G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica of 1903 is oftenconsidered a revolutionary work that set a new agenda for20th-century ethics. This historical view is, however,somewhat overstated. In metaethics Moore’s non-naturalistrealism was close to that defended by Henry Sidgwick and other late19th-century philosophers such as Hastings Rashdall, FranzBrentano, and J.M.E. McTaggart; in normative ethics his idealconsequentialism likewise echoed views of Rashdall, Brentano, andMcTaggart. But Principia Ethica presented its views withunusual force and vigor. In particular, it made much more of thealleged errors of metaethical naturalism than Sidgwick or Rashdallhad, saying they vitiated most previous moral philosophy. For thisreason, Moore’s work had a disproportionate influence on20th-century moral philosophy and remains the best-knownexpression of a general metaethical view also shared by later writerssuch as H.A. Prichard, W.D. Ross, and C.D. Broad.
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1. Non-naturalism and the Open-Question Argument
Moore’s non-naturalism comprised two main theses. One was therealist thesis that moral and more generally normative judgements– like many of his contemporaries, Moore did not distinguish thetwo – are true or false objectively, or independently of anybeliefs or attitudes we may have. The other was the autonomy-of-ethicsthesis that moral judgements are sui generis, neitherreducible to nor derivable from non-moral, for example scientific ormetaphysical, judgements; they express a distinctive kind of objectivetruth. Closely connected to his non-naturalism was the epistemologicalview that our knowledge of moral truths is intuitive, in the sensethat it is not arrived at by inference from non-moral truths but restson our recognizing certain moral propositions as self-evident, by akind of direct or immediate insight.
Moore expressed the realist side of his non-naturalism by saying thatfundamental moral judgements ascribe the property of goodness orbadness to states of affairs, though especially in PrincipiaEthica he tended not to distinguish moral concepts and moralproperties. Like others of his time, he seems to have taken therealist view that moral judgements are objectively true for granted;he certainly did not defend it extensively against anti-realistalternatives. Thus the first sentence of Principia Ethicarefers casually, and without any sense of controversy, to the“truth” of some ethical judgements (1903: 1/1993: 53). Inthis he was doubtless influenced by the grammar of moral judgements,which have a standard subject-predicate form, as in “xis good.” But it may also be relevant that, at least early on,the only version of subjectivism he seems to have been aware of wasthe naturalist view that to say “x is good” is toreport some psychological fact such as that you approve of xor that most people in your society do. In his later bookEthics he argued, among other things, that this view does notallow for moral disagreement, since, for example, my report that Iapprove of x and your report that you disapprove of it canboth be true (1912: 100–03/1947: 62–64/1965: 42–43).Late in his life he encountered the non-cognitivist emotivism of C.L.Stevenson, which says that moral judgements express rather than reportfeelings and therefore can conflict (Stevenson 1942). He initiallyconceded, surprisingly, that Stevenson’s anti-realist view hadas good a claim as his own to be true (1942: 544–45), butshortly after he reverted to his earlier non-naturalism, saying hecould not imagine what had induced him to consider abandoning it(Ewing 1962: 251).
Especially in Principia Ethica, Moore spent much more timedefending his other non-naturalist thesis, about the autonomy ofethics, which he expressed by saying the property of goodness issimple and unanalyzable, and in particular unanalyzable in non-moralterms. This meant the property is “non-natural,” ordistinct from any of the natural properties studied by science, thoughhe also thought it distinct from metaphysical properties. Views thatdenied this thesis committed what he called “the naturalisticfallacy” (1903: 10/1993: 62), which he found in hedonists suchas Jeremy Bentham, evolutionary ethicists such as Herbert Spencer, andmetaphysical ethicists such as T.H. Green. His main argument againsttheir view was what has come to be known as the “open-questionargument,” though he actually stated in two slightly differentways. Consider a particular naturalist claim, such as that“x is good” is equivalent to “x ispleasant” or “x is pleasure.”If this claimwere true, he argued, the judgement “Pleasure is good”would be equivalent to “Pleasure is pleasure,” yet surelysomeone who asserts the former means to express more than thatuninformative tautology. Alternatively, if this naturalist claim weretrue, “x is pleasant but x is not good”would be self-contradictory. Once it was established that xis pleasant, the question whetherit is good would then beclosed, or not worth considering, whereas, he argued, it remains open.The same argument can be mounted against any other naturalistproposal: even if we have determined that something is what we desireto desire or is more evolved, the question whether it is good remainsopen, in the sense of not being settled by the meaning of the word“good.” We can ask whether what we desire to desire isgood, and likewise for what is more evolved, more unified, or whatever(1903: 10–17/1993: 62–69). Sidgwick had used one form ofthis argument against Bentham and Spencer, but only in passing (1907:26n, 109); Moore developed it a greater length and made it central tohis metaethics. And though he applied it specifically to“good,” it can equally well be used about other moral ornormative concepts such as “ought” and“duty.”
