Naturalistic Ethics-G. E. Moore 1903

Chapter II: Naturalistic Ethics

Principia Ethica-G. E. Moore 1903

§ 24.
It results from the conclusions of Chapter I, that all ethical questions fall under one or other of three classes. The first class contains but one question—the question What is the nature of that peculiar predicate, the relation of which to other things constitutes the object of all other ethical investigations? or, in other words, What is meant by good? This first question I have already attempted to answer. The peculiar predicate, by reference to which the sphere of Ethics must be defined, is simple, unanalysable, indefinable. There remain two classes questions with regard to the relation of this predicate to other things. We may ask either (1) To what things and in what degree does this predicate directly attach? What things are good in themselves? or (2) By what means shall we be able to make what exist in the world as good as possible? What causal relations hold between what is best in itself and other causal relations hold between what is best in itself and other things?

In this and the two following chapters, I propose to discuss certain theories, which offer us an answer to the question What is good in itself? I say advisedly—an answer: for these theories are all characterised by the fact that, if true, they would simplify the study of Ethics very much. They all hold that there is only one kind of fact, of which the existence has any value at all. But they all also possess another characteristic, which is my reason for grouping them together and treating them first: namely that the main reason why the single kind of fact they name has been held to define the sole good, is that it has been held to define what is meant by good itself. In other words they are all theories of the end or ideal, the adoption of which has been chiefly caused by the commission of what I have called the naturalistic fallacy: they all confuse the first and second of the three possible questions which Ethics can ask. It is, indeed, this fact which explains their contention that only a single kind of thing is good. That a thing should be good, it has been thought, means that it possesses this single property: and hence (it is thought) only what possesses this property is good. The inference seems very natural; and yet what is meant by it is self-contradictory. For those who make it fail to perceive that their conclusion what possesses this property is good is a significant proposition: that it does not mean either what possesses this property, possesses this property or the word good denotes that a thing possesses this property. And yet, if it does not mean one or other of these two things, the inference contradicts its own premise.

I propose, therefore, to discuss certain theories of what is good in itself, which are based on the naturalistic fallacy, in the sense that the commission of this fallacy has been the main cause of their wide acceptance. The discussion will be designed both (1) further to illustrate the fact that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy, or, in other words, that we are all aware of a certain simple quality, which (and not anything else) is what we mainly mean by the term good; and (2) to shew that not one, but many different things, possess this property. For I cannot hope to recommend the doctrine that things which are good do not owe their goodness to their common possession of any other property, without a criticism of the main doctrines, opposed to this, whose power to recommend themselves is proved by their wide prevalence.

§ 25.
The theories I propose to discuss may be conveniently divided into two groups. The naturalistic fallacy always implies that when we think This is good, what we are thinking is that the thing in question bears a definite relation to some one other thing. But this one thing, by reference to which good is defined may be either what I may call a natural object—something of which the existence is admittedly an object of experience—or else it may be an object which is only inferred to exist in a supersensible real world. These two types of ethical theory I propose to treat separately. Theories of the second type may conveniently be called metaphysical, and I shall postpone consideration of them till Chapter IV. In this and the following chapter, on the other hand, I shall deal with theories which owe their prevalence to the supposition that good can be defined by reference to a natural object; and these are what I mean by the name, which gives the title to this chapter, Naturalistic Ethics. It should be observed that the fallacy, by reference to which I define Metaphysical Ethics, is the same in kind; and I give it but one name, the naturalistic fallacy. But when we regard the ethical theories recommended by this fallacy, it seems convenient to distinguish those which consider goodness to consist in relation to something which exists here and now, from those which do not. According to the former, Ethics is an empirical or positive science: its conclusions could be all established by means of empirical observation and induction. But this is not the case with Metaphysical Ethics. There is, therefore, a marked distinction between these two groups of ethical theories based on the same fallacy. And within Naturalistic theories, too, a convenient division may also be made. There is one natural object, namely pleasure, which has perhaps been as frequently held to be the sole good as all the rest put together. And there is, moreover, a further reason for treating Hedonism separately. That doctrine has, I think, as plainly as any other, owed its prevalence to the naturalistic fallacy; but it has had a singular fate in that the writer, who first clearly exposed the fallacy of the naturalistic arguments by which it had been attempted to prove that pleasure was the sole good, has maintained that nevertheless it is the sole good. I propose, therefore, to divide my discussion of Hedonism from that of other Naturalistic theories; treating of Naturalistic Ethics in general in this chapter, and of Hedonism, in particular, in the next.

