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Notes by RBJ on

Principia Ethica

by G.E.Moore

For a brief(ish) summary of this volume the contents list provided by Moore himself (which occupies 15 pages of the book) would be hard to improve upon. This is provided verbatim below, and will be hyper-linked using the section number to any notes which I make myself.
Chapter IThe Subject Matter of Ethics
Chapter IINaturalistic Ethics
Chapter IIIHedonism
Chapter IVMetaphysical Ethics
Chapter VEthics in Relation to Conduct
Chapter VIThe Ideal

The Subject-Matter of Ethics

1. In order to define Ethics we must discover what is both common and peculiar to all undoubted ethical judgements;
2. but this is not that they are concerned with human conduct, but that they are concerned with a certain predicate 'good,' and its converse 'bad,' which may be applied both to conduct and to other things.
3. The subjects of the judgement of a scientific Ethics are not, like those of some studies, 'particular things';
4. but it includes all universal judgements which assert the relation of 'goodness' to any subject, and hence includes casuistry.
5. It must, however, enquire not only what things are universally related to goodness, but also, what this predicate, to which they are related, is:
6. and the answer to this question is that it is indefinable
7. or simple: for if by definition be meant the analysis of an object of thought, only complex objects can be defined;
8. and of the three senses in which 'definition' can be used, this is the most important.
9. What is thus indefinable is not 'the good,' or the whole of that which always possesses the predicate 'good,' but this predicate itself.
10. 'Good,' then, denotes one unique simple object of thought among innumerable others; but this object has very commonly been identified with some other - a fallacy which may be called 'the naturalistic fallacy'
Sec.B. (cont)
11. and which reduces what is used as a fundamental principle of Ethics either to a tautology or to a statement about the meaning of a word.
12. The nature of this fallacy is easily recognised;
13. and if it were avoided, it would be plain that the only alternatives to the admission that 'good' is indefinable, are either that it is complex or that there is no notion at all peculiar to Ethics - alternatives which can only be refuted by an appeal to inspection, but which can be so refuted.
14. The 'naturalistic fallacy' illustrated by Bentham; and the importance of avoiding it is pointed out.
15. The relations which ethical judgements assert to hold universally between 'goodness' and other things are of two kinds; a thing may be asserted either to be good itself or to be causally related to something else which is itself good - to be 'good as a means.'
16. Our investigations of the latter kind of relation cannot hope to establish more than that a certain kind of action will generally be followed by the best possible results;
17. but a relation of the former kind, if true at all, will be true of all cases. All ordinary ethical judgements assert causal relationships, but they are commonly treated as if they did not, because the two kinds of relation are not distinguished.
18. The investigation of intrinsic values is complicated by the fact that the value of a whole may be different from the sum of the values of its parts,
19. in which case the part has to the whole a relation, which exhibits an equally important difference from and resemblance to that of means to end.
20. The term 'organic whole' might well be used to denote that a whole has this property, since, of the two other properties which it is commonly used to imply,
21. one, that of reciprocal causal dependence between parts, has no necessary relation to this one,
22. and the other, upon which most stress has been laid, can be true of no whole whatsoever, being a self-contradictory conception due to confusion.
23. Summary of chapter

Naturalistic Ethics

24. This and the two following chapters will consider proposed answers to the second of ethical questions: What is good in itself? These proposed answers are characterised by the facts (1) that they declare some one kind of thing to be alone good in itself; and (2) that they do so because they suppose this one thing to define the meaning of 'good'.
25. Such theories may be divided into two groups (1) Metaphysical, (2) Naturalistic : and the second group may be subdivided into two others, (a) theories which declare some natural object other than pleasure, to be sole good, (b) Hedonism. The present chapter will deal with (a).
26. Definition of what is meant by 'Naturalism'.
27. The common argument that things are good, because they are 'natural', may involve either (1) the false proposition that the 'normal' as such is good;
28. or (2) the false proposition that the 'necessary', as such is good.
29. But a systematised appeal to Nature is now most prevalent in connection with the term 'Evolution'. An examination of Mr. Herbert Spencer's Ethics will illustrate this form of Naturalism.
30. Darwin's scientific theory of 'natural selection', which has mainly caused the modern vogue of the term 'Evolution', must be carefully distinguished from certain ideas which are commonly associated with the latter term.
31. Mr. Spencer's connection of Evolution with Ethics seems to show the influence of the naturalistic fallacy;
32. but Mr. Spencer is vague as to the ethical relations of 'pleasure' and 'evolution', and his Naturalism may be mainly Naturalistic Hedonism.
33. A discussion of the third chapter of the Data of Ethics serves to illustrate these two points and to shew that Mr. Spencer is in utter confusion with regard to the fundamental principles of Ethics.
34. Three possible views as to the relation of Evolution to Ethics are distinguished from the naturalistic view to which it is proposed to confine the name 'Evolutionary Ethics'. On any of these three views the relation would be unimportant, and the 'Evolutionistic' view, which makes it important involves a double fallacy.
35. Summary of chapter.


