PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday September 25, 2012



[4.] G. E. (George Edward) Moore.


·         1873 - 1958

·         Born in London to a middle-class family.

·         At 19 he enrolled as a student at Cambridge, where he met and became friends with Bertrand Russell; Moore was first a student of classics, but Russell convinced him to switch to philosophy.

·         After leaving Cambridge for a brief time for Edinburgh, Scotland, Moore returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in 1911.

·         Moore’s most important work was Principia Ethica (1903), included in the Modern Library Board’s list of the 100 most important non-fiction books of the 20th century. Our reading from Moore, called “The Subject-matter of Ethics,” is the first chapter of that work.

·         Moore always hated his first and middle names, and he always went by “G. E.”; his wife called him “Bill.”

·         A revealing quotation: “I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences.”[1]



[4.1.] Against British Idealism.


When they were young, both Moore and Russell were heavily influenced by idealism...


idealism (df.): everything there is, is (in some sense) mental: mind, or thoughts, or ideas.


One form of idealism had been defended by the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), according to whom history is simply the evolution of Geist (mind, or spirit).


Idealism was extremely popular in Britain during the 19th century. Proponents of British idealism included:

·         T. H. Green (1836-1882)

·         F. H. Bradley (1846-1881)

·         Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923)

·         J. M. E. McTaggart (1866-1925)


As students Moore and Russell were (like many of their professors) very attracted to British idealism.


But as young men, they both rejected it. According to Russell, it was Moore who led the way in this rebellion:


G. E. Moore took the lead in the rebellion, and I followed, with a sense of emancipation. Bradley argued that everything common sense believes in is mere appearance. We reverted to the opposite extreme, and thought that everything is real that common sense, uninfluenced by philosophy or theology, supposes real. With a sense of escaping from prison, we allowed ourselves to think that grass is green, and that the sun and stars would exist if no one was aware of them ...[2]


Moore wrote several essays defending common sense against its enemies. “A Defense of Common Sense” (1925) ( is one of them.



[4.2.] Overview of Ethics.


Ethics is one of the four traditional branches or areas of philosophy (along with logic, metaphysics and epistemology).


Ethics itself is frequently thought of as having three areas, although the boundaries between them are not completely distinct:

·         normative ethics

·         applied ethics

·         meta-ethics


Before we define normative ethics itself, let’s define “normative”:


normative (df): a normative statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are. [The opposite of “normative” is: descriptive: a descriptive statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be.]


So normative ethics is...


normative ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that attempts to discover general rules or principles of moral behavior; it tries to answer general questions about how we should behave, how we ought to act.


In this area of ethics, you’ll find claims like the following:

·         If doing x will benefit someone without harming anyone else, then it is morally right for you to do x.

·         If doing x violates someone’s moral rights, then it is immoral for you to do x.

There are claims about what sort of behavior is morally right in general. They are also rules you can use to help you decide what is the right thing to do in any given situation.



applied ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that asks relatively concrete questions about the morality of specific actions and policies; branches of applied ethics include:

·         medical ethics (abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, genetic engineering, fair distribution of prescription drugs and medical treatment…)

·         business ethics (corporate responsibility, moral rights and obligations of employees, diversity and discrimination)

·         sexual ethics (homosexuality, adultery, prostitution)



meta-ethics: (df.) the branch of ethics that tries to answer questions about the nature of morality itself.  It doesn’t ask or make judgments about what types of action are moral and immoral; rather, it asks questions like:

·         Does morality depend on what we believe about it, or is it independent of our beliefs?

·         Does morality depend on what God commands?

·         Are moral judgments (statements attributing morality or immorality to a given act, e.g. “Murder is immoral”; “Charity is morally good”) capable of being true or false? or are they simply expressions of emotion? or something else?

·         How can we justify moral claims? How should we justify them?

·         What is the meaning of words like “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “evil,”, etc.?


Think of meta-ethics as trying to take a position above normative and applied ethics, looking down on them and trying to explain the nature of the judgments made within those areas. (“meta” means above or about)


During the heyday of the Tradition of Analytic Philosophy (through the first half of the 20th century), most of the members of that tradition who bothered with ethics at all engaged in meta-ethics. This is true of Moore, who was also concerned with normative ethics. (Russell is an interesting exception to this rule; he wrote on matters of social and sexual ethics and was thus one of the few members of the tradition of analytic philosophy who engaged in applied ethics.)


It wasn’t until the late sixties and early seventies that analytic philosophers began once again seriously to address questions in normative ethics and applied ethics.



[4.3.] “The Most Fundamental Question in All of Ethics.”


Our reading is the first chapter of G. E. Moore’s most important work: Principia Ethica (1903).


The central question of this reading is a question of meta-ethics: “This, then, is our first question: What is good? and What is bad?” (440) He goes on to specify exactly what he means by this question...