§ 26.
The subject of the present chapter is, then, ethical theories which declare that no intrinsic value is to be found except in the possession of some one natural property, other than pleasure; and which declare this because it is supposed that to be good means to possess the property in question. Such theories I call Naturalistic. I have thus appropriated the name Naturalism to a particular method of approaching Ethics—a method which, strictly understood, is inconsistent with the possibility of any Ethics whatsoever. This method consists in substituting for good some one property of a natural object or of a collection of natural objects; and in thus replacing Ethics by some one of the natural sciences. In general the science thus substituted is one of the sciences specially concerned with man, owing to the general mistake (for such I hold it to be) of regarding the matter of Ethics as confined to human conduct. In general, Psychology has been the science substituted, as by J.S. Mill; or Sociology, as by Professor Clifford, and other modern writers. But any other science might equally well be substituted. It is the same fallacy which is implied, when Professor Tyndall recommends us to conform to the laws of matter: and here the science which is proposed to substitute for Ethics is simply Physics. The name then is perfectly general; for, no matter what the something is that good is held to mean, the theory is still Naturalism. Whether good be defined as yellow or green or blue, as loud or soft, as round or square, as sweet or bitter, as productive of life or productive of pleasure, as willed or desired or felt: whichever of these or of any other object in the world, good may be held to mean, the theory, which holds it to mean them, will be a naturalistic theory. I have called such theories naturalistic because all of these terms denote properties, simple or complex, of some simple or complex natural object; and, before I proceed to consider them, it will be well to define what is meant by nature and by natural objects.

By nature, then, I do mean and have meant that which is the subject-matter of the natural sciences and also of psychology. It may be said to include all that has existed, does exist, or will exist in time. If we consider whether any object is of such a nature that it may be said to exist now, to have existed, or to be about to exist, then we may know that that object is a natural object, and that nothing, of which this is not true, is a natural object. Thus, for instance, of our minds we should say that they did exist yesterday, that they do exist to-day, and probably will exist in a minute or two. We shall say that we had thoughts yesterday, which have ceased to exist now, although their effects may remain: and in so far as those thoughts did exist, they too are natural objects.

There is, indeed, no difficulty about the objects themselves, in the sense in which I have just used the term. It is easy to say which of them are natural, and which (if any) are not natural. But when we begin to consider the properties of objects, then I fear the problem is more difficult. Which among the properties of natural objects are natural properties, and which are not? For I do not deny that good is a property of certain natural objects: certain of them, I think, are good; and yet I have said that good itself is not a natural property. Well, my test for these too also concerns their existence in time. Can we imagine good as existing by itself in time, and not merely as a property of some natural object? For myself, I cannot so imagine it, whereas with the greater number of properties of objects—those which I call the natural properties—their existence does seem to me to be independent of the existence of those objects. They are, in fact, rather parts of which the object is made up than mere predicates which attach to it. If they were all taken away, no object would be left, not even a bare substance: for they are in themselves substantial and give to the object all the substance that it has. But this is not so with good. If indeed good were a feeling, as some would have us believe, then it would exist in time. But that is why to call it so is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It will always remain pertinent to ask, whether the feeling itself is good; and if so, then good cannot itself be identical with any feeling.

§ 27.
Those theories of Ethics, then, are naturalistic which declare the sole good to consist in some one property of things, which exists in time; and which do so because they suppose that good itself can be defined by reference to such a property. And we may now proceed to consider such theories.

And, first of all, one of the most famous of ethical maxims is that which recommends a life according to nature. That was the principle of the Stoic Ethics; but, since their Ethics has some claim to be called metaphysical, I shall not attempt to deal with it here. But the same phrase reappears in Rousseau; and it is not unfrequently maintained even now that what we ought to do is live naturally. Now let us examine this contention in its general form. It is obvious, in the first place, that we cannot say that everything natural is good, except perhaps in virtue of some metaphysical theory, such as I shall deal with later. If everything natural is equally good, then certainly Ethics, as it is ordinarily understood, disappears; for nothing is more certain, from an ethical point of view, than that some things are bad and others good; the object of Ethics is, indeed, in chief part, to give you general rules whereby you may avoid the one and secure the other. What, then, does natural mean, in this advice to live naturally, since it obviously cannot apply to everything that is natural?