The open-question argument was extensively discussed in20th-century metaethics and met with several objections.One said the argument’s persuasiveness depends on the“paradox of analysis”: that any definition of a conceptwill, if it is successful, appear uninformative. If an analysis doescapture all its target concept’s content, the sentence linkingthe two will be a tautology; but this is hardly a reason to reject allanalyses (Langford 1942). Here it can be replied that in other casesaccepting a definition leads us to see that the sentence affirming it,while initially seeming informative, in fact is not; thus “abachelor is an unmarried man” is not informative. This does nothappen, however, in the case of “good.” Even if we agreethat only pleasure is good, no amount of reflection will make us think“Pleasure is good” is equivalent to “Pleasure ispleasure”; Ross, for one, gave this response (1930:92–94). Another objection, made from the 1970s on and veryinfluential, says that while the open-question argument may show thatthe concept “good” is distinct from any non-moral concept,it cannot support a similar conclusion about the property of goodness.(Recall that Moore tended not to distinguish concepts fromproperties.) Empirical science, the objection runs, uncovers manynon-analytic property-identities, for example, that the property ofbeing water is identical to the property of being H2O eventhough the concepts “water” and“H2O” are distinct. By analogy, the property ofgoodness could be identical to that of being pleasant even if“good” and “pleasant” have different meanings(e.g. Brink 1989: Ch. 6). Moore’s mistake, then, was to thinkthat what may indeed hold for the concept “good” alsoholds for the property of goodness. Again, however, it can be repliedthat natural-kind properties such as being water have special featuresthat allow non-analytic identities but that aren’t had byethical properties such as goodness, for which such identities areimpossible. More specifically, it can be argued, the property of beingwater is the property of having that underlying structure, whicheverit is, the explains the behaviour of the stuff found in lakes, rivers,and streams; when this structure turns out to be H2O, thelatter property “fills a gap” in the former and makes thetwo identical (Parfit 2011, vol. 2: 298–303, 329–38; alsoGampel 1996). But this explanation does not extend to the case ofgoodness, which is not a higher-level property with any gap that needsfilling. To be good is not to have whatever other property plays somefunctional role; it is just to be good. It follows that if goodness isanalytically distinct from any natural property, it is metaphysicallydistinct from it too.
It is worth noting, however, that Moore did not explain hisopen-question argument in the way many later non-cognitivists, wholikewise endorsed the argument, would. Following Hume, they held thatmoral judgements are intrinsically motivating, so that sincerelyaccepting “x is good” requires a commitment or atleast some motivation to pursue x if that is possible (e.e.Hare 1952: 81–93; Hare 1963: 22–29). But then no analysisof “good” in purely natural terms can succeed, since itcannot capture the term’s action-guiding force; nor can anevaluative conclusion be validly inferred from premises none of whichhave that force. Whatever the merits of this Humean explanation, Moorehimself did not give it. The question whether moral judgements areintrinsically motivating is not one on which he expressed clear viewsor which he apparently thought important. In Principia Ethicahe remarked in passing that we “hardly ever” thinksomething good without having some attitude of will towards it, but hedenied that this is true universally (1903: 131, 135–6/1993:181–82, 186). Whether it is true universally, and what mightfollow if it is, is not something he seems to have thought it worthconsidering further.
2. Metaethical Innovations
The main elements of Moore’s non-naturalism – moralrealism and the autonomy of ethics – had been defended earlierby Sidgwick and others and were reasonably well known when Moorewrote. This is reflected in the initial reviews of PrincipiaEthica, many of which questioned its claims to metaethicaloriginality (see Welchman 1989). But Moore did add two metaethicalinnovations. One was his view that the fundamental moral concept is“good” (plus its contrary “bad”), which heexpressed by saying that goodness is simple and unanalyzable, even inmoral terms. This had not been Sidgwick’s view. For him thecentral moral concept was “ought,” and he defined good interms of ought, more specifically, as what one ought to desire (1907:112). Principia Ethica took the exactly opposite view,defining ought in terms of good, so “one ought to dox” literally means “x will produce themost good possible” (1903: 25, 146–48/1993: 76–77,196–98). But Moore was quickly persuaded by Bertrand Russellthat this view is vulnerable to his own open-question argument, sincein saying “one ought to do what will produce the mostgood” we do not mean “what will produce the most good willproduce the most good” (Russell 1904: 330). In later work suchas Ethics he therefore held that ought is a distinct moralproperty from good (1912: 173, 180–81/1947: 107–08,112–13/1965: 73, 76–77; also 1942: 558–59), and inan uncompleted Preface to a planned second edition of PrincipiaEthica he allowed that it would not affect the essence of hisnon-naturalism if good were defined in moral terms, say, as what oneought to desire (1993: 5, 14–15). But he continued to prefer theview that good is a simple concept, not definable in deontic terms(1942: 574–77), and there was vigorous debate on this topic inthis general period, with Brentano, Broad, and A.C. Ewing defendingreductive analyses similar to Sidgwick’s while Ross preferred anon-reductive view like Moore’s. On the Moorean view judgementsabout the goodness of states of affairs are not shorthand forjudgements about how we ought or have reason to respond to thosestates; they are independent judgements that explain, syntheticallybut as following “from the very nature” of goodness, whywe ought so to respond.
Moore’s second innovation was his view that the intrinsic valueof a state of affairs can depend only on its intrinsic properties,ones it has apart from any relations to other states. Earlier writershad distinguished between goodness as an end, which they also calledintrinsic or ultimate goodness, and goodness as a means, and had saidthe former cannot rest just on a state’s causally producinggoods external to itself. But they seemed to allow that goodness as anend can depend on other relational properties; thus they talked as ifa belief’s being true, which is necessary for its beingknowledge, can increase its value, while a pleasure’s being thatof a bad person can make it worse. Moore did not explicitly state hismore restrictive view that intrinsic goodness can depend only onintrinsic properties until “The Conception of IntrinsicValue” of 1922, but it nonetheless guided PrincipiaEthica at two points. One was the book’s specificformulation of its principle of organic unities, discussed below. Theother was its testing for a state’s intrinsic value by the“method of isolation,” which involves asking whether auniverse containing only that state and no other would be good (1903:91, 93, 95, 187–88, 208/1993: 142, 145, 147, 236–37, 256);the point of this method is precisely to insulate judgements ofintrinsic value from facts about a state’s external relations byensuring that there are none such. Moore’s strict view wasshared by some later writers such as Ross (1930: 75), while othersargued that a better theory of value results if intrinsic goodness isallowed to depend on some relational properties (e.g. Ewing 1947:114). But Moore was the first to raise this issue clearly.