36. The prevalence of Hedonism is mainly due to the naturalistic fallacy.
37. Hedonism may be defined as the doctrine that 'Pleasure is the sole good': this doctrine has always been held by Hedonists and used by them as a fundamental ethical principle, although it has commonly been confused with others.
38. The method pursued in this chapter will consist in exposing the reasons commonly offered for the truth of Hedonism and in bringing out the reasons, which suffice to shew it untrue, by a criticism of J.S.Mill & H.Sedgwick.
39. Mill declares that 'Happiness is the only thing desirable as an end', and insists that 'Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof';
40. yet he gives a proof of the first proposition, which consists in (1) the fallacious confusion of 'desirable' with 'desired',
41. (2) an attempt to shew that nothing but pleasure is desired.
Sec.A. (cont)
42. The theory that nothing but pleasure is desired seems largely due to confusion between the cause and the object of desire: pleasure is certainly not the sole object of desire, and, even if it is always among the causes of desire, that fact would not tempt anyone to think it a good.
43. Mill attempts to reconcile his doctrine that pleasure is the sole object of desire with his admission that other things are desired, by the absurd declaration that what is a means to happiness is 'a part' of happiness.
44. Summary of Mill's argument and of my criticism.
45. We must now proceed to consider the principle of Hedonism as an 'Intuition', as which it has been clearly recognised by Prof. Sedgwick alone. That it should be thus incapable of proof is not, in itself, any reason for dissatisfaction.
46. In thus beginning to consider what things are good in themselves, we leave the refutation of Naturalism behind, and enter on the second division of ethical questions.
47. Mill's doctrine that some pleasures are superior 'in quality' to others implies both (1) that judgments of ends must be 'intuitions';
48. and (2) that pleasure is not the sole good.
49. Prof. Sedgwick has avoided these confusions made by Mill: in considering his arguments we shall, therefore, merely consider the question 'Is pleasure the sole good?'
50. Prof. Sedgwick first tries to shew that nothing outside of Human Existence can be good. Reasons are given for doubting this.
51. He then goes on to the far more important proposition that no part of Human Existence, except pleasure is desirable.
Sec.B. (cont)
52. But pleasure must be distinguishd from consciousness of pleasure. and (1) it is plain that, when so distinguished, pleasure is not the sole good;
53. and (2) it may be made equally plain that consciousness of pleasure is not the sole good, if we are equally careful to distinguish it from its usual accompaniments.
54. Of Prof. Sidgwick's two arguments for the contrary view, the second is equally compatible with the supposition that pleasure is a mere criterion of what is right;
55. and in his first, the appeal to reflective intuition, he fails to put the question clearly (1) in that he does not recognise the principle of organic unities;
56. and (2) in that he fails to emphasize that the agreement, which he has tried to shew, between hedonistic judgements and those of Common Sense, only holds of judgements of means: hedonistic judgements of ends are flagrantly paradoxical.
57. I conclude, then, that a reflective intuition, if proper precautions are taken, will agree with Common Sense that it is absurd to regard mere consciousness of pleasure as the sole good.
58. It remains to consider Egoism and Utilitarianism. It is important to distinguish the former, as the doctrine that 'my own pleasure is sole good', from the doctrine, opposed to Altruism, that to pursue my own pleasure exclusively is right as a means.
59. Egoism proper is utterly untenable, being self-contradictory: it fails to percieve that when I declare a thing to be my own good, I must be declaring it to be good absolutely or else not good at all.
60. This confusion is further brought out by an examination of Prof. Sidgwick's contrary view;
61. and it is shewn that, in consequence of this confusion, his representation of 'the relation of Rational Egoism to Rational Benevolence' as 'the profoundest problem of Ethics', and his view that a certain hypothesis is required to 'make Ethics rational', are grossly erroneous.
Sec.C. (cont)
62. The same confusion is involved in the attempt to infer Utilitarianism from Psychological Hedonism, as commonly held, e.g. by Mill.
63. Egoism proper seems also to owe its plausibility to its confusion with Egoism, as a doctrine of means.
64. Certain ambiguities in the conception of Utilitarianism are noticed; and it is pointed out (1) that, as a doctrine of the end to be pursued, it is finally refuted by the refutation of Hedonism, and (2) that, while the arguments most commonly urged in its favour could, at most, only shew it to offer a correct criterion of right action, they are quite insufficient even for this purpose.
65. Summary of chapter.