The phrase seems to point to a vague notion that there is some such thing as natural good; to a belief that Nature may be said to fix and decide what shall be good, just as she fixes and decides what shall exist. For instance, it may be supposed that health is susceptible of a natural definition, that Nature has fixed what health shall be: and health, it may be said, is obviously good; hence in this case Nature has decided the matter; we have only to go to her and ask her what health is, and we shall know what is good: we shall have based an ethics upon science. But what is this natural definition of health? I can only conceive that health should be defined in natural terms as the normal state of an organism; for undoubtedly disease is also a natural product. To say that health is what is preserved by evolution, and what itself tends to preserve, in the struggle for existence, the organism which possesses it, comes to the same thing: for the point of evolution is that it pretends to give a causal explanation of why some forms of life are normal and others are abnormal; it explains the origin of species. When therefore we are told that health is natural, we may presume that what is meant is that it is normal; and that when we are told to pursue health as a natural end, what is implied is that the normal must be good. But is it so obvious that the natural must be good? Is it really obvious that health, for instance, is good? Was the excellence of Socrates or of Shakespeare normal? Was it not rather abnormal, extraordinary? It is, I think, obvious in the first place, that not all that is good is normal; that, on the contrary, the abnormal is often better than the normal: peculiar excellence, as well as peculiar viciousness, must obviously be not normal but abnormal. Yet it may be said that nevertheless the normal is good; and I myself am not prepared to dispute that health is good. What I contend is that this must not be taken to be obvious; that it must be regarded as an open question. To declare it to be obvious is to suggest the naturalistic fallacy: just as in some recent books, a proof that genius is diseased, abnormal, has been used to suggest that genius ought not to be encouraged. Such reasoning is fallacious, and dangerously fallacious. The fact is that in the very words health and disease we do commonly include the notion that the one is good and the other bad. But, when a so-called scientific definition of them is attempted, a definition in natural terms, the only one possible is that by way of normal and abnormal. Now, it is easy to prove that some things commonly thought excellent are abnormal; and it follows that they are diseased. But it does not follow, except by virtue of the naturalistic fallacy, that those things, commonly thought good, are therefore bad. All that has really been shewn is that in some cases there is a conflict between the common judgment that genius is good, and the common judgment that health is good. It is not sufficiently recognised that the latter judgment has not a whit more warrant for its truth than the former; that both are perfectly open questions. It may be true, indeed, that by healthy we do commonly imply good; but that only shews that when we so use the word, we do not mean the same thing by it as the thing which is meant in medical science. That health, when the word is used to denote something good, is good, goes no way at all to shew that health, when the word is used to denote something normal, is also good. We might as well say that, because bull denotes an Irish joke and also a certain animal, the joke and the animal must be the same thing. We must not, therefore, be frightened by the assertion that a thing is natural into the admission that it is good; good does not, by definition, mean anything that is natural; and it is therefore always an open question whether anything that is natural is good.

§ 28.
But there is another slightly different sense in which the word natural is used with an implication that it denotes something good. This is when we speak of natural affections, or unnatural crimes and vices. Here the meaning seems to be, not so much that the action or feeling in question is normal or abnormal, as that it is necessary. It is in this connection that we are advised to imitate savages and beasts. Curious advice, certainly; but, of course, there may be something in it. I am not here concerned to enquire under what circumstances some of us might with advantage take a lesson from the cow. I have really no doubt that such exist. What I am concerned with is a certain kind of reason, which I think is sometimes used to support this doctrine—a naturalistic reason. The notion sometimes lying at the bottom of the minds of preachers of this gospel is that we cannot improve on nature. This notion is certainly true, in the sense that anything we can do, will be a natural product. But that is not what is meant by this phrase; nature is again used to mean a mere part of nature; only this time the part meant is not so much the normal as an arbitrary minimum of what is necessary for life. And when this minimum is recommended as natural—as the way of life to which Nature points her finger—then the naturalistic fallacy is used. Against this position I wish only to point out that though the performance of certain acts, not in themselves desirable, may be excused as necessary means to the preservation of life, that is no reason for praising them, or advising us to limit ourselves to those simple actions which are necessary, if it is possible for us to improve our condition even at the expense of of doing what is in this sense unnecessary. Nature does indeed set limits to what is possible; she does control the means we have at our disposal for obtaining what is good; and of this fact, practical Ethics, as we shall see later, must certainly take account: but when she is supposed to have a preference for what is necessary, what is necessary means only what is necessary to obtain a certain end, presupposed as the highest good; and what the highest good is Nature cannot determine. Why should we suppose that what is merely necessary to life is ipso facto better than what is necessary to the study of metaphysics, useless as that study may appear? It may be that life is only worth living, because it enables us to study metaphysics—is a necessary means thereto. The fallacy of this argument from nature has been discovered as long ago as Lucian. I was almost inclined to laugh, says Callicratidas, in one of the dialogues imputed to him, just now, when Charicles was praising irrational brutes and the savagery of the Scythians: in the heat of his argument he was almost repenting that he was born a Greek. What wonder if lions and bears and pigs do not act as I was proposing? That which reasoning would fairly lead a man to choose, cannot be had by creatures that do not reason, simply because they are so stupid. If Prometheus or some other god had given each of them the intelligence of a man, then they would not have lived in deserts and mountains nor fed on one another. They would have built temples just as we do, each would have lived in the centre of his family, and they would have formed a nation bound by mutual laws. Is it anything surprising that brutes, who have had the misfortune to be unable to obtain by forethought any of the goods with which reasoning provides us, should have missed love too? Lions do not love; but neither do they philosophise; bears do not love, but the reason is they do not know the sweets of friendship. It is only men, who, by their wisdom and knowledge, after many trials, have chosen what is best.


