. 7
( 8)


sists of confusing things good as means with things good as ends. The sec-
ond, “more subtle” error consists of “ignoring the principle of organic
unities.”16 Moore considers freedom to provide an example of something
that has mistakenly been considered to be intrinsically valuable as a re-
sult of the first error. If freedom is a means to there being anything of
great intrinsic value in the world then even though it is not valuable in it-
self, it is not unreasonable to consider it so. Moore also provides an ex-
ample of the second kind of error. Upon reflection, it is apparent that a
whole containing pleasure plus enjoyment has greater value (or disvalue)
than the whole consisting of the pleasure without the enjoyment. But, ac-
cording to Moore, only the pleasure and not the enjoyment of it has (a
small amount of) value in itself.17 Therefore, it is not unreasonable for
one who does not fully grasp the doctrine of organic unities to reach the
hedonistic conclusion that all of the value lies in the pleasure. According
to Moore, it should not be surprising that natural objects of cognition
are misidentified in these ways. Later in the chapter, he says that such
misidentifications are probably the single greatest cause of error in phi-
losophy and psychology.18
So far, the mistake of identifying the wrong thing as valuable concerns
only the “place” of value and not its amount. A mistake about the amount
of value is committed after one concludes “ correctly “ that the smaller
entity just cannot hold all the value one originally found. But rather than
look for something else as the repository of value, one who has gotten
locked into a philosophical view will conclude, as world-weary hedonists
have always done, that there just is not as much value in the world as one
originally thought. It would be bad enough if this “shattering” of philoso-
phers™ “illusions” about the amount of value in the world did no more

16 17 18
Principia, p. 187. Ibid., p. 188. Ibid., p. 191.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 181

than leave them “sadder but wiser.” But because the value they think
themselves mistakenly to have found is actually in the world, they continue
to encounter it without being able to acknowledge it. They thus become
haunted by a value they think to have vanished. This deepens their sad-
ness as they give way to Edenic nostalgia or hopeless hope about the
world™s remaking.
Happily, when the mistakes committed in the perfunctory casuistries
of ordinary persons and practical reformers and thinkers do not stray very
far from their right opinions about what things are good, they are un-
likely to cause themselves any great anguish or the world any great harm.
Reformers may improve the world without knowing any more about the
great intrinsic goods than that getting rid of obvious evils makes more
room for those goods. Some errors committed by reformers may even be
beneficial to the world. If it is true that an increase in freedom often leads
to an increase in the number of valuable things in the world, the mistaken
thought that freedom is good as an end can be good as a means. When
we turn to more distinctly philosophical errors, we may find later ones
canceling out earlier ones. For instance, many who have become skepti-
cal about the amount of value the world contains have taken that skepti-
cism a step further and concluded that their prephilosophical conviction
that value is objective was in error. Although the disavowal of the objec-
tive reality of value is likely to subject one™s casuistry to a certain amount
of whimsy, it also makes it possible for one to reorient her casuistry more
closely with reality. By managing to believe at some level that value is
purely a function of what one likes, and then by arguing that there are no
logical limits on what one can like, one can conclude that rather than
mere pleasure, say, what oneself likes is friendship and aesthetic apprecia-
tion. Thus by losing sight of the most fundamental truth of ethical the-
ory does one return to the most important truths it serves.19
But not everyone is so fortunate who becomes a victim of the fact that
the closer one looks, the worse one sees. Consider a philosopher at work
on a treatise defending the view that things only become good or bad
upon the decision of an omnipotent and inscrutable God. This view
causes the writer a great deal of anguish, since he feels that neither he
nor anyone else has any way of knowing what decisions God has made.
He spends his morning writing with passionate conviction about our hav-
ing to leap blindly into the abyss as we try to guess what things have been
rendered good and bad. At noon, fully trusting nature, he leaves his study
to go to lunch, whereupon he comes upon a child crying in great pain.
Everything he has written that morning is like straw in the wind as he re-
acts in immediate sorrow to the badness of the child™s suffering. Return-

The distinction between fundamental and important truths is made by Butchvarov in
Skepticism in Ethics, p. 1.
182 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

ing from lunch, he sees a child happily enveloped in the warmth of its
parents™ love. His contorted arguments are again as nothing in the face
of the plain goodness of this scene. But it does not occur to him for even
a moment that the thread of his morning™s argument has been cut clean.
Despite daily reminders, he is unable to bring his simple human knowl-
edge to bear on his philosophical reflection. Notice how much at odds
with the ideal of psychological integration this person must be. The more
quarantined his philosophy is from the rest of his life, the better it is for
him: better that one™s thought remain distant from one™s life than that it
poison it.
According to Moore, a state of alienation this deep requires bewitch-
ment by a casuistic ideal. Simply, an ideal is a philosophical conception of
what the world is like when it is at its best. This description of them can
make ideals seem quite harmless and in fact, they are an indispensable
part of both practical and intellectual life. Any attempt at all to make
something better appeals, however inarticulately, to an ideal. More fully
worked out ideals serve as antidotes to complacency by helping us to test
the limits of the world, by making it (a bit) more difficult for us to settle
for its having less value than is possible. Ideals also play a crucial role in
philosophy and other intellectual disciplines, where the goal is knowl-
edge, not practice. To attain systematic knowledge in any field of inquiry,
we must reach two goals lying in opposite directions from each other: We
must develop an understanding of the unique nature of each of the dif-
ferent objects belonging to the field and we must also develop an under-
standing of the ways in which those objects fit together. An idealization
enables us to remove a thing in thought from the surroundings that im-
pinge on it. We are able thus to consider more deeply what there is in its
nature that for better or worse has only been incompletely realized or re-
alized not at all. But of course, things do not exist in isolation from each
other. So what in thought we rend asunder, we must also join together.
Idealizations provide the means by which to cut through the welter of
phenomena and epiphenomena to locate the ultimate analytical and
causal relations obtaining between such things as justice and happiness.
Finally, idealizations give us the means to answer a question of the utmost
importance “ whether various things are related to each other only as sep-
arate things or whether they form organic unities whose value is greater
or less than the value of them taken separately. Taken all together then,
ideals are an essential component of any conception of value as a whole.
In the chapter™s first section, Moore states that the different tasks
philosophers must perform are distinguished by the three different
meanings had by the question “What is ideal?” Two of these meanings
give philosophers their holistic task. In its highest form, What is “the best
state of things conceivable?,” the question asks for a description of the Ab-
moore™s cosmic conservatism 183

solute Good. Since a conception of Heaven presents this kind of ideal, this
question brings us into the realm of religion. At a level below that one,
the question asks for a description of the Human Good, “the best possible
state of things in this world.” Answering the question in this form involves
the construction of political ideals. In its third manifestation, the ques-
tion merely means “What things are intrinsically good to a great degree?”
Moore considers it obvious that this version of the question, the humblest
of the three, must be answered before attempts can be assayed on the
other two. Although the doctrine of organic unities makes it possible for
the valuable larger wholes not to have the goods from the third question
as their parts, this is a possibility we can safely dismiss.20 We must then be
sure about what these smaller goods are before we decide what larger
goods can be made out of them. It is a source of pride to philosophers
and exasperation to nonphilosophers that philosophers tend to ignore
details for the sake of the big picture. Moore insinuates that this exas-
peration is often justified. Misconceptions about the world and value
arise and gain much more credence than they ever should because overly
hasty philosophers bring to their study of the greatest goods a flawed un-
derstanding of the smaller goods.
Moore himself is quite hasty in discussing the exact way in which their
idealizing brings philosophers to the depths of disappointment. Borrow-
ing from Sidgwick, he suggests that philosophers conflate the different
senses of possibility involved in the construction of ideals.21 The general
distinction by which to distinguish religious from political ideals is be-
tween that which is conceivable and that which is possible by the laws of
nature. This distinction and another, between that which is possible and
that which is probable, give philosophers all the rope they need to hang
Some things (barely) possible by the laws of nature, for example, that
the average person be as altruistic as Mother Theresa, are yet so improb-
able as to be practically impossible. Although when philosophers con-
struct political ideals they always suppose some things to be impossible by
the laws of nature, they also “may suppose many things to be possible,
which are in fact impossible.”22 Suppose then that they overestimate the
extent to which average human beings can be altruistic. This may lead
them to think that it is possible for a polity to be an instantiation of a kind
of large-scale friendship whose value dwarfs the sum of the value of the
much smaller friendships people actually have. The “light” this ideal
sheds on actual friendships makes them more denigratory of actual
friendships than they were after their original misidentification of friend-
ship, as their overly generous sense of possibility has made their percep-

