness of and acceptance of evil as being or having
been a pervasive feature of the world, makes the world a better place than
it would have been had it never been at all. So, for instance, will a Chris-
tian like John Milton find the fall of Adam and Eve to be “fortunate.” So
too, presumably, would many a Marxist find that the knowledge of past
suffering it will embody will make the world of the classless society supe-

“My Early Beliefs,” p. 250.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 175

rior to any world that never had the problems this one will have solved.
Although views such as these may have us reaching something akin to a
state of innocence upon our achieving redemption, they cannot have us
returning to a state of innocence we had been in previously. At the heart
of the new, superior state of awareness we achieve is the recognition that
something had to have gone deeply wrong in the world, something had
to have been irretrievably lost, for it ever to have been achieved. This is
to say that it is required of our new awareness that it be chastened by the
awareness of what was lost if it is really to manifest a deeper and more sat-
isfying knowledge of the world and ourselves.
Moore™s argument for the indivisibility of good leaves no room for re-
gret upon the sacrifice of a smaller good for the sake of a greater good.
More importantly, although his doctrine of organic unities leaves it open
for him to say that the greatest of goods depends on something bad, this
is a possibility he explicitly rejects.3 Immediately, this is surprising, as he
finds tragedy, the artistic representation of suffering and evil, to be a very
great good. But he maintains that the actions and emotions that art dis-
plays for our wonderment in its presentation of the eternal struggle be-
tween good and evil can rest on make-believe rather than reflect anything
real.4 The world is at its best when it can be fully understood without the
slightest sense of foreboding, when one™s sense of the evil in it need not
go any deeper than what a child feels in a game of cops and robbers.
Moore™s thought is thus an exercise in the dialectic of innocence rather
than of lost innocence.
This probably locates the deepest source of the dissatisfaction that so
many philosophers feel with Moore, even as they recognize his historical
importance. Equating his innocence with tender-mindedness, they dis-
miss his thought as something an adult need not take completely seri-
ously. They sense before they undertake a serious investigation of it that
the world just cannot be as simple as he makes it out to be. But perhaps
Moore is the one who is tough and all those who try to tell themselves that
evil is somehow necessary, containing as it does the seeds of the world™s
transformation, tender. It is he who is strong enough to accept that there
are no consoling tales to justify any of the world™s ills, neither those that
are of our own making nor those that are not. And at the level of personal
morality, he fully accepts that there is nothing we need to wait upon in
order to do a little bit better than we have been.
But however interesting and moving we find Moore™s message to be, it
finally appears to founder on paradox. For it even to occur to one to state
that the perspective on the world from which it appears to stand in need
of redemption is mistaken, it is necessary for him to make some sense of

The Elements of Ethics, pp. 189“90. Principia, p. 220.
4 Principia, p. 219.
176 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

the world from that perspective. But just to entertain thoughts of the
world from that perspective violates the condition of innocence. To be
completely innocent is to be unaware that there is any perspective or con-
dition in opposition to which a case for innocence needs to be made “ it
is to be unaware even of the tricks of thought that lead the misguided to
deny innocence. It follows then that anyone who attempts to diagnose
those tricks of thought in order to make the case for innocence cannot
be completely innocent. But if only someone who is no longer innocent
can make the case for innocence, then to make the case is to guarantee
its defeat. The paradox here anticipates and perhaps goes deeper than
the one Wittgenstein faces at the end of the Tractatus. The possibility of
innocence as a permanent condition of life cannot be said. But because
it could only be done against a backdrop it requires to be impossible, it
also cannot be shown.
For it even to occur to one to try to state Moore™s message, he must con-
sider that a simple and easily recoverable misunderstanding lies behind
the thought of those who see the world or us as standing in need of re-
demption. If the impulse to see the world falsely in this way were to run
at all deep in us, it would be the thing we need to be delivered from. To
recall Moore™s own example of ethical error, the impulse must be of the
depth of a simple arithmetical mistake.5 (But how could an error so egre-
gious remain innocently unnoticed?) Moore is surely the last philosopher
to think that something that philosophers have found to be problematic
can be rendered unproblematic by the simple expedient of finding its
origin to be “inside us” rather than “outside in the world.” If there were
something that caused us to stand in need of redemption, to harbor such
a thought about it would be to make a mistake concerning it similar to
the mistake Kantian philosophers make concerning the nature of good.
Moore™s “solutions” to philosophical problems concerning both the real
property good and the illusory need for redemption involve showing that
there are not really problems, but simply misunderstandings. But his
problem is that it is much more in the spirit of his work to defuse a prob-
lem by getting us to accept that something is real than that something is
The paradox Moore faces here is not only of a piece with the one he
faces in the earlier stages of Principia concerning the value of attaining
the philosophical resources to refute skeptical challenges about the na-
ture of good, but also with the one he faces later in his career over the
value of attaining the resources to refute skeptical challenges about our
knowledge of the external world. In other words, it is the great paradox
upon which his entire philosophy turns. Perhaps it also explains why in
Principia he does not claim philosophical understanding to be of very

