G. E. Moore is hardly a household name these days, but in early twentieth-century Cambridge his students and disciples viewed his work as a historical turning point. After reading Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903)—N.B. the echo of Newton!—Lytton Strachey wrote that Moore “wrecked and shattered all writers on Ethics from Aristotle and Christ to Herbert Spencer and Mr Bradley.” Because of Moore, “truth, there can be no doubt, is really now upon the march.” A new Age of Reason, Strachey claimed, dawned with the publication of Moore’s book.
The young John Maynard Keynes found the Principia “exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth.” Moore and his followers formed the vanguard of “a new dispensation.” According to Leonard Woolf, Moore overcame “the religious and philosophical nightmares, delusions, and hallucinations in which Jehovah, Christ and St. Paul, Plato, Kant, and Hegel had entangled us,” ushering in “the fresh air and pure light of commonsense.” Groping for analogies, Woolf compared Moore to Prince Myshkin, Socrates, and Jesus.
Moore’s book doesn’t read like a revolutionary tract. It contains no “Ethicists of the world, Unite!” At its heart, the Principia is an argument about the meaning of “good.” Earlier ethicists were guilty of a “naturalistic fallacy” that confused “good” with a natural object like pleasure or happiness or progress. For Moore, “good” is a simple, indefinable, unanalyzable property, similar to the property “yellow.” The claim that something is “good” rests on an “intuition,” not subject to proof or disproof; no reasons or evidence can be offered, pro or con. If you and I disagree about “good,” one of us is simply more perceptive than the other—and I think it’s me. Moore denies that intuition is a faculty like vision, but the comparison of “good” to “yellow” suggests otherwise. As Alastair MacIntyre explains Moore’s theory, “verdicts that a given state of affairs is or is not good [are] comparable to the simplest judgments of normal visual perception.”
Moore’s disciples more or less ignored the heart of his theory and fastened on the book’s final chapter, where Moore elaborated his claim that “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine.” Friendship and contemplation of beauty constitute “the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy.”
Years later, Keynes summarized the truncated theory that animated his youthful circle:
Nothing mattered except states of mind, our own and other people’s of course, but chiefly our own. These states of mind were not associated with action or achievement or with consequence. They consisted in timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion. . . . The appropriate subjects of passionate contemplation and communion were a beloved person, beauty and truth, and one’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.
The ethical life isn’t devoted to patriotic martial exploits or to the civilizing mission of empire; it certainly isn’t a life of Victorian piety or sexual segregation and restraint. The best life is lived out in a circle of whip-smart, talented, attractive friends devoted to reason, beauty, and unfettered honesty. Strachey discovered that Moore could be used to justify his renunciation of the Victorian ethic of conduct, which in practice meant that he was freed to be freely homosexual. Moore’s book gave his disciples permission to speak openly of anything and everything in mixed company, and to match, mix, and re-match in sexual escapades.
MacIntyre placed Moore in his genealogy of emotivism, the theory that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference” and Christian Smith says that Moore rather than Hume erected the wall of separation between “is” and “ought.” But Moore’s philosophy itself didn’t spark a Copernican turn like Kant or Hegel. His disciples made him a historical turning point. Noel Annan credits Moore with fostering a new mood among “that tiny minority who change opinion.” Moore put down on paper an ethical revolution that, Annan said, “produced that violent change in the code of behaviour which severed the twenties from the Ancien Regime.” He helped dig the chasm that gapes, for good and ill, between the Victorians and us.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.