These two innovations, though not trivial, do not affect the core of anon-naturalist metaethics. Some critics, however, charge that Mooredid change that view fundamentally, and for the worse. They saySidgwick’s non-naturalism was comparatively modest, holding onlythat there are truths about what people ought or have reason to dothat we can know by reflection. Moore, the objection runs,supplemented this modest view with an extravagant metaphysics ofnon-natural properties inhabiting a dubious supersensible realm and amysterious faculty of intuition that acquaints us with them. Theseadditions opened non-naturalism to entirely avoidable objections andled, regrettably, to its widespread rejection by later philosophers(e.g. Mackie 1976: 323; Shaver 2000: 263–65; Phillips 2011:29–30).
These charges are, however, hard to sustain. Principia Ethicaactually downplayed the metaphysical side of its non-naturalism,saying that goodness has “being” but does not“exist”, as numbers, too, have being but do not exist; inparticular, goodness does not exist in any “supersensiblereality,” because there is no such reality (1903: 110–12,123–25/1993: 161–63, 174–76). What exactly Mooremeant by these claims is unclear, but it’s at least possible toread them as suggesting a non-metaphysical moral realism like thosedefended more recently by Nagel (1986), Scanlon (1998, 2014), andParfit (2011, vol. 2: 464–87 ). Nor did his explicit talk ofproperties mark a significant departure from Sidgwick. This is partlybecause he did not clearly distinguish concepts and properties, andpartly because if Sidgwick thought people ought to pursue pleasure, hewould surely have to grant that pleasure has the property of beingsomething people ought to pursue. The question is how ontologicallyrobust Moore’s talk of a property of goodness was, and given hisdenial that such goodness exists the answer is uncertain. Thedistinction between more and less metaphysical forms of non-naturalismis not one he clearly addressed.
Moore was similarly modest in his moral epistemology, saying severaltimes, as Sidgwick also had, that by calling our knowledge of basicmoral truths “intuitive” he meant only that it is notderived by inference from other knowledge; he likewise denied thatmoral intuition is infallible, saying that in whatever way we cancognize a true proposition, we can cognize a false one (1903: viii.x/1993: 34, 36). He did sometimes make bald assertions ofself-evidence, as in his claim in Principia Ethica that it is“obvious” that the chief intrinsic goods are aestheticappreciation and personal love (1903: 188/1993: 237) or inEthics that it is “self-evident” that what isright is always what most promotes the good (1912: 1809–81/1947:112–13/1965: 76–77), and some critics have found thisbaldness troubling. But the contrast with earlier non-naturalists suchas Sidgwick should again not be overdrawn. Sidgwick arguably, too,gave most weight to intuitions about abstract moral principles (1907:379–84), including one close to that which Moore cited inEthics, and appealed to more concrete judgements only inad hominem arguments against opponents. And Moore oftenargued in more complex ways. In Principia Ethica he defendedhis claim that beauty on its own is good by appealing to intuitionsabout a specific beautiful world, containing mountains, rivers, andsunsets (1903: 83–85/1993: 135–36), and criticized theview that only pleasure is good by arguing that it conflicts withseveral concrete things we believe, such as that there are badpleasures (1903: 95/1993:146–47) and that a life of intenselypleasurable but illusory experiences would not be best (1903:197–98/1993: 246–47; compare 1912: 52–53,237–39/1947: 34, 146–47/1965: 22, 102). Moore likewiseinsisted that before we make judgements of self-evidence we must makesure that the propositions we are considering are clear (1903:viii/1993: 34); failure to do so, he argued, explains many of theexisting disagreements about ethics. And he took note of commonopinions to the extent of trying to explain away contrary views whenhe found them. Overall his approach to establishing moral truths wasclose to Sidgwick’s, appealing to intuitive judgements that canbe made at different levels of generality and that must be broughtinto a coherent whole, though with the primary emphasis on abstractjudgements. This is not to say his non-naturalism was beyondobjection. Any such view holds that there are truths independent ofnatural and logical ones and knowable by some non-empirical means, andmany find this pair of claims problematic. But Moore’s versionof the view was arguably no more objectionable than others. IfSidgwick’s non-naturalism did not involve a problematicmetaphysics and epistemology, neither did Moore’s; ifMoore’s was hopelessly extravagant, so was a supposedly moremodest one like Sidgwick’s.
A final important feature of Moore’s metaethics was itsreductionism about normative concepts. Like Sidgwick, the Moore ofPrincipia Ethica held that there is just one basic normativeconcept, though he thought it was good rather than ought; like Ross,the later Moore held that there are just two. But this conceptualreductionism, which was common throughout the period from Sidgwick toRoss, Broad, and Ewing, contrasts with the plurality of conceptsrecognized in much present-day ethics. First, Moore and hiscontemporaries took as basic only the “thin” concepts goodand ought rather than “thick” moral concepts such ascourage and generosity; the latter, they held, combined a thin conceptwith some more or less determinate descriptive content. They were alsoreductive about the thin concepts. They did not distinguish betweenmoral oughts and prudential or rational ones, holding that there isonly the single, moral ought; this is why for them egoism was a viewabout morality, not a challenge to it from outside the moral realm.Nor did they recognize different types of value. For them goodness wasa property only of states of affairs and not, as some Kantians hold,of persons and other objects. They likewise did not accept the late20th-century idea that there is a distinct concept of“well-being,” or of what is “good for” aperson; instead, they often defined a person’s good as what issimply good and located in his life (e.g. Sidgwick 1907: 112; Moore1903: 98–99/1993: 150–51). Nor did they distinguishbetween moral and non-moral goodness, holding that the former is justordinary goodness when possessed by certain objects, such as traits ofcharacter (e.g. Ross 1930: 155). The result was that all normativejudgements can be expressed using at most the two concepts“good” and “ought,” which are therefore theonly ones one needed. To some this conclusion will mean that Moore andhis contemporaries ignored important conceptual distinctions; toothers it will mean they avoided pointless conceptual debates. But itdid free them to discuss substantive questions about what is in factgood and right. On this topic Moore’s views, though not entirelynovel, were again both striking and strikingly stated.
