GE Moore and the Cambridge Apostles

The title above sounds like the name of a rock band, but it is actually the title of a biography by Paul Levy of George Edward (GE) Moore, contemporary of Bertrand Russell at Cambridge University and mentor to Bloomsbury Group members John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia Woolf. Unlike Russell, Moore is not widely known outside of philosophical and Bloomsbury circles, by whom he was greatly admired. Woolf wrote, “The color of our minds and thought had been given to us by the climate of Cambridge and Moore’s philosophy. “ Woolf’s husband Leonard wrote that Moore “resembled Socrates in possessing a profound simplicity, a simplicity which Tolstoy and some other Russian writers consider to produce the finest human beings.” Keynes wrote in My Early Beliefs, “Moore’s Principia Ethica came out at the end of my first year. I have never heard of the present generation having read it. But, of course, its effect on us, and the talk which preceded and followed it, dominated, and perhaps still dominate, everything else . . . It seems to me looking back, that this religion of ours was a very good one to grow up under. It remains nearer the truth than any other that I know; with less irrelevant extraneous matter and nothing to be ashamed of . . . It is still my religion under the surface.”

Levy’s book traces out the life of Moore from the Quaker and evangelical roots of his “intellectual aristocracy” family through his early schooling and then his life at Cambridge up until the years of the First World War. He especially focuses on Moore’s membership in The Apostles, or The Cambridge Conversazione Society, founded in 1820 and whose connections with Moore up until the First World War Levy tracks. There is an appendix with all of the names of members  from 1820 through 1914. We find here many famous names, including Alfred Tennyson, William Kingdon Clifford, Henry Sidgwick, Alfred North Whitehead, John McTaggart, Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Moore was elected in 1894, nominated by Russell. The Apostles was a weekly discussion society. Moore was a hit from his first meeting. Russell wrote in a letter that “He (Moore) spoke perfectly clearly and unhesitatingly, and at first with no sign whatever of nervousness (which makes most people dumb at their first meeting). He looked like Newton and Satan rolled into one, each at the supreme moment of his life.”

Moore’s first paper read to The Society in May 1894 was entitled “What End?” Levy says about this paper that it is “muddled, confused, and confusing” but that it is “nonetheless a document of great importance: first, because it shows that Moore, who was sitting part I of the classics tripos practically at the time of its delivery, was already interested in and familiar with contemporary philosophical questions. Secondly, this first foray into philosophy is important because Moore’s later refutation of its principle thesis is one of the main strands in the development of Principia Ethica.” The paper begins with a general introduction and proceeds to a discussion later remembered by Russell as starting with “In the beginning was matter and then came the devil.” But the paper was not a demonstration, as Russell writes, that “Moore was an ardent disciple of Lucretius” but rather was an early profession of hedonism, later to be attacked in Principia Ethica (PE).

Levy quotes “What End” as follows: “God is life, and his two indivisible components are consciousness and will. His presence is shewn by the movement of the whole of his own body or by internal causes undiscoverable to science. The lowest animal I conceive has both will and consciousness, and one thing which puts them into connection is two abstractions – pleasure and pain. Either pleasure or pain or both are always to be predicated in some degree of every state in which consciousness is; and will, without which life cannot go on, is always being prompted by desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure.”

Levy maintains that while the Bloomsbury group hero-worshiped Moore and took PE as their Bible, they didn’t seem to have read, or at least paid much attention to anything in the book besides the last chapter, “The Ideal.” In my view, Moore’s first book is important as a watershed which sorted the sheep from the goats in the previous century of ethical thought; from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill to the “metaphysical ethics” of Kant. Moore rejected both, finding them both guilty of the “naturalistic fallacy,” a fallacy that he coined. PE is so important that I will leave off here talking about Levy’s book and go on to it directly.

Principia Ethica

PE was first published in 1903 and it is still in print today. I would think that there is hardly an introductory university course in ethics that could do without some mention of it. Moore says in the preface that the book is intended to sort two kinds of questions. “The two questions may be expressed, the first in the form: What kind of things ought to exist for their own sakes? the second in the form: What kind of actions ought we to perform?” In this preface he says the “One main object of this book may, then, be expressed by slightly changing one of Kant’s famous titles. I have endeavored to write a ‘Prolegomena’ to any future Ethics that can possibly pretend to be scientific.” It is interesting that he expresses hopes at a “scientific” Ethics, for most modern proponents of “scientific” ethics (like Sam Harris) are proponents of some version of the utilitarianism that Moore attacked savagely in PE.

PE is divided into six chapters and it is convenient to discuss the book under subheadings provided by these chapters.