§ 28, n. 1: Ἔρωτες, 436-7.


§ 29.
To argue that a thing is good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural, in these common senses of the term, is therefore certainly fallacious; and yet such arguments are very frequently used. But they do not commonly pretend to give a systematic theory of Ethics. Among attempts to systematise an appeal to nature, that which is now most prevalent is to be found in the application to ethical questions of the term Evolution—in the ethical doctrines which have been called Evolutionistic. These doctrines are those which maintain that the course of evolution, while it shews us the direction in which we are developing, thereby and for that reason shews us the direction in which we ought to develop. Writers, who maintain such a doctrine, are at present very numerous and very popular; and I propose to take as my example the writer, who is perhaps best known of them all—Mr Herbert Spencer. Mr Spencer’s doctrine, it must be owned, does not offer the clearest example of the naturalistic fallacy as used in support of Evolutionistic Ethics. A clearer example might be found in Guyau, a writer who has lately had considerable vogue in France, but who is not so well known as Spencer. Guyau might almost be called a disciple of Spencer; he is frankly evolutionistic, and frankly naturalistic; and I may mention that he does not seem to think that he differs from Spencer by reason of his naturalism. The point in which he has criticised Spencer concerns the question how far the ends of pleasure and of increased life coincide as motives and means to the attainment of the ideal: he does not seem to think that he differs from Spencer in the fundamental principle that the ideal is Quantity of life, measured in breadth as well as in length, or, as Guyau says, Expansion and intensity of life; nor in the naturalistic reason which he gives for this principle. And I am not sure that he does differ from Spencer in these points. Spencer does, as I shall shew, use the naturalistic fallacy in details; but with regard to his fundamental principles, the following doubts occur: Is he fundamentally a Hedonist? And, if so, is he a naturalistic Hedonist? In that case he would better have been treated in my next chapter. Does he hold that a tendency to increase quantity of life is merely a criterion of good conduct? Or does he hold that such increase of life is marked out by nature as an end at which we ought to aim?

I think his language in various places would give colour to all these hypotheses; though some of them are mutually inconsistent. I will try to discuss the main points.


§ 29, n. 1: See Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction, par M. Guyau. 4me édition. Paris: F. Alcan, 1896.


§ 30.
The modern vogue of Evolution is chiefly owing to Darwin’s investigations as to the origin of species. Darwin formed a strictly biological hypothesis as to the manner in which certain forms of animal life became established, while others died out and disappeared. His theory was that this might be accounted for, partly at least, in the following way. When certain varieties occurred (the cause of their occurrence is still, in the main, unknown), it might be that some of the points, in which they have varied from their parent species or from other species then existing, made them better able to persist in the environment in which they found themselves—less liable to be killed off. They might, for instance, be better able to endure the cold or heat or changes of the climate; better able to find nourishment from what surrounded them; better able to escape from or resist other species which fed upon them; better fitted to attract or master the other sex. Being thus liable to die, their numbers relatively to other species would increase; and that very increase in their numbers might tend towards the extinction of those other species. This theory, to which Darwin gave the name Natural Selection, was also called the theory of survival of the fittest. The natural process which it thus described was called evolution. It was very natural to suppose that evolution meant evolution from what was lower into what was higher; in fact it was observed that at least one species, commonly called higher—the species man—had so survived, and among men again it was supposed that the higher races, ourselves for example, had shewn a tendency to survive the lower, such as the North American Indians. We can kill them more easily than they can kill us. The doctrine of evolution was then represented as an explanation of how the higher species survives the lower. Spencer, for example, constantly uses more evolved as equivalent to higher. But it is to be noted that this forms no part of Darwin’s scientific theory. That theory will explain, equally well, how by an alteration in the environment (the gradual cooling of the earth, for example), quite a different species from man, a species which we think infinitely lower, might survive us. The survival of the fittest does not mean, as one might suppose, the survival of what is fittest to fulfil a good purpose—best adapted to a good end: at the last, it means merely the survival of the fittest to survive; and the value of the scientific theory, and it is a theory of great value, just consists in shewing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects. Whether these effects are good or bad, it cannot pretend to judge.

§ 31.
But now let us hear what Mr Spencer says about the application of Evolution to Ethics.

