From Essential Selections in 19th and 20th Century Philosophy, by James Fieser

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Copyright 2014, updated 5/1/2015


REFUTATION OF IDEALISM (“The Refutation of Idealism”, 1903)


Features of Idealism

Modern Idealism, if it asserts any general conclusion about the universe at all, asserts that it is spiritual. There are two points about this assertion to which I wish to call attention. These points are that, whatever be its exact meaning, it is certainly meant to assert (1) that the universe is very different indeed from what it seems, and (2) that it has quite a large number of properties which it does not seem to have. Chairs and tables and mountains seem to be very different from us; but, when the whole universe is declared to be spiritual, it is certainly meant to assert that they are far more like us than we think. The idealist means to assert that they are in some sense neither lifeless nor unconscious, as they certainly seem to be; and I do not think his language is so grossly deceptive, but that we may assume him to believe that they really are very different indeed from what they seem. And secondly when he declares that they are spiritual, he means to include in that term quite a large number of different properties. When the whole universe is declared to be spiritual, it is meant not only that it is in some sense conscious, but that it has what we recognise in ourselves as the higher forms of consciousness. That it is intelligent; that it is purposeful; that it is not mechanical; all these different things are commonly asserted of it. In general, it may be said, this phrase ‘reality is spiritual’ excites and expresses the belief that the whole universe possesses all the qualities the possession of which is held to make us so superior to things which seem to be inanimate: at least, if it does not possess exactly those which we possess, it possesses not one only, but several others, which, by the same ethical standard, would be judged equal to or better than our own. When we say it is spiritual we mean to say that it has quite a number of excellent qualities, different from any which we commonly attribute either to stars or planets or to cups and saucers.


The Fundamental Assumption in All Idealism: To Be is to Be Perceived

. . . I shall, however, attack at least one argument, which, to the best of my belief, is considered necessary to their position by all Idealists. And I wish to point out a certain advantage which this procedure gives me — an advantage which justifies the assertion that, if my arguments are sound, they will have refuted Idealism. If I can refute a single proposition which is a necessary and essential step in all Idealistic arguments, then, no matter how good the rest of these arguments may be, I shall have proved that Idealists have no reason whatever for their conclusion. . . .

            The trivial proposition which I propose to dispute is this: esse is percipi [to be is to be perceived]. This is a very ambiguous proposition, but, in some sense or other, it has been very widely held. That it is, in some sense, essential to Idealism, I must for the present merely assume. What I propose to show is that, in all the senses ever given to it, it is false. . . . If esse is percipi, this is at once equivalent to saying that whatever is, is experienced; and this, again, is equivalent, in a sense, to saying that whatever is, is something mental. . . .


Idealist Contradiction: the Object and the Experience of it are Identical, yet Also Different

I am suggesting that the Idealist maintains that object and subject are necessarily connected, mainly because he fails to see that they are distinct, that they are two, at all. When he thinks of yellow and when the thinks of the sensation of yellow, he fails to see that there is anything whatever in the latter which is not in the former. This being so, to deny that yellow can ever be apart from the sensation of yellow is merely to deny that yellow can ever be other than it is; since yellow and the sensation of yellow are absolutely identical. To assert that yellow is necessarily an object of experience is to assert that yellow is necessarily yellow — a purely identical proposition, and therefore proved by the law of contradiction alone. Of course, the proposition also implies that experience is, after all, something distinct from yellow — else there would be no reason for insisting that yellow is a sensation: and that the argument thus both affirms and denies that yellow and sensation of yellow are distinct, is what sufficiently refutes it. But this contradiction can easily be overlooked, because though we are convinced, in other connexions, that experience does mean something and something most important, yet we are never distinctly aware what it means, and thus in every particular case we do not notice its presence. The facts present themselves as a kind of antinomy: (1) Experience is something unique and different from anything else; (2) Experience of green is entirely indistinguishable from green; two propositions which cannot both be true. Idealists, holding both, can only take refuge in arguing from the one in some connexions and from the other in others. . . .