5 Ibid., p. 145.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 177

great or even any intrinsic value.6 For Moore, the highest kind of philo-
sophical wisdom lies not merely in responding to skeptical arguments,
but in completely undermining their viability. There are certain doubts
to which nothing is to be ceded: Some things we just know. But if skepti-
cism has no viability in these arenas, it would appear that there is noth-
ing to be gained by taking it seriously. If this is so, a distinctively philo-
sophical response to skepticism appears to give us no deeper an
awareness of the world than the one we would have had we never fallen
under skepticism™s spell. It appears then that the highest wisdom is never
even to entertain skeptical-philosophical doubts. This creates a peril for
philosophy. If philosophy is born of a tendency to problematize reality
where it is not problematic, then philosophy is problematic. Moore™s prob-
lem would not then just be that the reality of philosophy is the opposite
of its usual self-image, that in philosophy there lies not wisdom but folly “
it would be that there is something, namely, philosophy, we need to be
delivered from. As we have said, that this “thing” is in ourselves and not
the stars makes it no less problematic, nor we any less in need of deliver-
ance from it.
If philosophy is to be defended as a worthwhile human activity from
this perspective, its first task must be the delineation of the boundaries
beyond which skepticism cannot go and the putting to rest of the philo-
sophical impulse to violate those boundaries. So Moore™s statement in
Principia™s preface that he means his work to be a prolegomenon in the
manner of Kant is no casual remark. But if philosophy is to make a posi-
tive contribution to human life, it must not simply dissolve upon the com-
pletion of these tasks. It cannot be that philosophy™s only good is to put
to rest the impulse to philosophize. There must also be a domain inac-
cessible to other modes of thought that philosophy provides worthwhile
knowledge of. But Moore™s strong philosophical realism makes finding
such a domain more difficult for him than it was for Kant. To chart the
manner in which the mind imposes order upon a world that is unknow-
able in itself is not to answer skepticism, but to surrender to it.
One might try to argue that Moore succeeds in the task of outlining a
nonproblematizing philosophical program in Some Main Problems of Phi-
losophy (a very nice title for the issue at hand!). According to Moore, the
most important and interesting task of philosophy is “to give a general
description of the whole of the Universe.” This task is threefold: “men-
tioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it,
considering how far it is likely that there are in it important kinds of
things which we do not absolutely know to be in it, and also considering
the most important ways in which these various kinds of things are related
to one another.”7 According to this program, philosophy begins by cata-

6 7
Ibid., p. 199. Moore, Some Main Problems in Philosophy, p. 1.
178 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

loging the unquestionable judgments of common sense and confines its
skeptical attitude to the second and third of its tasks. Although it is not
his concern in this work to deal with the main problems of ethical phi-
losophy, Moore mentions at the end of the first chapter that by following
this program, “We get a means of answering the question whether the
Universe is, on the whole, good or bad, and how good or bad, compared
with what it might be. . . .”8
Further reflection suggests, however, that it will be enormously difficult
to maintain the impregnable borders required by such a philosophical
program between those things we know absolutely and those we do not.
Moore notes in Some Main Problems that there have been changes over
time in the views of common sense.9 Even a single change raises prob-
lems if common sense is supposed to embody things we know. A line
breached once can be breached again. If earlier peoples did not really
know some of the things they thought they knew, then perhaps there are
things we only think we know. One might argue further that just because
we have no common sense beliefs about the world as a whole,10 we can-
not know beforehand whether or not a fully satisfactory holistic under-
standing of the world will require any changes to be made on them.
It might be most in the spirit of Moore™s work both before and after
Some Main Problems to argue that he was simply mistaken in thinking that
any of the beliefs he cites as once having been a part of common sense
ever really were. Some of these beliefs, for instance those regarding the
number of people on and the size of the earth,11 were, to use Moore™s
own vague word, not “important” enough to have been a part of common
sense. However socially dislocating it might have been for different
groups of people to have to become “accustomed”12 to the fact that there
were other peoples who lived at distances from them greater than any
they had previously imagined, no changes had to be wrought upon the
framework into which these new beliefs were placed. They were not, for
instance, required to change any of their opinions about the nature of
the earth as an object in space. It would have been no more conceptually
disconcerting to these people to have learned these things than it would
be for us to learn on the Internet about the discovery of intelligent life
on a heretofore unknown planet. One might also argue that the animistic
beliefs Moore considers to have been a part of common sense are best
understood as religious in character, which makes them subject to the
psychological-casuistic analysis that he proposes for religious beliefs.13
Following the lead of his discussion in “The Value of Religion,” one could
say that these beliefs were never a part of common sense because, what-
ever the effects of them on people™s happiness, they had no real effect on

