Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy
G.E. Moore: The Early Essays
G. E. Moore was a dominant figure in British philosophy from 1903 until his death at eighty-five in 1958. In 1958 many British philosophers would have named Russell, Wittgenstein, and Moore as the three great English-speaking philosophers of the twentieth century. During the last twenty-five years Moore has slowly ceased to be at the center of interest in the way Russell and Wittgenstein are, except for the early chapters of his still famous book on moral philosophy, Principia Ethica, first published in 1903.
Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, argues that the true significance of this book, and of Moore himself, have been largely misinterpreted by academic commentators. They have studied him as the founding father of that peculiar and productive movement in the recent history of thought, the philosophy of ordinary language. They have overlooked, Regan argues, the history of his early moral beliefs and metaphysical doubts and despairs, from which the argument of principia Ethica developed. Even more important, they have not accounted for the extraordinary effect which his moral philosophy had among the men and women of genius and of talent who were his admiring friends around 1900 and who later formed the Bloomsbury Group. Regan recalls again the sense of liberation and enlightenment, the anticipation of new beginnings in conduct and in social relations, that Principia Ethica suggested to Keynes, to Lytton Strachey, and to Leonard Woolf among others. In “My Early Beliefs” Keynes wrote:
[Principia Ethica] was not only overwhelming;…it was the extreme opposite of what Strachey used to call funeste; it was exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a new renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth. We were the fore-runners of a new dispensation, we were not afraid of anything.
This has to be taken seriously, because Keynes was not easily deceived in philosophical matters; he was to write a classical treatise on the theory of probability himself and he was born and educated among Cambridge philosophers. Tom Regan intends his book to set the record straight, and to correct the emphasis on analytical philosophy which he thinks has largely concealed the real, historical Moore.
I think he has certainly succeeded in at least supplementing the conventional picture of Moore. He shows that around the turn of the century Moore was passing through a phase of moral despair, a fin de siècle sense of the vanity of vanities, because he could not find a rational basis for attributing objective value to anything, either in the natural order or in human experience. In 1901 he writes to his most intimate friend, the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy: “I seem to find it increasingly difficult to satisfy myself with anything, which sometimes makes me feel very desperate.”
The guarded and honest “seem” and “sometimes” are typical of Moore at all times, but this crisis was genuine and intense. A year earlier he had written a paper on moral conversion, a state of mind not connected with ideas of God, but which he described as “a new birth, leading to a new life, an awakening of conscience, a conviction of sin.” This is said to be the state of mind of the Wordsworthian happy warrior, and Moore himself had once or twice experienced this exalted state, as he had experienced also the vanity of vanities, complete despair. How can the moral conversion, which is perfect knowledge of what is good combined with the ability always to pursue it, be made permanent? This is the heavy question he asked himself for several years.
Without this background of urgent moral concern Principia Ethica would have lacked the power to change the lives and the thought of his clever and skeptical friends. On this point Professor Regan is convincing. Moore was passionate and polemical in the book. But more has to be said about Moore’s peculiar personality, the impression made by his physical appearance and manners in any gathering, before his civilizing and genial influence can be fully understood. George Eliot and many others had represented the agonies of an earnest morality without a secure foundation in God’s designs; and around 1900 this was still a well-known late Victorian theme. Moore was wholly different, of our time and not of theirs.
For late Victorian and Edwardian Cambridge the distinctive change, the beginning of the new life, is marked in philosophy by the transition from Henry Sidgwick to Moore, and this is as much a matter of their human characters, and of their styles of feeling and of writing, as of philosophical doctrine. Sidgwick was one of Moore’s teachers at Cambridge, and his Method of Ethics is the one undisputed classic of utilitarian philosophy since Mill, a great, if sometimes tedious, work still alive in its careful arguments and still actively studied by moral philosophers. Sidgwick had nobly refused to assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England as was required of college fellows, and he resigned his Trinity fellowship in consequence; he was a model of high-mindedness, integrity, and social responsibility in all his activities.
And yet a deadly pall of Victorian bourgeois stuffiness hangs over him, the atmosphere of those solid Cambridge houses with damp, laureled gardens in which good citizens and learned academics, heavily cultured, experimented with spiritualism, parapsychology, and self-improvement before 1914. As usual, Keynes and Strachey have the right words to re-create the period and to make the history live. In a letter Keynes wrote:
Sidgwick never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true and prove that it wasn’t and hope that it was…. There is no doubt of his moral goodness. And yet it is all so dreadfully depressing, no intimacy, no clear-cut boldness.