Sensations take us Outside the Circle of our Ideas

Idealists admit that some things really exist of which they are not aware: there are some things, they hold, which are not inseparable aspects of their experience, even if they be inseparable aspects of some experience. They further hold that some of the things of which they are sometimes aware do really exist, even when they are not aware of them: they hold for instance that they are sometimes aware of other minds, which continue to exist even when they are not aware of them. They are, therefore, sometimes aware of something which is not an inseparable aspect of their own experience. They do know some things which are not a mere part or content of their experience. And what my analysis of sensation has been designed to show is, that whenever I have a mere sensation or idea, the fact is that I am then aware of something which is equally and in the same sense not an inseparable aspect of my experience. The awareness which I have maintained to be included in sensation is the very same unique fact which constitutes every kind of knowledge: blue is as much an object, and as little a mere content, of my experience, when I experience it, as the most exalted and independent real thing of which I am ever aware. There is, therefore, no question of how we are to get outside the circle of our own ideas and sensations. Merely to have a sensation is already to be outside that circle. It is to know something which is as truly and really not a part of my experience, as anything which I can ever know.


DEFENSE OF COMMON SENSE (“A Defense of Common Sense”, 1925)


Two Sets of Common Sense Truisms that I Know with Certainty

I am going to begin by enunciating, under the heading (1), a whole long list of propositions, which may seem, at first sight, such obvious truisms as not to be worth stating: they are, in fact, a set of propositions, every one of which (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty, to be true. I shall, next, under the heading (2), state a single proposition which makes an assertion about a whole set of classes of propositions -- each class being defined, as the class consisting of all propositions which resemble one of the propositions in (1) in a certain respect.


(1) I begin, then, with my list of truisms, every one of which (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty, to be true. The propositions to be included in this list are the following:


There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since, though not without undergoing changes; it was, for instance, much smaller when it was born, and for some time afterwards, than it is now. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and, at every moment since it was born, there have also existed many other things, having shape and size in three dimensions. . . .


(2) I now come to the single truism which, as will be seen, could not be stated except by reference to the whole list of truisms, just given in (1). This truism also (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty to be true; and it is as follows:


In the case of very many (I do not say all) of the human beings belonging to the class (which includes myself) . . . it is true that each has frequently, during the life of his body, known, with regard to himself or his body . . . a proposition corresponding to each of the propositions in (1) . . .


In other words what (2) asserts is only (what seems an obvious enough truism) that each of us (meaning by “us,” very many human beings of the class defined) has frequently known, with regard to himself or his body and the time at which he knew it, everything which, in writing down my list of propositions in (1), I was claiming to know about myself or my body and the time at which I wrote that proposition down. . . .


Some Physical Facts not Logically or Causally Dependent on Mental Facts

What seems to me the next in importance of the points in which my philosophical position differs from positions held by some other philosophers [i.e., idealist philosophers], is one which I will express in the following way. I hold, namely, that there is no good reason to suppose either (A) that every physical fact is logically dependent upon some mental fact or (B) that every physical fact is causally dependent upon some mental fact. In saying this, I am not, of course, saying that there are any physical facts which are wholly independent (i.e. both logically and causally) of mental facts: I do, in fact, believe that there are; but that is not what I am asserting. I am only asserting that there is no good reason to suppose the contrary; by which I mean, of course, that none of the human beings, who have had human bodies that lived upon the earth, have, during the lifetime of their bodies, had any good reason to suppose the contrary. Many philosophers have, I think, not only believed either that every physical fact is logically dependent upon some mental fact (“physical fact” and “mental fact” being understood in the sense in which I am using these terms) or that every physical fact is causally dependent upon some mental fact, or both, but also that they themselves had good reason for these beliefs. In this respect, therefore, I differ from them. . . .

            I hold, then, that there is no good reason to suppose that every physical fact is logically dependent upon some mental fact. . . . To say, then, of two facts, F1 and F2, that F1 is not logically dependent upon F2, is only to say that F1 might [conceivably] have been a fact, even if there had been no such fact as F2. . . . In holding this I am certainly differing from some philosophers. I am, for instance, differing from Berkeley, who held that that mantelpiece, that bookcase, and my body are, all of them, either “ideas” or “constituted by ideas,” and that no “idea” can possibly exist without being perceived.

            I also hold that there is no good reason to suppose that every physical fact is causally dependent upon some mental fact. By saying that F1 is causally dependent on F2, I mean only that F1 wouldn't have been a fact unless F2 had been; not (which is what "logically dependent" asserts) that F1 couldn't conceivably have been a fact, unless F2 had been. . . . But with regard to two of the facts, which I gave as instances of physical facts, namely the fact that the earth has existed for many years past, and the fact that the moon has for many years past been nearer to the earth than to the sun, I hold that there is no good reason to suppose that these are causally dependent upon any mental fact.