20 21 22
Principia, pp. 184“5. Methods, pp. 18“22. Principia, p. 183.
184 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

tion of its actual constituents grow even faultier. They put into friendship
things that do not really belong to it and also wildly overestimate the value
of these putative constituents. If they forget that actual friendships may
manifest great value even when their motivations are rather “selfish,” they
will denigrate “pathological” love for the sake of some kind of insuffer-
ably high-minded “practical” love. Their contact with reality reaches its
most perilously tenuous state when they become convinced of their abil-
ity to conceive of things that literally, are inconceivable. This happens
when they come to believe that a most valuable kind of relationship can
obtain between human beings and a purely ethereal, “perfect” being. At
that moment, their skepticism about what value is in the world is matched
only by their credulousness about what value could be in it.
Because reality does not go away, not even philosophers can embrace
an ideal completely. But their persistent encounters with reality become
occasions to conclude that reality fails the test their ideals have set for it
rather than the opposite. Since even a properly constructed ideal does
not match reality exactly “ for it would not then be an ideal “ whatever gap
philosophers espy between their ideals and their prephilosophical aware-
ness of value in the world need not seem to threaten the ideal. Especially
as it concerns value, it becomes easy enough to think that the point of an
ideal is not to be a heuristic but rather a corrective to the views of reality
we accept prephilosophically. Still, philosophers do feel some responsi-
bility to bring reality back into sharper focus. Unfortunately, they do so
by complicating their ideals with tail-catching details rather than by start-
ing over with them. It takes great intelligence to follow all the details of
a highly worked out ideal. The truth of the remark that some things are
so foolish only intellectuals can believe them lies in the fact that only in-
tellectuals can follow all the details. Many inaccuracies are tolerated and
even celebrated in ideals because on the occasions when ideals do pro-
vide a perspective on reality, they can be so dazzling as to seem to light
up everything. Finally then, in spite of the good intentions with which they
have been constructed, ideals have been little more than monuments
constructed by philosophers to create, perpetuate, and extend their dis-
Before philosophy can make its positive contribution to an under-
standing of the best the world has to offer, it must break this cycle of false
observation and misguided expectation. Assuming once again the role
of a revolutionary conservative, Moore must, in the name of common
sense and humanity, topple these monuments. Only afterward can he
provide the means to an understanding of the idealizing impulse that
enables it not only to not be the thing we need to be delivered from, but
that enables it to be something that makes an important contribution to
human life. Let us follow him as he takes on the task of toppling reli-
gious monuments.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 185

Critique of Religion
Although the tenor of Moore™s thought from his 1901 paper “The Value
of Religion” onward could reasonably be considered to be atheistic, he
calls himself an agnostic there and elsewhere.23 Perhaps he does not
worry about the difference between the two positions because to do so
would only serve to obscure the most important contention of his critique
of religion: On the issues of what kinds of things have intrinsic value and
whether the universe as a whole has value, the existence or nonexistence
of God is utterly beside the point. Religious believers who come to accept
this point will find themselves more at home in the world as they learn to
enjoy its goodness more fully.24
In Principia, Moore takes up the task of explaining the course by which
religion clouds our understanding of the things having intrinsic value.
The “chief defect” of those who look heavenward to find intrinsic value
“seems to consist in the fact that they omit many things of great positive
value, although it is plain that this omission does not enhance the value
of the whole.” They look “for only the best of single things; neglecting the
fact that a whole composed of two great goods, even though one of those
be obviously inferior to the other, may yet be often seen to be decidedly
superior to either by itself.”25 Presumably, the single thing of value reli-
gious ideologues look to is union or, if it does not sound too odd, friend-
ship with God. Attempting to make an instance of friendship the sole
good thing, they show their recognition that friendship is a great good.
But they make serious mistakes in order to conclude that all other in-
stances of friendship, and all other goods, are left lacking in the light of
this one.
If we follow Moore from the “Value of Religion” and understand God
to be a person “very greatly more powerful, more wise and better, than
we ourselves,” it is quite unlikely that a friendship with Him can be the
only thing having intrinsic value.26 As long as other people have some
goodness, the friendships they engage in with each other are going to be
good. Although it is possible that the attention given to a smaller friend-
ship will harm one™s friendship with God, what we know about human
friendships suggests that there is a law of diminishing returns on even the
greatest of friendships. No matter how valuable any single friendship is,
it cannot manifest all the different kinds of valuable personal relation-
ships one can enter into in the course of a lifetime. To focus solely on
one™s relationship with God is to deprive oneself of friendships that take
place between equals and of the rich emotional unions that form among
groups of friends or family members. It would even be to deprive oneself

23 24
“An Autobiography,” p. 11. “The Value of Religion,” p. 120.
25 Principia, p. 186. 26
“The Value of Religion,” p. 105.
186 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

of the touch of spice that is provided by the small exchange of pleas-
antries at the check-out line and water cooler. Moore says merely that a
single-minded devotion to one great good “does not enhance the value of
the whole,” but it appears that the point can be put more strongly.27 A
person who enjoys only one friendship, even if it is deep and abiding and
with someone of great goodness, lives less well than one who enjoys a
number of friendships. This discussion probably also provides the mate-
rials for a critique of the ideal of all-consuming romantic love, likely the
secular equivalent of this religious ideal.
Some religious apologists will reply that the nature of a relationship
with God is misunderstood if it is seen as being in opposition to human
relationships. It is rather that it is at least partly manifested through the
good relationships one has with other people “ one experiences God and
other people in an indissoluble unity. But the attractiveness of this posi-
tion begins to fade when it is remembered that it cannot allow that God
chooses to manifest Himself through friendships with other people be-
cause these friendships are good. That would amount to an admission that
they are valuable in themselves and not merely as a manifestation of
God™s goodness. The thought the apologist must then try to make out is
that although it is not apparent on the surface, it is part of the nature of
a human friendship also to be a relation with God. If God were to remove
Himself from instances of human friendship then whatever the nature of
the things replacing them, they would not be valuable. Since this argu-
ment is a “metaphysical” attempt to give value to something temporal by
turning it into something super-temporal, it falls prey to the separation
problem discussed in Chapter 6. If the value of friendship is not separa-
ble from God, it will be difficult to hold off the fatalistic conclusion that
whatever is between one and God, whether friendship, enmity, or indif-
ference, is valuable. If there is distinct value in its being friendship that at-
taches to God, the value of the friendship becomes separable from God
and then temporally bound, human friendships are not to be slighted.
Many religious apologists will respond that this line of criticism has
been based on too watery a conception of religious experience. If skep-
ticism about friendship with God is well taken from Moore™s perspective,
this is because the nature of God and the value of intercourse with Him
simply cannot be made sense of in the ordinary human terms in which
Moore seeks to understand it. All one can do who has had the ineffable,
uniquely valuable experience of God is to try to use whatever meager
terms are available to point others, however ineffectually, toward Him.
Moore does grant as a bare possibility that the Absolute Good lies beyond
ordinary human experience. But, since “We cannot judge of the com-
parative values of things, unless the things we judge are before our

Principia, p. 185.
moore™s cosmic conservatism 187

minds. . . . We cannot . . . be entitled to assert that anything, which we
cannot imagine, would be better than some of the things which we can.”28
The gulf Moore is speaking to that is supposed to separate the benefici-
ary of religious experience from the rest of humanity is of a far more
problematic order than the one that separates the most competent
judges of human experience from the least competent. The least com-
petent judge of human experience still has experiences of the same kind
as the most competent: Moore™s drunkard breaking crockery shares a
drink with friends and spies beauty in the glistening of a glass. Despite his
suggestion in Chapter 2 of Principia of radical discontinuities in the evo-
lution of the human awareness of value, in this far more important and
deeply felt chapter, Moore posits a smooth course of development for it.
At all points on the course, we are all, at the deepest level, in agreement
about what things are good. While it is true that some go farther on the
course than others, see more deeply into the nature of the world™s good
things, we all remain on the same course.
There can be no real argument between those who are talking in com-
pletely different terms. The fact that the believer and the nonbeliever un-
derstand each other enough to recognize that they disagree about some-
thing suggests that the believer has really not left human experience
behind. Moore offers an explanation why believers come to think they
have transcended human experience when they have not: They overin-
flate by a mischaracterization of it, some ordinary experience of great
value “ the experience of beauty. As we shall see in the next chapter, al-
though he grants that something about the experience of artistic beauty
is not unreasonably thought of as “other-worldly,” he thinks of it finally as
fully characterizable in human, this-worldly terms.
Another point, which he makes in his own positive account of friend-
ship, is the one definitively defeating the attempt to find value in a rela-
tion with a being such as God. Since God is incorporeal, any relation with
Him, consisting of “the cognition of mental qualities alone, unaccompa-
nied by any corporeal expression,” could have little or no value.29 Al-
though it is mental and not physical qualities that make a person ad-
mirable, friendship, consisting of a complex interplay of perceptions
between two or more persons, requires that there be bodies. Moore even sug-
gests that because of their “mere” beauty, the appreciation of physical
qualities alone has more value than the appreciation of mental qualities
alone.30 So in a style not unfairly described as abstract and ethereal,
Moore revels in flesh and physicality. With less fire but also less bombast,
Moore insists as firmly as Nietzsche that even if the thought of a purely
spiritual realm is not chimerical, the thought that it is of inestimable, or
any, value keeps us from appreciating what really is valuable. We find