Metaphysical Ethics

66. The term 'metaphysical' is defined as having reference primarily to any object of knowledge which is not a part of Nature - does not exist in time, as an object of perception; but since metaphysicians, not content with pointing out the truth about such entities, have always supposed that what does not exist in Nature, must, at least, exist, the term also has reference to a supposed 'supersensible reality'.
67. and by 'metaphysical Ethics' I mean those systems which maintain or imply that the answer to the question 'What is good?' logically depends upon the answer to the question 'What is the nature of supersensible reality?' All such systems obviously involve the same fallacy - the 'naturalistic fallacy' - by the use of which Naturalism is also defined.
68. Metaphysicians, as dealing with a 'supersensible reality', may have a bearing upon practical Ethics (1) if its supersensible reality is conceived as something future, which our actions can affect; and (2) since it will prove that every proposition of practical Ethics is false, if it can shew that an eternal reality is either the only real thing or the only good thing. Most metaphysical writers, believing in a reality of the latter kind, do thus imply the complete falsehood of every practical proposition, although they fail to see that their Metaphysics thus contradicts our Ethics.
69. But the theory, by which I have defined Metaphysical Ethics, is not that Metaphysics has a logical bearing upon the question involved in practical Ethics 'What effects will my action produce?', but that it has such a bearing upon the fundamental ethical question 'What is good in itself?'. This theory has been refuted by the proof, in Chap. I, that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy: it only remains to discuss certain confusions which seem to have lent it plausibility.
70. One such source of confusion seems to lie in the failure to distinguish between the proposition 'This is Good', when it means 'This existing thing is good' and the same proposition, when it means 'The existence of this kind of thing would be good';
71. and another seems to lie in the failure to distinguish between that which suggests a truth, or is a cause of our knowing it, and that upon which it logically depends, or which is a reason for believing it: in the former sense fiction has a more important bearing upon Ethics than Metaphysics can have.
72. But a more important source of confusion seems to lie in the supposition that 'to be good' is identical with the possession of some supersensible property, which is also involved in the definition of 'reality'.
73. One cause of this supposition seems to be the logical prejudice that all propositions are of the most familiar type - that in which subject and predicate are both existents.
74. But ethical propositions cannot be reduced to this type: in particular they are obviously to be distinguished
75. (1) from Natural Laws; with which one of Kant's most famous doctrines confuses them,
76. and (2) from Commands; with which they are confused both by Kant and by others.
77. This latter confusion is one of the sources of the prevalent modern doctrine that 'being good' is identical with 'being willed'; but the prevalence of this doctrine seems to be chiefly due to other causes. I shall try to shew with regard to it (1) what are the chief errors which seem to have led to its adoption; and (2) that, apart from it, the Metaphysics of Volition can hardly have the smallest logical bearing upon Ethics.
78. (1) It has been commonly held, since Kant, that 'goodness' has some relation to Will or Feeling, which 'truth' or 'reality' has to Cognition; that the proper method for Ethics is to discover what is implied in Will or Feeling, just as, according to Kant, the proper method for Metaphysics was to discover what is implied in cognition.
79. The actual relations between 'goodness' and Will or Feeling, from which this false doctrine is inferred, seem to be mainly (a) the causal relation consisting in the fact that it is only by reflection upon the experience of Will and Feeling that we become aware of ethical distinctions; (b) the facts that a cognition of goodness is perhaps always included in certain kinds of Willing and Feeling, and is generally accompanied by them:
80. but from neither of these psychological facts does it follow that 'to be good' is identical with being willed or felt in a certain way; the supposition that it does follow is an instance of the fundamental contradiction of modern Epistemology - the contradiction involved in both distinguishing and identifying the object and the act of Thought, 'truth' itself and its supposed criterion:
Sec.D. (cont)
81. and, once this analogy between Volition and Cognition is accepted, the view that ethical propositions have an essential reference to Will and Feeling, is strengthened by another error with regard to the nature of Cognition - the error of supposing that 'perception' denotes merely a certain way of cognising an object, whereas it actually includes the assertion that the object is also true.
82. The argument of the last three §§ is recapitulated; and it is pointed out (1) that volition and Feeling are not analogous to Cognition, (2) that, even if they were, still 'to be good' could not mean 'to be willed or felt in a certain way'.
83. (2) if 'being good' and 'being willed' are not identical, then the latter could only be a criterion of the former; and, in order to shew that it was so, we should have to establish independently that many things were good - that is to say we should have to establish most of our ethical conclusions before the Metaphysics of Volition could possibly give us the smallest assistance.
84. The fact that the metaphysical writers who, like Green, attempt to base Ethics on Volition, do not even attempt this independent investigation, shews that they start from the false assumption that goodness is identical with being willed, and hence that their ethical reasonings have no value whatsoever.
85. Summary of chapter.

