G. E. Moore
George Edward Moore
4 November 1873
|Education||Trinity College, Cambridge|
|Institutions||Trinity College, Cambridge|
|Academic advisors||James Ward|
|Doctoral students||Casimir Lewy|
|Other notable students||R. B. Braithwaite|
|Philosophy of language|
George Edward Moore (4 November 1873 - 24 October 1958), usually cited as G. E. Moore, was an English philosopher. He was, with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and (before them) Gottlob Frege, one of the founders of analytic philosophy. Along with Russell, he led the turn away from idealism in British philosophy, and became well known for his advocacy of common sense concepts, his contributions to ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, and "his exceptional personality and moral character".
Moore was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, highly influential among (though not a member of) the Bloomsbury Group, and the editor of the influential journal Mind. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1918. He was a member of the Cambridge Apostles, the intellectual secret society, from 1894 to 1901, and chairman of the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club from 1912 to 1944. A humanist, he served as President of the British Ethical Union (now known as Humanists UK) from 1935 to 1936.
Moore was born in Upper Norwood, in south-east London, on 4 November 1873, the middle child of seven of Dr Daniel Moore and Henrietta Sturge. His grandfather was the author Dr George Moore. His eldest brother was Thomas Sturge Moore, a poet, writer and engraver.
He was educated at Dulwich College and in 1892 went up to Trinity College, Cambridge to study classics and moral sciences. He became a Fellow of Trinity in 1898, and went on to hold the University of Cambridge chair of Mental Philosophy and Logic, from 1925 to 1939.
Moore is best known today for his defence of ethical non-naturalism, his emphasis on common sense in philosophical method, and the paradox that bears his name. He was admired by and influential among other philosophers, and also by the Bloomsbury Group, but is (unlike his colleague and admirer Russell, who, for some years thought he fulfilled his "ideal of genius") mostly unknown today outside of academic philosophy. Moore's essays are known for their clear, circumspect writing style, and for his methodical and patient approach to philosophical problems. He was critical of modern philosophy for its lack of progress, which he believed was in stark contrast to the dramatic advances in the natural sciences since the Renaissance. Among Moore's most famous works are his book Principia Ethica, and his essays, "The Refutation of Idealism", "A Defence of Common Sense", and "A Proof of the External World".
Moore was an important and much admired member of the secretive Cambridge Apostles, a discussion group with members drawn from the British intellectual elite. At the time another member, a 22-year-old Bertrand Russell, wrote "I almost worship him as if he were a god. I have never felt such an extravagant admiration for anybody."
G. E. Moore died at the Evelyn Nursing Home on 24 October 1958; he was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium on 28 October 1958 and his ashes interred at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge; his wife, Dorothy Ely (1892-1977) was buried there. Together they had two sons, the poet Nicholas Moore and the composer Timothy Moore.
His influential work Principia Ethica is one of the main inspirations of the movement against ethical naturalism (see ethical non-naturalism) and is partly responsible for the twentieth-century concern with meta-ethics.
Moore asserted that philosophical arguments can suffer from a confusion between the use of a term in a particular argument and the definition of that term (in all arguments). He named this confusion the naturalistic fallacy. For example, an ethical argument may claim that if a thing has certain properties, then that thing is 'good.' A hedonist may argue that 'pleasant' things are 'good' things. Other theorists may argue that 'complex' things are 'good' things. Moore contends that, even if such arguments are correct, they do not provide definitions for the term 'good'. The property of 'goodness' cannot be defined. It can only be shown and grasped. Any attempt to define it (X is good if it has property Y) will simply shift the problem (Why is Y-ness good in the first place?).
Moore's argument for the indefinability of 'good' (and thus for the fallaciousness in the "naturalistic fallacy") is often called the open-question argument; it is presented in §13 of Principia Ethica. The argument hinges on the nature of statements such as "Anything that is pleasant is also good" and the possibility of asking questions such as "Is it good that x is pleasant?". According to Moore, these questions are open and these statements are significant; and they will remain so no matter what is substituted for "pleasure". Moore concludes from this that any analysis of value is bound to fail. In other words, if value could be analysed, then such questions and statements would be trivial and obvious. Since they are anything but trivial and obvious, value must be indefinable.
Critics of Moore's arguments sometimes claim that he is appealing to general puzzles concerning analysis (cf. the paradox of analysis), rather than revealing anything special about value. The argument clearly depends on the assumption that if 'good' were definable, it would be an analytic truth about 'good', an assumption that many contemporary moral realists like Richard Boyd and Peter Railton reject. Other responses appeal to the Fregean distinction between sense and reference, allowing that value concepts are special and sui generis, but insisting that value properties are nothing but natural properties (this strategy is similar to that taken by non-reductive materialists in philosophy of mind).
Moore contended that goodness cannot be analysed in terms of any other property. In Principia Ethica, he writes:
Therefore, we cannot define 'good' by explaining it in other words. We can only point to a thing or an action and say "That is good." Similarly, we cannot describe to a person born totally blind exactly what yellow is. We can only show a sighted person a piece of yellow paper or a yellow scrap of cloth and say "That is yellow."
In addition to categorising 'good' as indefinable, Moore also emphasized that it is a non-natural property. This means that it cannot be empirically or scientifically tested or verified--it is not within the bounds of "natural science".