28 29 30
Principia, p. 185. Principia, p. 203. Ibid., p. 204.
188 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

value in a world in which the spiritual and the physical intermingle “ this
Moore also provides the materials in Principia for a sketch of a
philosophical-psychological case history of one very important kind of re-
ligious ideologue. Perhaps Augustine is an exemplar of this type. This his-
tory is of one who first succumbs to sexual hedonism and then in reaction
to the immorality of that way of life, comes to look for value in a purely
spiritual relationship with God. According to Moore, love is, depending
on the appropriateness of the object to which it is directed, a part of both
the greatest goods and the greatest evils.31 The sexual hedonist distills
from the great good of sexual-romantic friendship an object too small to
be worthy of his love “ sexual pleasure. Focusing exclusively on “cogni-
tions of organic sensations and perceptions of states of the body” as the
ones to love and “enjoying the same state of mind in other people,” the
hedonist engages in a spiritual dismemberment of himself and others.32
Because the hedonist asks one kind pleasure to carry a much greater
burden than any pleasure possibly could, he must always be pushing the
sexual act to its extremes in order to wring out the last possible bit of
pleasure from it. At its farthest extreme, lasciviousness combines with an-
other great evil, cruelty, the love of suffering and pain in others, to cre-
ate the complex evil of sadomasochism. If the hedonist holds originally
that a certain kind of organic feeling is all-important, as feelings of pleas-
ure pale over time, he might well become indifferent about whether the
feelings are of pleasure or pain, just as long as they are intense.33 It may
also be that sadism is the manifestation of a desire to take revenge upon
one™s partners or perhaps, in a paroxysm of unclear thinking, even sex it-
self, for failing to deliver on all they or it seemed at one time to promise.
And if masochism reflects a sense of one™s own unworthiness and a desire
to be punished for it, or if it is somehow a reenactment of one™s disap-
pointment at the failure of sex to deliver on what one once took to be its
promise, no circle could be more vicious.
At some point in this downward spiral, it might dawn on the hedonist
that his love has been directed to the wrong sort of object and that he has
been living very badly. Filled with horror at the way in which his exclusive
concern with the feelings tied most closely to the physical has led him to
denigrate the rest of the realm of the mental, he now overreacts and seeks
to direct his love toward what is purely mental. But the reformed hedonist
still looks for love in all the wrong places, as is shown by the fact that he
can continue to use the same language as the practicing hedonist to de-
scribe his goal. He looks for some kind of release, which is finally a release

31 32 Ibid., p. 210.
Ibid., pp. 208“10.
See The Elements of Ethics, pp. 183“4, for a discussion of intensity and value as it concerns
moore™s cosmic conservatism 189

from the contingencies and demands placed upon one by the fact of
one™s embodiment. It has become one of the age™s soggiest clich©s that
the religious person hates and fears the body, and sex and its responsi-
bilities of intimacy. But such hatred and fear can hardly go deeper than
in one who thinks of the search for love “as the search for an orgasm more
apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.”34 The use of such imagery
to obliterate any suggestion of tenderness in sex must be born of the
deepest feelings of physical and moral inadequacy. These feelings in turn
must be tied to a passionate hatred of the body and a profound longing
to escape from it.
The reformed hedonist now directs his love toward something that,
even if it is “a mere creature of the imagination,” is admirable, rather than
something positively bad as before.35 Therefore, he does make progress
by looking for deliverance in religion rather than sex. Perhaps if he lives
long enough to lose his loathing of the body for the degraded way in
which he once tried to live entirely through its pleasures, he will deliver
himself to the mean and direct his love toward those objects in which the
body and the mind combine to form something worthy of his love. He
might, that is, one day become capable of loving some of the people who
live in this world.

34 35
Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” p. 347. Principia, p. 200.
Cosmic Conservatism II

Art between Politics and Religion
It is the most important feature of Moore™s account of the other of the
world™s great goods, aesthetic appreciation, that by it one achieves a level
of detachment from the hurly-burly of the ordinary world that is not un-
reasonably considered “other-worldly.” Moore™s casuistry thus makes
room for the kind of sensibility the religious believer rightly finds to be
valuable but which, because of his thought that it requires the complete
abandonment of the ordinary world, he cannot successfully articulate.
But many will suspect that Moore must fail in his attempt to cultivate a
sense of detachment that yet remains tethered to this world. By turning
away from the ugly facts of politics and power, Moore makes his philoso-
phy escapist and thereby seeks to avoid the burdens of responsibility that
a transformative understanding of the world places on one.1 Religion and
politics thus provide the poles between which to place Moore™s account
of aesthetic appreciation. His claim at the beginning of “The Ideal” that
religious and political exigencies are not to be allowed to intrude on the
explication of the world™s great goods provides us with the best way of un-
derstanding how he must proceed if his account of aesthetic appreciation
is to be consistent with his cosmic conservatism: He must offer the possi-
bility of an aesthetic sensibility that is neither escapist nor transformative.
The beginning of the disagreement between Moore and the politicized
opponents we shall envisage for him concerns the extent to which the na-
ture of artistic objects and ultimately, all objects, is determined by their
history. While Moore™s account limits the effects of their history on the
nature of artistic objects, his opponents maintain that they are historical
all the way down. And though they may reject the word, finding it to carry
unpalatable theological overtones, these thinkers maintain a properly
historicized understanding of the world to be redemptive of the evil it has
so far contained. So as we watch Moore™s account unfold against this one,
we shall also see the way in which space is made within it for innocence
as a permanent mode of understanding the world and the consequences,
unseen by him, that this has for philosophy.
Any account of aesthetic appreciation must speak to the fact, noted in
Chapter 2, that objects are artistic only if they are created in certain con-
Abraham Edel, “The Logical Structure of Moore™s Ethical Theory,” p. 174.
cosmic conservatism ii 191

texts. The same series of sounds that would comprise a piece of music if
made in a certain way by a human being will not be music if made fortu-
itously by nature. Obviously then, its history has much to do with whether
something is an artistic object and with what exactly its nature is. What-
ever it finally makes of it, an adequate theory must take account of the
crucial fact that from the perspective of the ordinary appreciator of art,
its having a certain kind of history is what enables an object to mean or
represent something. The more of its history that is involved in the deter-
mination of an object™s meaning, however that notion be finally under-
stood, the more encroached upon is the literalist side of Moore™s thought.
Since history does not lie on the surface, it becomes less plausible to
maintain that a distinct kind of obtuseness leads philosophers to be skep-
tical of the “plain facts” of a situation, that it is perversity that encourages
them to understand objects within larger contexts in which they turn out
to be quite a bit more than what they originally seemed.
Let us consider a line of thought according to which the nature of artis-
tic objects is determined by their history in such a way that in the world as
it is presently arranged, acts considered by Moore to be intrinsically valu-
able acts of aesthetic appreciation, are not. According to this view, the ob-
jects Moore considers these acts to be directed toward are artificial and
incomplete. Once some of its history is given a role in determining the
meaning and hence the nature of an artistic object, the question must be
faced whether there is reason not to include the entirety of its history in
the determination of its nature. Let us consider Tchaikovsky™s Symphonie
Pathetique, said to be Lenin™s favorite piece of music, as an example of
such an object.2 The history that would immediately appear to be most
relevant in contributing to the determination of its nature has to do with
a subset of the thoughts and feelings Tchaikovsky had while creating it;
putting it rather circularly, they are the ones Tchaikovsky “meant” by it.
But the thoughts and feelings Tchaikovsky had while writing the sym-
phony form a vast and complex welter. They, in turn, connect to a vast
welter of facts about who he was, what his position in his society was, what
that society was like, what its relation to the rest of the world was, and so
on. Even if Tchaikovsky did not “mean” all these things, is there not a very
important sense according to which they are all expressed or represented
by the Symphonie? To what principle can one appeal in order to distin-
guish in the welter between the things it represents by nature and the
things it only happens to represent? If one accepts, as many have since at
least the time of Plato, that the meaning of a piece just ain™t in the head
of the composer waiting to be read off by him, one™s skepticism only grows
about the possibility of our being able to find some narrowly circum-
scribed set of facts that give the piece its unique aesthetic character.

