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 Review of G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903)*

By Bertrand Russell

Principia Ethica. By G. E. Moore, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. At the University Press. Price 7s. 6d. nett.

Mr Moore’s book, short as it is, has an importance which is in no degree to be measured by its bulk. It is written throughout in a simple style, unencumbered by technical terms, and so lucid as to be intelligible to every educated person. Except in a few controversial passages, no previous knowledge of philosophy is required of the reader. But in spite of this, no question is shirked, and the fundamental problems of Ethics are discussed with a thoroughness unsurpassed in the literature of the subject. Mr Moore has inaugurated a revolution, as salutary as it is important, by abandoning the usual resolve of philosophers to uphold, at all costs, some sweeping general principle which is to be adapted to the facts by more or less legitimate ingenuity. Instead of this deductive and dogmatic system-building, the reader will find here a careful and constant questioning of common-sense, a deference in detail to ethical intuitions, which render this work extraordinarily living and real.

On the title-page there is a motto from Bishop Butler: “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” This simple truism is shown to have been violated by the vast majority of ethical writers, who have been unable to believe that good is really good, but have thought that it must be something else – pleasure, or the life according to nature, or self-realization. They have thought that in so defining good they were giving the actual meaning of the word, and have failed to perceive that, if they were right, it would be an empty tautology to say that the things in question were good. This mistake is called by Mr Moore “the naturalistic fallacy.” From the long list of those who have committed it, Professor Sidgwick forms an exception: he recognized that good must be indefinable. Mr Moore reinforces this position by many interesting and convincing arguments, and is able, by means of it, to demolish most of the reasons which philosophers have given in support of their beliefs.

Professor Sidgwick held, nevertheless, that pleasure can be seen to be the sole good, though he disagreed with most Hedonists in recognizing that this could not be proved. Mr Moore undertakes to refute this doctrine, by pointing out that it has consequences repugnant to common sense and not explicitly accepted by advocates of the doctrine. To those who are at the beginning of ethical speculations, the doctrine that pleasure alone is good per se is very plausible ; but the more its implications are developed, the less plausible it becomes. The habit of defending a system, however, so quickly deteriorates the power of seeing facts, that it is very difficult to shake the beliefs of those who have become accustomed to view everything through the distorting medium of theory, and this makes Mr Moore’s book more difficult to trained philosophers than to unbiased readers.

Mr Moore’s discussion of Ethics in relation to Conduct turns mainly on the distinction between means and end, between what is good for its own sake and what is merely a cause of something good. We are all so much occupied with practice and with reflection on the consequences of our acts, that it becomes difficult to make the mind dwell upon the things that are good merely because they are good, and not because of any ulterior effects. Most people, in praising anything, feel bound to point out that it is beneficial, i.e., that good things other than itself will be brought into existence by it. It is part of the business of Ethics to direct our attention to the things that are good on their own account, and to make us realize that right conduct is that which is likely to have the results which are intrinsically the best. It is true that some conduct is good as an end; but it would seem that such conduct can always be defended as also a means to good. It may be doubted, however, whether Mr Moore is right in saying that what we ought to do is always what will have the best consequences. If we have no means of knowing that one course will have the best consequences, while all the knowledge we can have points to another course, then, though this other course should in fact prove disastrous, it seems that we do right in adopting it. Mr Moore objects that it can never be a pity for a man to do his duty, and certainly to say that it can is a paradox. But the paradoxes resulting from his view are apparently still more shocking.

Perhaps the best chapter, and certainly the most interesting, is the last, on the Ideal. Mr Moore explains that he means by the Ideal all those things which are good as ends in a high degree. He holds that, of the things we know. the best are the enjoyment of beauty and the personal relations of admiration and affection. Many people would be inclined, perhaps rightly, to place certain virtues, and even certain kinds of virtuous action, quite on a level with the goods which Mr Moore thinks the best. It is always difficult, however, in the case of virtuous actions, to separate clearly our admiration of the action from our admiration of the state of mind which it indicates; and the greatest virtues appear to consist of the love of things which are good in themselves. Nevertheless, when all due allowance has been made for this source of confusion, there seems still to remain a great good for which not enough place is made in Mr Moore’s enumeration.

Apart from this objection, it is impossible to praise too highly the subtle and yet lucid analysis of the various elements in the value of the goods discussed. Great use is made of a principle called by the author the principle of “organic unities,” without which no theoretical views as to the relative values of different good or bad things can avoid being plainly erroneous. According to this principle, the value of a whole is not necessarily the same as the sum of the values of its parts. For example, a beautiful object unseen has little or no value, and admiration of an ugly object, even if the emotion is exactly like admiration of a beautiful one, is on the whole positively bad. Thus in the admiration of a beautiful object, which is certainly good, it is neither the object nor the emotion which makes the whole good: it is the whole as such, namely, the emotion towards an appropriate object, which has value. It would seem even that dislike of what is ugly is rather good, although in this case both the dislike and the ugly object, if not in themselves indifferent, are rather bad. This explains why people prize good taste, even when they admit that it does not increase the enjoyment, or diminish the pain, to be derived from works of art or from barrel organs.

Thus it is essential to the excellence of aesthetic emotions that they should be directed towards objects which have beauty. Mr Moore discusses the effects upon the value of the whole which result from adding a true or false belief that the object is beautiful, and here he distinguishes two possible kinds of error, namely (1) the belief that the object has qualities which are beautiful, but which, as a matter of fact, it does not have; (2) the belief that qualities which it does have are beautiful, when as a matter of fact they are ugly. Of these errors the second is the more lamentable. Mr Moore also discusses the effect on value of a true or false belief that the object exists; this is a most interesting question upon which turns the relative value of nature and landscape-painting, or of history and romance. From all these discussions it results that the very high value we attach to knowledge of the truth is to be justified, not chiefly by the intrinsic value of knowledge per se, but by the fact that knowledge is an ingredient which adds greatly to the value of some of the best wholes, whereas false belief will often render otherwise excellent wholes worthless. The whole discussion of this and kindred topics is beyond praise; and it is very much to be hoped, for the sake of the educated public, that it will not fail to become acquainted with Mr Moore’s brilliant and profound inquiry.

*  Bertrand Russell, Review of G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, The Cambridge Review 25 (Dec 3 1903), lit. suppl. 37-8