I recur, he says, to the main proposition set forth in these two chapters, which has, I think, been fully justified. Guided by the truth that as the conduct with which Ethics deals is part of conduct at large, conduct at large must be generally understood before this part can be specially understood; and guided by the further truth that to understand conduct at large we must understand the evolution of conduct; we have been led to see that Ethics has for its subject-matter, that form which universal conduct assumes during the last stages of its evolution. We have also concluded that these last stages in the evolution of conduct are those displayed by the highest type of being when he is forced, by increase of numbers, to live more and more in presence of his fellows. And there has followed the corollary that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as the activities, becoming less and less militant and more and more industrial, are such as do not necessitate mutual injury or hindrance, but consist with, and are furthered by, co-operation and mutual aid.

These implications of the Evolution-Hypothesis, we shall now see harmonize with the leading moral ideas men have otherwise reached.

Now, if we are to take the last sentence strictly—if the propositions which precede it are really thought by Mr Spencer to be implications of the Evolution-Hypothesis—there can be no doubt that Mr Spencer has committed the naturalistic fallacy. All that the Evolution-Hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others; and this is, in fact, all that Mr Spencer has attempted to prove in the two chapters concerned. Yet he tells us that one of the things it has proved is that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as it displays certain characteristics. What he has tried to prove is only that, in proportion as it displays those characteristics, it is more evolved. It is plain, then, that Mr Spencer identifies the gaining of ethical sanction with the being more evolved: this follows strictly from his words. But Mr Spencer’s language is extremely loose; and we shall presently see that he seems to regard the view it here implies as false. We cannot, therefore, take it as Mr Spencer’s definite view that better means nothing but more evolved; or even that what is more evolved is therefore better. But we are entitled to urge that he is influenced by these views, and therefore by the naturalistic fallacy. It is only by the assumption of such influence that we can explain his confusion as to what he has really proved, and the absence of any attempt to prove, what he says he has proved, that conduct which is more evolved is better. We shall look in vain for any attempt to shew that ethical sanction is in proportion to evolution, or that it is the highest type of being which displays the most evolved conduct; yet Mr Spencer concludes that this is the case. It is only fair to assume that he is not sufficiently conscious how much these propositions stand in need of proof—what a very different thing is being more evolved from being higher or better. It may, of course, be true that what is more evolved is also higher and better. But Mr Spencer does not seem aware that to assert the one is in any case not the same thing as to assert the other. He argues at length that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved, and then informs us that he has proved them to gain ethical sanction in proportion, without any warning that he has omitted the most essential step in such a proof. Surely this is sufficient evidence that he does not see how essential that step is.


§ 31, n. 1: Data of Ethics, Chap. II, § 7, ad fin.

§ 31, n. 2: The italics are mine.

§ 31, n. 3: The italics are mine.


§ 32.
Whatever be the degree of Mr Spencer’s own guilt, what has just been said will serve to illustrate the kind of fallacy which is constantly committed by those who profess to base Ethics on Evolution. But we must hasten to add that the view which Mr Spencer elsewhere most emphatically recommends is an utterly different one. It will be useful briefly to deal with this, in order that no injustice may be done to Mr Spencer. The discussion will be instructive partly from the lack of clearness, which Mr Spencer displays, as to the relation of this view to the evolutionistic one just described; and partly because there is reason to suspect that in this view also he is influenced by the naturalistic fallacy.

We have seen that, at the end of his second chapter, Mr Spencer seems to announce that he has already proved certain characteristics of conduct to be a measure of its ethical value. He seems to think that he has proved this merely by considering the evolution of conduct; and he has certainly not given any such proof, unless we are to understand that more evolved is a mere synonym for ethically better. He now promises merely to confirm this certain conclusion by shewing that it harmonizes with the leading moral ideas men have otherwise reached. But, when we turn to his third chapter, we find that what he actually does is something quite different. He here asserts that to establish the conclusion Conduct is better in proportion as it is more evolved an entirely new proof is necessary. That conclusion will be false, unless a certain proposition, of which we have heard nothing so far, is true—unless it is true that life is pleasant on the whole. And the ethical proposition, for which he claims the support of the leading moral ideas of mankind, turns out to be that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling (§ 10). Here, then, Mr Spencer appears, not as an Evolutionist, but as a Hedonist, in Ethics. No conduct is better, because it is more evolved. Degree of evolution can at most be a criterion of ethical value; and it will only be that, if we can prove the extremely difficult generalisation that the more evolved is always, on the whole, the pleasanter. It is plain that Mr Spencer here rejects the naturalistic identification of better with more evolved; but it is possible that he is influenced by another naturalistic identification—that of good with pleasant. It is possible that Mr Spencer is a naturalistic Hedonist.

