G. E. Moore's Ethical Theory: Resistance and Reconciliation

G. E. Moore's Ethical Theory: Resistance and Reconciliation

G. E. Moore's Ethical Theory: Resistance and Reconciliation

G. E. Moore's Ethical Theory: Resistance and Reconciliation


This is the first comprehensive study of the ethics of G. E. Moore, the most important English-speaking ethicist of the 20th century. Moore's ethical project, set out in his seminal text the Principia Ethica is to preserve common moral insight from skepticism and, in effect, persuade his readers to accept the objective character of goodness. Brian Hutchinson explores Moore's arguments in detail, showing Moore's ethical work to be much richer and more sophisticated than his critics have acknowledged.


In the next two chapters, we discuss Moore's argument against ethical egoism – the view that each person ought only to be concerned with and pursue his or her “own” good. This is his one argument that makes Moore incontestably revolutionary not just against philosophy, but also common sense. He argues not merely that ethical egoism is wrong, but that it is irrational – egoists contradict themselves when they try to state their view. From this the conclusion follows, despite Moore's efforts to avoid it, that the distinction enshrined by common sense between one's interests and the interests of others, between goods that affect oneself and others that do not, is illusory. the changes in the understanding of ourselves and our fellows wrought by recognition of this fact are so momentous that what remains seems hardly human.

In the first part of this chapter, we examine assumptions about the nature of the self that lurk in the background of Moore's argument against egoism. in the second part, we first consider how his presentation of his argument against egoism sheds further light on the tension between his conservative and his revolutionary impulses, and then examine and evaluate the argument. in the third, we consider more exactly what his argument commits him to by examining his critique of Sidgwick's view that egoism is rational. in the first part of Chapter 7, we explore his attempt in his critique of Sidgwick to explain and weaken the psychological hold that egoism has on us. in the second part, we do two things. First, we examine more exactly the features of human life his argument threatens. Second, we look at his explication, in a later section of Principia, of a notion of self-interest that, if successful, would weaken the revolutionary force of his argument. We argue that because that explication does not stand up, the force of his argument remains extreme.

Against a Metaphysical Self

Let us turn now to the brief remarks Moore makes in Principia on the nature of the self. Although they are nowhere close to being fully worked out, his argument against egoism does seem to be informed by a view of the self that is suggested by these remarks. Every step away from the no-

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