“Here is One Hand” Argument (“Proof of an External World”, 1939)

It seems to me that, so far from its being true, as Kant declares to be his opinion, that there is only one possible proof of the existence of things out­side of us, namely the one which he has given, I can now give a large number of different proofs, each of which is a perfectly rigorous proof; and that at many other times I have been in a position to give many others. I can prove now, for instance, that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, ‘Here is one hand’, and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, ‘and here is another’. And if, by doing this, I have proved ipso facto the existence of external things, you will all see that I can also do it now in numbers of other ways: there is no need to multiply examples.

            But did I prove just now that two human hands were then in existence? I do want to insist that I did; that the proof which I gave was a perfectly rig­orous one; and that it is perhaps impossible to give a better or more rigorous proof of anything what­ever. Of course, it would not have been a proof unless three conditions were satisfied; namely (1) unless the premiss which I adduced as proof of the conclusion was different from the conclusion I adduced it to prove; (2) unless the premiss which I adduced was something which I knew to be the case, and not merely something which I believed but which was by no means certain, or something which, though in fact true, I did not know to be so; and (3) unless the conclusion did really follow from the premiss. But all these three conditions were in fact satisfied by my proof. (1) The premiss which I adduced in proof was quite certainly dif­ferent from the conclusion, for the conclusion was merely ‘Two human hands exist at this moment’; but the premiss was something far more specific than this—something which I expressed by show­ing you my hands, making certain gestures, and saying the words ‘Here is one hand, and here is an­other’. It is quite obvious that the two were differ­ent, because it is quite obvious that the conclusion might have been true, even if the premiss had been false. In asserting the premiss I was asserting much more than I was asserting in asserting the conclu­sion. (2) I certainly did at the moment know that which I expressed by the combination of certain gestures with saying the words ‘Here is one hand and here is another’. I knew that there was one hand in the place indicated by combining a certain gesture with my first utterance of ‘here’ and that there was another in the different place indicated by combining a certain gesture with my second ut­terance of ‘here’. How absurd it would be to sug­gest that I did not know it, but only believed it, and that perhaps it was not the case! You might as well suggest that I do not know that I am now standing up and talking—that perhaps after all I’m not, and that it’s not quite certain that I am! And finally (3) it is quite certain that the conclusion did follow from the premiss. This is as certain as it is that if there is one hand here and another here now, then it follows that there are two hands in existence now.


No Material Things vs. No Certainty of Material Things  (“A Reply to my Critics”, 1942)

I have sometimes distinguished between two different propositions, each of which has been made by some philosophers, namely (1) the proposition “There are no material things” and (2) the proposition “Nobody knows for certain that there are any material things.” And in my latest published writing, my British Academy lecture called “Proof of an External World”—I implied with regard to the first of these propositions that it could be proved to be false in such a way as this; namely, by holding up one of your hands and saying “This hand is a material thing; therefore there is at least one material thing”. But with regard to the second of those two propositions, which has, I think, been far more commonly asserted than the first, I do not think I have ever implied that it could be proved to be false in any such simple way; e.g., by holding up one of your hands and saying “I know that this hand is a material thing; therefore at least one person knows that there is at least one material thing.” 




The Adjective Good (Goodness) is Indefinable (i.e., “Charity is Good”)

6. What, then, is good? How is good to be defined? Now it may be thought that this is a verbal question. A definition does indeed often mean the expressing of one word’s meaning in other words. But this is not the sort of definition I am asking for. Such a definition can never be of ultimate importance to any study except lexicography. If I wanted that kind of definition I should have to consider in the first place how people generally used the word “good”; but my business is not with its proper usage, as established by custom. I should, indeed, be foolish if I tried to use it for something which it did not usually denote: if, for instance, I were to announce that, whenever I used the word “good,” I must be understood to be thinking of that object which is usually denoted by the word “table.” I shall, therefore, use the word in the sense in which I think it is ordinarily used; but at the same time I am not anxious to discuss whether I am right in thinking it is so used. My business is solely with that object or idea, which I hold, rightly or wrongly, that the word is generally used to stand for. What I want to discover is the nature of that object or idea, and about this I am extremely anxious to arrive at an agreement.