8 9 10
Some Main Problems, p. 27. Ibid., pp. 2ff. Ibid., p. 2.
11 12 13
Ibid., p. 3. Ibid., p. 7.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 179

their understanding of how the things they knew to be in the world were
causally related to each other.14
But preserving the timelessness of common sense is not all that is re-
quired by this manner of defusing skepticism. It is of the utmost impor-
tance that Moore not allow that we gain a richer understanding of the
world by challenging common sense even when we find those beliefs to stand
firm. Nothing is to be gained from the failure to breach an unbreachable
line. To return to the issues of casuistry that are our main concern here,
Moore cannot have it that by his defeat, the skeptic has a deeper appre-
ciation of the world™s goods than those who have never been skeptical.
There is no special place in Moore™s casuistry for the prodigal son.

Moore™s Diagnosis
Because innocence is not cunning, it cannot be that Moore fully under-
stands the dangers he faces and devises a strategy to deal with them. Nev-
ertheless, he does manage to go a very long way on his very tight rope. To
remind ourselves, he must satisfy two crucial conditions. One, no matter
how deeply we find philosophy to alienate us from the world™s good
things, it must never lead us to lose sight completely of these things™ great
goodness. Two, the errors that lead to philosophical confusion must be
the result of honest, good-faith attempts to understand the world and
value as a whole. A by-product of meeting these two conditions will be
that optimism about the chances of casuistry™s being put on a sounder
footing than it has ever been on before will seem much less unwarranted
than it would otherwise be. Moore takes up the first of these conditions
in the last of the chapter™s four introductory sections. He says there that
the question “What things are intrinsically good to a great degree?” “is far
less difficult than the controversies of Ethics might have led us to expect.”
That “the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beauti-
ful objects” are the greatest goods is a “simple truth . . . [that] may be said
to be universally recognised.” To deal with the obvious problem posed by
the fact that philosophers and nonphilosophers alike have not only ques-
tioned this truth, but explicitly denied it, he says, “What has not been
recognised is that it is the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Phi-
losophy . . . that it is they “ these complex wholes themselves, and not any
constituent or characteristic of them “ that form the ultimate end of ac-
tion and the sole criterion of social progress.”15
Moore™s view then is that we all have a prephilosophical awareness that
friendship and aesthetic appreciation are the greatest of goods, but that

“The Value of Religion,” pp. 111“12.
15 These particular truths of Moral Philosophy are the fundamental ones of casuistry, not
ethical theory.
180 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

we misidentify these things when we undertake a more reflective inven-
tory of value. Our attention gets lost inside these large and complex ob-
jects and we identify some smaller element of them, pleasure, say, as that
which contains the value we have found. This analysis does enable Moore
to maintain that we never completely lose our knowledge of the great
goods. At some level, we continue to acknowledge the things that are truly
valuable even as we think ourselves to be acknowledging the great value
of some other thing(s). So here as elsewhere, philosophy™s failure to at-
tain knowledge has been due to its failure to attain self-knowledge. As it
has been and will continue to be, Moore™s main task is not to turn philoso-
phers toward something utterly new, but to get them to recollect what
they already know.
What has prevented philosophers from giving friendship and aesthetic
appreciation their full due is a pair of errors that result from their im-
perfectly using the method of isolation upon them. The first error con-


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