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.

What path then must we and the Bloomsbury Group follow in order to arrive at the truth about the ends of life, the final values, the intrinsically good states of affairs, and how clearly did Moore mark the path? The answer, which may seem preposterous or at least implausible, had large effects in the history of thought. We must sit down and think steadily about the meaning of the word “good,” what it stands for in its various senses, about the notions that it represents, and we must distinguish the primary notion of the intrinsically good from all others with which it has commonly been confused; for instance, from the notion of the useful or the desirable. The path leading to discovery of the ends of life is the habit of, and the passion for, drawing exact distinctions, distinctions between the meanings of words, distinctions that are easily overlooked and meanings that have been fatally confused in all past philosophies. This philosophical method of Moore’s came later to be called the method of analysis, because it involved separating confused or complex notions, or meanings, into their simple components, a kind of chemistry of ideas: hence the familiar label “analytical philosophy.”

Professor Regan calls Moore’s method of discovery in Principia Ethica a form of Platonism, and this seems to me a correct characterization and an illuminating one. First, like Plato, Moore treated concepts or ideas as constituting a real world of their own, independent of varying human habits of thought; second, he represented pure thought in a study or academy as sufficient for attaining truth in morals as well as in metaphysics, provided the thinkers were to think clearly. Third, and most important, Moore, being resolved on a new beginning in philosophy, as his title implies, and despising past philosophies, overlooked the fact that Aristotle, arguing against Plato, had decisively shown that the word “good” is not used to stand for a single identifiable quality, whether of states of affairs or of anything else.

Keynes memorably spoke of the beauty of the literalness of Moore’s mind, and remarked that concepts and propositions seemed to him as solid and real and independent in their existence as chairs and tables; more so in fact, since Moore came to doubt the independent existence of chairs and tables as solid objects, and sometimes thought that the world consisted of propositions. To explain this Platonic realism about abstract entities as an error in the philosophy of language is not adequate; much more is involved, both in Moore’s thought and whenever the objectivity of goodness and of moral values is discussed, as it still is. There is a historical and an emotional dimension to the perennial appeal of Platonism and to the craving to believe that our moral notions correspond to solid objects, or definite features, in a world independent of us. After Sidgwick’s agonizing over the reality of a Christian God as the source of Christian moral law, a passion for moral truth as correspondence with the nature of things seemed to Moore the only acceptable redemption from egoism and from triviality and insignificance.

Moral distinctions had to be built into the representation of the deep structure of things, like scientific truths: hence the title Principia with its splendid Cambridge resonances. If moral distinctions were not built into the unperceived structure of things, the moral quest could never be taken seriously as the successor of religious worship. The communion of intimate friends dedicated to fearless and uninhibited discussion is a free church and yields a shared meaning to life, with argument substituted for Quaker inspirations. But there has to be an intelligible forward movement, as in the natural sciences, a convergence upon independent truth through intense discussion. Seen in this historical context, moral realism is, as a belief, something like a semantic variant of belief in a Last Judgment. Reality must resist us and strike back when we deny a moral distinction that exists and when we identify one that does not.

But it is surely unrealistic to claim that the best way, and in the last resort the only way, to discover what makes life worth living and what the ends of life should be is to remain in the academy or in Chesterton Road, Cambridge, Moore’s home for many years, talking to other philosophers and to a few intellectual friends, and all the time thinking intensely and without distraction about the meanings of words. If there were an entirely general answer to a question about what is intrinsically good and what ought to exist for its own sake, this eternal truth would surely not be found by reflection on meanings, as if our inherited vocabulary, rightly interpreted, was the ultimate oracle and the final guide to life. Aristotle reasonably claimed that experience is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for having intelligent opinions about moral and political issues; and experience is in this context to be contrasted with innocence. Professor Regan’s quotations from Bloomsbury writings clearly show that it was precisely the evident purity and innocence of Moore’s personality, the unworldliness, that made his revelations doubly impressive as secular prophecy.

It seems to me that they were wrong to count Moore’s purity of intention and unworldliness as virtues in a moral philosopher. They are virtues in a certain kind of person but not in a moral philosopher. Moore confessed to an excited interest in the First World War, which did not immediately horrify him as it horrified Russell. But he had no evident curiosity about tyranny, massacres, genocide, torture, treachery and patriotism, political contrivance, and other obvious features of reality outside universities which any moralist needs to think about. Despising moral theories of the past was no advantage to him here, as it may have been in metaphysics.

Professor Regan’s interpretation of Moore is at one point inconsistent, I think. He represents Moore as both stating clearly and dogmatically the eternal truth about the ends of life and also as proclaiming the freedom of the individual to make his own moral discoveries. It is true that Moore urged people to reflect on the meanings of “good” and on similar distinctions of meaning, but their reflection inevitably leads to one “obvious” conclusion, when it is not a botched analysis. The individual is indeed free to choose his own specifications and realizations of the good, but only under the two known headings: principally the enjoyment of beauty and of love and friendship.