            But if we understand the question in this sense, my answer to it may seem a very disappointing one. If I am asked, “What is good?” my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked “How is good to be defined?” my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is all I have to say about it. But disappointing as these answers may appear, they are of the very last importance. To readers who are familiar with philosophic terminology, I can express their importance by saying that they amount to this: That propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic; and that is plainly no trivial matter. And the same thing may be expressed more popularly, by saying that, if I am right, then nobody can foist upon us such an axiom as that “Pleasure is the only good” or that “The good is the desired” on the pretence that this is “the very meaning of the word”.


Good/Goodness is a Simple Notion

7. Let us, then, consider this position. My point is that “good” is a simple notion, just as “yellow” is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is. Definitions of the kind that I was asking for, definitions which describe the real nature of the object or notion denoted by a word, and which do not merely tell us what the word is used to mean, are only possible when the object or notion in question is something complex. You can give a definition of a horse, because a horse has many different properties and qualities, all of which you can enumerate. But when you have enumerated them all, when you have reduced a horse to his simplest terms, you can no longer define those terms. They are simply something which you think of or perceive, and to anyone who cannot think of or perceive them, you can never, by any definition, make their nature known. It may perhaps be objected to this that we are able to describe to others, objects which they have never seen or thought of. We can, for instance, make a man understand what a chimaera is, although he has never heard of one or seen one. You can tell him that it is an animal with a lioness’s head and body, with a goat’s head growing from the middle of its back, and with a snake in place of its tail. But here the object which you are describing is a complex object; it is entirely composed of parts, with which we are all perfectly familiar—a snake, a goat, a lioness; and we know, too, the manner in which those parts are to be put together, because we know what is meant by the middle of a lioness’s back, and where her tail is wont to grow. And so it is with all objects not previously known, which we are able to define: they are all complex; all composed of parts, which may themselves, in the first instance, be capable of similar definition, but which must in the end be reducible to simplest parts, which can no longer be defined. But yellow and good, we say, are not complex: they are notions of that simple kind, out of which definitions are composed and with which the power of further defining ceases.

            8. 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. We might think just as clearly and correctly about a horse, if we thought of all its parts and their arrangement instead of thinking of the whole: we could, I say, think how a horse differed from a donkey just as well, just as truly, in this way, as now we do, only not so easily; but there is nothing whatsoever which we could substitute for good; and that is what I mean, when I say that good is indefinable.


“The Good” is Definable, Good/Goodness is Not

9. But I am afraid I have still not removed the chief difficulty which may prevent acceptance of the proposition that the 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 those two adjectives are really part of its definition, then it will certainly be true, that pleasure and intelligence are good. And many people appear to think that, if we say “Pleasure and intelligence are good,” or if we say “Only pleasure and intelligence are good,” we are defining “good.” Well, I cannot deny that propositions of this nature may sometimes be called definitions; I do not know well enough how the word is generally used to decide upon this point. I only wish it to be understood that that is not what I mean when I say there is no possible definition of good, and that I shall not mean this if I use the word again. I do most fully believe that some true proposition of the form “Intelligence is good and intelligence alone is good” can be found; if none could be found, our definition of the good would be impossible. As it is, I believe the good to be definable; and yet I still say that good itself is indefinable.



10. “Good,” then, if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the thing is good, is incapable of any definition, in the most important sense of that word. The most important sense of “definition” is that in which a definition states what are the parts which invariably compose a certain whole; and in this sense “good” has no definition because it is simple and has no parts. It is one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms of reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined. That there must be an indefinite number of such terms is obvious, on reflection; since we cannot define anything except by an analysis, which, when carried as far as it will go, refers us to something, which is simply different from anything else, and which by that ultimate difference explains the peculiarity of the whole which we are defining: for every whole contains some parts which are common to other wholes also. There is, therefore, no intrinsic difficulty in the contention that “good” denotes a simple and indefinable quality. There are many other instances of such qualities.


Naturalistic Fallacy: Identifying a Natural Property as Good/Goodness

Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define it, by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to shew that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive. Indeed, we should never have been able to discover their existence, unless we had first been struck by the patent difference of quality between the different colours. The most we can be entitled to say of those vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space to the yellow which we actually perceive.