The Subject Matter of Ethics

The first Chapter of PE sets out Moore’s famous answer to the question, “What is good?” His answer is that “good” is indefinable or simple: “for if by definition be meant the analysis of an object of thought, only complex objects can be defined.”  He says “Propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic; and that is plainly no trivial matter. And the same thing may be expressed more popularly, by saying that, if I am right, then nobody can foist upon us such axioms as the ‘Pleasure is the only good’ or that ‘The good is the desired’ on the pretense that this is ‘the very meaning of the word.’”

Moore claims that if good is a simple notion “just as ‘yellow’ is a simple notion” this means that you cannot explain to anyone who already doesn’t know it what the word means. One can explain to someone what a chimera is but in doing so one is describing a complex notion; the parts of which cannot be broken down any further. When told that a chimera is a an animal with a lioness’s head and body and a goat’s head growing from the middle of its back with a snake in place of a tail, you have to already know what a lioness, goat, and snake are. And if “good” is indefinable, then to try to define it by saying that it has this property or that is to commit what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy.” (NF) Moore defines this famous phrase thus:

“It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named these other properties that they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not ‘other’ but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ and of it I shall now endeavour to dispense. “(PE, p. 10)

He considers two example contenders for the definition of “good”: 1) good is pleasure or 2) good is that which is desired. In the first case the person claiming this is saying that the object of his desire is not pleasure, he contradicts himself directly. “If good is defined as something else, it is then impossible either to prove that any other definition is wrong or even to deny such a definition.” In the other case, he says “the discussion is after all a verbal one. When A says ‘Good means pleasant’ and B says ‘Good means desired.’ They may merely wish to assert that most people have used the word for what is pleasant and for what is desired respectively.” Only this is not an “ethical” discussion, according to Moore.

The other well-known topic taken up in Chapter one is Moore’s take on Hegel’s “organic whole” or “organic unity”.  Moore insists that “in considering the different degrees in which things themselves possess this property (goodness), we have to take into account of the fact that a whole may possess it in a degree different from that which is obtained by summing the degrees in which its parts possess it.” (PE, p. 36) What he means by this is taken up in his last Chapter.

Naturalistic Ethics

In his second Chapter Moore takes on those ethical theories that he feels commit his NF. These include Stoic Ethics, for they declared ethics to be the task of discovering a ‘life according to nature.” He defers his (brief) discussion of the Stoics and their metaphysical ethics to Chapter IV, however.  In this chapter Moore bores in on Herbert Spencer’s “Evolutionistic Ethics” (in The Data of Ethics) for ridicule. Evolutionistic ethics in his mind defines the good as that which is “natural” and for that reason, is “therefore certainly fallacious”; that is, not included in the category of ethical knowledge according to Moore’s definition. He derides Spencer for “’constantly’ using the term ‘more evolved’ as equivalent to ‘higher.’” He is not sure whether to criticize Spencer as an evolutionistic ethicist or as a hedonist. But when Spencer says that ”‘virtue’ cannot ‘be defined otherwise than in terms of happiness’” Moore declares him therefore guilty of the NF.


Moore has a separate chapter for Hedonism, which he sees as a special case of the NF. Here he credits Henry Sidgwick (a fellow Apostle) for “clearly recognizing that by ‘good’ we do mean something unanalysable” and who “has alone been led thereby to emphasise the fact that, if Hedonism be true, its claims to be so must be rested solely on its self-evidence – that we must maintain ‘Pleasure is the sole good’ to be a mere intuition.” His refutation of Hedonism he explains as follows: “In fact, my justification for supposing that I shall have refuted historical Hedonism, if I refute the proposition ‘Nothing is good but pleasure’ is that although Hedonists have rarely stated their principle in this form and though its truth, in this form, will certainly not follow from their arguments, yet their ethical method will follow logically from nothing else.” (PE, p. 61) Among the group of Hedonists he includes Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic school and follower of Socrates, the Epicureans, and the Utilitarians: Bentham, Mill, Spencer, and Sidgwick.

His method of refuting Mill is to take his quotes like “we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and that the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons” and then convict him of NF. So, even though Mill has not said that happiness is the sole good, Moore, regardless convicts him of NF: he has “attempted to establish the identity of good with the desired, by confusing the proper sense of ‘desirable,’ in which it denotes that which it is good to desire, with the sense which it would bear if it were analogous to such words as ‘visible.’”

