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George Edward Moore

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George Edward Moore
George Edward Moore
(Undated photograph)

George Edward Moore (usually known as G. E. Moore) (1873 - 1958) was a 20th Century English philosopher. He was, along with Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy (one of the two main traditions in 20th Century philosophy, the other being Continental Philosophy).

He is perhaps best known today for his defence of the ethical doctrine of Ethical Non-Naturalism, his emphasis on common sense in Metaphysics (as opposed to the Absolute Idealism that dominated British philosophical method at the time), and Moore's Paradox.

For a time in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the pre-eminent British philospher, working in the most important centre of philosophy in the world at that time, Cambridge University. Although largely unknown today outside of academic philosophy, he was nevertheless an influential thinker, known for his clear, circumspect writing style, and for his methodical and patient approach to philosophical problems.


Moore was born on 4 November 1873, one of seven children of Daniel and Henrietta Moore, and grew up in the Upper Norwood district of South London. His early education came at the hands of his parents, his father teaching him reading, writing, and music (he was a more-than-competent pianist and composer), and his mother teaching him French. At the age of eight he was enrolled at Dulwich College, where he studied mainly Greek and Latin, but also French, German and mathematics.

In 1892, he went to Trintity College Cambridge where he initially studied Classics. Early in his time at Cambridge he became close friends with some of the writers and intellectuals who would go on to form the Bloomsbury Group, including Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Maynard Keynes. He soon made the acquaintance of Bertrand Russell, who was two years ahead of him, and J. M. E. McTaggart (1866 - 1925), who was then a charismatic young Philosophy Fellow. He followed them into the study of Philosophy, and he graduated in Classics and Philosophy in 1896. In 1898, he earned a "Prize" Fellowship which enabled him to continue to study philosophy at Trinity along with Russell and McTaggart.

Beginning around 1897, Moore began to participate in various philosophical societies (such as the Aristotelian Society and the Moral Sciences Club) and to publish his early work (many of his best known and most influential works date from this early period). It was also during this time that Moore instigated the momentous break from the then dominant philosophy of Absolute Idealism that would prove to be the first step toward the rise of Analytic Philosophy.

Moore's Fellowship ended in 1904, and he spent a few years away from Cambridge, living in Edinburgh and Richmond, Surrey, and working independently on various philosophical projects. However, he returned to Cambridge in 1911 to take up a lectureship position in Moral Science, and he lived there (other than an extended visit to the United States from 1940 to 1944 as a visiting professor) for the rest of his life.

In 1916, at the age of 43, he married Dorothy Ely, who had been his student, and the couple had two sons, Nicholas (born in 1918) and Timothy (born in 1922). He earned a Litt.D. in 1913, and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1918.

In 1921, he became the editor of "Mind", the leading British philosophy journal, and in 1925, he became Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge (which soon became the most important centre of philosophy in the world), confirming his position as one of the most highly-respected British philosophers of the time. He retired as Professor in 1939 (to be succeeded by Wittgenstein) and he retired as editor of "Mind" in 1947, marking the end of his pre-eminence (and the end of the golden age of Cambridge philosophy). In 1951, he was awarded the British Order of Merit.

Moore died in Cambridge on 24 October 1958, and he was buried in St. Giles’ churchyard.

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Moore's "Principia Ethica", first published in 1903, has become one of the standard texts of modern Ethics. It was one of the main inspirations for the movement against Ethical Naturalism (and in favour of Ethical Non-Naturalism) and is partly responsible for the 20th Century concern with Meta-Ethics (the attempt to define the essential meaning and nature of ethical problems).

In the "Principia Ethica", Moore argued that most other philosophers working in Ethics made a mistake he called the "Naturalistic Fallacy" when they tried to prove an ethical claim by appealing to a definition of the term "good" in terms of one or more natural properties (e.g. "pleasant", "more evolved", "desired", etc). According to Moore, the term "good" (in the sense of intrinsic value) is in fact indefinable, because it names a simple, non-natural property, and cannot be analyzed in terms of any other property. His argument (often called the Open Question Argument) is that the question "What is good?" is an open one, because "good" cannot be called "blue" or "rough" or "smooth" or "smelly": it lacks natural properties. Thus, when a Hedonist, for example, claims "Anything that is pleasant is also good", it is always possible to counter with "That thing is pleasant, but is it good?".

Moore further argued that, once arguments based on the naturalistic fallacy had been discarded, questions of intrinsic goodness could only be settled by appeal to what he called "moral intuitions" (self-evident propositions which recommend themselves to moral reflection, but which are not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof), a view often described as Ethical Intuitionism. However, as a Consequentialist, Moore distinguished his view from those of Deontological Intuitionists, who held that "intuitions" could determine questions about what actions are right or required by duty. He argued that "duties" and moral rules could be determined by investigating the effects of particular actions or kinds of actions, and so were matters for empirical investigation rather than direct objects of intuition.

In the "Principia Ethica", and to a greater extent in his later book, the "Ethics" of 1912, Moore promoted a view that has come to be called Ideal Utilitarianism. He argued that there is no important difference in meaning between concepts like “duty” “right” and “virtue” on the one hand, and “expedient” or “useful” on the other. However, whereas classic Utilitarianism is hedonistic (in that it defines "good" in terms of "pleasure"), Moore’s Utilitarianism is pluralistic, allowing that many different kinds of objects can have intrinsic value (e.g. the pleasures of personal relationships, aesthetic enjoyment, etc). Thus, actions should be ordered not to the greatest happiness or pleasure, but to those states of affairs possessing the highest degree of good, and directed in this way toward some ideal state.

One of the most important parts of Moore's philosophical development was his break from Idealism, particularly the Absolute Idealism that dominated British Metaphysics at the time (and which he himself had inherited from earliest philosophical mentor, J. M. E. McTaggart), and his defence of what he regarded as a "common sense" form of Realism or Pluralism. In his 1925 essay "A Defence of Common Sense", he argued against Idealism and Skepticism toward the external world on the grounds that they could not give reasons to accept their metaphysical premises that were more plausible than the reasons we have to accept the common sense claims about our knowledge of the world. His 1939 essay "Proof of an External World" gave an example of this, claiming that, by pointing out first one hand and then another, he could conclude that there are at least two external objects in the world, and that therefore an external world exists (an argument which deeply influenced Ludwig Wittgenstein).

Moore is also remembered for what is now commonly called "Moore's Paradox", a puzzle which also inspired a great deal of work by Wittgenstein. He drew attention to the peculiar inconsistency involved in a sentence such as: "It will rain, but I don't believe that it will", which seems impossible for anyone to consistently assert, but which does not seem to contain any actual logical contradiction.

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See the additional sources and recommended reading list below, or check the philosophy books page for a full list.

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