Nina Gourfinkel, Lenin (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1961), p. 135.
192 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

When the fact of class or other kinds of oppression as the dominant
theme of history is introduced into the argument, the conclusion follows
that the Symphonie™s being a particular manifestation of an oppressive
social structure is more determinative of its nature than anything
Tchaikovsky might have taken himself more narrowly to have meant by
it. This puts his opponents in a position to invoke against Moore the prin-
ciple that was invoked in his name against the sexual hedonist. An emo-
tion that when directed toward an appropriate object is part of something
good, is being directed toward an inappropriate object, and hence is part
of something bad. To listen to and enjoy the Symphonie in a state of “pure”
aesthetic detachment is to be ignorant of or is to refuse to take account
of “ is in some way to take advantage of “ the suffering of others that it
embodies. It is not then just that acts that are intrinsically good are in-
strumentally bad because of the way in which they keep people from en-
gaging themselves fully in the task of transforming the world “ they are
actually intrinsically bad. Thus the distrust of music Lenin was said to have
had can go very deep indeed.3
It is conceivable in some sense that the world not have had oppression
as its most pervasive feature. Suppose in that case that someone had cre-
ated for peoples™ enjoyment a composition consisting of sounds identi-
cal to those found in the Symphonie. Because its history would give it a dif-
ferent meaning, it would be a different piece of music the appreciation
of which would be good. Since the Symphonie is an object whose most
brute properties are the same as ones the detached appreciation of which
would be good, it is easy to conclude that listening to the Symphonie in a
state of detachment is good. This helps explain both why some thinkers
are haunted by a sense that value hovers above the world without touch-
ing down on it and why others are complacent in their belief that the
world already manifests great value. The haunted find that those who al-
ready find the world valuable are subject to an illusion it is their job as
philosophers to dispel. If in making their case, they fail to fulfill the pre-
scription that philosophers not only understand the world but change it,
perhaps they will at least cause some people who deserve to, to feel a bit
uneasy in concert halls and museums.
Obviously, the objections Moore would make to this sort of view go very
deep. One way he could begin is by claiming that his opponents™ view
about what contributes to the determination of the nature of these ob-
jects ignores the pivotal distinction he makes in Principia and “The Con-
ception of Intrinsic Value” between conceivability and causal possibility.4
Although given the world™s initial conditions, it might not have been pos-

Principia, p. 29; “The Conception of Intrinsic Value,” p. 267. This is the same distinction
he appeals to in his delineation of casuistry™s different tasks.
cosmic conservatism ii 193

sible by the actual laws of nature for the Symphonie to have been composed
in any way other than the one in which it was in fact composed, it is con-
ceivable for it to have been. This is enough to distinguish the musical
meaning of the Symphonie from the actual conditions of its making.
Moore could continue by explaining that his critics™ conflation of these
two things has to do with their embracing the unacceptable version of the
principle of organic unities he so scornfully dismisses in Chapter 1 of
Principia.5 As it is no part of the analysis of an arm that it is part of the
body (because the part would then contain the whole of which it is a
part), so is it no part of the analysis of a work of art that it is a part of a
particular society with particular social arrangements. To maintain oth-
erwise is to put oneself on the slippery slope to monism. When everything
is made a “part” of everything else, there becomes just one object, the en-
tire universe as it reaches backward and forward through all time. The
smaller “objects” we pick out become more or less falsified abstractions
of the entirety of Reality.
At the heart of what is being contended then is Moore™s commonsense
principle that reality does not come in a welter, but consists of discrete,
naturally unified objects. To Moore™s critic, to accept this principle is
merely to enshrine our epistemic limitations within an ideology of common
sense. Epistemological complacency both encourages and is encouraged
by moral complacency. Those who allow themselves to think of what gives
them pleasure as the diamond-hard bearers of intrinsic value convince
themselves much too easily of the futility of extending their concern to
larger social objects. They conclude much too quickly that they are living
not only well but rightly, that they need not worry themselves overmuch
about the suffering of others that is the accompaniment of their pleas-
ure. In response to this criticism, Moore can concede, by calling upon the
distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goodness, that it is a cause
of sadness if the creation of symphony halls is at the expense of decent
living quarters for many, and that the world would certainly be better if
this were not so. Still, he would maintain that denying in the name of hu-
man solidarity that the music of the symphony hall is beautiful and lis-
tening to it is good makes that solidarity pointless. Ethical and political
controversies about ends and means are radically misplaced when they
are shifted to the metaphysical arena.
What is needed by Moore then is something that will enable him to
treat the putative aboutness of a work of art in such a way as to make some
of what it is “about” a part of its nature and some not. The bold course
he characteristically takes is not unlike the one by which he treats the
aboutness of thought in “The Nature of Judgment” and “The Refutation
of Idealism” in his effort to prevent idealism from getting a foot in the

Principia, p. 33. See also Chapter 2.
194 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

door. In fact, we can think of his work in aesthetics as an extension of that
more fundamental work. Rather than hold that there is in thought some
sort of ghostly representational intermediary between the thinker and
the thing being represented, Moore holds that to have a thought is to be
directly in contact with the thing the intermediary had been posited to rep-
resent. Thus the mind is provided with immediate access to what lies out-
side it merely by having a thought. Such a theory requires a commitment
to a Meinongian view according to which the mind can be in direct con-
tact with nonexistent objects. This commitment Moore unblushingly ac-
cepts. Remember that in “The Nature of Judgment,” he says that the only
difference between the horse one sees and the chimera one imagines is
that the concepts constituting the horse stand in relation to the concept
existence while those constituting the chimera do not.
The only way to get across a chasm is in a single leap and once one
leaps, there is no sense going back. Having taken his leap, Moore makes
a Meinongian element the centerpiece of a nonrepresentational theory
of art. Rather than consider an art object to be an intermediary standing
between the mind and some further thing it represents “ which would
lead to the fallacy of defining artistic beauty in terms of the truth of rep-
resentation “ he again eliminates the intermediary. The art object we di-
rectly cognize stands for nothing further, but is itself the source of all the
beauty we espy. What distinguishes an art object from a non“art object is
the fact that the art object directly presents to us an object “ a world “ that
does not exist. What is valuable in an act of artistic appreciation is the di-
rect contemplation of a beautiful unreal object, not the contemplation of
a natural object in relation to something else it “stands for.” Because of
its unreality, an art object is complete and self-contained, with its nature
and its beauty utterly independent of anything in the natural world. Since
an act of aesthetic appreciation is of an object whose unreality places it
outside history, the value of that act is no longer beholden to the history
of that object™s making. Thus the art object™s unreality plays a crucial role
in the articulation of cosmic conservatism against attempts at political-
casuistic debunking, by giving us the means to achieve a level of remove
from the world. We can justify our belief to have occasionally cognized
intrinsic value without having to take on and justify everything in the world.
The world provides occasions to enjoy that neither implicate us in all the
miseries of history nor call upon us to redeem them.
But if Moore™s account of art enables us to achieve a level of remove
from the world, it also, paralleling his theory of thought, keeps us from
feeling at too much of a remove from it. As a general matter, the elimi-
nation of any intermediary or barrier between thought and its object by
itself goes no little distance toward addressing philosophy™s endemic
skepticism and sense of cosmic deracination “ it is not with their shadows
that we engage, but with the things themselves. If all we were directly
cosmic conservatism ii 195

aware of when cognizing a work of art were a representation, we would
never be able to get beyond the representation to the thing being repre-
sented, as every attempt to reach the thing would set off a further series
of representations. As skepticism about our ability to gain knowledge of
the external world follows from the thought that the mind has no direct
access to it, so would skepticism about our ability to gain knowledge of
what works of art are beautiful follow from the admission that we lack di-
rect access to the things they represent.
Of more immediate relevance to our discussion of Moore™s cosmic con-
servatism is the way in which the recognition of art™s unreality enables one
to do two things religious casuists cannot do: to give a full accounting of
the value had by states of contemplation and to enjoy them fully. Because
religious casuists commit themselves, in some sense, to the reality of the
greatest object of contemplation “ God “ they are likely to suffer an “un-
fortunate” case of “misdirected affection or admiration.” As Moore notes,
“those . . . who have a strong respect for truth, are inclined to think that
a merely poetical contemplation of the Kingdom of Heaven would be su-
perior to that of the religious believer, if it were the case that that the
Kingdom of Heaven does not and will not exist.”6
To explain how the recognition of the art object™s unreality provides the
means to the full enjoyment of art, we note the sense in which Moore is
more otherworldly than religious casuists. Agreeing with them that great
value is had by the contemplation of objects importantly different from
natural ones, he avoids the “metaphysical” mistake of maintaining that in
some sense, both kinds of objects are real. Religious casuists must try to
square their official view that both a natural and a “supernatural” world
are real with their unconscious recognition of the fact that only one of
them can be so. They do this by positing that the two worlds “partake of ”
reality in different ways. Having then to worry the question of the relation
of these two different modes to reality, they are likely to come to the view
that one of them “ the one more valuable “ is also “more real.” (They thus
commit the fallacy of defining reality terms of value.) But it is a very short
distance from the “more real” to the “only real,” and so the tension must
always be to have the “more real” absorb the “less real.” The objects of the
natural world are thus not understood in their own terms as objects capa-
ble of having value in themselves, but rather as objects whose only value
lies in their being manifestations and portents of the supernatural. (As art
objects are understood as manifestations and portents of larger social re-
alities on the political-casuistic view we have considered.)
But no one can really deny the reality of what he confronts in every
waking moment. Thus we find Moore suggesting in a paper entitled “Art,
Morals, and Religion” that the religious person™s claim to believe “in the