Having finished with Mill, in his mind, he moves on to Sidgwick. He maintains that Sidgwick has seen the inconsistency between the Hedonistic principle that “Pleasure is the sole good” and that one pleasure may be better than another. Yet, he still chooses “Pleasure alone is good as an end.” His case against Hedonism ultimately rests on Socrates’s discussion with Protarchus in the Philebus. Socrates gets Protarchus to admit that although he has maintained that to “live your whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures” is his doctrine, he is speechless when Socrates explains that intelligence, memory, knowledge, and wisdom would be excluded from such a life.

Metaphysical Ethics

In this Chapter Moore moves on to the Stoics, Spinoza, and Kant. “They all imply, and many of them expressly hold, that ethical truths follow logically from metaphysical truths – that Ethics should be based on Metaphysics.” He defines metaphysics as a “profession to prove the truth about non-natural existents.  I define ‘metaphysical,’ therefore, by a reference to supersensible reality; although I think that the only non-natural objects, about which it as succeeded in obtaining truth, are objects which do not exist at all.” The Stoics, for example, asserted that a life in accordance with Nature was perfect. But they did not mean “Nature” as Moore defines it, but “something supersensible which they inferred to exist, and which they held to be perfectly good.” He deals likewise with Spinoza’s Absolute Substance and ‘intellectual love’ of God and with Kant’s “Kingdom of ends” which is ideal. And with modern writers “who tell us that the final and perfect end is to realize our true selves.” (PE, p. 113) But, remarkably, Moore indicts the metaphysical ethicists of NF: “They . . .  imply, as I said, that this ethical proposition follows from some proposition which is metaphysical: that the question ‘What is real?’ has some logical bearing upon the question ‘What is good?’ It was for this reason that I described ‘Metaphysical Ethics in Chapter II as based upon the NF.” He ends up maintaining that, just like being good is not just experiencing pleasure, being good is not identical with being willed (a la Kant) or felt in a certain way.

Perhaps it is the right place here to bring up Bernard Williams’s comment that “It is hard to think of any other widely used phrase in the history of philosophy that is such a spectacular misnomer” as the NF (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 121). Williams says the NF is not in Moore’s usage a mistake in inference as opposed to what “in Moore’s view was and error, or else simple redefining the word.” To be fair to Moore, he often finds mistakes in inference (most commonly by reductio) in the arguments of his opponents. But there is something to Williams’s quarrel that when Moore argues by induction or points out inconsistencies in deduction he is never alive to the irony as old as Sextus Empiricus that neither induction nor deduction can be defended as anything more than conventional argument, even though Moore at one point says, “it follows from the meaning of good and bad, that such propositions are all of them, in Kant’s phrase, ‘synthetic’: they all must be simply accepted or rejected, which cannot be logically deduced from any other proposition.” And we know this, not just from Sextus Empiricus, but also from Moore’s bête noir, J.S. Mill.

Ethics in Relation to Conduct

Moore’s fifth Chapter in PE is devoted to exploring the question of “What ought we to do?” He says that this question “can only be answered by an entirely new question – the question what things are related as causes to that which is good in itself.” He says that the job here is to determine what conduct is good as a means to good results. This is the question of Practical Ethics.  His first conclusion is that “Intuitionism is mistaken since no proposition with regard to duty is self-evident.” His hope here is not to identify good means with certainty, but with a high degree of probability. His appeal here is often to “Common Sense.” He finds that virtues are not to be defined as dispositions that are good in themselves, but as dispositions to perform actions that are “generally” good as a means. Finally, he finds that virtue consists in the “conscientiousness” that is the disposition not to act in certain cases until we believe that our action is right. The value of this feeling has been emphasized by Christian theology, but it “is certainly not, as Kant would lead us to think, either the sole thing of value, or always good as a means.”

The Ideal

The last Chapter of PE seems to have been the only chapter read seriously by the artists and aesthetes of the Bloomsbury group. It is here that Moore finds that the “ideal” state of affairs is that which is “generally good in itself.” Here he finds in personal affection and aesthetic enjoyment “by far the greatest goods with which we are acquainted.”  He here argues for the value of knowledge and of the intrinsic superiority of knowledge based on reality, as opposed to an imagined reality. He finds that “cognition of material qualities, and even their existence, is an essential constituent of the Ideal or Summum Bonum.”  The book ends with a consideration of 1) unmixed goods, 2) evils, and 3)mixed goods. At this point, a weary reader may be excused for wondering if the whole chapter doesn’t fall under the category of the famous NF!

Proof of an External World

This consideration of the philosophy of GE Moore can’t end without his most famous quote, from his above named paper:

“I can prove now, for instance, that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand’, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another’. “

This paper comes from the end of Moore’s long and distinguished career as the King of Cambridge. Perhaps he had just gotten tired of all the wrangling, as have I.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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