Given these objections, a reader may wonder why Moore has for so long been considered an important philosopher, even if Professor Regan has quite clearly explained why Keynes and Strachey, his friends in 1903, were at that time delighted and encouraged by his new morality. In two classic essays, “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903) and “A Defense of Common Sense” (1923), Moore had convinced many philosophers in Britain and America that they must attend with scrupulous and unremitting care to distinctions embedded in the prose of ordinary speech and ordinary writing if there is to be any secure progress in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge. They must not rush ahead, as Russell always did, with grand theories of the external world and the nature of knowledge and of belief, without having first examined, very slowly and with excruciating patience, all the idioms with which we ordinarily convey our perceptions, our beliefs, and our freedom to choose and to act. For instance, Moore asked why we cannot possibly say something as simple as “The cat is on the mat, but I do not believe that it is,” although there is no logical incompatibility between the cat being on the mat and my not believing that it is—at least as “logic” is ordinarily understood. Reflection on this impossibility, apparently trivial, leads to discoveries both about the concept of belief and about the nonlogical features of languages. Nietzsche wrote, in Human All Too Human: “It is the mark of a higher culture to value the small unpretentious truths which have been discovered by means of rigorous method more highly than the errors handed down by metaphysical and artistic ages.” Bloomsbury certainly knew this. Moore was the effective inventor of the Emperor’s New Clothes approach to grand metaphysical theories which might assert or imply, for example, that time is unreal or that I cannot know that any physical thing exists.

Moore had another kind of greatness and originality, which is linked to his influence on Bloomsbury, but which has had far wider consequences. He invented and propagated a style of philosophical talking which has become one of the most useful and attractive models of rationality that we have, and which is still a prop to liberal values, having penetrated far beyond philosophical circles and far beyond Bloomsbury circles; it is also a source of continuing enjoyment, once one has acquired the habit among friends who have a passion for slow argument on both abstract and personal topics. When I look back to the Thirties and call on memories, it even seems that Moore invented a new moral virtue, a virtue of high civilization admittedly, which has its ancestor in Socrates’ famous following of an argument wherever it may lead, but still with a quite distinctive modern and Moorean accent. Open-mindedness in discussion is to be associated with extreme literal clarity, with no rhetoric and the least possible use of metaphor, with an avoidance of technical terms wherever possible, and with extreme patience in step-by-step unfolding of the reasons that support any assertion made, together with all the qualifications that need to be added to preserve literal truth, however commonplace and disappointing the outcome. It is a style and a discipline that wring philosophical insights from the English language, pressed hard and repeatedly; as far as I know, the style has no counterpart in French or German. As Nietzsche suggested, cultivated caution and modesty in assertion are incompatible with the bold egotism of most German philosophy after Kant. This style of talking, particularly when applied to emotionally charged personal issues, was a gift to the world, not only to Bloomsbury, and it is still useful a long way away from Cambridge.

The group of friends who thought of themselves, and presented themselves to posterity, as Bloomsbury saved historians a lot of work by fully documenting in advance their aims and beliefs, their love affairs and their friendships, and the original and expanding constitution of the group itself. Since the Pre-Raphaelites there has been no more fully visible set of historical actors upon a self-constructed stage in England. Professor Regan tells again some of the well-known stories about them and describes some of the now familiar personalities. The world outside England has reason to be interested in Virginia Woolf and perhaps also in Lytton Strachey, but their imaginations in their later work showed few traces of Moore. Moore’s substantial influence was on Keynes’s liberalism, which started with a Moorean scheme supplying the ends of action and with Keynes’s own theory of probability supplying rationality in the calculation of means. But the story of Keynes’s political thought must be a long and very complex one, and Moore was only the beginning; for Keynes he was the acid that at the turn of the century dissolved classical utilitarianism and all forms of idealism, and also simple-minded relativism, in social theory. That was certainly an achievement that had consequences in many places.

The early essays printed by Professor Regan altogether lack the “clear-cut boldness” of Principia Ethica and “A Defense of Common Sense,” although Moore’s famous serpentine style, replete with qualifications and caution, distinguish them from the good run-of-the-mill academic philosophy of the time. But how can one interpret Wittgenstein’s amazing remark to F. R. Leavis, quoted by Professor Regan: “[Moore] shows you how far a man can get with absolutely no intelligence whatever”? By “intelligence” did Wittgenstein mean cleverness? Perhaps he meant to imply that Moore’s triumph was a moral one—a matter, once again, of purity of mind.

This Issue

March 26, 1987