Ibid., p. 195.
196 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

existence of the objects that he contemplates . . . is often, . . . a mere as-
sertion; implying no dishonesty, of course, but distinguished from any be-
lief, deserving to be taken seriously, in that it merely means that he is al-
ways ready in argument and in his thoughts, to affix to a given proposition
the predicate that it is true.”7 Although one might think that a ritual of
assertion this empty must be harmless, this is not so. Because we are com-
plicated, it leads to the creation of complicated sets of false metabeliefs,
a general state of reflective befuddlement like the one suffered by all
those philosophers who believe themselves to be denying the uniqueness
of good. Those who suffer such a state have their contemplative states
rendered much less enjoyable, as they constantly worry about the truth
of the beliefs they think these states commit them to.
The simple solution to these difficulties lies in the frank acknowledg-
ment of the unreality of the art objects we cognize. This immediately en-
ables one to enjoy a work of art for its own sake without any worry about
its further significance. Tom Regan puts the point very nicely. The fully
self-aware contemplator of art:
does not suppose that he must assert the real existence of the characters depicted
in [a] novel in order to find them or the novel beautiful, and neither does the
appreciative listener or performer of . . . music believe he must assert that the
notes he hears or plays correspond to some “reality” beyond themselves. Art just
is what it is, and not another thing. Those who appreciate art are content to let
the matter stand there.8
The less direct benefit of this acknowledgment is that it frees one from the
religious worries that keep her from being fully engaged by the reality of
the natural world. With no need to worry about what their otherworldly
significance might be, one is able fully to enjoy the friendships and occa-
sions to appreciate natural beauty that the natural world provides.9
But now we must confront a most important question: Can Moore™s
theory of art really fit comfortably within a program of cosmic conser-
vatism, or must it too be the manifestation of a feeling that the world as
it is, is in some way inadequate? If the only reason to contemplate unreal
objects is that real ones are unworthy, artistic contemplation becomes a
kind of substitute experience, a means of allaying our disappointment with
the actual world. In papers he wrote prior to Principia, Moore occasion-
ally hints at such a thought. Admitting in the last paragraph of “The Value
of Religion” that the goodness of some real objects “is necessary for our
comfort,” he assures us that the requisite goodness can be found in peo-
ple. But he qualifies his optimism when he continues by saying that rather
than engage in a fruitless search for God, we ought to engage in friend-
ships with people, “who though perhaps less good than we can imagine

Quoted by Tom Regan in Bloomsbury™s Prophet, p. 168.
8 Ibid. 9 “The Value of Religion,” p. 120.
cosmic conservatism ii 197

God to be, are worthy of all the affections we can feel. . . .” It is not hard
to find in this a suggestion that religious idols are expressions of self-
reproach and religious rituals exercises by which we manage to give and
receive more unreal love than it is possible to give and receive in reality.
And when he says that the emotion enjoyed by the lover of art “need not
lose much [emphasis added] of its force, because its object is not real,” we
might well think that he has not completely masked his own disappoint-
ment with the actual world.
In “Art, Morals, and Religion,” Moore openly asserts that art engages
in deception about the value the actual world contains. He writes of mu-
sic that “it makes us believe, for the time being, that it is far more per-
manent and bulks far larger in the sum of things than it really does. It
misrepresents the world as better than it is, as containing far more good
of the same kind, than it really does.” He also says, “Unless, then, we are
willing to abandon the pursuit of Art, I think we must admit that it is nec-
essary and right to deceive ourselves.”10 So it seems as if the only way in
which the position of art lovers is an improvement on that of religious be-
lievers is that they only occasionally confuse their wish with reality. The
view that we ought to continue in this course of self-deception also hints
that there is nothing better to be had by taking up programs of political
and social reform. Such fatalism is certainly pessimistic and perhaps even
One might try to respond that the troubling parts of Moore™s view on
the superiority of art to the world are all presaged on the mistaken view
he held prior to Principia that “nothing else” than that “which is good is
a proper object of Art.”11 Once we grant what is obvious, that good art
also trades in evil, we will realize that the real world need no longer come
out second best to unreal ones. In fact, granting this point enables us to
see how Moore more completely unfolds the dialectic of innocence. By
providing a place where evil can be housed, art makes it possible for the
actual world to be at its best when it is wholly good. Although he is gen-
erally skeptical of the claim that the virtues are intrinsically good, he does
consider courage and compassion to be among a class of very valuable
“mixed” goods, goods “absolutely dependent . . . upon [the] inclusion of
something evil or ugly.”12 The fact that part of the Ideal is comprised of
such goods might then appear to defeat his casuistry of innocence, mak-
ing the best world one in which real evil is overcome or redeemed. But
this is not so, as the evils we cognize in these acts may be the “purely imag-
inary” ones of tragic art.13
But in response to this argument, the critic will claim that making a
place for evil in art only succeeds in shifting Moore™s problem, that, in

Bloomsbury™s Prophet, pp. 166, 169.
11 12 Principia, p. 219. 13
Ibid., p. 165. Ibid.
198 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

fact, it makes the articulation of a nonredemptive casuistry even more dif-
ficult for him. Although when stated baldly it sounds strange and trou-
bling, we know it to be true that great art gives to the suffering and even
to some of the evildoing we find in it, a purity and pitch they lack in ac-
tuality. Within the framework of Moore™s theory of art, this would appear
to give the unreal worlds of tragedy a grandeur in the light of which the
actual world must appear paltry and wan. And if we compare ourselves to
the unreal figures of the tragic stage, we cannot help but conclude that
we “Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” So whereas originally, the
actual world looked inadequate in comparison to unreal, completely
good worlds, it now appears inadequate in comparison to unreal worlds
that contain, and perhaps even are, evil. The problem cannot be avoided
by an argument that the value of tragedy lies in its being a purgative of
some of our deepest impulses or in its enabling us to see that, appear-
ances to the contrary, it is good that reality is not as pure or highly pitched
as we can conceive it to be. The first of these arguments would make the
appreciation of tragedy good only as a means, while the second would ei-
ther do that or redeem the deep-seated tendency in human beings to see
the world incorrectly by making it the source of great artistic beauty.
So far then, we have not seen a way for Moore to work out a casuistry
in which the consciousness of intrinsic value does not give rise to a di-
alectic of alienation and redemption. Thus far, it appears to be Moore™s
insuperable problem that he requires there both to be and not to be a
sharp divide between the actual and the ideal. Without such a divide, we
can never be fully engaged in either realm; but with such a divide, the ac-
tual world appears not to be worth engaging in. The solution to his prob-
lem cannot be to effect the elimination of the impulse that gives rise to
idealizations, even if such a thing were possible. For one, the ability to
idealize is a prerequisite for our being able to effect an improvement in
anything. As Plato never tired of pointing out, we need idealizations just
to make better shoes and pruning shears. But the reason more relevant
to this discussion has already been noted: the impulse to idealize is the
gift by which we bring artistic beauty into being. So the only hope for
Moore is to show how it is possible for there to be idealization without