            Yet a mistake of this simple kind has commonly been made about “good.” It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not “other,” but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the “naturalistic fallacy” and of it I shall now endeavour to dispose.

            11. Let us consider what it is such philosophers say. And first it is to be noticed that they do not agree among themselves. They not only say that they are right as to what good is, but they endeavour to prove that other people who say that it is something else, are wrong. One, for instance, will affirm that good is pleasure, another, perhaps, that good is that which is desired; and each of these will argue eagerly to prove that other people who say that it is something else, are wrong. . . .

            12. . . . When a man confuses two natural objects with one another, defining the one by the other, if for instance, he confuses himself, who is one natural object, with “pleased” or with “pleasure” which are others, then there is no reason to call the fallacy naturalistic. But if he confuses “good,” which is not in the same sense a natural object, with any natural object whatever, then there is a reason for calling that a naturalistic fallacy; its being made with regard to “good” marks it as something quite specific, and this specific mistake deserves a name because it is so common. As for the reasons why good is not to be considered a natural object, they may be reserved for discussion in another place. But, for the present, it is sufficient to notice this: Even if it were a natural object, that would not alter the nature of the fallacy nor diminish its importance one whit. All that I have said about it would remain quite equally true: only the name which I have called it would not be so appropriate as I think it is. And I do not care about the name: what I do care about is the fallacy. It does not matter what we call it, provided we recognise it when we meet with it. It is to be met with in almost every book on Ethics; and yet it is not recognised: and that is why it is necessary to multiply illustrations of it, and convenient to give it a name. It is a very simple fallacy indeed. . . .


The Open Question Argument

13. In fact, if it is not the case that “good” denotes something simple and indefinable, only two alternatives are possible: either it is a complex, a given whole, about the correct analysis of which there could be disagreement; or else it means nothing at all, and there is no such subject as Ethics. . . .

            (1) The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition [of “good”] may be offered, it may always, be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good. To take, for instance, one of the more plausible, because one of the more complicated of such proposed definitions, it may easily be thought, at first sight, that to be good may mean to be that which we desire to desire. Thus if we apply this definition to a particular instance and say “When we think that A is good, we are thinking that A is one of the things which we desire to desire,” our proposition may seem quite plausible. But, if we carry the investigation further, and ask ourselves “Is it good to desire to desire A?” it is apparent, on a little reflection, that this question is itself as intelligible, as the original question, “Is A good?”—that we are, in fact, now asking for exactly the same information about the desire to desire A, for which we formerly asked with regard to A itself. But it is also apparent that the meaning of this second question cannot be correctly analysed into “Is the desire to desire A one of the things which we desire to desire?”: we have not before our minds anything so complicated as the question “Do we desire to desire to desire to desire A?” Moreover any one can easily convince himself by inspection that the predicate of this proposition—“good”—is positively different from notion of “desiring to desire” which enters into its subject: “That we should desire to desire A is good” is not merely equivalent to “That A should be good is good.” It may indeed be true that what we desire to desire is always good; perhaps, even the converse may be true: but it is very doubtful whether this is the case, and the mere fact that we understand very well what is meant by doubting it, shews clearly that we have to different notions before our mind. . . .


INTRINSIC GOODS (Principia Ethica)


Organic Unities: The Whole Greater than the Sum of its Parts

18. . . . It is certain that a good thing may exist in such a relation to another good thing that the value of the whole thus formed is immensely greater than the sum of the values of the two good things. It is certain that a whole formed of a good thing and an indifferent thing may have immensely greater value than that good thing itself possesses. It is certain that two bad things or a bad thing and an indifferent thing may form a whole much worse than the sum of badness of its parts. And it seems as if indifferent things may also be the sole constituents of a whole which has great value, either positive or negative. Whether the addition of a bad thing to a good whole may increase the positive value of the whole, or the addition of a bad thing to a bad may produce a whole having a positive value, may seem more doubtful; but it is, at least, possible, and this possibility must be taken into account in our ethical investigations. However we may decide particular questions, the principle is clear. The value of a whole must not be assumed to be the same as the sum of the values of its parts.

