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George Edward Moore

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George Edward Moore
George Edward Moore

George Edward Moore, also known as G.E. Moore, (November 4, 1873October 24, 1958) was a distinguished and hugely influential English philosopher who was educated and taught at the University of Cambridge. He was, with Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, and (before them) Frege, one of the fathers of the analytic philosophy tradition that now predominates in the English-speaking world.

Moore was best known for his advocacy of common sense, his ethical non-naturalism, and his very clear, circumspect writing style. He was a methodical and careful philosopher. He is very much a "philosopher's philosopher"--influential among and greatly respected by other philosophers, but relatively unknown to nonphilosophers (unlike his friend and colleague Russell).

Moore's most famous essays are "The Refutation of Idealism", "A Defence of Common Sense", and "A Proof of the External World" each of which can be found in his collection of papers, Philosophical Papers. He argued against skepticism about the external world by, famously, raising his right hand and saying 'here is a hand', then raising his left hand and saying 'here is a hand', conluding that there are at least two material objects in the world and therefore, there is an external world.

G.E. Moore died on October 24, 1958 and was interred in the Burial Ground of Parish of the Ascension, Cambridge, England. The poet Nicholas Moore is his son.



Moore is also well-known for the so-called "open question argument," which is contained in his (also greatly influential) Principia Ethica. The Principia is one of the main inspirations of the movement against ethical naturalism (see ethical non-naturalism) and is partly responsible for the twentieth-century concern with meta-ethics.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Moore charged that most other philosophers who worked in ethics had made a mistake he called the "Naturalistic fallacy". The business of ethics, Moore agreed, is to discover the qualities that make things good. So, for example, hedonists about value claim that the quality being pleasant is what makes things good; other theorists could claim that complexity is what makes things good. With this project Moore has no quarrel. What he objects to is the idea that, in telling us the qualities that make things good, ethical theorists have thereby given us an analysis of the term 'good' and the property goodness. Moore regards this as a serious confusion. To take an example, a hedonist might be right to claim that something is good just in case it is pleasant. But this does not mean, Moore wants to insist, that we can define value in terms of pleasure. Telling us what qualities make things valuable is one thing; analyzing value is quite another.

Open Question Argument

Moore began his ethics by proposing exactly what "good" is not. He did this by forming the Open Question Argument, showing that the assumed definition of "good" is incorrect due to an inability to localize "good". We begin by using one of the most common definitions of "good" (that being "good" is that which is desirable), then we proceed with the following line of argumentation: If we assert that "X is good", we are really asserting that X is desirable. In doing so, we must then ask "Is it good to desire X?" Thus leading to "Is it good for us to desire to desire X?" As it is plain to see, Moore's point is that by assuming "good" to be equal with another property leads to a line of questioning that never ends. The argument could also be structured as such:

  1. "X is good" = "X has property P"
  2. X has P, but is X good? (are things that have P good?)
  3. X has P, but does it have P? (do things that have P have P?)

Ultimately, all you end up with is an infinite number of Xes being desirable for being desirable for being desirable ad infinitum...Therefore, "good" has to be its own property, separate from all others, "good" cannnot equal that which we desire (or "happiness", or "pleasure").

Good as indefinable

Moore contended that goodness cannot be associated with any other property. In Principia Ethica, he stated it as such:

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. (§ 10 ¶ 3)

Therefore, the only definition we can give of "good" is an ostensive one; that is, we can only point to an action or a thing and say "That is good." Similarly, we cannot describe to a blind man exactly what yellow is. We can only show a sighted man a piece of yellow paper or a yellow scrap of cloth and say "That is yellow."

Good as a non-natural property

In addition to categorizing "good" as indefinable, Moore also emphasized that it is a non-natural property. That is, two objects that are qualitatively identical cannot have different values. There cannot be two yellow shirts that are identical in every way (same shade of yellow, made at the same factory, the same brand name, the same style, etc...) except for their reception of the predication of "good" (one cannot be good and the other not good). An object's property of "good" 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".

Moral knowledge

To support his proposed arguments, Moore contended that man has a "moral intuition" that helps him locate what exactly is "good". In this he was a follower of Ethical intuitionism.


He also first drew attention to what is now called "Moore's Paradox", the peculiar inconsistency involved in uttering a sentence like "It is raining but I don't believe that it is." This puzzle inspired a great deal of work by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

External links


  • A Defense of Realism: Reflections on the Metaphysics of G. E. Moore by E. D. Klemke ISBN 1573927325


  1. G.E. Moore, On Defining "Good," in Analytic Philosophy: Classic Readings, Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2002, pp.1-10. ISBN 0-534-51277-1.

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