Moore™s Solution and Its Consequences
Once again, Moore steers a course at whose simplicity and “cleverness”
we, but not he, can only marvel. Let us return to his brief introductory
remarks at the beginning of “The Ideal.” He acknowledges there, as he
must, the best that is nomically possible and the best that is conceivable
as necessary features of different kinds of ideals. He notes that the con-
structor of political ideals “may suppose many things to be possible, which
cosmic conservatism ii 199

are in fact impossible” and that those who construct religious ideals
“may disregard all natural laws, however certainly established.”14 At first
glance, the mere acknowledgment of these unrealistic notions of possi-
bility stretches the gap between the ideal and the actual to a size large
enough to hold an infinitude of disappointment with the way the world
actually is. But without directly acknowledging the problem, Moore elim-
inates the inevitability of disappointment by articulating the ideal com-
pletely in terms of the actual. He thus shows to the disappointed that the
best things we could possibly or even conceivably do are what we “ some-
times “ already do. This being so, we need never suffer the thought that
the world is lacking something it can never have.
The “strategy” by which Moore defuses the dangers posed by the dis-
tinction between ideality and actuality, by which he makes it appear that
there both is and is not a gap between the two, can be described in either
of two ways: Either he keeps the gap between the ideal and the actual
open, but makes it untroubling by placing the same things on either side
of it, or he opens the gap only to close it immediately and leave no trace.
It should be clear why it is important that Moore do all this with no fan-
fare, without even the whiff of a suggestion that he knows himself to be
dealing with the crucial problem of his casuistry. For a moment at least,
he makes it seem as if it is possible for innocence without knowing it to
reassure itself against the possibility of its own loss. In that moment,
Moore becomes the most antiprophetic of moral prophets: Our wisest
seers and most impassioned critics tell us nothing but what every child
knows as a matter of course. In order to know these things as deeply as it
is possible to know them, it is not necessary for us to return to them from
a period of self-imposed exile.
But however simple and beautiful we find Moore™s negotiation of his
problem to be, he has not yet found a safe place to land. The conception
of the world in which the acknowledgment of a gap between the actual
world and the ideal world does not give rise to disappointment is itself an
ideal. Hence, by Moore™s own lights, it is a conception of something un-
real, is of a world that does not exist. If it is only in an unreal world that the
gap between the ideal and the actual does not give rise to disappointment
then in this world, there must be disappointment. In actuality then,
Moore™s idealization of an innocent world makes this world a sadder
place than it was before he staked his claim for its innocence. He raises
our hopes, only to dash them, that what first appeared so fragile was ac-
tually strong enough.
There appear to be two courses available to Moore for dealing with this
problem, one rather conventional in its implications for ethics and phi-
losophy in general, and the other far more radical. The first is just to con-

Ibid., p. 183.
200 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

cede the defeat of innocence. Because of the kind of beings we are, the
acceptance of the objectivity of value cannot be a simple matter. It is an
ineluctable part of our nature to problematize reality and with it, value;
therefore, casuistry will have to be redemptive. Moore is right in thinking
it to be the main task of ethics to speak to the spirit of resistance in all the
ingenious forms in which it manifests itself. But since our creativity, like
our perversity, is inexhaustible, there is nothing he or anyone else can do
or say that will bring that spirit of resistance to a halt. Even if it were pos-
sible to do so, it would not be desirable, as without it we would lose the
good by which we are redeemed, the ability to resist our original resist-
ance and search, by searching ourselves, for a complete knowledge of
good. This is to say that the recognition of the objectivity of good not only
engenders resistance, but that taking the full measure of the objectivity
of good requires resistance. Because we can only know as much about the
world, and value, and ourselves as we have struggled against, it is by re-
sistance that we both fall and are redeemed.
If we take this view of the matter, we are likely to find that Moore plays
a very important historical role in ethics™ dialectic of resistance and rec-
onciliation. By finding a theme that ties together so many of the argu-
ments of the resisters and a simple way of responding to them, he clears
the way for new arguments and new responses. The historical irony
Moore was subject to thus turns out only to appear to be cruel on the sur-
face. The skepticism he engendered in his attempt to undermine skepti-
cism will be or is already being redeemed in the next stage of ethical re-
flection. But Moore™s historical achievement is not his only, or even
perhaps his greatest one. It is in the spirit of resistance that it turn upon
itself. It is thus in the spirit of philosophy that objectivist ethics not just
answer the arguments of the resisters, but that it resist the original im-
pulse to resist. With some part of ourselves, we do continue to honor and
to try to hold on to innocence. Although it is nothing that can partly be
held on to, Moore™s “naïve” attempt to do so enables us to take the full
measure of what we lose by our original resistance. If the value of a world
redeemed is measured by what was lost in its coming to be, then Moore™s
vision of a beautiful world not needing redemption has enlarged our
sense of the actual world™s value.
The second, more radical, response to Moore™s difficulty branches off
into two different lines. If it is most in the spirit of his work to prevent cer-
tain kinds of skepticism from even getting a toehold in human thought,
one of these lines is likely to be most in the spirit of his work, although
this is not something that would have pleased him. We can begin to ex-
plore these lines by explaining and exploiting what until now has ap-
peared to be a curious weakness of Moore™s casuistry “ his failure to make
a place for knowledge, including philosophical knowledge, as a third
great good. If it is a prerequisite of philosophical knowledge that it be sys-
cosmic conservatism ii 201

tematic, that it be knowledge of something as a whole as opposed to
piecemeal knowledge of this or that fact, then there can be no such thing
as philosophical knowledge. The only world in which we could “discover”
the systematic relations that would provide such knowledge is an ideal
world we create, a world in which we place the relations we find. We thus
put front and center at the beginning of Moore™s great career in anti-
skepticism the great issue he does not seem to have fully recognized. Phi-
losophy itself, with the impossible demands it places on knowledge, is the
source of skepticism.
The first way of dealing with this problem is to follow the thread in Prin-
cipia that Wittgenstein can be seen to have picked up on and make it the
goal of philosophy to annihilate itself in such a way that it never rises
again.15 (Upon the full recognition of the debilitating character of its
spirit of skepticism, would philosophy™s last murmur be one of regret that
it ever was or one of gladness that it would never be again?) From this per-
spective, we again see Principia, which seems at first to be as straightfor-
ward as a battering ram, as a masterful work of indirection. By putting
himself into a position where he does not see the paradox squarely con-
fronting him “ that innocence precludes any commerce with philosophy “
Moore defeats skepticism momentarily and thereby gives to philosophy
an aphilosophical conception of value it can peacefully take to its grave.
But a program of philosophical self-annihilation undertaken in an at-
tempt to return us to a state of innocence must be born of a distinctly
philosophical kind of self-consciousness. It is thus even more subject to
undermining than a program that half-consciously seeks to preserve in-
nocence. In this regard, we can again compare Moore to the far more
self-conscious Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein claims it to be the goal of phi-
losophy to discover that which would enable one to stop doing philoso-
phy.16 But he surely recognizes, after his failure to reach that goal in the
Tractatus, that he will never be able to reach it. He knows better than any-
one the impossibility of putting to rest skeptical-philosophical concerns
by stratagems self-consciously designed in the light of them. Even as he
attempts to bring his philosophizing to an end, he knows that he will be
forever perched on his own shoulder, making the rejoinders and raising
the questions that are both the signs of continuing unease and the spurs
to further unease. Knowing too the power of the philosophical illusions
from which he is trying to free himself, he knows that any glimpse of what
it would be like to be free of illusion is likely to be just another illusion.
Thus does the notion of innocence come under suspicion in Wittgen-
stein™s work and thus is that work, in its recognition of the bottomlessness
15 This is not to suggest that Wittgenstein was deeply directly influenced by Principia. But
as Regan notes, p. 214, he did read it. And even though he derogates Principia to Rus-
sell, the line of thought he ruthlessly carries out is found in it.
16 Philosophical Investigations, p. 51.
202 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

of the human capacity for self-deception, tragic in a way that, quite ap-
propriately, Moore™s is not. If we conclude, as we are likely to, that this
gives Wittgenstein™s work a dimension of greatness lacking in Moore™s, we
can only fully recognize that dimension in counterpoint to work such as
Moore™s. To appreciate the diabolical character of the labyrinths, it is nec-
essary to have a vision of the world of sunlight they do not lead to.
The second response to Moore™s problem, far more radical in its im-
plications for philosophy, is to completely accept the implications of his
views about the nature of ideals and grant that philosophy is entirely cre-
ative and not at all cognitive. The goal of philosophy is not to provide
systematic knowledge of the actual world, but to create ideal worlds”
philosophy aims for beauty, not truth. In the sentence immediately follow-
ing the one in which he claims the goal of philosophy to be the discovery
of that which enables one to stop doing it, Wittgenstein speaks of that dis-
covery as “The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tor-
mented by questions which bring itself into question.” This could be read
as suggesting that peace can come to philosophy only upon the discovery
of that impossible thing that stops the doing of it. But if philosophy™s con-
cern is solely with manifestations of beauty that are independent of reality,
then the source of its torment, its fears about the tenuousness of its rela-
tion to reality, disappears. Philosophy can then either continue to be done
without calling itself into question, or it can continue to question itself but
with the questions no longer being the cause of torment. Since beauty pro-
vides its own justification, as long as its productions are beautiful, philoso-
phy need no longer question itself. Or if it does continue to question itself,
that will be justified as long as the results of the questioning are beautiful.
On this conception of philosophy, we do not find so much that we have
kicked away the ladder after finishing with it, but that we have used it to
climb to a faraway place exactly like the place we left.
One might respond to this attempt to solve Moore™s problem that since
philosophy™s obsession has been with knowledge that stands up to all at-
tempts at refutation, it cannot be right to consider as philosophy some-
thing that abandons all concern for knowledge. It would be far more hon-
est to speak about the abandonment of philosophy under this conception.
But in response to that, one can say that this is the conception of philos-
ophy that most exemplifies its spirit of invincible self-undercutting. When
the spirit of skepticism is turned, as it must be, completely upon itself at
the same time that it is turned on philosophical claims purporting to be
about the world, what will be left are not claims that have withstood skep-
ticism, but claims that have been liberated from it. The philosopher™s
dream has been to find presuppositions about the world that, by with-
standing their own trial by fire, win immunity from all further trials. But
the only way for any claim to withstand such a trial is for it to be a postu-
lation rather than a hypothesis. Such a claim wins immunity by being
cosmic conservatism ii 203