3. Impersonal Consequentialism
Moore’s normative view again comprised two main theses. One wasimpersonal consequentialism, the view that what is right is alwayswhat produces the greatest total good impartially considered, orcounting all goods equally. The other was the ideal or perfectionistthesis that what is good is not only or primarily pleasure or thesatisfaction of desires but certain states whose value is independentof people’s attitudes to them. Moore recognized several suchstates, but in Principia Ethica he famously said that“by far the most valuable things…are certain states ofconsciousness, which may roughly be described as the pleasures ofhuman intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” (1903:188/1993: 237). According to his ideal consequentialism, what is rightis in large part what most promotes loving personal relationships andaesthetic appreciation for all persons everywhere.
Principia Ethica took the consequentialist part of this viewto be analytically true, since it defined the right as what mostpromotes the good. But once Moore abandoned this definition, he had totreat the consequentialist principle as synthetic and he did so inEthics, which allowed that deontological views that say someacts that maximize the good are wrong are coherent. But even there hedid not argue at length for consequentialism, simply announcing thatit is self-evident (1912: 180–81/1947: 112–13/1965:76–77). This in part reflected a common assumption of his time,when a majority of moral philosophers accepted some form ofconsequentialism. But it may also be relevant that the onlyalternative he seems to have considered was an absolute deontologylike Kant’s, which says that some acts such as killing and lyingare wrong no matter what their consequences (1903: 106/1993: 157;1912: 175–81/1947: 109–13/1965: 74–77). His majorethical works did not consider a moderate deontology such as wouldlater be developed by Ross (1930), in which deontological prohibitionsagainst killing and lying often outweigh considerations of goodconsequences but can themselves be outweighed if enough good is atstake. It is not clear what Moore’s response to such a moderatedeontology would have been.
Principia Ethica also took the impartialism of its view to beanalytic, and in particular claimed that ethical or rational egoism,which says each person should pursue only his own good, isself-contradictory. (Despite his interest in personal love, Moorenever considered the intermediate view that Broad (1971)) would callself-referential altruism, according to which each person should caremore about the good of those close to him, such as his family andfriends.) Sidgwick had claimed that if a rational egoist confineshimself to saying that each person’s pleasure is good for him,or from his point of view, he cannot be argued out of his position(1907: 420–21). But Moore argued that the concept ofagent-relative goodness invoked here is unintelligible (1903:97–102/1993: 148–53), and that conclusion does follow fromhis view that goodness is simple and unanalyzable. If goodness is asimple property, how can a state such as person A’spleasure have this property “from one point of view” butnot “from another”? (Compare squareness. An object cannotbe square from one point of view but not from another; it either issquare or is not.) All that talk of the good “for” aperson can pick out, he urged, is what is simply good and located inthat person; and simple goodness gives everyone equally reason topursue it. In Ethics Moore abandoned this argument, sayingthat egoism cannot be proven false by any argument, even though hethought its falsity is self-evident (1912: 228–32/1947:141–43/1965: 98–100). But it is not clear how he couldmake this concession if he still held, as he preferred to, thatgoodness is a simple property. Perhaps he was tacitly allowing, as hewould in the uncompleted draft Preface to Principia Ethica(1993: 5, 14–15), that it would not centrally damage hisposition if good were analyzed in terms of ought, as it had been bySidgwick. There is no contradiction in saying that what each personought to desire is different, say, just his own pleasure. But if alloughts derive from a simple property of goodness, as Moore alwayspreferred to hold, all oughts must be impartial.
In applying this view, Moore gave it the form of what today is called“indirect” or “two-level” (Hare 1981)consequentialism. In deciding how to act, we should not try to assessindividual acts for their specific consequences; instead, we shouldfollow certain general moral rules, such as “Do not kill”and “Keep promises,” which are such that adhering to themwill most promote the good through time. This policy will sometimeslead us not to do the act with the best individual outcome, but givenour general propensity to error the policy’s consequences willbe better in the long run than trying to assess acts one by one;however well-meaning, the latter attempt will be counterproductive(1903: 149–70/1993: 198–219. This indirectconsequentialism had again been defended earlier, by Sidgwick and JohnStuart Mill, but Moore gave it a very conservative form, urgingadherence to the rules even in the face of apparently compellingevidence that breaking them now would be optimific. PrincipiaEthica made the surprising claim that the relevant rules will bethe same given any commonly accepted theory of the good, for example,given either hedonism or Moore’s own ideal theory (1903:158/1993: 207). This claim of extensional equivalence for differentconsequentialist views was not new; T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, andMcTaggart had all suggested that hedonism and ideal consequentialismhave similar practical implications. But Moore was surely expressingthe more plausible view when in Ethics he doubted thatpleasure and ideal values always go together (1912: 234–39/1947:144–47/1965: 100–02), and even when he accepted theequivalence claim he remained intensely interested in what he called“the primary ethical question of what is good in itself”(1903: 158, 26, 77/1993: 207, 78, 128). Like Green, Bradley, andMcTaggart, he thought the central philosophical question is whatexplains why good things are good, i.e., which of theirproperties make them good. That was the subject of his mostbrilliant piece of ethical writing, Chapter 6 of PrincipiaEthica on “The Ideal.”
