Edward Moore (1873-1958)
Central to Christianity and most religions is the question, "What
constitutes a right action." That is, how am I to tell a right action from a
wrong one? This is the subject of ethics, the study of how to choose between
right and wrong. Moore, whose work Principia Ethica
was published in 1903, has proved influential in 20th
There seem to me to be a few major approaches to ethical choice:
Law We can say that an action is right when it
conforms to a set of laws or regulations. The Jewish Torah or Law
is an example. Alternatively, one might say that the only ground for
morality is a legal system. In this case "the good" is ultimately derived
from a social contract which mirrors standards agreed to and enforced by a
group of people such as a nation.
Revelation It's possible to hold that the dictates
of a divine being establish what is right. This would apply to the Ten
Commandments or to any behavioural guideline or rule derived either from
sacred writings (like the Koran or the Bible) or from authority (like the
Pope), claiming insight into the divine will. In both instances revelation
is ultimately the means through which moral norms are communicated.
Nature It may be that certain aspects of the natural world
are obviously good. This amounts to the possibility of an a priori
knowledge of right and wrong in which moral standards can be discovered in
the same way that we discover that 1 + 1 = 2. This would include rights
and wrongs which are worked out from experience. So, for example, we might
discover that murder is wrong because of its unpleasant or destructive
consequences, both for the individual and for society at large.
Choice It may be that the only true morality is when
we choose right or wrong for ourselves - either individually or
corporately. In this case we choose moral standards from a range of
options, none of which is intrinsically right or wrong. Thus, for example,
we may individually choose that usury is not good, but be unable to
persuade a majority of our fellows that this is so.
In Moore's case
the concept of good arises from a simple, un-analysable and indefinable
intuition of things and situations. It derives neither from nature nor
from an a priori understanding. Rather it comes out of a kind of
moral sense. It is not a sense experience so it doesn't originate in
nature. The quality of goodness is clearly evident, argued Moore, in
experiences such as friendship and the enjoyment of beauty. The moral
concepts of right and duty are then analysable in terms of actions which
possess the overall quality of goodness.
converted to Christianity as a young boy. But before he left school he
declared himself an agnostic and seems to have remained that for the rest
of his life. He wrote Principia Ethica while a Fellow of Trinity
Like many other
philosophers, Moore's views changed during his life. His early views were
particularly volatile. Not until Principia can his philosophical
approach be said to have been fully formed. The way in which Moore
addressed metaphysics, epistemology and theories of perception has been
criticised for being simplistic. One commentator on Moore writes: "In his
ethics Moore provided simple, clear-cut answers to the problems and
questions of traditional ethics, but their very simplicity ... produces
its own disbelief ..."
This verdict is,
I think, based upon a mistaken conviction that complexity is an indicator
of truth. Moore's style is clear, though far from simplistic. His clarity
is, however, a disadvantage in a strange way - his errors are relatively
easy to discover. Many philosophers, their errors safely embedded in
obfuscation, are less easy to sniff out.
Like all post-Enlightenment thinkers. Moore tried to discover "what is" by
dint of argument. He asked how we know what's real? One early answer was to
propose that our thoughts (like "That's a dog") are matched by real physical
events (a thought which represents a dog) and a physical reality (an actual
dog). Philosophers like labels - and this approach is often called
Perhaps in reaction to changing perceptions around him, Moore later moved
towards less rigid statements of what's "real" by proposing that both
specific objects (a dog) and the universals we use to describe classes of
objects (dogs) are simply there. He quotes Bishop Butler in the Principia:
"Everything is what it is, and not another thing"
statements about reality are not necessarily useful. What's needed is
careful analysis of actual things, a painstaking unraveling of a reality by
I look upon Moore as an important bridge between attempts to express the
nature of reality through a priori examination of mental systems, and
later stress on empirical objectivity. In other words, he was persuasive
because his way of discussing "what is" gave the appearance
of empirical observation.
In fact, when he describes something ("I perceive that dogs bite") he is not
being empirical. To be empirical would have been to state how many dogs
bite, which breeds bite more others, and how often they bite - to remark on
only a few of the observations we normally require to gain consensus about
"what really is".
Moore's fundamental mistake can be difficult to spot, if only because his
writing is clear and his logic minced small. In the Principia chapter
on Naturalistic Ethics, for example, he writes:
[Nature] may be
said to include all that has existed, does exist or will exist in time.
If we consider whether any object is of such a nature that it may be
said to exist now, to have existed, or to be about to exist, then we may
know that that object is a natural object, and that nothing, of which
this is not true, is a natural object. Thus, for instance, of our minds
we should say ...
The jump from
"nature" (by which Moore means something empirically identifiable and
verifiable so that I can say "I perceive it") to "mind" (which cannot be
verified, because I can't say "I perceive your mind") is almost seamless
and therefore difficult to identify. But his basic arguments are
nevertheless rendered false by the jump. In the years following
Principia, Moore tried to overcome this problem by concentrating more
and more on errors which arise from using words incorrectly - so it seems
he may have been aware of the problem.
Perhaps in reaction to his difficulties in arguing his case, Moore reverted
to an argument sometimes termed the "commonsense" approach. Even though his
original method appears flawed, this approach (not beloved of philosophers,
since it can make them look silly) is perhaps, with his clarity of argument,
the primary origin of his considerable influence in the 20th century.
Moore thought that a principle of "weighted certainties" was useful. That
is, certain assertions of "what is" are more probable than others. So if
truth A is more likely than truth B, the arguments for the
latter are not invalidated as such but simply less useful.
If I assert, for example, that nothing except what each of us perceives
exists, I'm essentially wasting my breath. Commonsense dictates that if this
assertion is true, then [a] I can't validly use the word "we" and [b] that
there's no point in making it since I can't demonstrate that anyone is "out
there" to listen. Commonsense demands that we make certain assumptions about
reality and proceed from there.
Like most philosophers of his times, Moore battled long and hard with
questions of metaphysics and meaning. The above brief discussion should
indicate why his discussion of ethics leads ultimately to a blind alley.
How are we to know that friendship, for example, is "good"? Only when we
derive pleasant feelings from the experience of friendship, perhaps? In that
case, it is the feelings which are the real good and anything which produces
them is a means to the good - not the good itself. Even then, is it possible
to establish what a "feeling" really is? Is a feeling a subjective
construct, or a series of neuro-physiological events?
Moore appears to just miss grasping this question:
... if anybody
was to say ... that pleasure means the sensation of red, and were
to proceed to deduce from that that pleasure is a colour, we should be
entitled to laugh at him ... The naturalistic fallacy always implies
that when we think "This is good," what we are thinking is that the
thing is question bears a definite relation to some one other thing .
He thought that
to discover "the good" we must consider what value things would have if
they existed absolutely by themselves. Their existence may be merely a
"true belief in the existence of the object of the cognition." As far as I
can tell, it is on this commonsense view of reality that Moore's case
sum up: although Moore doesn't grasp the nettle of the essential unity of
perception which is nowadays being stressed, he does settle that
(roughly speaking) an agreement that an objective world of some sort
existing out there is the best we can do. So if all but a few agree that
dogs are "out there" then we must settle for that.
If this is the case, then the existence "the good" is possible. But the good
can't be analysed. One can say only that what is good is good. To say that
"pleasure is good" is to fall into the naturalist fallacy. "The good" is a
complex whole which doesn't rest on external evidence - and must therefore
be understood by "intuitions".
we ask if an action is right, we're actually enquiring how much of the good
it produces compared with other possible actions. It's only at this point
that we can start analysing what's right or wrong.
 J. O.
Nelson, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967
 Principia Ethica, CUP, 1922