“about” what it creates. On this view, the lines of criticism that a philo-
sophical conception implicitly contains, the ones it generates for itself,
are the means by which a community of philosophers is able to collabo-
rate on the creation of beauty. And the results of “external” criticisms of
a philosophical conception, if they are intelligible, serve to create new
conceptions and with them, new possibilities for beauty.
The possibility must be conceded, although it would be in spite of the
fact that great literature has been created by writers who reveled in their
creativity, that philosophy cannot survive the exposure of its nature as
purely creative. Philosophy might require, as Moore for a time thought
art did, a degree of self-deception. (It would be a nice irony to conclude
that for their peace of mind, the truth must be hidden from philoso-
phers!) Although some would welcome the death of philosophy with
open arms, others just would have to resign themselves to the fact that
the creation of new kinds of beauty is often at the expense of old. Because
of the human impulse to preserve what is beautiful, they could also be
confident that the great philosophical works of the past will not be al-
lowed to die completely. They will continue to be read and people will
continue to be amazed by them, just as they read and are amazed by such
distant artists as Homer. The great philosophical works may even manage
to be something more than museum pieces. Even if philosophical con-
ceptions could only have been developed by those who saw themselves as
engaged in the deadly serious pursuit of truth, it is open to more self-
aware and playful writers to take them up in their own less serious works.
(If playfulness ran more deeply in the world, perhaps there would not be
real cops and real robbers. Still, children play cops and robbers.)
It may also be that the large-scale acceptance by philosophers of the
fact that they have been aiming at the creation of beauty rather than the
discovery of truth will lead to a great philosophical florescence. It is in
the spirit of this conception of philosophy not to consider that others or
even oneself ought to do philosophy only under this conception. (Artists
have shown throughout the ages that they can be equally absorbed in
what they do and do it equally well while having radically different con-
ceptions of what they are doing.) So we may perhaps look forward to a
day when fewer thinkers are stifled by an unsuitable orthodoxy. There will
also be available to philosophers something that was not available to them
previously, a way of rescuing themselves if they get sucked in too deeply
by any variant on the ideology of truth they happen to work under, a way
to step outside that ideology and see it as based on make-believe. Thus
will Moore™s work enable philosophers to avoid the trap of denying
beauty on theoretical grounds as it also enables them to avoid the trap of
denying good on theoretical grounds.
Although the rejection of the value of systematic knowledge seems at
first sight to deprive philosophers of what they have always considered
204 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

to be their goal, it will perhaps also restore to them what since Socrates
has usually been considered to be their most precious asset, their self-
knowledge. Philosophers will be freer now to recognize that since the self
is mercurial, knowledge of it must be piecemeal and tentative. Self-
knowledge follows self-creation, although one of the ways we create our-
selves is by struggling to know ourselves. Our responses to beauty have
much to do with the selves we create and the selves we know.
At this point many readers who have been gritting their teeth for some
time are, in the name of Moore, finally going to shout “Enough.” The
price being paid for holding off skepticism, namely, the complete irrele-
vance of philosophical thought to reality “ in fact, the complete irrele-
vance of all systematic thought to reality “ is simply too high. If idealiza-
tions aim only at beauty, then there are no truths more interesting than
the ones such as “Here is a hand” with which Moore fends off the skep-
tic. (And we are not very far from a view that sees the “assertion” of such
“truths” as these as merely a gesture in a peculiar ritual.) We thus find
ourselves with, on the one hand, thought that is incapable of going even
the tiniest distance beyond the hidebound conservatism and blind alle-
giance to common sense that Moore pledges in The Elements of Ethics and
on the other, with thought that is utterly anarchical. It is hard not to think
that Moore would have found such a predicament to be “monstrous.” It
would be only the coldest of comforts to him to find that he was antici-
pating views of later philosophers who do not always credit him as an in-
The question then is whether Moore has any materials with which to
close the gap between the two radically different kinds of thought with-
out giving in to skepticism. In ethics, the need is to preserve the inviola-
bility of what we know good to be and what we know to be good. The usual
way to make the contrast between two kinds of things less stark is to place
other things between them. Our question then is whether it is possible to
construct a continuum on which to place objects the cognition of which
can be directed in varying degrees to both reality and unreality. If it is not
permissible within the terms of Moore™s thought for any single object to
be partly real and partly unreal, is it permissible for what for convenience
sake is called a single object really to be a series of objects, some of which
are real and some of which are unreal? If so, it would then be possible for
different series of perceptual acts to partake of different degrees of actu-
ality and ideality, for them to have different levels of awareness of, and
concern with, truth and beauty.
In order to get some sense of what is being suggested, let us start by
considering the strengths and weaknesses of Moore™s theory of aesthetic
cognition as it concerns the relation of the value of an act of aesthetic ap-
preciation to the history of the making of the object of that act. An obvi-
ous strength of Moore™s theory is its ability to explain why people can be
cosmic conservatism ii 205

deeply appreciative of art of whose conditions of creation they are com-
pletely ignorant. Even the readers of a realistic novel can be deeply
moved while remaining completely ignorant about whether or not the
novel accurately depicts the society it was inspired by. Still, it would be a
grave weakness of Moore™s theory for it not to allow intrinsic value to at-
tach to the historical knowledge of art. A dramatic way to display our
recognition of this fact is to examine our reaction to the pure aesthete™s
account that the self-professed disciple of Moore, Clive Bell, offers in his
famous little book Art.17 In this “free translation” of Moore™s philosoph-
ical doctrines, Bell goes so far as to say that knowledge of an art object™s
history gets in the way of an intrinsically valuable act of appreciation of
it.18 He also concludes that literature™s inability to escape as completely
as the plastic and musical arts do from the history that gives it “intellec-
tual content” makes it intrinsically less valuable than they.19
Although it is true that appreciation often dies in pedantry, various
kinds of knowledge about the creation of a work of art can in many in-
stances deepen our appreciation of it. Consider, for instance, how a
knowledge of the expressive range of the musical instruments that were
available to a composer may do this. While knowledge that the instru-
ments were quite limited may not lead us to change our opinion about
the amount of beauty manifested by the composition, it may still lead to
our admiring it more than we did before we understood the obstacles its
composer had to face. We may conclude that the composer wrung about
as much beauty as it was possible to get from the available resources.
Such knowledge can also give us the means to a sounder judgment of the
strengths and weaknesses of the entire musical era in which the com-
poser worked. Recalling the first example from the previous paragraph,
if a reader of a realistic novel were to find the portrayal of its society to
be historically inaccurate, a certain amount of disappointment with it
would not be inappropriate. Although the reader need not conclude
that the work is not as beautiful as he originally thought, he might well
conclude that the author did not achieve her aesthetic effects in the
fairest way possible.
No one will have trouble thinking of many other ways in which a knowl-
edge of history complicates and deepens our aesthetic judgments. The
ease with which we can come up with examples shows that we make ex-
tremely complex aesthetic judgments as a matter of course. What we are
looking for then are series of awarenesses lying between the awareness of