4. The Ideal
One of this chapter’s larger aims was to defend value-pluralism,the view that there are many ultimate goods. Moore thought one bar tothis view is the naturalistic fallacy. He assumed, plausibly, thatphilosophers who treat goodness as identical to some natural propertywill usually make this a simple property, such as just pleasure orjust evolutionary fitness, rather than a disjunctive property such aspleasure-or-evolutionary-fitness-or-knowledge. But then any naturalistview pushes us toward value-monism, or toward the view that only onekind of state is good (1903: 20; 1993: 72). Once we reject naturalism,however, we can see what Moore thought is self-evident: that there areirreducibly many goods. Another bar to value-pluralism is excessivedemands for unity or system in ethics. Sidgwick had used such demandsto argue that only pleasure can be good, since no theory with aplurality of ultimate values can justify a determinate scheme forweighing them against each other (1907: 406). But Moore, agreeing herewith Rashdall, Ross, and others, said that “to search for‘unity’ and ‘system,’ at the expense of truth,is not, I take it, the proper business of philosophy” (1903:222/1993: 270). If intuition reveals a plurality of ultimate goods, anadequate theory must recognize that plurality.
According to a famous part of Principia Ethica, one of thosegoods is the existence of beauty. Arguing against Sidgwick’sview that all goods must be states of consciousness (1907:113–15), Moore asked readers to imagine a beautiful world withno minds in it: is this world’s existence not better than thatof a horribly ugly world (1903: 83–85/1993: 135–36)? Inanswering yes, he anticipated some strands in present-dayenvironmental ethics, which likewise hold that there can be value infeatures of the natural environment apart from any awareness of them.But he did not insist on this view. Later in Principia Ethicahe said that beauty on its own at most has little and may have novalue (1903: 202, 203/1993: 250, 251), and in Ethics heimplicitly denied that beauty on its own has value. There he held, asSidgwick had, that all intrinsic goods involve some state ofconsciousness and perhaps even of pleasure (1912: 239–41,249/1947: 147–49, 153/1965: 103–04, 107). But his firstbook had defended the contrary view.
Moore also gave some weight to the hedonic states of pleasure andpain. He thought the former a very minor good, saying pleasure on itsown at most has limited and may have no value, but he thought pain avery great evil, which there is a serious duty to prevent (1903:212–13, 222–23/1993: 260–61, 270–71) His viewtherefore involved a value-asymmetry, with pain a much greater evilthan pleasure is a good. This had not been the traditional view; mosthedonists had held that a pleasure of a given intensity is exactly asgood as a pain of the same intensity is evil (e.g. Sidgwick 1907:413). But Moore thought it intuitively compelling that the pain isworse; if that makes the theory of value less systematic, so much theworse for system.
While many ideal consequentialists have treated knowledge asintrinsically good, in some cases supremely so, PrincipiaEthica did not, saying knowledge is a necessary component of thelarger good of appreciating existing beauty but has little or no valuein itself (1903: 199/1993: 248). Again Ethics may havereversed this view, citing knowledge several times as one ideal goodthat may be added to the hedonists’ good of pleasure (1912: 237,247/1947 146, 152/1965: 102, 106). But Moore never saw any intrinsicvalue in achievement, for example in business or politics, or indeedin any active changing of the world. As John Maynard Keynes said, hischief goods were states of mind that “were not associated withaction or achievement or with consequence. They consisted in timeless,passionate states of contemplation and communion, largely unattachedto ‘before and after’” (Keynes 1949: 83).
The first of these goods was the appreciation of beauty, which forMoore combined the cognition of beautiful qualities with anappropriately positive emotion toward them, such as enjoyment oradmiration. We listen to music, for example, hear beautiful qualitiesin it, and are pleased by or admire those qualities. But the valuehere is entirely contemplative; Moore saw no separate worth in whatthe romantics had especially valued, the active creation of beauty. Hemight say that an artist must understand and love his work’sbeauty if he is to create it, perhaps even more than someone whomerely enjoys it, but the value in his work is still not distinctivelycreative. In characterizing this good Moore gave a further reductiveanalysis, this time of beauty as “that of which the admiringcontemplation is good in itself” (1903: 201–02/1993:249–50). Beauty too, then, was not a distinct normative conceptbut analyzable in terms of goodness. He did not notice, however, thatthis definition seems again to open him to an open-question argument,since it reduces the claim that it is good to contemplate beauty tothe near-tautology that it is good to contemplate what it is good tocontemplate.
Though Moore in Principia Ethica thought beauty good initself, he did not insist on this view when valuing the appreciationof beauty; the latter might be good even if the former was not. But hestill thought the existence of beauty makes a significant differenceto value. More specifically, he thought the admiring contemplation ofbeauty that actually exists and causes your contemplation issignificantly better than an otherwise similar contemplation of merelyimagined beauty, and better by more than can be attributed to theexistence of the beauty on its own. This view involved an applicationof his “principle of organic unities,” which is one of hismain contributions and says the value of a whole need not equal thesum of the values its parts would have on their own (1903:27–29/1993: 78–80). If state x on its own hasvalue a and state y on its own has value b,the whole combining them by relation R need not have valuea + b; it may have more and it may have less. Thisprinciple had been accepted by Idealists such as Bradley, who gave ita characteristically anti-theoretical formulation. They held that ifx and y combine to form the whole x-R-y,their values, like their very identities, are dissolved in that largerwhole, whose value cannot be computed from the values of its parts. Itwas Moore’s contribution to accept the principle in a way thatrejected this anti-theoretical interpretation and allowed computation,though exactly how it did so depended on his strict view thatintrinsic value can depend only on intrinsic properties.