Ethics in Relation to Conduct

86. The question to be discussed in this chapter must be clearly distinguished from the two questions hitherto discussed, namely (1) What is the nature of the proposition: 'This is good in itself'?
87. and (2) What things are good in themselves? to which we gave one answer in deciding that pleasure was not the only thing good in itself.
88. In this chapter we shall deal with the third object of ethical enquiry: namely answers to the question 'What conduct is a means to good results?' or 'What ought we to do?' This is the question of Practical Ethics, and its answer involves an assertion of causal connection.
89. It is shown that the assertions 'This action is right' or 'is my duty' are equivalent to the assertion that the total results of the action in question will be the best possible;
90. and the rest of the chapter will deal with certain conclusions, upon which light is thrown by this fact. Of which the first is (1) that Intuitionism is mistaken; since no proposition with regard to duty can be self-evident.
91. (2) It is plain that we cannot hope to prove which among all the actions, which it is possible for us to perform on every occasion, will produce the best total results: to discover what is our 'duty', in this strict sense, is impossible. It may. however, be possible to shew which among the actions which we are likely to perform, will produce the best results.

92. The distinction made in the last § is further explained ; and it is insisted that all that Ethics has done or can do, is, not to determine absolute duties, but to point out which, among a few of the alternatives, possible under certain circumstances, will have the better results.
93. (3) Even this latter task is immensely difficult, and no adequate proof that the total results of one action are superior to those of another, has ever been given. For (a) we can only calculate actual results within a comparatively near future; we must, therefore, assume that no results of the same action in the infinite future beyond, will reverse the balance - an assumption which perhaps can be, but certainly has not been, justified.
94. and (b) even to decide that, of any two actions one has a better total result than the other in the immediate future, is very difficult; and it is very improbable, and quite impossible to prove, that any single action is in all cases better as means than its probable alternative. Rules of duty, even in this restricted sense, can only, at most, be general truths.
95. But (c) most of the actions, most universally approved by Common Sense, may perhaps be shewn to be generally better as means than any probable alternative, on the following principles. (1) With regard to some rules it may be shewn that their general observance would be useful in any state of society, where the instincts to preserve and propagate life and to possess property were as strong as they seem always to be; and this utility may be shewn, independently of a right view as to what is good in itself, since the observance is a means to things which are a necessary condition for the attainment of any great goods in considerable quantities.
96. (2) Other rules are such that their general observance can only be shewn to be useful, as a means to the preservation of society, under more or less temporary conditions; if any of these are to be proved useful in all societies this can only be done by shewing their causal relation to things good or evil in themselves, which are not generally recognised to be such.
97. It is plain that rules of class (1) may also be justified by the existence of such temporary conditions as justify those of class (2); and among such temporary conditions must be reckoned the so-called sanctions.

