G. E. Moore on the Good

Written by on October 14th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Ethics, about G. E. More analytic

|||Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2004.|||

Photo of G. E. Moore But I am afraid I have still not removed the chief difficulty which may prevent acceptance of the proposition that good is indefinable. I do not mean to say that the good, that which is good, is thus indefinable; if I did think so, I should not be writing on Ethics, for my main object is to help towards discovering that definition. It is just because I think there will be less risk of error in our search for a definition of ‘the good,’ that I am now insisting that good is indefinable. I must try to explain the difference between these two. I suppose it may be granted that ‘good’ is an adjective. Well ‘the good,’ ‘that which is good,’ must therefore be the substantive to which the adjective ‘good’ will apply: it must be the whole of that to which the adjective will apply, and the adjective must always truly apply to it. But if it is that to which the adjective will apply, it must be something different from that adjective itself; and the whole of that something different, whatever it is, will be our definition of the good. Now it may be that this something will have other adjectives, beside ‘good,’ that will apply to it. It may be full of pleasure, for example; it may be intelligent: and if these two adjectives are really part of its definition, then it will certainly be true, that pleasure and intelligence are good. pp. 60-1.

Here in the Principia Ethica, G. E. Moore is trying to begin anew the project of ethics. After Hume destroyed the possibility of any ethics based on a philosophy of nature or metaphysics (from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and all that), the realm of Ethics was found to be in disarray. As is usual with most philosophy in the last few centuries, this science had been stripped of its principles and object. Moore attempts to restart Ethics, and in the process begins a whole new conversation on this science.

We see that Moore’s modern outlook has hampered him from the beginning. In order to do Ethics, we must first find a definition for ‘good.’ He is having a difficult time of it, though. For reasons yet unclear, Moore has asserted that ‘good’ is indefinable. Just before the above-quoted passage, Moore gives three examples of a definition of a horse1. Will one of these three ways allow him to define ‘good’? When Moore sets up these three divisions, there seem to be two components to the definition: what the word means and how it is used. The first attempt involves the genus and difference, but is taken in universal meaning. The second way again uses genus and difference, but qualifies the definition by suggesting that not all people mean this when they say “horse.” “Good” is not indefinable in either of these senses.

In either of these first two definitions, I would be delighted if Moore could give me the genus of “good” (much less the difference). It would shed more light on his overall categorization of things (or in a weaker way, words). The only such categorization we get at this point is “that ‘good’ is an adjective.”2 Should we take this to mean that “good” is a quality? Alas, how far we have fallen.

Let us now examine the third definition, which Moore finds most satisfying. If we enumerate all the parts of the horse, their positions, and relations, then we “mean something much more important.”3 Here is the best definition of a horse. Now let us use this formulation of definition for “good” and we will have the beginning of Ethics. Not so fast! For Moore, “good” is a simple concept. It has no parts, and therefore cannot be defined in this last way. Here we find Moore struggling with the term “good.” He has our symptathy, since I readily admit that “good” is not very easily defined. Moore is in worse shape, however, because he does not have the proper tools of metaphysics with which to find the meaning of “good.” It is being treated as a quality and therefore must have something underlying it. Moore’s next move, not surprisingly, is to posit a substantive, “the good.” As a quality (or worse, merely an adjective), “good” cannot subsist. Here again I applaud him and would agree that “good” does not subsist, that is, except in the one Being who is Good essentially.

The rest of Moore’s concern in this text will be to find all of those things which can be called “good” in a moral sense, then all things that we would consider “good” without any moral consideration. If there is an attribute which all good things have in common, then this will be what the good is. Unbeknownst to Moore, all beings are good, since they participate in God’s goodness through esse. If he were alive today, he would still not be done with his list. It is not possible to deduce completely the principles of Ethics from metaphysics or the philosophy of nature since ethics is a practical science. There are certain tools, however, that only become available through a development of these two sciences.

About Brandon Bridger

Brandon Bridger graduated from the College of St. Thomas More. He is currently doing graduate course work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. “When we say, as Webster says, “The definition of horse is ‘A hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus,’” we may, in fact, mean three different things. (1) We may mean merely: ‘When I say “horse,” you are to understand that I am talking about a hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus.’ This might be called the arbitrary verbal definition: and I do not mean that good is indefinable in that sense. (2) We may mean, as Webster ought to mean, ‘When most English people say “horse,” they mean a hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus.’ This may be called the verbal definition proper, and I do not say that good is indefinable in this sense either: for it is certainly possible to discover how people use a word: otherwise, we could never have known that ‘good’ may be translated by ‘gut’ in German and by ‘bon’ in French. But (3) we may, when we define horse, mean something much more important. We may mean that a certain object, which we all of us know, is composed in a certain manner: that it has four legs, a head, a heart, a liver, etc., etc., all of them arranged in definite relations to one another. It is in this sense that I deny good to be definable. I say that it is not composed of any parts, which we can substitute for it in our minds when we are thinking of it.” p. 60. 

  2. ibid., p. 61. 

  3. ibid., p. 60.