            A single instance will suffice to illustrate the kind of relation in question. It seems to be true that to be conscious of a beautiful object is of great intrinsic value; whereas the same object, if no one be conscious of it, has certainly comparatively little value, and it is commonly held to have none at all. But the consciousness of a beautiful object is certainly a whole of some sort in which we can distinguish as parts the object on the one hand and the being conscious on the other. Now this latter factor occurs as part of a different whole, whenever we are conscious of anything; and it would seem that some of these wholes have at all events very little value, and may even be indifferent or positively bad. Yet we cannot always attribute the slightness of their value to any positive demerit in the object which differentiates them from the consciousness of beauty; the object itself may approach as near as possible to absolute neutrality. Since, therefore, mere consciousness does not always confer great value upon the whole of which it forms a part, we cannot attribute the great superiority of the consciousness of a beautiful thing over the beautiful thing itself to the mere addition of the value of consciousness to that of the beautiful thing. Whatever the intrinsic value of consciousness may be, it does not give to the whole of which it forms a part a value proportional to the sum of its value and that of its object. If this be so, we have here an instance of a whole possessing a different intrinsic value from the sum of that of its parts; and whether it be so or not, what is meant by such a difference is illustrated by this case.


The Value of Natural Beauty Independent of Human Contemplation of It (3)

50. The passages in the Methods of Ethics [by Henry Sidgwick] to which I shall now invite attention are to be found in 1.9.4 and in 3.14.4-5.

            The first of these two passages runs as follows:


I think that if we consider carefully such permanent results as are commonly judged to be good, other than qualities of human beings, we can find nothing that, on reflection, appears to possess this quality of goodness out of relation to human existence, or at least to some consciousness or feeling.

            For example, we commonly judge some inanimate objects, scenes, etc. to be good as possessing beauty, and others bad from ugliness: still no one would consider it rational to aim at the production of beauty in external nature, apart from any possible contemplation of it by human beings. In fact when beauty is maintained to be objective, it is not commonly meant that it exists as beauty out of relation to any mind whatsoever: but only that there is some standard of beauty valid for all minds. . . .


. . . No one, says Prof. Sidgwick, would consider it rational to aim at the production of beauty in external nature, apart from any possible contemplation of it by human beings. Well, I may say at once, that I, for one, do consider this rational; and let us see if I cannot get any one to agree with me. Consider what this admission really means. It entitles us to put the following case. Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. Such a pair of worlds we are entitled to compare: they fall within Prof. Sidgwick’s meaning, and the comparison is highly relevant to it. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.

            The instance is extreme. It is highly improbable, not to say, impossible, we should ever have such a choice before us. In any actual choice we should have to consider the possible effects of our action upon conscious beings, and among these possible effects there are always some, I think, which ought to be preferred to the existence of mere beauty. But this only means that in our present state, in which but a very small portion of the good is attainable, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake must always be postponed to the pursuit of some greater good, which is equally attainable. But it is enough for my purpose, if it be admitted that, supposing no greater good were at all attainable, then beauty must in itself be regarded as a greater good than ugliness; if it be admitted that, in that case, we should not be left without any reason for preferring one course of action to another, we should not be left without any duty whatever, but that it would then be our positive duty to make the world more beautiful, so far as we were able, since nothing better than beauty could then result from our efforts. If this be once admitted, if in any imaginable case you do admit that the existence of a more beautiful thing is better in itself than that of one more ugly, quite apart from its effects on any human feeling, then Prof. Sidgwick’s principle has broken down. Then we shall have to include in our ultimate end something beyond the limits of human existence. I admit, of course, that our beautiful world would be better still, if there were human beings in it to contemplate and enjoy its beauty. But that admission makes nothing against my point. If it be once admitted that the beautiful world in itself is better than the ugly, then it follows, that however many beings may enjoy it, and however much better their enjoyment may be than it is itself, yet its mere existence adds something to the goodness of the whole: it is not only a means to our end, but also itself a part thereof.


The Two most Valuable Things: Personal Affection and Appreciation of Beauty (6)

113. . . . By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects. No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves; nor, if we consider strictly what things are worth having purely for their own sakes, does it appear probable that any one will think that anything else has nearly so great a value as the things which are included under these two heads. I have myself urged in Chap. III. (§ 50) that the mere existence of what is beautiful does appear to have some intrinsic value; but I regard it as indubitable that Prof. Sidgwick was so far right, in the view there discussed, that such mere existence of what is beautiful has value, so small as to be negligible, in comparison with that which attaches to the consciousness of beauty. This simple truth may, indeed, be said to be universally recognised. What has not been recognised is that it is the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy. That it is only for the sake of these things—in order that as much of them as possible may at some time exist—that any one can be justified in performing any public or private duty; that they are the raison d’être of virtue; that it is they—these complex wholes themselves, and not any constituent or characteristic of them—that form the rational ultimate end of human action and the sole criterion of social progress: these appear to be truths which have been generally overlooked. . . .


