Principia Ethica  

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"Our ‘duty,’ therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative."--Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore


"Everything is what it is, and not another thing." --a maxim by Joseph Butler, epigraph to Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore


"The fallacy of this argument from nature has been discovered as long ago as Lucian. ‘I was almost inclined to laugh,’ says Callicratidas, in one of the dialogues imputed to him, ‘just now, when Charicles was praising irrational brutes and the savagery of the Scythians: in the heat of his argument he was almost repenting that he was born a Greek. What wonder if lions and bears and pigs do not act as I was proposing? That which reasoning would fairly lead a man to choose, cannot be had by creatures that do not reason, simply because they are so stupid. If Prometheus or some other god had given each of them the intelligence of a man, then they would not have lived in deserts and mountains nor fed on one another. They would have built temples just as we do, each would have lived in the centre of his family, and they would have formed a nation bound by mutual laws. Is it anything surprising that brutes, who have had the misfortune to be unable to obtain by forethought any of the goods, with which reasoning provides us, should have missed love too? Lions do not love; but neither do they philosophise; bears do not love; but the reason is they do not know the sweets of friendship. It is only men, who, by their wisdom and their knowledge, after many trials, have chosen what is best.’" --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore


"The naturalistic fallacy has been quite as commonly committed with regard to beauty as with regard to good." --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore


"To argue that a thing is good _because_ it is ‘natural,’ or bad _because_ it is ‘unnatural,’ in these common senses of the term, is therefore certainly fallacious: and yet such arguments are very frequently used. But they do not commonly pretend to give a systematic theory of Ethics. Among attempts to _systematise_ an appeal to nature, that which is now most prevalent is to be found in the application to ethical questions of the term ‘Evolution’--in the ethical doctrines which have been called ‘Evolutionistic.’ These doctrines are those which maintain that the course of ‘evolution,’ while it shews us the direction in which we _are_ developing, thereby and for that reason shews us the direction in which we _ought_ to develop. Writers, who maintain such a doctrine, are at present very numerous and very popular; and I propose to take as my example the writer, who is perhaps the best known of them all--Mr Herbert Spencer. Mr Spencer’s doctrine, it must be owned, does not offer the _clearest_ example of the naturalistic fallacy as used in support of Evolutionistic Ethics. A clearer example might be found in the doctrine of Guyau[ Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction ], a writer who has lately had considerable vogue in France, but who is not so well known as Spencer." --Principia Ethica (1903) by G. E. Moore

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Principia Ethica is a 1903 book by the British philosopher G. E. Moore, in which Moore insists on the indefinability of "good" and provides an exposition of the naturalistic fallacy. Principia Ethica was influential, and Moore's arguments were long regarded as path-breaking advances in moral philosophy, though they have been seen as less impressive and durable than his contributions in other fields.

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Summary

Moore insists that "good" is indefinable, and provides an exposition of what he calls the "naturalistic fallacy." He defends the objectivity and multiplicity of values, arguing that knowledge of values cannot be derived from knowledge of facts, but only from intuition of the goodness of such states of affairs as beauty, pleasure, friendship and knowledge. In Moore's view, right acts are those producing the most good. However, he also believed that there are only various different sorts of things that are good, including knowledge and aesthetic experience. Moore argues against consequentialism. Moore's argument begins from the claim that "ordinary people" think they ought to do what they promised to do, not because of the probable consequences of breaking their promise, but simply because they promised. In thinking this way, they are not considering their moral duties in terms of consequences. The consequences of the actions lie in the future, but they are thinking more about the past (that is, about the promises they made).

Reception

Principia Ethica was influential, and helped to convince many people that claims about morality cannot be derived from statements of fact. Clive Bell considered that through his opposition to Herbert Spencer and Mill, Moore had freed his generation from utilitarianism. Principia Ethica was the bible of the Bloomsbury Group, and the philosophical foundation of their aesthetic values. Leonard Woolf considered that it offered a way of continuing living in a meaningless world. Moore's aesthetic idea of the organic whole provided artistic guidance for modernists like Virginia Woolf, and fed into Bell's concept of Significant form.

Principia Ethica also had a powerful influence on modernism through the anti-empiricism of T. E. Hulme.

Socioculturally, a line can be traced from Principia Ethica to the liberal thought of Roy Jenkins, as evidenced in his 1959 pamphlet Is Britain Civilised? and actuated in his subsequent Home Office reforms which established much of the institutional framework for the permissive society in England.

Moore's ethical intuitionism has been seen as opening the road for noncognitive views of morality, such as emotivism.

C. P. Snow sketched the enduring influence of Moore on his followers' group-belief in pleasure: "They tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles or more complicated geometrical figures, well then, one accepted that too....If you didn't believe in pleasure, you couldn't be civilized".

In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls compares Moore's views to those of Hastings Rashdall in his The Theory of Good and Evil (1907). Moore's views have also been compared to those of Franz Brentano, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Hartmann.

Principia Ethica has been seen by Geoffrey Warnock as less impressive and durable than Moore's contributions in fields outside ethics. John Maynard Keynes, an early devotee of Principia Ethica, would in his 1938 paper 'My Early Beliefs' repudiate as Utopian Moore's underlying belief in human reasonableness and decency.

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