§ 33.
Let us examine Mr Spencer’s own words. He begins this third chapter by an attempt to shew that we call good the acts conducive to life, in self or others, and bad those which directly or indirectly tend towards death, special or general (§ 9). And then he asks: Is there any assumption made in so calling them? Yes; he answers, an assumption of extreme significance has been made—an assumption underlying all moral estimates. The question to be definitely raised and answered before entering on any ethical discussion, is the question of late much agitated—Is life worth living? Shall we take the pessimist view? or shall we take the optimist view?… On the answer to this question depends every decision concerning the goodness or badness of conduct. But Mr Spencer does not immediately proceed to give the answer. Instead of this, he asks another question: But now, have these irreconcilable opinions [pessimist and optimist] anything in common? And this question he immediately answers by the statement: Yes, there is one postulate in which pessimists and optimists agree. Both their arguments assume it to be self-evident that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling (§ 10). It is to the defence of this statement that the rest of the chapter is devoted; and at the end Mr Spencer formulates his conclusion in the following words: No school can avoid taking for the ultimate moral aim a desirable state of feeling called by whatever name—gratification, enjoyment, happiness. Pleasure somewhere, at some time, to some being or beings, is an inexpugnable element of the conception (§ 16 ad fin.).

Now in all this, there are two points to which I wish to call attention. The first is that Mr Spencer does not, after all, tell us clearly what he takes to be the relation of Pleasure and Evolution in ethical theory. Obviously he should mean that pleasure is the only intrinsically desirable thing; that other good things are good only in the sense that they are means to its existence. Nothing but this can properly be meant by asserting it to be the ultimate moral aim, or, as he subsequently says (§ 62ad fin.), the ultimately supreme end. And, if this were so, it would follow that the more evolved conduct was better than the less evolved, only because, and in proportion as, it gave more pleasure. But Mr Spencer tells us that two conditions are, taken together, sufficient to prove the more evolved conduct better: (1) That it should tend to produce more life; (2) That life should be worth living or contain a balance of pleasure. And the point I wish to emphasise is that if these conditions are sufficient, then pleasure cannot be the sole good. For though to produce more life is, if the second of Mr Spencer’s propositions be correct, one way of producing more pleasure, it is not the only way. It is quite possible that a small quantity of life, which was more intensely and uniformly present, should give a greater quantity of pleasure than the greatest possible quantity of life that was only just worth living. And in that case, on the hedonistic supposition that pleasure is the only thing worth having, we should have to prefer the smaller quantity of life and therefore, according to Mr Spencer, the less evolved conduct. Accordingly, if Mr Spencer is a true Hedonist, the fact that life gives a balance of pleasure is not, as he seems to think, sufficient to prove that the more evolved conduct is the better. If Mr Spencer means us to understand that it is sufficient, then his view about pleasure can only be, not that it is the sole good or ultimately supreme end, but that a balance of it is a necessary constituent of the supreme end. In short, Mr Spencer seems to maintain that more life is decidedly better than less, if only it give a balance of pleasure: and that contention is inconsistent with the position that pleasure is the ultimate moral aim. Mr Spencer implies that of two quantities of life, which gave an equal amount of pleasure, the larger would nevertheless be preferable to the less. And if this be so, then he must maintain that quantity of life or degree of evolution is itself an ultimate condition of value. He leaves us, therefore, in doubt whether he is not still retaining the Evolutionistic proposition, that the more evolved is better, simply because it is more evolved, alongside the Hedonistic proposition, that the more pleasant is better, simply because it is more pleasant.

But the second question which we have to ask is: What reasons has Mr Spencer for assigning to pleasure the position which he does assign to it? He tells us, we saw, that the arguments both of pessimists and of optimists assume it to be self-evident that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling; and he betters this later by telling us that since avowed or implied pessimists, and optimists of one or other shade, taken together constitute all men, it results that this postulate is universally accepted (§ 16). That these statements are absolutely false is, of course, quite obvious: but why does Mr Spencer think them true? and, what is more important (a question which Mr Spencer does not distinguish too clearly from the last), why does he think the postulate itself to be true? Mr Spencer himself tells us his proof is that reversing the application of the words good and bad—applying the word good to conduct, the aggregate results of which are painful, and the word bad to conduct, of which the aggregate results are pleasurable—creates absurdities (§ 16). He does not say whether this is because it is absurd to think that the quality, which we mean by the word good, really applies to what is painful. Even, however, if we assume him to mean this, and if we assume that absurdities are thus created, it is plain he would only prove that what is painful is properly thought to be so far bad, and what is pleasant to be so far good: it would not prove at all that pleasure is the supreme end. There is, however, reason to think that part of what Mr Spencer means is the naturalistic fallacy: that he imagines pleasant or productive of pleasure is the very meaning of the word good, and that the absurdity is due to this. It is at all events certain that he does not distinguish this possible meaning from that which would admit that good denotes an unique indefinable quality. The doctrine of naturalistic Hedonism is, indeed, quite strictly implied in his statement that virtue cannot be defined otherwise than in terms of happiness (§ 13); and, though, as I remarked above, we cannot insist upon Mr Spencer’s words as a certain clue to any definite meaning, that is only because he generally expresses by them several inconsistent alternatives—the naturalistic fallacy being, in this case, one such alternative. It is certainly impossible to find any further reasons given by Mr Spencer for his conviction that pleasure both is the supreme end, and is universally admitted to be so. He seems to assume throughout that we must mean by good conduct what is productive of pleasure, and by bad what is productive of pain. So far, then, as he is a Hedonist, he would seem to be a naturalistic Hedonist.