98. In this way, then, it may be possible to prove the general utility, for the present, of those actions, which in our society are both generally recognised as duties and generally practised; but it seems very doubtful whether a conclusive case can be established for any proposed change in social custom, without an independent investigation of what things are good or bad in themselves.
99. And (d) if we consider the distinct question of how a single individual should decide to act () in cases where the general utility of the section in question is certain, () in other cases: there seems reason for thinking that, with regard to (), where the generally useful rule is also generally observed, he should always conform to it; but these reasons are not conclusive, if either the general observance or the general utility is wanting:
100. and that () in all other cases, rules of action should not be followed at all, but the individual should consider what positive goods, he, in his particular circumstances, seems likely to be able to effect, and what evils to avoid.
101. (4) It follows further that the distinction denoted by the terms 'duty' and 'expediency' is not primarily ethical: when we ask 'Is this really expedient?' we are asking precisely the same question as when we ask 'Is this a means to the best possible?'. 'Duties' are mainly distinguished by the non-ethical marks (1) that many people are often tempted to avoid them, (2) that their most prominent effects are on others than the agent, (3) that they excite the moral sentiments: so far as they are distinguished by an ethical peculiarity, this is not that they are peculiarly useful to perform, but that they are peculiarly useful to sanction.
102. The distinction between 'duty' and 'interest' is also, in the main, the same non-ethical distinction: but the term 'interested' does also refer to a distinct ethical predicate - that an action is to 'my interest' asserts only that it will have the best possible effects of one particular kind, not that its total effects will be the best possible.
103. (5). We may further see that 'virtues' are not to be defined as dispositions that are good in themselves: they are not necessarily more than dispositions to perform actions generally good as means, and of these, for the most part, only those classed as 'duties' in accordance with section (4). It follows that to decide whether a disposition is or is not 'virtuous' involves the difficult causal investigation discussed in section (3); and that what is a virtue in one state of society may not be so in another.

104. It follows also that we have no reason to presume as has commonly been done, that the exercise of virtue in the performance of 'duties' is ever good in itself - far less, that it is the sole good:
105. and, if we consider the intrinsic value of such exercise, it will appear (1) that, in most cases, it has no value, and (2) that even the cases, where it has some value, are far from constituting the sole good. The truth of the latter proposition is generally inconsistently implied, even by those who deny it;
106. but in order fairly to decide upon the intrinsic value of virtue, we must distinguish three different kinds of disposition, each of which is commonly so called and has been maintained to be the only kind deserving the name. Thus (a) the mere unconscious 'habit' of performing duties, which is the commonest type, has no intrinsic value whatsoever; Christian moralists are right in implying that mere 'external rightness' has no intrinsic value, though they are wrong in saying that it has no value even as a means.
107. (b) where virtue consists in a disposition to have, and be moved by, a sentiment of love towards really good consequences of an action and of hatred towards really evil ones, it has some intrinsic value, but its value may vary greatly in degree:
108. finally (c) where virtue consists in 'conscientiousness' i.e. the disposition not to act in certain cases, until we believe and feel that our action is right, it seems to have some intrinsic value: the value of this feeling has been peculiarly emphasised by Christian Ethics, but it certainly is not, as Kant would lead us to think, either the sole thing of value, or always good even as a means.
109. Summary of Chapter.

The Ideal

110. By an 'ideal' state of things may be meant either (1) the Summum Bonum or absolutely best, or (2) the best which the laws of nature allow to exist in this world, or (3) anything greatly good in itself; this chapter will be principally occupied with what is ideal in sense (3) - with answering the fundamental questions of Ethics;
111. but a correct answer to this question is an essential step towards a correct view as to what is 'ideal' in senses (1) and (2).
112. In order to obtain a correct answer to the question 'What is good in itself?' we must consider what value things would have if they existed absolutely by themselves:
113. and, if we use this method, it is obvious that personal affection and aesthetic enjoyments include by far the greatest goods with which we are acquainted.
114. If we begin by considering I. Aestheic Enjoyments, it is plain (1) that there is always essential to these some one of a great variety of different emotions, though these emotions may have little value by themselves:
115. and (2) that a cognition of really beautiful qualities is equally essential, and has equally little value by itself.