Clive Bell, Art (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958). Even if Bell™s chapter “Art and Ethics”
had not explicitly credited Principia, the reader who was not asleep would be struck by
the commonality of the books™ boldness and their grand, but careless, historical sweep.
Art, p. 75. The description of Bell™s book comes from Teddy Brunius, G. E. Moore™s Analy-
sis of Beauty (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1965), p. 9.
19 Art, p. 110.
206 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

brute physical objects and the awareness of the purest unreal art objects
that allow us to account for the complexity of the aesthetic-intellectual
judgments we make. In the name of Moore, let us start by maintaining
that there are the objects that enable a thought to be thoroughly con-
cerned either with the real or the unreal. The one kind of object gives us
a contact with reality that the skeptic cannot gainsay and the other a con-
tact with beauty the skeptic also cannot gainsay.
At the end of series where the pure, unreal art object lies, we find what
might be called art-historical objects. These objects consist of the various
social and historical facts the art object reflects that we need not know
about in order to be aesthetically moved by it. These facts can be ordered
with their order determined by how directly or indirectly they are “rep-
resented” by the art object. For instance, the fact that a poet was suffer-
ing over a failed love affair while writing a certain lyric will lie more closely
to the poem than facts about the political arrangements of his society; in
another sort of poem, of course, the reverse will be true. Perhaps we will
only infrequently find our aesthetic investigations taking up brute physi-
cal objects. Although a detailed analysis of a physical object that inspired
a certain poem may help a critic to unravel some of the poem™s details,
the critic will move rather quickly from the actual object to the things the
artist “found” reflected in it, or made it to symbolize. This is to say that
the critic will move rather quickly from a consideration of the real phys-
ical object to a consideration of the unreal object created by the poem.
Although he does so in only the sketchiest sort of way, in Sections 115
and 116 of Principia, the sections in which he says most of what he has to
say about the details of aesthetic cognition, Moore does provide materi-
als for fleshing out his account along these lines. He first discusses an am-
biguity in the term ˜object™ “which has probably been as responsible for
as many enormous errors in philosophy and psychology as any other sin-
gle cause.” The ambiguity he notes is “between ˜object™ in the sense of the
qualities actually before the mind, and ˜object™ in the sense of the whole
thing which possesses the qualities actually before the mind.” In Section
116, he discusses different kinds of aesthetic cognition and their relative
merits as they are determined by the various relations they have to the
truth and falsity of the judgments contained in them and their various re-
lations to the existence and nonexistence of various objects detected by
them. He notes, for instance, that despite the appearance of contradic-
tion, it makes perfect sense to say that one sees a beautiful object without
seeing its beauty. When such a thing happens, one cognizes the entire art
object without singling out for special attention its beautiful qualities. An
increase in one™s historical knowledge of an object may certainly help
point one toward its beautiful qualities. In this section, Moore also notes
that one can cognize beauty in a work where there really is none. This
happens either when one perceives an object to have a quality that really
cosmic conservatism ii 207

is beautiful but that is not in the object, or when one correctly perceives
an object to have a quality and takes it to be beautiful when it is not.
Moore calls the first kind of error an error in judgment and the second
kind an error in taste. Perhaps we may wish to credit particularly inter-
esting errors of judgment as actually creating new artistic objects.
With these few materials, we can begin to account for the ways in which
judgments involving ideals become complexes concerned with truth as
well as beauty. Some of these judgments will treat ideals as artifacts that
reveal a great deal about those who create them. A historian who tackles
a poem, for instance, will have as her original concern an object larger
and more complex than the poem, namely, the poem in relation to the
conditions of the society in which it was created. Her interest will be to
uncover all the many things the poem reveals about its society. She might
also consider objects larger than that, perhaps the relation of (a certain
kind of) poetry in general to (a certain kind of) society in general. The
more the investigator-interpreter becomes concerned with more general
sorts of objects, the less is she a historian and the more is she a philoso-
pher of history in the grand manner of Plato and Hegel. If our historian
also concerns herself with the formulation of ideals to guide the way in
which the study of such objects is to proceed, she will become a different
kind of philosopher of history.
Some of the historian™s interpretations about the poetic-social objects
he studies will be true and others will be false. That is, he will find in these
objects some qualities they have and some they do not have, and will also
deny the objects to have some qualities they do in fact have. The value of
the historian™s interpretations will be partly a function of the truth and
falsity of these judgments. Still, as there can be value in finding an object
to have beauty it does not really have, so too can a historian™s interpreta-
tion of an object have value by virtue of its being interesting, though false.
The property of being interesting, although connected in some instances
and ways to truth, is also connected to beauty. So we can acknowledge an
aesthetic dimension to the evaluation of intellectual conceptions, in-
cluding philosophical conceptions, but deny the evaluations to be purely
aesthetic. The extremely rich vocabularies of evaluation developed over
the ages suggest that there may be a great many other properties besides
interestingness that are related to truth and beauty and therefore, also to
If we are to flesh out Moore™s account along these lines, we will ac-
knowledge what he does not, the great intrinsic goodness of knowledge.
Moore™s own view is that while knowledge has “little or no value by itself,
[it] is an absolutely essential constituent in the highest goods, and con-
tributes immensely to their value.”20 He maintains that instances of

Principia, p. 199.
208 g. e. moore™s ethical theory

knowledge are good only when the known objects are beautiful or good.
But he also maintains that a “true belief ” in the reality of inferior objects
can make the cognitions of them more valuable than ones in which the
objects of cognition are superior, but in which “a true belief is wanting or
a false belief present.” It would seem then not to be stretching his theory
too far to admit knowledge, even knowledge of real things positively ugly
or bad, into the pantheon of intrinsic goods. Having accepted the prop-
erty of being interesting as one related to both truth and beauty, we can
allow what is obvious, that the knowledge of certain bad things is inter-
esting and therefore good.
With these emendations to Moore™s theory, we are also in a position to
consider the ways in which thinkers who do not in general directly study
ideals as artifacts make use of them in their intellectual work. Let us con-
sider as an example the science of zoology. It is not expected that any an-
imal correspond exactly to a zoological ideal. These ideals are unreal and
may even be the object of pure aesthetic appreciation. (We might think
of taxidermy as zoological sculpture.) But of course, this is not the pri-
mary purpose to which zoologists put these ideals. They use them for the
purpose of gaining knowledge about objects actually in the world and
rightly consider this knowledge to have intrinsic value, even if the objects
lack beauty. (Of course, many of the objects do have beauty.) The ideals
function somewhat in the manner of heuristic devices, helping zoologists
to bring together many facts of varying degrees of generality about the
objects of their interest. We may say then that even though it is no part
of the intrinsic nature of an ideal to be a representation, these ideals can
be given a representative function. We find then that scientific thinking
also becomes concerned with series of complex objects that are partly un-
real and partly real. And so is it also, as we found previously, that the con-
templation of scientific theories has intrinsic value by virtue of the theo-
ries™ being interesting.
Having suggested how Moore™s theory can be fleshed out to include in-
trinsically valuable acts of cognition more directly concerned with truth
than with beauty, we end by briefly considering whether on this version
of it, it is capable of keeping skepticism and cosmic disappointment at
bay. One might think that the series of objects we have been considering
must be on slippery slopes. It might seem, that is, that for as long as the
epistemic gap between actual and ideal objects is very small, then the well-
taken doubts we will have about our ability to attain knowledge of actual
objects through the use of ideal objects will, as a matter of psychological
fact, cause us to lose confidence in our ability to know any actual objects
directly. A fearful thought that might gain a footing now that the gap be-
tween our different kinds of access is seen to be less dramatic, is that even
the seemingly most direct “knowledge” we have of actual objects involves
falsifying idealizations to some degree.
cosmic conservatism ii 209

Even if we cannot pinpoint the thought in which our loss of confidence
originates, we might think that once we suffer that loss of confidence, the
distance between thinking about the actual and thinking about the ideal
is too small to leave us with any means of dealing with it. If that is so, we
have reached a new turn in the road, one where it is again required that
casuistry be redemptive. We would again be obligated to point to some-
thing that the inevitable loss of epistemic confidence gives rise to that is
redemptive of the difficulties it creates for us. Almost certainly, we would
try to redeem that loss of confidence by claiming that it is that which pro-
vides us with our primary motivation to create the complex, sophisticated
ideals containing great beauty. To deal with the epistemic unease we suf-
fer, we create those partly unreal worlds that make the real world so much
richer and more beautiful than the world in which we originally found
The first thing for Moore to do to fend off this sort of worry is to re-
mind us of what he said so many times in his career: Nothing requires us
to lose confidence in the things we know. Any argument concerning
things we know with less than full certainty or things we do not know at
all must leave the realm of certain knowledge inviolable or be known to
be worthless. He might also argue, in the spirit of his placing beauty above
truth, that the psychological theory it posits to explain the creation of
beauty is in fundamental error. It simply is not the case that the creation
of beautiful ideals is spurred primarily by feelings of epistemic or cosmic
unease. Our creativity is deeper and purer than that; it is based on a nat-
ural sense of beauty that is one of our greatest gifts. The fact that we also
use ideals to help us think about the actual world, to create problems
about the world that we can then, in the name of truth, go about trying
to solve, can be thought of as a bonus.
A final, simple thought can perhaps ease any remaining skeptical wor-
ries concerning the epistemic relation of ideals to the actual world. Even
if we cannot know that anything our ideals tell us about the world is true,
we do know that some of these ideals are beautiful “ and in the presence
of beauty we know skepticism to be empty. We know also that it is good
to enjoy beauty with others, who in its light become our friends. And in
this way we end with a Moore whose unironic humility is worthy of
Socrates™ ironic humility. However fearless and searching we be in our
philosophical explorations, we must humbly admit to limitations in our
ability to puzzle ourselves. Some things, most importantly some things
about the value of love and beauty and truth, we do simply know.

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