This view implies that when x and y enter into therelation R that constitute the whole x-R-y, theirown values cannot be changed by those relations. Moore recognizedthis, saying, “The part of a valuable whole retains exactly thesame value when it is, as when it is not, a part of that whole”(1903: 30/1993: 81). Any additional value in the whole x-R-ymust therefore be attributed to it as an entity distinct from itsparts, and with the relations between those parts internal to it.Moore called this additional value the value of a whole “as awhole,” and said it needed to be added to the value in the partsto arrive at the whole’s value “on the whole” (1903:214–16/1993: 263–64). Thus, if x and yhave values a and b on their own, and x-R-yhas value c “as a whole,” the value ofx-R-y “on the whole” is a + b +c. (The value of the whole is therefore not equal to the sumof the values of its parts, but is equal to a sum of which thosevalues are constituents.) This “holistic” formulation ofthe principle of organic unities is not the only possible one. Wecould relax the conditions on intrinsic value so it can be affected byexternal relations and say that when x and y enterinto a whole their own values change, so that, say, x’svalue becomes a + c. This “variability”formulation can always reach the same final conclusions as theholistic one, since whatever positive or negative value the latterfinds in the whole as a whole the former can add to one or other ofthe parts. But the two formulations locate the additional value indifferent places, and sometimes one and sometimes the other gives whatseems the intuitively better explanation of an organic value (Hurka1998). Moore, however, was forced by his strict view of intrinsicgoodness to use only the holistic formulation. In the aesthetic case,he held that the admiring contemplation of beauty considered apartfrom the existence of its object always has the same (moderate) valuea, while the existence of beauty always has the same(minimal) value b. But when the two are combined so a personadmiringly contemplates beauty that exists and causes hiscontemplation, the resulting whole has the significant additionalvalue c as a whole. The existence of the beauty is thereforenecessary for the significant value c, but that value is notintrinsic to it, belonging instead to the larger whole of which it ispart.
Moore made several other uses of the principle of organic unities,including in response to an argument of Sidgwick’s for hedonism.Sidgwick had claimed that there would be no value in a world withoutconsciousness and, more specifically, pleasure, and had concluded thatpleasure must therefore be the only good (1907: 113, 399–401).Given Principia Ethica’s view about the value ofbeauty, Moore there rejected the premise of Sidgwick’s argument,but he also argued that, even granting this premise, Sidgwick’sconclusion does not follow. It may be that pleasure is a necessarycondition for any value, but that once pleasure is present, otherstates such as the awareness of beauty or personal love increase thevalue of the resulting whole even though alone they have no worth(1903: 92–94/1993: 144–45; also 1912: 240–46/1947:148–51/1965: 103–06). And of course this was precisely hislater view. Another application of the principle was in explicatingclaims about desert. Moore endorsed the retributive view that when aperson is morally vicious it is good if he is punished, and heexpressed this view by saying that although the person’s vice isbad and his suffering pain is bad, the combination of vice and pain inthe same life is good as a whole, and sufficiently so to make thesituation on the whole better than if there were vice and no pain(1903: 214–15/1993: 263–64). This is in fact a point whereMoore’s holistic formulation of the principle is positivelyappealing. The alternative variability view must say that when aperson is vicious, his suffering pain switches from being purely badto being purely good. But this implies that the morally appropriateresponse to deserved suffering is simply positive, for example simplejoy, which does not seem right; the better response mixes satisfactionthat justice is being done with sorrow at the infliction of pain, asMoore’s holistic view implies.
Moore’s other chief good of personal love also involved admiringcontemplation, but now of objects, namely persons, that are not justbeautiful but also intrinsically good (1903: 203/1993: 251). Since forMoore the main intrinsic goods were mental qualities, such loveinvolved primarily the admiring contemplation of another’s goodstates of mind. In so characterizing love Moore was applying one offour recursive principles he used to generate higher-level intrinsicgoods and evils from an initial base-set of goods and evils. The firstprinciple says that if state x is intrinsically good,admiringly contemplating, or loving, x for itself is alsointrinsically good (1903: 203–04, 217/1993: 251–53, 265).Thus, if person A’s admiringly contemplating beauty isgood, person B’s admiringly contemplatingA’s admiration is a further good, as isC’s admiration of B’s admiration, and soon. A second principle says that if x is intrinsically evil,hating x for itself is intrinsically good (1903: 217/1993265); thus, B’s feeling compassionate pain atA’s pain is good. And two final principles say thatloving for itself what is evil, as in sadistic pleasure inanother’s pain, and hating for itself what is good, as inenvious pain at his pleasure, are evil (1903: 208–10,211–12/1993: 257–58, 259–60). Though Moore statedthese four principles separately, they all make morally appropriateattitudes to intrinsic goods and evils, ones whose orientation matchestheir objects’ values, additional such goods and morallyinappropriate attitudes additional evils. The principles were by nomeans unique to him; they had been defended earlier by Rashdall andBrentano and would be defended later by Ross. But Moore’sformulation was in two respects distinctive. Rashdall and Ross calledthe higher-level values they generated virtues and vices, as it isindeed plausible to do; surely benevolence and compassion are virtuousand sadism vicious. But Moore preferred to define the virtuesinstrumentally, as traits that cause goods and prevent evils, and saidthat as such they lack intrinsic worth (1903: 172–77/1993:220–26). Rashdall and especially Ross also held that virtue isthe greatest intrinsic good and vice the greatest evil. In contrast,Moore suggested that the value of an appropriate or inappropriateattitude is often less than the value of its object; thus compassionfor another’s pain, though good, is not as good as the pain isevil, so the combination of one person’s pain andanother’s compassion for it has on balance negative value.“We have no reason,” he wrote, “to maintain theparadox that an ideal world would be one in which vice and sufferingmust exist in order that it may contain the goods consisting in theappropriate emotion towards them. … we cannot admit the actualvalidity of any of the arguments commonly used in Theodicies; no suchargument succeeds in justifying the fact that there does exist eventhe smallest of the many evils which this world contains” (1903:220/1993: 268)