Moore argued that, once arguments based on the naturalistic fallacy had been discarded, questions of intrinsic goodness could be settled only by appeal to what he (following Sidgwick) called "moral intuitions": self-evident propositions which recommend themselves to moral reflection, but which are not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof (Principia, § 45). As a result of his view, he has often been described by later writers as an advocate of ethical intuitionism. Moore, however, wished to distinguish his view from the views usually described as "Intuitionist" when Principia Ethica was written:
In order to express the fact that ethical propositions of my first class [propositions about what is good as an end in itself] are incapable of proof or disproof, I have sometimes followed Sidgwick's usage in calling them 'Intuitions.' But I beg that it may be noticed that I am not an 'Intuitionist,' in the ordinary sense of the term. Sidgwick himself seems never to have been clearly aware of the immense importance of the difference which distinguishes his Intuitionism from the common doctrine, which has generally been called by that name. The Intuitionist proper is distinguished by maintaining that propositions of my second class--propositions which assert that a certain action is right or a duty--are incapable of proof or disproof by any enquiry into the results of such actions. I, on the contrary, am no less anxious to maintain that propositions of this kind are not 'Intuitions,' than to maintain that propositions of my first class are Intuitions.-- G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Preface ¶ 5
Moore distinguished his view from the view of deontological intuitionists, who held that "intuitions" could determine questions about what actions are right or required by duty. Moore, as a consequentialist, argued that "duties" and moral rules could be determined by investigating the effects of particular actions or kinds of actions (Principia, § 89), and so were matters for empirical investigation rather than direct objects of intuition (Prncipia, § 90). On Moore's view, "intuitions" revealed not the rightness or wrongness of specific actions, but only what things were good in themselves, as ends to be pursued.
Moore holds that right actions are those producing the most good. The difficulty with this is that the consequences of most actions are too vast for us to properly take into account, especially the long-term consequences. Because of this, Moore suggests that the definition of duty is limited to what generally produces better results than probable alternatives in a comparatively near future.:§109 Whether a given rule of action turns out to be a duty depends to some extent on the conditions of the corresponding society but duties agree mostly with what common-sense recommends.:§95Virtues, like honesty, can in turn be defined as permanent dispositions to perform duties.:§109
One of the most important parts of Moore's philosophical development was his break from the idealism that dominated British philosophy (as represented in the works of his former teachers F. H. Bradley and John McTaggart), and his defence of what he regarded as a "common sense" form of realism. In his 1925 essay "A Defence of Common Sense", he argued against idealism and scepticism toward the external world, on the grounds that they could not give reasons to accept that their metaphysical premises were more plausible than the reasons we have for accepting the common sense claims about our knowledge of the world, which sceptics and idealists must deny. He famously put the point into dramatic relief with his 1939 essay "Proof of an External World", in which he gave a common sense argument against scepticism by raising his right hand and saying "Here is one hand" and then raising his left and saying "And here is another", then concluding that there are at least two external objects in the world, and therefore that he knows (by this argument) that an external world exists. Not surprisingly, not everyone inclined to sceptical doubts found Moore's method of argument entirely convincing; Moore, however, defends his argument on the grounds that sceptical arguments seem invariably to require an appeal to "philosophical intuitions" that we have considerably less reason to accept than we have for the common sense claims that they supposedly refute. (In addition to fueling Moore's own work, the "Here is one hand" argument also deeply influenced Wittgenstein, who spent his last years working out a new approach to Moore's argument in the remarks that were published posthumously as On Certainty.)
Moore is also remembered for drawing attention to the peculiar inconsistency involved in uttering a sentence such as "It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining", a puzzle now commonly called "Moore's paradox". The puzzle arises because it seems impossible for anyone to consistently assert such a sentence; but there doesn't seem to be any logical contradiction between "It is raining" and "I don't believe that it is raining", because the former is a statement about the weather and the latter a statement about a person's belief about the weather, and it is perfectly logically possible that it may rain whilst a person does not believe that it is raining.
In addition to Moore's own work on the paradox, the puzzle also inspired a great deal of work by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who described the paradox as the most impressive philosophical insight that Moore had ever introduced. It is said[by whom?] that when Wittgenstein first heard this paradox one evening (which Moore had earlier stated in a lecture), he rushed round to Moore's lodgings, got him out of bed and insisted that Moore repeat the entire lecture to him.
Moore's description of the principle of organic unity is extremely straightforward, nonetheless, and a variant on a pattern that began with Aristotle:
According to Moore, a moral actor cannot survey the 'goodness' inherent in the various parts of a situation, assign a value to each of them, and then generate a sum in order to get an idea of its total value. A moral scenario is a complex assembly of parts, and its total value is often created by the relations between those parts, and not by their individual value. The organic metaphor is thus very appropriate: biological organisms seem to have emergent properties which cannot be found anywhere in their individual parts. For example, a human brain seems to exhibit a capacity for thought when none of its neurons exhibit any such capacity. In the same way, a moral scenario can have a value far greater than the sum of its component parts.
To understand the application of the organic principle to questions of value, it is perhaps best to consider Moore's primary example, that of a consciousness experiencing a beautiful object. To see how the principle works, a thinker engages in "reflective isolation", the act of isolating a given concept in a kind of null-context and determining its intrinsic value. In our example, we can easily see that, of themselves, beautiful objects and consciousnesses are not particularly valuable things. They might have some value, but when we consider the total value of a consciousness experiencing a beautiful object, it seems to exceed the simple sum of these values. Hence the value of a whole must not be assumed to be the same as the sum of the values of its parts.