116. But (3) granted that the appropriate combination of these two elements is always a considerable good and may be a very great one, we may ask whether, where there is added to this a true belief in the existence of the object of the cognition, the whole thus formed is not much more valuable still.
117. I think that this question should be answered in the affirmative; but in order to ensure that this judgment is correct, we must carefully distinguish it
118. from the two judgements (a) that knowledge is valuable as a means, (b) that, where the object of the cognition is itself a good thing, its existence, of course, adds to the value of the whole state of things:
119. if, however, we attempt to avoid being biassed by these two facts, it still seems that mere true belief may be a condition essential to great value.
120. We thus get a third essential constituent of many great goods; and in this way we are able to justify (1) the attribution of value to knowledge, over and above its value as a means, and (2) the intrinsic superiority of the proper appreciation of a real object over the appreciation of an equally valuable object of mere imagination : emotions directed towards real objects may thus, even if the object be inferior, claim equality with the highest imaginative pleasures.
121. Finally (4) with regard to the objects of the cognition which is essential to these good wholes, it is the business of Aesthetics to analyse their nature : it need only be here remarked (1) that, by calling them 'beautiful', we mean that they have relations to a good whole; and (2) that they are, for the most part, themselves complex wholes such that the admiring contemplation of the whole greatly exceeds in value the sum of the values of the admiring contemplation of the parts.

122. With regards to II. Personal Affection, the object is here not merely beautiful but also good in itself; it appears, however, that the appreciation of what is thus good in itself, viz. the mental qualities of a person, is certainly by itself, not so great a good as the whole formed by the combination with it of an appreciation of corporeal beauty; it is doubtful whether it is even so great a good as the mere appreciation of corporeal beauty; but it is certain that the combination of both is a far greater good than either singly.
123. It follows from what has been said that we have every reason to suppose that a cognition of material qualities, and even their existence, is an essential constituent of the Ideal or Summum Bonum : there is only a bare possibility that they are not included in it.
124. It remains to consider positive evils and mixed goods. I. Evils may be divided into three classes, namely
125. (1) evils which consist in the love or admiration, or enjoyment of what is evil or ugly
126. (2) evils which consist in the hatred or contempt of what is good or beautiful
127. and (3) the consciousness of intense pain: this appears to be the only thing, either greatly good or greatly evil, which does not involve both a cognition and an emotion directed towards its object; and hence it is not analogous to pleasure in respect of its intrinsic value, while it also seems not to add to the vileness of a whole, as a whole, in which it is combined with another bad thing, whereas pleasure does add to the goodness of a whole, in which it is combined with another good thing;

128. but pleasure and pain are completely analogous in this, that pleasure by no means always increases, and pain by no means always decreases, the total value of a whole in which it is included : the converse is often true.
129. In order to consider II. Mixed Goods, we must first distinguish between (1) the value of a whole as a whole, and (2) its value on the whole or total value: (1)=the difference between (2) and the sum of the values of the parts. In view of this distinction, it then appears:
130. (1) That the mere combination of two or more evils is never positively good on the whole, although it may certainly have great intrinsic value as a whole;
131. but (2) That a whole which includes a cognition of something evil or ugly may yet be a great positive good on the whole: most virtues, which have any intrinsic value whatever, seem to be of this kind, e.g. (a) courage and compassion, and (b) moral goodness; all these are instances of the hatred or contemp of what is evil or ugly;
132. but there seems no reason to think that, where the evil object exists, the total state of things is ever positively good on the whole, although the existence of the evil may add to its value as a whole.
133. Hence (1) no actually existing evil is necessary to the Ideal, (2) the contemplation of imaginary evils is necessary to it, and (3) where evils already exist, the existence of mixed virtues has a value independent both of its consequences and of the value which it has in common with the proper appreciation of imaginary evils.
134. Concluding remarks.
135. Summary of chapter.

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