Strachey, like Keynes reflecting on Sidgwick’s A Memoir, writes, “What an appalling time to have lived. It was the Glass Case Age. Themselves as well as their ornaments were left under glass cases.” He goes on typically to write of the impotence common among Victorian sages. It is an often unwelcome truth that, ever since philosophy separated itself decisively from the natural sciences, the lasting influence of a philosopher has typically not been independent of his dramatic or engaging personality, except perhaps for logicians; and many good, and even great, philosophers have themselves recognized this disturbing fact. Certainly Russell, Wittgenstein, and Moore all knew that their philosophical vision was closely linked to their idiosyncrasies and intellectual mannerisms and literary styles. In addition they each cultivated over the years distinctive and constrasting styles of argument, and styles of vivid assertion, which they knew would fit their visible and public selves. They were far from being innocent or deceived in this respect.
Moore was a man of immense natural charm, and the mere sight of him smoking his pipe and listening to a philosophical discussion was an incitement to happiness. He seemed in his later years sedentary and serene, yet fiercely alert, and, in an abstract manner, passionate, following the spoken words in a discussion rather as a predator stalks its prey, ready to pounce if any of the words or phrases used dropped out of their logical place, as they nearly always do in any philosophical argument. In argument he somehow combined ruthless and destructive criticism with obvious disinterestedness and with the unforced assumption of a common interest in squashing error. He seemed a pure intellectual, completely free of any respect for conventional opinion and of any pious attitudes toward past philosophies and religions.
Unlike the comparable academic moral philosophers of his time in England, H. A. Prichard and David Ross at Oxford, and unlike Sidgwick, no one could have supposed him to be even normally inclined to moral disapproval, or that he felt any special reverence for duty or for moral virtue or for the moral law. On the contrary he seemed to find the notions of duty and of obligation rather disagreeable and in any case of marginal interest. They are “tedious and worthless necessities.” He was looking in music and in the enjoyment of nature and in friendship for the experiences that make life seem worth living, and no longer empty and trivial. That he believed that the positive teaching of the truth should be the center of moral philosophy was suggested by his intensely civilized and accurate speech, his powerful and selfish silences, his quiet determination to go his own way in thought and to ignore established opinion of all kinds.
Professor Regan shows the unity of Moore’s theory and practice in this determination to go his own way, his independence of the past, and he attributes the exhilarating influence of Principia Ethica on the Bloomsbury Group partly to the suppression of the claims of duty and moral virtue, except insofar as they are necessary means to the realization of good states of mind. Aesthetic emotion and personal affection are “obviously” (Moore’s word) the only things that are intrinsically good and the only things that, in various combinations, render one state of affairs better than another. All our efforts both in private life and in social policy should be directed to the realization of these intrinsic goods; we should calculate the effects of our actions as best we can, without regard to any other features of conduct that in the past have been thought to be important from a moral point of view.
This is indeed liberating, and from more than Victorian constraints. For example, traditional moralists, and this reviewer, have believed that the prohibition that bans murder is one of the foundations of morality itself, and one may believe this, even if one is not entirely sure that respect for moral necessities is inconceivable without a peculiar respect for the life of individual persons. Careful reflection and a study of different literatures and of history would for most people lead to the same conclusion: namely, that the prohibition of murder is acceptable as a prohibition even in the perhaps exceptional case where a projected murder cannot be shown to have bad effects on the propagation of aesthetic enjoyment and personal affection. Moore’s goals, types of intrinsic goodness, seem irrelevant to the case of murder. It would not in general be right, the “unliberated” believe, secretly to poison a friendless vandal in peacetime.
Lytton Strachey and Keynes felt in 1903 that a new world was opening up for them and for the enlightened everywhere, Stendhal’s “happy few,” because Moore seemed to have given utterly respectable reasons for not taking too seriously the negative aspects of morality as a set of universal commandments and absolute prohibitions. Moore’s argument was utterly respectable because he was not a skeptic who saw moral distinctions as subjective and as human inventions, nor did he follow Bentham and Mill in making moral distinctions dependent on the vagaries of human feeling. On the contrary: throughout Principia Ethica and in all his early writings, and until he “wobbled” toward the end of his life, he often repeated that our actual opinions about what is intrinsically good are one thing and intrinsic goodness itself is another. Our feelings, attitudes, and opinions do not determine the truth in the question of goodness, which is for each of us the most important of all questions. Professor Regan quotes many passages in Moore’s writing to this effect. Real moral distinctions are absolutely objective. Morality ought not to be thought of as primarily the prevention of evil, oppression, and injustice, but only and exclusively as the means to preserve and extend the things that we ought to love and to want, because they are good in themselves. This was the new beginning, even if a delusive one.