The recursive principles are clearly relevant to personal love, whosecore involves positive concern for another’s good. ButMoore’s particular application of the principles led to acuriously restricted picture of what love is. First, as in theaesthetic case, he took the main valuable attitude to becontemplative, involving the admiration of another’s alreadyexisting good qualities rather than any active engagement with them.This applied even to the love of another’s physical beauty.Though he thought this a central part of love (1903:203–04/1993: 252), he took it to involve mere passive admirationof another’s beauty, as it were from the other side of the room.There was no desire to possess or interact physically with theother’s beauty, that is, no active eroticism; he actually heldthat sexual arousal, and especially arousal by another’sarousal, involves love of the ugly or evil and so is evil (1903:209–10/1993: 257–58). The same point applied moregenerally: the loving attitude was one of appreciating goods inanother’s life rather than of acting to produce or to help herachieve them. One did not do anything for or with a loved one; onesimply admired her. (In an 1899 paper presented to the Apostlessociety at Cambridge he had said, “Love of others is a thing ofvery great value, and it may be very strong although it does not leadto any action. There is, indeed, no reason why it should”(quoted in Levy 1979: 203).Though he presented personal love as anadditional good to aesthetic appreciation, he characterized it in anessentially aesthetic way. Moreover, his list of the goods one is toappreciate or comment in a loved one was also truncated. It did notinclude pleasure or happiness, since that was not a significant good,nor even knowledge or achievement. Instead, it centered on theother’s admiring contemplation of beauty (1903: 204/1993:252–53), as if the supreme expression of love were “Whatexcellent taste in pictures you have.” Finally, he took thequalities one appreciates in a loved one to be simply and thereforeimpartially good. This meant his account had no room for the specialattachment to or heightened concern for an individual that many taketo be central to personal love. If I love a friend for qualitiesx, y, and z, and a new person comes alongwith the same qualities to a slightly higher degree, then, onMoore’s theory, I should admire the new person’s qualitiesmore and therefore love them more; I should trade up to a betterbeloved. This is at odds with the loyalty, or attachment toindividuals, that many think essential to love. This is not to saythat a more adequate account of love cannot be constructed with thesame basic structure as Moore’s; it can. It will hold thatpersonal love involves a wider range of positive attitudes, includingactively promoting as well as contemplating, to a wider range ofgoods, including happiness, knowledge, and achievement, where thosegoods in a loved one’s life have greater value from alover’s point of view than do the similar states of strangers,which makes loving them more appropriate and therefore intrinsicallybetter. But Moore was prevented from giving this account by otherfeatures of his view, such as his general emphasis on contemplativeforms of love, his restricted list of initial goods, and his strictimpartialism about value.
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Despite not always containing entirely new ideas, Moore’sethical writings, and especially Principia Ethica, wereextremely influential, both outside and within philosophy. Outsidephilosophy one influence was through the literary and artistic figuresin the Bloomsbury Group, such as Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Leonardand Virginia Woolf, several of whom had come to know Moore whilemembers with him of the Apostles. They were most impressed by the lastchapter of Principia Ethica, whose identification ofaesthetic appreciation and personal love as the highest goods verymuch fit their predilections. Keynes said the book’s publicationwas for them “the opening of a new heaven on a new earth”and its theory of the good became for a time their“religion” (1949: 82) Many of them – the gay men inparticular – sexualized Moore’s account of love, adding anerotic element not present in his formulations. But according toKeynes (though Leonard Woolf (1960: 146–49) disagreed), theytended to ignore the impartial consequentialism within which heembedded those goods, concentrating on pursuing them just within theirown lives rather than encouraging their wider spread in society. Thenovels of E.M. Forster, another Cambridge Apostle, contain severalfigures representing Moorean ideas, for example the Schlegel sistersin Howards End (Sidorsky 2007). An important element inPrincipia Ethica’s extra-philosophical appeal was itsbrash iconoclasm, its claiming, however inaccurately, to sweep awayall past moral philosophy. This tone entirely fit its time, when thedeath of Queen Victoria had led many in Britain to think a new, moreprogressive age was dawning.
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The book’s influence within philosophy was even greater. On thenormative side, views close to its ideal consequentialism remainedprominent and even dominant, at least in Britain, until the 1930s,though it is hard to know how far this is attributable to Moorehimself since similar views had been widely accepted before him. Inmetaethics his non-naturalism likewise remained dominant for severaldecades, though here Moore played a larger role, especially for laterwriters, in part because of his general philosophical eminence and inpart because of the vigor with which he presented the view. By talkingexplicitly of non-natural properties he at least seemed to givenon-naturalism a more robust metaphysical side than predecessors suchas Sidgwick had, and he defended the view more emphatically, inparticular by putting more weight on the open-question argument. WhenSidgwick noticed Bentham or Spencer equating goodness with a naturalproperty such as pleasure, he thought it a minor slip that ought incharity to be ignored; Moore deemed it a decisive error that vitiatedthe philosopher’s entire system. By so emphasizing the twoelements of non-naturalism – its realism and its commitment tothe autonomy of ethics – Moore helped initiate a sequence ofdevelopments in 20th-century metaethics.