He is careful to say that he is not concerned with goodness simply in the sense in which human conduct can be good. Rather, he is concerned with goodness in its widest sense: what is it that all good things, including good conduct, have in common?


Moore is not asking what specific actions are good; nor is he asking what general types of action are good. Today those sorts of question would belong either to normative ethics or to applied ethics; Moore describes such questions as belong to casuistry...


casuistry [kăzh´-oo-ĭ-strē] (df.): “In ethics, the systematic discussion of the applicability of general moral laws to particular cases of conduct, accommodating new ideas that enter and challenge social order. It is often used pejoratively to refer to over-subtle reasoning that has a tendency towards greater laxity than the dictates of the unsophisticated individual conscience would allow.”[3]


On Moore’s view (from his perspective in 1903), this branch of ethics has largely been a failure because more fundamental questions have not yet been settled... questions such as the one that Moore himself will be pursing here: what is goodness?


In contemporary language, his point is this: normative ethics (which attempts to discover what general types of conduct are good) and applied ethics (which attempts to discover what specific actions and policies are good) cannot get very far until some fundamental questions of meta-ethics are settled first... questions such as “What is good?”


Moore now formulates his question as being about the word “good”: the question is “how ‘good’ is to be defined?” (441)


But Moore is not asking for a dictionary definition, and he is not asking for an account of how people tend to use the word. He wants to know “that object or idea, which I hold, rightly or wrongly, that the word is generally used to stand for. What I want to discover is the nature of that object or idea...” (442). He is searching for a “definition[] which describe[s] the real nature of the object or notion denoted by a word, and which do[es] not merely tell us what the word is used to mean...” (442).


And he describes it as “the most fundamental question in all Ethics.” (441) He suggests two reasons for this:

1.      Unless we know the answer to it, it is very unlikely that our “most general ethical judgments” will be true... and (as Moore eventually argues) “the gravest errors have been largely due to beliefs in a false answer.” (441)

2.      Unless we know the answer to it, it is impossible to know what the evidence is for any given ethical judgment, i.e., it is impossible to give “correct reasons in support of a given ethical judgment.


As we will see, Moore’s answer to the question is a surprising one...



[4.4.] Good is Simple, Indefinable, and Non-Natural.


Moore’s positive assertions about the good include the following:


1.      Good is a simple concept and is therefore indefinable.

·         Anything that is definable is a complex notion that can be analyzed into smaller parts in a definition, e.g., the notion of horse is a complex notion:


[W]e may, when we define horse … mean that a certain object, which we all of us know, is composed in a certain manner: that it has four legs, a head, a heart, a liver, etc., etc., all of them arranged in definite relations to one another. It is in this sense that I deny good to be definable. I say that it is not composed of any parts, which we can substitute for it in our minds when we are thinking of it. We might think just as clearly and correctly about a horse, if we thought of all its parts and their arrangement instead of thinking of the whole: we could, I say, think how a horse differed from a donkey just as well, just as truly, in this way, as now we do, only not so easily; but there is nothing whatsoever which we could substitute for good; and that is what I mean, when I say that good is indefinable. (443)


·         The notion of good isn’t like the notion of horse or any other complex notion that can be analyzed into component parts. It is a simple concept, comparable to color concepts, e.g., yellow.

·         Ostensive definition is the only type of definition possible with regard to goodness


ostensive definition (df.): when someone defines a term by providing one or more examples of a thing to which the word refers; e.g., I point to a number of desks and say “desk.”


So an ostensive definition of “good” would work like this: someone presents someone else with something that is good, points at it, and says, “That is good.”


But on Moore’s view, it is impossible to give a definition that analyzes the concept good. This is the most important kind of definition, and it is impossible to provide a definition of this kind for good:


The most important sense of ‘definition’ is that in which a definition states what are the parts which invariably compose a certain whole; and in this sense ‘good’ has no definition because it is simple and has no parts. It is one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms by reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined. (443)



2. Good is a non-natural property. Good is not a “natural object” “in the same sense as” pleasure; it is “not to be considered a natural object.” (445) By saying this, Moore means something like the following:

·         The goodness of a thing cannot vary independently of its other properties, unlike a thing’s color…

·         It is possible for two things to differ only in color; e.g., object #1 is red and object #2 is yellow, and this is the only difference between them.

·         But it is impossible for two things to be exactly alike in every way except that one is good and the other is not.

·         So, whether x is good will always depend on what other properties x has.[4]


In making this last point, Moore is responding to late 19th-century attempts to tie ethics very closely to evolutionary science.


There is one 19th century philosopher in particular who made the attempt to develop a moral theory based on considerations of human evolution: Herbert Spencer.



[4.5.] Spencer’s Ethics.[5]


Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

·         Spencer was a popularizer of contemporary scientific discoveries, including evolutionary theory.

·         He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was sometimes misunderstood to advocate “might makes right / survival of the fittest” ethics, especially as applied to justify capitalist economics.

·         He died the year that Moore’s Principia Ethica was published.



In The Data of Ethics (1879), the first volume of his two-volume work The Principles of Ethics[6], Spencer argued that ethics is the form of universal conduct during the last, highest stage of evolution. According to Spencer:

·         To understand what makes conduct good, we must know what conduct is for; i.e., we have to know its purpose.

·         All animals have evolved conduct that aims at increasing the length and comfort of their own lives, as well as conduct that aims at producing offspring.

·         Since the purpose of conduct is to increase the length and quality of life and to produce offspring, good conduct is whatever conduct serves these functions best.

·         The “highest” conduct is that which is best at achieving those goals, viz., behavior of people in permanently peaceful communities—which Spencer calls “the limit of evolution.”

·         So Spencer defined good conduct as more evolved conduct.


[Note that the idea of a last or highest stage of evolution is NOT a Darwinian idea. Scientists reject this idea of Spencer’s and hold that evolution never aims at some higher level, that it is not progressing toward some final, better or best state.]



[4.6.] The Naturalistic Fallacy.


According to Moore, any theory of ethics that attempts to define moral concepts, like good, in terms of natural properties, like highly evolved conduct, is flawed.


According to Moore, almost all theories of ethics are based on an erroneous answer to his “most fundamental question of ethics”:

“What is good?”, i.e. how should the word “good” be defined?, i.e. what is the nature of the “object or idea” that the word “good” is used to represent?


Says Moore, all previous views, including Spencer’s evolutionary ethics, incorrectly assumed that good can be defined.


Moore thinks that goodness cannot be identified with any other property; to assume that it can be is a mistake.


He calls this mistake the Naturalistic Fallacy.


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 those other properties 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 endeavor to dispose. (444)


Says Moore, any theory offering a definition of goodness can be expressed in this way:


“X is good” means “X has property P”


But this is a mistake no matter what “P” stands for, because goodness is different from any other property.


Spencer’s identification of good with highly evolved conduct is an example of the Naturalistic Fallacy, according to Moore. To say that something is good is to make a normative (evaluative, prescriptive) claim, while to say that something is an instance of highly evolved conduct is to make a descriptive claim, a claim about what is in fact the case.


So this argument:


Conduct X is highly evolved.

Therefore, conduct X is good.


is invalid. (Compare David Hume’s claim that it is impossible validly to derive an “ought” from an “is.”)



[4.7.] The Open Question Argument.


Moore’s Open Question Argument (sec. 13, 446-447) is intended to show that any naturalistic definition of goodness cannot be correct and that the word “good” cannot be defined at all.


Before giving the argument, Moore considers three possibilities regarding the word “good”:

1.      “Good” is meaningful, and it can be defined (in the sense that it denotes something complex that can be analyzed, like “horse”).

2.      “Good” is meaningful, but it cannot be defined in that way.

3.      “Good” is not meaningful.


The Open Question Argument is intended to show that “good” cannot be defined in the relevant way:


                The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition be offered, it may be always asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good. (446, emphasis added)


The specific naturalistic definition that Moore considers is: “to be good is to be that which we desire to desire.” But he intends his argument to work against any naturalistic definition of goodness, not just that one...


(D) “X is good” = “X has property P”


(A) X has P, but is X good? (are things that have P good?)

(B) X has P, but does it have P? (do things that have P have P?)


1.      If (D) is true, then (A) and (B) have the same meaning.

2.      But (A) and (B) do not have the same meaning. (A) is an significant question, which might be answered by a substantial piece of information. (B) is not a real question. (A) is an open question, and (B) is not, so (A) and (B) do not mean the same thing.

3.      Therefore, (D) is not true.


... ‘That we should desire to desire A is good’ is not merely equivalent to ‘That A should be good is good.’ It may indeed be true that what we desire to desire is always also good; perhaps, even the converse may be true: but it is very doubtful whether this is the case, and the mere fact that we understand very well what is meant by doubting it, shews clearly that we have two different notions before our minds. (446)


[In the second half of sec.13 (446-447), he applies the Open Question Argument to show that it is not the case that “good” is not meaningful.]



[4.8.] Against Bentham.


According to Moore, Henry Sidgwick (British philosopher, 1838-1900) is the only other philosopher to recognize that “good” is indefinable.


Moore quotes Sidgwick quoting Jeremy Bentham (British philosopher, 1748-1832), and at this point Moore’s attention turns to Bentham. Moore argues that Bentham was guilty of committing the Naturalistic Fallacy.


Bentham was an early proponent of one the most influential theories of normative ethics:


utilitarianism (df.): the right thing to do in any situation is whatever will increase the overall amount of happiness in the world and decrease the overall amount of suffering.

·         This is how some utilitarians in the 19th century (such as Bentham and John Stuart Mill) stated the theory; it is sometimes called “classical Utilitarianism.”

·         Contemporary utilitarians tend to focus, not on increasing happiness, but on increasing well-being and making people generally better off, or on increasing the degree to which preferences are satisfied.

·         Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism (df.): the only thing that determines whether an action is right or wrong is its consequences; nothing else matters so far as an action’s morality is concerned.


Bentham’s fundamental principle (as stated by Sidgwick), was: “the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question [is] the right and proper end of human action.” (447)


Moore sees Bentham’s view as an example of the Naturalistic Fallacy.


As Moore reads Bentham, he has identified “the right” with human happiness, i.e., Bentham has maintained that “the right” is one and the exact same thing as human happiness. In so doing, he has identified a non-natural property (which he calls “rightness”) with a natural property, and thus committed the fallacy.


Moore himself reserves the word “right” to describe actions that are means to good ends, whether or not those actions themselves are good. For Moore, if performing action a will lead to end e, and if e is good (has the indefinable property of goodness), then performing a is the right thing to do. (447)


On the other hand, Bentham was using it to describe the end toward which an action should be directed, viz. human happiness.[7]


Bentham ends up arguing in the following fashion, which Moore takes to be illegitimate:


“Right” means “conducive to general happiness.”*

Therefore, general happiness is the right end.


*According to Moore, this premise is an example of the Naturalistic Fallacy.


Moore thinks this is an important mistake, but not necessarily because he disagrees with Bentham’s utilitarian conclusion (the normative ethical views accepted by Moore were in fact utilitarian!).


Rather, the mistake is important because had Bentham not made it, he might not have been a utilitarian. The mistake was in giving a bad argument for utilitarianism. Had Bentham recognized that his argument was bad, he presumably would have looked for other arguments to support his view. And had he not found them, he might have ended up with a normative theory other than utilitarianism.



[4.9.] Other Moorean Themes.


Moore’s Principa Ethica introduces other ideas which are central to his approach to ethics:


·         Moore itemizes a number of things which he says have the (unanalyzable, non-natural) property of goodness, including pleasure resulting from personal interactions and aesthetic pleasure (pleasure that one has while experiencing beautiful art or the natural world):


By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects. No one probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves; nor if we consider strictly what things are worth having purely for their own sakes, does it appear probable that any one will think anything else has nearly so great a value as the things which are included under these two heads. [from the final chapter of Principia Ethica; not in your textbook]


He identifies other things which he says have the (unanalyzable, non-natural) property of badness, including loving what is ugly or bad; hating what is beautiful or good; and pain. So he augments his meta-ethics with normative claims about what things possess the properties goodness and badness.


·         He maintained that we can have knowledge of which things are and are not good by way of intuition. This is a sort of knowledge that results neither from sensory perception nor from reasoning from other things that we know. (This is sometimes called Moore’s intuitionism.)


·         Moore was a consequentialist, in that he held that whether an action is right depends only on its consequences. He took right actions to be those which increased the amount of good things in the world (e.g., pleasure resulting from personal relationships, aesthetic enjoyment) and decreased the amount of bad things (e.g., pain)


·         He held that we cannot be absolutely certain which actions are right because we can never be certain what consequences our actions will have. But we can nonetheless have very good reason for thinking that our actions will have some consequences and not others, and so we can make firmly-grounded, highly-justified judgments about whether a given action would be moral or not.



Stopping point for Tuesday September 25. This document contains all of the lecture notes that I will be providing about Moore. In today’s class we only covered about 2/3rds of this material; we will work through the rest of it on Thursday Sept.27. Your mid-term exam is on Tuesday October 2.


[1] Quoted in Ernest Sosa, “G. E. Moore,” A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, Blackwell, 2001, p.45.


[2] Bertrand Russell, “My Mental Development,” in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, ed. Paul Schillp; quoted in the introduction to Contemporary Analytic and Linguistic Philosophers, 2nd ed., ed. E. D. Klemke, p.28.

[3] Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, rev. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. For a much lengthier explanation, see the article on casuistry in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, URL = <;;toc.depth=1;;brand=default >, accessed September 24, 2012.

[4] I owe this explanation to James Rachels.


[5] For more on Spencer, see David Weinstein, “Herbert Spencer,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[6] This work is available online: .

[7] Moore explains that, had Bentham used “right” to describe the actions that bring about the good, and then argued (or stipulated) that the good (i.e., the only thing that has goodness) is general happiness, then he could have defined “right” as that which is conducive to general happiness, and done so without committing the Naturalistic Fallacy. But, according to Moore, Bentham used “right” to describe the end toward which action should be directed, his definition of it as that which is conducive to general happiness does commit the Naturalistic Fallacy, since it equates the rightness with the brining about of general happiness.

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