George Edward Moore (November 4, 1873 – October 24, 1958), usually known as G. E. Moore, was a distinguished and influential English philosopher who spent most of his life studying and teaching at the University of Cambridge. During his time as a student and teacher, he exerted a notable influence on the British philosophical community, and Cambridge enjoyed what is now known as its golden age of philosophy. He broke away from the "absolute idealism" then popular among his colleagues and was a staunch defender of the "common sense" approach to philosophy, and intuitionism in ethics.
Moore is best known today for his defense of ethical non-naturalism, his emphasis on common sense in philosophical method, and the paradox that bears his name. As an "intuitionist," he argued that good itself is perceivable by intuition, just as a color yellow is intuitively conceivable. His analysis of goodness and pluralistic view of value contrasted with dogmatic approaches to ethics.
Though greatly admired by other philosophers, Moore remains today mostly unknown outside of academic philosophy. As an essayist, Moore is known for his clear, circumspect writing style and for his methodical and patient approach to philosophical problems. His most famous works are his book Principia Ethica and his essays "The Refutation of Idealism," "A Defence of Common Sense," and "A Proof of the External World."
George Edward Moore was born on November 4, 1873, to Daniel and Henrietta Moore and grew up in South London. From a very young age, he was taught reading, writing, music, and French by his parents. At the age of eight, he began attending school at Dulwich College, where he studied the classics in Greek and Latin. Moore enrolled in Cambridge University at the age of 18, and, having already mastered Greek and Latin, he became interested in the study of philosophy.
Moore befriended fellow student Bertrand Russell, and the two began a lifelong friendship and philosophical alliance. Moore graduated in 1896 with a first class philosophy degree and soon won a fellowship to continue his studies at Cambridge's Trinity College. He left in 1904 for a seven-year hiatus, but returned to Cambridge to teach and lived there for the rest of his life.
Moore was a professor of philosophy from 1925 to 1939, and from 1921 to 1944, he also served as the editor of Mind– a leading philosophical journal. He also traveled to the United States to teach at several universities from 1940 to 1944.
Academics aside, Moore is remembered by friends and colleagues as a man of remarkable moral character. He also enjoyed a successful family life with his wife of 42 years Dorothy and two children Nicholas and Timothy. G. E. Moore died in Cambridge in 1958.
Moore's most important and influential work in the field of ethics is his Principia Ethica. The Principia is one of the main inspirations of the movement against ethical naturalism and is partly responsible for the twentieth-century concern with meta-ethics.
In Principia Ethica, Moore charges that most philosophers of ethics have made a mistake called the "naturalistic fallacy." This is the false belief that one can define goodness by describing the qualities that make things good. Moore agrees that the study of ethics "aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good." For example, hedonists claim that being pleasant is what makes things good, while other theorists may claim that complexity is what makes things good. The only problem, Moore says, is that "far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good."
Moore's argument for the indefinability of good is often called the "Open Question Argument" and is presented in §13 of Principia Ethica. The argument hinges on the nature of statements such as "Anything that is pleasant is also good" and the possibility of asking questions such as "Is it good that x is pleasant?" According to Moore, these questions are "open" and these statements are "significant," and they will remain so no matter what is substituted for "pleasant." Thus, Moore concludes, any attempt to analyze goodness is bound to fail. If goodness could be analyzed, then such questions and statements would be trivial and obvious. Since they are anything but trivial and obvious, goodness must be indefinable.
According to Moore, the only way to define "good" is to point to an action or a thing and say that it is "good." By analogy, one cannot describe to a blind man exactly what yellow is. One can only show a sighted man a piece of yellow paper or a yellow scrap of cloth and say that it is yellow.
Critics of Moore's arguments sometimes claim that he is appealing to general puzzles concerning analysis rather than revealing anything special about value. Other responses appeal to the Fregean distinction between sense and reference, allowing that value concepts are special and "sui generis," but insisting that value properties are nothing but natural properties.
In addition to categorizing goodness as indefinable, Moore also emphasized that it is a non-natural property. In other words, two objects that are identical in every way cannot have different values. An object's goodness is determined by what other properties the object has. It is a property that is a product of having other properties. Therefore, if two objects are qualitatively identical, they must have the same value of "good."
Moore 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 (following Henry Sidgwick) called "moral intuitions”: self-evident propositions which recommend themselves to moral reflection, but which are not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof. As a result of his view, he has often been seen by later writers as an advocate of ethical intuitionism.
Moore distinguished his view from the view of deontological intuitionists, who held that intuitions could determine questions about what actions are right or required by duty. Moore, as a consequentialist, 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 Moore's view, intuitions revealed not the rightness or wrongness of specific actions, but only what things were good in themselves as ends to be pursued.
One of the most important parts of Moore's philosophical development was his break from the idealism that dominated British philosophy, as seen in the works of his former teachers F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart, and his defense of what he regarded as a "common sense" form of realism.
Moore agreed with many of the general beliefs held by Idealists such as the spiritual nature of reality, but he also argued that their conclusions were based largely on psychologism, which, according to Moore, assumes that "whatever is experienced, is necessarily so." According to Moore, the Idealists blurred the distinction between how one perceives an object and the nature of the object itself, and he argued against Bradley's assertion that the reality of an object depends on one's subjective experience of it.
In his 1925 essay, "A Defence of Common Sense," Moore attempts to argue against Idealism by presenting a number of "truisms"—certain facts that he knows to be true based on common sense. He also plainly denies the existence of God and the afterlife simply because there is no good reason to believe in such things.
In this essay and others, Moore tries to show that the world is just as ordinary people perceive it and that there is no reason for the skeptical view toward the physical world held by many Idealists. He famously put the point into dramatic relief with his 1939 essay "Proof of an External World," in which he gave a common sense argument against skepticism by raising his right hand and saying "Here is one hand," and then raising his left and saying "And here is another," then concluding that there are at least two external objects in the world, and therefore he knows that an external world exists. Not surprisingly, not everyone inclined to skeptical doubts found Moore's method of argument entirely convincing. Moore, however, defends his argument on the grounds that these skeptical arguments require an appeal to "philosophical intuitions" that one has less reason to accept than the common sense claims that they supposedly refute. In addition to fueling Moore's own work, the "Here is one hand" argument also deeply influenced Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spent his final weeks working out a new approach to Moore's argument in the remarks that were published posthumously as On Certainty.
Moore is also remembered for drawing attention to the peculiar inconsistency involved in uttering a sentence such as "It will rain, but I do not believe that it will," a puzzle which is now commonly called "Moore's paradox." The puzzle arises because it seems impossible for anyone to consistently assert such a sentence, but there does not seem to be any logical contradiction between "It will rain" and "I do not believe that it will rain." Indeed, it is not unusual for such conjunctions to be true.
In addition to Moore's own work on the paradox, the puzzle also inspired a great deal of work by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who described the paradox as the most impressive philosophical insight that Moore had ever introduced.
Although many of Moore's ideas were disputed and even abandoned by Moore himself, his unique way of approaching philosophy had a lasting impact. Rather than attempting to create a comprehensive philosophical system, Moore simply approached the specific areas of philosophy that interested him. Although he hardly considered himself an innovator, his attempts to clearly understand and analyze those specific areas of interest proved to be influential in the founding of analytic philosophy.
As Moore explained, "I started discussing certain kinds of questions, because they happened to be what interested me most; and I only adopted certain particular methods (so far as I had adopted them) because they seemed to me suitable for those kinds of questions."
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