No Simple or Unified System of Intrinsic Goods

134. I have now completed such remarks as seemed most necessary to be made concerning intrinsic values. It is obvious that for the proper answering of this, the fundamental question of Ethics, there remains a field of investigation as wide and as difficult, as was assigned to Practical Ethics in my last chapter. There is as much to be said concerning what results are intrinsically good, and in what degrees, as concerning what results it is possible for us to bring about: both questions demand, and will repay, an equally patient enquiry.

            Many of the judgments, which I have made in this chapter, will, no doubt, seem unduly arbitrary: it must be confessed that some of the attributions of intrinsic value, which have seemed to me to be true, do not display that symmetry and system which is wont to be required of philosophers. But if this be urged as an objection, I may respectfully point out that it is none. We have no title whatever to assume that the truth on any subject-matter will display such symmetry as we desire to see—or (to use the common vague phrase) that it will possess any particular form of unity. To search for unity and system, at the expense of truth, is not, I take it, the proper business of philosophy, however universally it may have been the practice of philosophers. And that all truths about the Universe possess to one another all the various relations, which may be meant by unity, can only be legitimately asserted, when we have carefully distinguished those various relations and discovered what those truths are. In particular, we can have no title to assert that ethical truths are unified in any particular manner, except in virtue of an enquiry conducted by the method which I have endeavoured to follow and to illustrate. The study of Ethics would, no doubt, be far more simple, and its results far more systematic, if, for instance, pain were an evil of exactly the same magnitude as pleasure is a good; but we have no reason whatever to assume that the Universe is such that ethical truths must display this kind of symmetry: no argument against my conclusion, that pleasure and pain do not thus correspond, can have any weight whatever, failing a careful examination of the instances which have led me to form it.


Many Intrinsic Goods, Most are Organic Unities

Nevertheless I am content that the results of this chapter should be taken rather as illustrating the method which must be pursued in answering the fundamental question of Ethics, and the principles which must be observed, than as giving the correct answer to that question. That things intrinsically good or bad are many and various; that most of them are organic unities, in the peculiar and definite sense to which I have confined the term; and that our only means of deciding upon their intrinsic value and its degree, is by carefully distinguishing exactly what the thing is, about which we ask the question, and then looking to see whether it has or has not the unique predicate good in any of its various degrees: these are the conclusions, upon the truth of which I desire to insist. Similarly, in my last chapter, with regard to the question What ought we to do? I have endeavoured rather to shew exactly what is the meaning of the question, and what difficulties must consequently be faced in answering it, than to prove that any particular answers are true. And that these two questions, having precisely the nature which I have assigned to them, are the questions which it is the object of Ethics to answer, may be regarded as the main result of the preceding chapters. These are the questions which ethical philosophers have always been mainly concerned to answer, although they have not recognised what their question was—what predicate they were asserting to attach to things.

            The practice of asking what things are virtues or duties, without distinguishing what these terms mean; the practice of asking what ought to be here and now, without distinguishing whether as means or end—for its own sake or for that of its results; the search for one single criterion of right and wrong, without the recognition that in order to discover a criterion we must first know what things are right and wrong; and the neglect of the principle of organic unities—these sources of error have hitherto been almost universally prevalent in Ethics. The conscious endeavour to avoid them all, and to apply to all the ordinary objects of ethical judgment these two questions and these only: Has it intrinsic value? and Is it a means to the best possible?—this attempt, so far as I know, is entirely new; and its results, when compared with those habitual to moral philosophers, are certainly sufficiently surprising: that to Common Sense they will not appear so strange, I venture to hope and believe. It is, I think, much to be desired that the labour commonly devoted to answering such questions as whether certain ends are more or less comprehensive or more or less consistent with one another—questions, which, even if a precise meaning were given to them, are wholly irrelevant to the proof of any ethical conclusion—should be diverted to the separate investigation of these two clear problems.


