An Honest Man

Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles

by Paul Levy
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 335 pp., $18.95

G.E. Moore (1873-1958) was one of the most distinguished and most influential philosophers of the twentieth century in spite of having published only three full-length books during his long life: Principia Ethica (1903), Ethics (1912), and Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953). His Philosophical Studies (1922) was a collection of articles, perhaps the best known of which was “The Refutation of Idealism” of 1903. In that famous paper Moore attacked Berkeley’s doctrine that to be is to be perceived; at the same time he continued the assault on all forms of idealism that he had begun in “The Nature of Judgment” of 1899, a paper which Bertrand Russell regarded as the first shot in a war against Kant, Hegel, and their British followers. Soon Russell fired his own formidable guns against idealism, and the philosophical movement known as realism was launched. Both Moore and Russell joined most of the rest of mankind in believing that tables and chairs exist independently of perception, but at the same time they agreed with Plato that timeless attributes, which they identified with the meanings of common nouns and adjectives, exist independently of thought.

In accordance with this Platonic realism, Moore held that moral goodness, the goodness of things that are worth having purely for their own sakes, exists independently of thought. In Principia Ethica—the book upon whose historical significance Paul Levy concentrates—Moore argued that although we can understand the attribute of being good, we cannot give a correct analysis or definition of it because, like yellowness, it is a simple and therefore unanalyzable property. Moore held, moreover, that unlike yellowness, goodness is not what he called a natural quality, one that might be expressed in a scientific description of an object. However, in a chapter of Principia Ethica entitled “The Ideal” Moore went beyond this logical thesis and asserted that the most valuable things possessing this unanalyzable property of goodness are “states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasure of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.”

What I have called Moore’s logical thesis commanded the intense interest of professional philosophers, who argued for decades about the alleged indefinability and non-naturalness of goodness while paying comparatively little attention to Moore’s substantive moral judgments, such as the one I’ve quoted about human intercourse. By contrast, writers influenced by J.M. Keynes’s “My Early Beliefs” have held that non-philosophers in and out of Bloomsbury did just the reverse: they paid little attention to Moore’s logical reflections but they cared so much about his moral judgments that they converted his praise of friendship into homosexual propaganda. Or, as Russell once said, they degraded Moore’s moral judgments by advocating what Russell called “stuffy girls’-school sentimentalizing” in the name of those judgments.

Paul Levy is not primarily interested in expounding or assessing the views, whether logical or moral, that Moore advanced in Principia Ethica or in any other published work that attracted the interest …

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