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The first reaction to non-naturalism, other than simple acceptance,came from philosophers who endorsed the autonomy of ethics but,sometimes under the influence of logical positivism, rejected itsmoral realism, holding instead that there are no facts other thannatural ones and no modes of knowing other than the empirical and thestrictly logical. They therefore developed various versions ofnon-cognitivism, which hold that moral judgements are not true orfalse but express attitudes, as in emotivism (Ayer 1936; Stevenson1944), or issue something like imperatives, as in prescriptivism (Hare1952; Hare 1963). Unlike the subjective naturalism Moore criticized inEthics, these views allow moral disagreement, since attitudesand imperatives can oppose each other, for example positive versusnegative. They also, their later proponents held, give a betterexplanation of the open-question argument, since they find adistinctive emotive or action-guiding force in moral concepts andjudgements that is not present in non-moral ones; that is why, it wassaid, the moral is neither reducible to nor derivable from thenon-moral. Non-cognitivism can also explain, some said, why moralitymatters to us as it does. Non-naturalism implies that moral judgementsconcern a mysterious type of property, but why should facts about thatproperty be important to us or influence our behavior? If moraljudgements express deep-seated attitudes, however, the questionanswers itself.
A later reaction, starting around the mid-century, rejected bothnon-naturalism and non-cognitivism and explored versions ofnaturalism, including a neo-Aristotelian version that grounds allethical demands in a conception of human flourishing, or of thedevelopment of a human nature understood in quasi-biological terms(Anscombe 1958; Foot 2001); this view implicitly denies the autonomyof ethics. Here a specifically ant-Moorean claim was that predicativeuses of “good,” as in Moore’s “aestheticappreciation is good,” are ungrammatical, since the onlylegitimate uses of the word in English are attributive, as in“good knife,” “good pickpocket,” and, mostrelevantly to the neo-Aristotelian view, “good humanbeing” (Geach 1956; also Thomson 1997). But, despite being madeat the high-water mark of ordinary-language philosophy, this claimabout English grammar seems plainly false: the language has alwaysallowed predicative uses of “good,” from the King Jamestranslation of Genesis – “God saw the light, that it wasgood” (cited in Butchvarov 1989: 17) – to everyday phrasessuch as “It is good that …” Moore’s moralphilosophy cannot credibly be dismissed as resting on a crudelinguistic error (see also e.g. Pigden 1990; Zimmerman 1999; Kraut2011: 173–83). One strand in this later reaction, like othersinfluenced by Wittgenstein, rejected the calculating side ofMoore’s consequentialism, which identifies right and wrong actsby adding up the goods and evils in their consequences. Moraljudgements, some argued, can’t be codified or theorized in thisway but instead call for ethically trained and sensitive insight intoparticular situations as particular (e.g. McDowell 1979). Even apartfrom that there was, in many circles, skepticism about the supposedextravagance and dogmatism of Moore’s substantive claims aboutthe good – such as his specific valuing of aestheticappreciation and personal love – and a preference for theallegedly more modest view that what is good in people’s livesis just the fulfilment of whatever desires they have. By the 1960s, itseems fair to say, many of Moore’s views were thought deeplyproblematic and his moral philosophy as a whole was not considered anespecially live option. It was still thought important to readPrincipia Ethica, or at least its first chapter, as havinginitiated the sequence of developments that led to the then-currentviews. But from the standpoint of many of those views, Moore’sgeneral approach to ethics was at key points misguided.
Fifty-plus years later the philosophical climate is more favorable toMoore. A number of philosophers now defend metaethical non-naturalism(e.g. Shafer-Landau 2003; Huemer 2006), either in versions they sayare ontologically minimalist (Nagel 1986; Scanlon 1998, 2014; Parfit2011, vol. 2: 464–87) or in ones they present as more robust(Enoch 2011), but all embracing some account of normative truth thatseparates it sharply from non-normative, for example scientific,truth. In addition, and of necessity, these current versions ofnon-naturalism share something close to Moore’s moralepistemology, his view that normative truths are known by a kind ofdirect insight or intuition, though the present-day views are oftenmore explicitly fallibilist and coherentist than his sometimesappeared to be. Still, for many philosophers, Moore’s version ofnon-naturalist realism remains the best-known or canonical one. Innormative ethics, too, there is increasing sympathy for accounts ofthe good with an ideal or perfectionist content and admiration forparticular features of Moore’s own account, such as his valuingof personal love, his recursive principles (Hurka 2001) and hisprinciple of organic unities. Moorean ideas are by no means the onlyones alive in present-day moral philosophy; there are manyalternatives, including many that reject, for example, hisconsequentialism and impartialism. One especially relevant strand inthe recent literature, dating from the 1980s, says ethics needs thenon-Moorean concept of “good for” mentioned above, whichis associated with “well-being” and “prudentialvalue” and also distinct from the agent-relative goodnessSidgwick used to state egoism. Here one view proposes to use thisalternative concept in addition to the Moorean “good,” sowhat is simply good is wholly or at least largely what is good“for” individuals (e.g. Sumner 1996). Another, moreradical view wants “good for” to entirely replaceMoore’s “good,” so the former is the only ethicallysignificant evaluative concept (e.g. Kraut 2007; Kraut 2011). (Theargument here is not, as in Geach, that the Moorean “good”is ungrammatical; it is that, though linguistically unimpeachable, itmakes no useful contribution to ethical thought.) But there have alsobeen defences, against these views, of Moore’s “simplygood” and his reductive or “locative” account of“good for” (e.g. McDaniel 2014; Rowland 2016; Tucker 2018;Hurka 2021). Often what present-day philosophers take from Moore isjust an individual idea or argument rather than his theory as a whole(Regan 2003 is an exception). But whereas in the early 20th centuryMoore’s approach to ethics, and especially his metaethics, wasdominant, at least in British moral philosophy, and whereas in themid-century it was widely dismissed, it now represents, at severalpoints, a valuable contributor to many lively ongoing debates.
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