Sources: “The Nature of Judgement” (1899); “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903); Principia Ethica (1903); “A Defense of Common Sense” (1925); “Proof of an External World” (1939); “A Reply to my Critics” (1942).


Questions for Review

1. In Moore’s “Refutation of Idealism”, what are the main features of idealism and what is Moore’s criticism of it?

2. In Moore’s “Defense of Common Sense”, what, briefly, are the two sets of common sense truisms that Moore knows with certainty?

3. In Moore’s “Proof of an External World,” what is Moore’s “here is one hand” argument, and what are the two propositions about material things that Moore distinguishes between?

4. Explain the following notions in Moore’s conception of “good”: “Good” as an adjective, “the good” as a substantive, simple and indefinable notions, complex and definable notions

5. What is the naturalistic fallacy, and the open question argument?

6. Explain the following notions in Moore’s conception of “intrinsic goods”: organic unities, intrinsic goods, beauty apart from human contemplation, the two most valuable things, and unified systems of intrinsic goods.


Questions for Analysis

1. In “The Refutation of Idealism,” Moore states the following: “There is, therefore, no question of how we are to get outside the circle of our own ideas and sensations. Merely to have a sensation is already to be outside that circle. It is to know something which is as truly and really not a part of my experience, as anything which I can ever know.” Explain Moore’s point and how an idealist might respond to it.

2. In “The Refutation of Idealism”, Moore argues that idealists contradict themselves by (a) maintaining that an object like “yellow” and our experience of it are identical, yet at the same time (b) maintaining that the object “yellow” and our experience of it must be different otherwise “ there would be no reason for insisting that yellow is a sensation. In contemporary philosophy Moore’s argument structure here is called “The Paradox of Analysis”, and it is criticized since the same argument structure applies to any term and its definition. For example, “bachelor” is identical to “unmarried man”, yet it seems informative (i.e., not completely redundant) to say that “bachelor” means “unmarried man”. How might Moore respond to this criticism?

3. Consider Moore’s “here is one hand” argument: we can prove the existence of at least one external thing by holding up one hand and saying “here is one hand”. An idealist might criticize Moore as follows: you would have the same certainty of the existence of your hand even if you had no body and were living in a virtual reality. Thus the existence of your hand is merely that of mental existence. How might Moore respond to this criticism?

4. In the section “No Material Things vs. No Certainty of Material Things” Moore argues that his two hands argument attempts to refute only the claim that “There are no material things” but not the claim that “Nobody knows for certain that there are any material things.” Explain Moore’s distinction here and whether the first claim ultimately depends on the second.

5. In his article “The Naturalistic Fallacy” (1939), William Frankena makes the following critique of Moore: “The naturalistic fallacy will then . . . be a species or form of the definist fallacy, as would the metaphysical fallacy if Mr. Moore had given that a separate name. That is, the naturalistic fallacy. . . . is a fallacy, not because it is naturalistic or confuses a non-natural quality with a natural one, but solely because it involves the definist fallacy. . . . the definist fallacy is the process of confusing or identifying two properties, of defining one property by another, or of substituting one property for another. Furthermore, the fallacy is always simply that two properties are being treated as one, and it is irrelevant, if it be the case, that one of them is natural or non-ethical and the other non-natural or ethical.” How might Moore respond to Frankena, particularly to the final sentence just quoted?

6. Is Moore’s “open question argument” essentially another version of Moore’s “paradox of analysis” (as discussed in question 2 above)? Explain each concept, then compare and contrast.

7. Sidgwick argued that objective beauty is always in relation the human contemplation of it. Moore, by contrast, argued that some things are intrinsically beautiful, outside of even when there is no human contemplation of it, such as the preference for a beautiful uninhabited planet vs. an ugly one. A defender of Sidgwick might argue as follows: the very comparison of these two uninhabited planets requires us to contemplate them, and no such aesthetic assessment could be made without human contemplation. How might Moore respond to this?

8. In his book G.E. Moore’s Ethical Theory (2001), Brian Hutchinson writes, “the deepest impulse of Moore’s philosophy is, as Wittgenstein’s is, to end philosophy. Moore’s great aim in ethics is to expose and expunge philosophy’s revisionary impulse in order to defend the things we know to be irreplaceable in any sane way of life.” Using examples from Moore’s ethics, discuss whether Hutchinson is right.