So much for Mr Spencer. It is, of course, quite possible that his treatment of Ethics contains many interesting and instructive remarks. It would seem, indeed, that Mr Spencer’s main view, that of which he is most clearly and most often conscious, is that pleasure is the sole good, and that to consider the direction of evolution is by far the best criterion of the way in which we shall get most of it; and this theory, if he could establish that amount of pleasure is always in direct proportion to amount of evolution and also that it was plain what conduct was more evolved, would be a very valuable contribution to the science of Sociology; it would even, if pleasure were the sole good, be a valuable contribution to Ethics. But the above discussion should have made it plain that, if what we want from an ethical philosopher is a scientific and systematic Ethics, not merely an Ethics professedly based on science; if what we want is a clear discussion of the fundamental principles of Ethics, and a statement of the ultimate reasons why one way of acting should be considered better than another—then Mr Spencer’s Data of Ethics is immeasurably far from satisfying these demands.

§ 34.
It remains only to state clearly what is definitely fallacious in prevalent views as to the relation of Evolution to Ethics—in those views with regard to which it seems so uncertain how far Mr Spencer intends to encourage them. I propose to confine the term Evolutionistic Ethics to the view that we need only to consider the tendency of evolution in order to discover the direction in which we ought to go. This view must be carefully distinguished from certain others, which may be commonly confused with it. (1) It might, for instance, be held that the direction in which living things have hitherto developed is, as a matter of fact, the direction of progress. It might be held that the more evolved is, as a matter of fact, also better. And in such a view no fallacy is involved. But, if it is to give us any guidance as to how we ought to act in the future, it does involve a long and painful investigation of the exact points in which the superiority of the more evolved consists. We cannot assume that, because evolution is progress on the whole, therefore every point in which the more evolved differs from the less is a point in which it is better than the less. A simple consideration of the course of evolution will therefore, on this view, by no means suffice to inform us of the course we ought to pursue. We shall have to employ all the resources of a strictly ethical discussion in order to arrive at a correct valuation of the different results of evolution—to distinguish the more valuable from the less valuable, and both from those which are no better than their causes, or perhaps even worse. In fact it is difficult to see how, on this view—if all that be meant is that evolution has on the whole been a progress—the theory of evolution can give any assistance to Ethics at all. The judgment that evolution has been a progress is itself an independent ethical judgment; and even if we take it to be more certain and obvious than any of the detailed judgments upon which it must logically depend for confirmation, we certainly cannot use it as a datum from which to infer details. It is, at all events, certain that, if this had been the only relation held to exist between Evolution and Ethics, no such importance would have been attached to the bearing of Evolution on Ethics as we actually find claimed for it. (2) The view, which, as I have said, seems to be Mr Spencer’s main view, may also be held without fallacy. It may be held that the more evolved, though not itself the better, is a criterion, because a concomitant, of the better. But this view also obviously involves an exhaustive preliminary discussion of the fundamental ethical question what, after all, is better. That Mr Spencer entirely dispenses with such a discussion in support of his contention that pleasure is the sole good, I have pointed out; and that, if we attempt such a discussion, we shall arrive at no such simple result, I shall presently try to shew. If however the good is not simple, it is by no means likely that we shall be able to discover Evolution to be a criterion of it. We shall have to establish a relation between two highly complicated sets of data; and, moreover, if we had once settled what were goods, and what their comparative values, it is extremely unlikely that we should need to call in the aid of Evolution as a criterion of how to get the most. It is plain, then, again, that if this were the only relation imagined to exist between Evolution and Ethics, it could hardly have been thought to justify the assignment of any importance in Ethics to the theory of Evolution. Finally, (3) it may be held that, though Evolution gives us no help in discovering what results of our efforts will be best, it does give some help in discovering what it is possible to attain and what are the means to its attainment. That the theory really may be of service to Ethics in this way cannot be denied. But it is certainly not common to find this humble, ancillary bearing clearly and exclusively assigned to it. In the mere fact, then, that these non-fallacious views of the relation of Evolution to Ethics would give so very little importance to that relation, we have evidence that what is typical in the coupling of the two names is the fallacious view to which I propose to restrict the name Evolutionistic Ethics. This is the view that we ought to move in the direction of evolution simply because it is the direction of evolution. That the forces of Nature are working on that side is taken as a presumption that it is the right side. That such a view, apart from metaphysical presuppositions, with which I shall presently deal, is simply fallacious, I have tried to shew. It can only rest on a confused belief that somehow the good simply means the side on which Nature is working. And it thus involves another confused belief which is very marked in Mr Spencer’s whole treatment of Evolution. For, after all, is Evolution the side on which Nature is working? In the sense, which Mr Spencer gives to the term, and in any sense in which it can be regarded as a fact that the more evolved is higher, Evolution denotes only a temporary historical process. That things will permanently continue to evolve in the future, or that they have always evolved in the past, we have not the smallest reason to believe. For Evolution does not, in this sense, denote a natural law, like the law of gravity. Darwin’s theory of natural selection does indeed state a natural law: it states that, given certain conditions, certain results will always happen. But Evolution, as Mr Spencer understands it and as it is commonly understood, denotes something very different. It denotes only a process which has actually occurred at a given time, because the conditions at the beginning of that time happened to be of a certain nature. That such conditions will always be given, or have always been given, cannot be assumed; and it is only the process which, according to natural law, must follow from these conditions and no others, that appears to be also on the whole a progress. Precisely the same natural laws—Darwin’s, for instance—would under other conditions render inevitable not Evolution—not a development from lower to higher—but the converse process, which has been called Involution. Yet Mr Spencer constantly speaks of the process which is exemplified by the development of man as if it had all the augustness of a universal Law of Nature: whereas we have no reason to believe it other than a temporary accident, requiring not only certain universal natural laws, but also the existence of a certain state of things at a certain time. The only laws concerned in the matter are certainly such as, under other circumstances, would allow us to infer, not the development, but the extinction of man. And that circumstances will always be favourable to further development, that Nature will always work on the side of Evolution, we have no reason whatever to believe. Thus the idea that Evolution throws important light on Ethics seems to be due to a double confusion. Our respect for the process is enlisted by the representation of it as the Law of Nature. But, on the other hand, our respect for Laws of Nature would be speedily diminished, did we not imagine that this desirable process was one of them. To suppose that a Law of Nature is therefore respectable, is to commit the naturalistic fallacy; but no one, probably, would be tempted to commit it, unless something which is respectable, were represented as a Law of Nature. If it were clearly recognised that there is no evidence for supposing Nature to be on the side of the Good, there would probably be less tendency to hold the opinion, which on other grounds is demonstrably false, that no such evidence is required. And if both false opinions were clearly seen to be false, it would be plain that Evolution has very little indeed to say to Ethics.

§ 35.
In this chapter I have begun the criticism of certain ethical views, which seem to owe their influence mainly to the naturalistic fallacy—the fallacy which consists in identifying the simple notion which we mean by good with some other notion. They are views which profess to tell us what is good in itself; and my criticism of them is mainly directed (1) to bring out the negative result, that we have no reason to suppose that which they declare to be the sole good, really to be so, (2) to illustrate further the positive result, already established in Chapter I, that the fundamental principles of Ethics must be synthetic propositions, declaring what things, and in what degree, possess a simple and unanalysable property which may be called intrinsic value or goodness. The chapter began (1) by dividing the views to be criticised into (a) those which, supposing good to be defined by reference to some supersensible reality, conclude that the sole good is to be found in such a reality, and may therefore be called Metaphysical, (b) those which assign a similar position to some natural object, and may therefore be called Naturalistic. Of naturalistic views, that which regards pleasure as the sole good has received far the fullest and most serious treatment and was therefore reserved for Chapter III: all other forms of Naturalism may be first dismissed, by taking typical examples (24—26). (2) As typical of naturalistic views, other than Hedonism, there was first taken the popular commendation of what is natural: it was pointed out that by natural there might here be meant either normal or necessary, and that neither the normal nor the necessary could be seriously supposed to be either always good or the only good things (27—28). (3) But a more important type, because on which claims to be capable of system, is to be found in Evolutionistic Ethics. The influence of the fallacious opinion that to be better means to be more evolved was illustrated by an examination of Mr Herbert Spencer’s Ethics; and it was pointed out that, but for the influence of this opinion, Evolution could hardly have been supposed to have any important bearing upon Ethics (29—34).


Source: Principia Ethica-G. E. Moore 1903  First published by CAMBRIDGE  UNIVERSITY PRESS 1922

GEORGE EDWARD MOORE

LITT.D. CAMBRIDGE, HON. LL.D. ST ANDREWS,
FELLOW OF THE BRITISH ACADEMY,
LECTURER IN MORAL SCIENCE IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE