Ethics Since 1900

By Mary Warnock
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-0-9753662-2-6

“In this lively and fascinating book Ms. Warnock tells with an admirable clarity the story of the development of English moral philosophy in the twentieth century . . . most attractively written, spontaneous, forthright and unfuzzy.”

Times Literary Supplement (London)


For this edition of her well-established book Mary Warnock has made a number of additions, in particular a discussion of Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. These bring up to date a well-informed and discriminating account of the main ethical problems discussed in the present century in England, the United States, and France. A number of the writings which deal with these problems, among them those of Moore, Prichard, Ayer, Stevenson, Hare, and Sartre, have been considered and analyzed in some detail. They have been taken in chronological order and have been selected from the many books and articles on moral philosophy as those most likely to be of lasting importance for the subject.

About the Author

Helen Mary Warnock, philosopher, was born in Winchester, England, in 1924. She taught philosophy at Oxford from 1949 to 1966. Because of her books on existentialism, in the 1960s she became a regular philosophy commentator on BBC Radio. She was mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, from 1984 to 1991, and became a Life Peer in 1985 as Baroness Warnock of Weeke.

Mary Warnock is perhaps best known for chairing two national committees of inquiry for Great Britain, each of which published a significant report. The first (1974-1978) reported on the education of handicapped children and young persons, and resulted in Special Educational Needs (1978). The second and most influential inquiry dealt with the ethics of embryos and human fertilization, entitled A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984, reprinted 1985), which was published six years after the birth of the first test-tube baby. She returned to writing about issues related to the ethics of human reproduction in Making Babies: Is There a Right to Have Children? (2002).


Chapter One

Metaphysical Ethics: F. H. Bradley

Chapter Two

G. E. Moore

Chapter Three


Chapter Four

The Emotive Theory

Chapter Five

After the Emotivists

Chapter Six

Moral Psychology

Chapter Seven

Existentialism: J-P. Sartre

Chapter Eight


Short Bibliography


From Chapter Two: G. E. Moore

G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica was first published in 1903.1 It has become the custom to regard it as the source from which the subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed, or at least as the most powerful influence upon this moral philosophy. There is no doubt that it is a very remarkable book. But I am not sure that some later writers have not submitted to the temptation of seeing in it only what they would themselves subscribe to, and of leaving out of account altogether those features of the book which are idiosyncratic and eccentric. This is a pity; Moore has, no doubt, exercised a great influence on other philosophers. But it is almost as if some of these philosophers, especially some in Oxford, had read only the first one or two chapters of the book; if they had read on, they might have been more cautious about ranging themselves under Moore’s supposed banner.

In the Preface to Principia Ethica, Moore states what his main intention was in writing the book. “I have tried,” he says, “to distinguish clearly two kinds of question, which moral philosophers have always professed to answer, but which…they have almost always confused both with one another and with other questions.” These two questions are “What kind of things ought to exist for their own sake?” and “What kind of actions ought we to perform?” From knowing the answers to these two different questions, Moore says, we shall be able to go on to find out with what kind of evidence, if any, it is proper to support moral judgments; we shall know what kinds of ethical proposition are, and what kinds are not, susceptible of proof. In general, Moore’s answer to his questions is this: (1) The things which ought to exist for their own sake are things which we call intrinsically good. It is impossible to define “good,” since it is the name of a simple unanalyzable characteristic of things. But this does not entail that we cannot recognize when we see them those things which intrinsically possess this unanalyzable characteristic. Moore’s contention is that we can, if we think about it hard enough, certainly recognize intrinsically good things, and at the end of the book he lists some of the things which he thinks are intrinsically good. But it is a matter simply of recognition. No evidence can be adduced to show that something is intrinsically good; it is just a matter of seeing that it is so. Nothing could prove that if something is said to be intrinsically good, it really is so. “We can guard against error only by taking care, that, when we try to answer a question of this kind, we have before our minds that question only and not some other or others” (p. viii). (2) Answers to the second question, what kinds of action ought we to perform, are capable of proof or disproof, of an empirical sort. For we ought always to do that action which will cause most good to exist. So the kind of evidence necessary to show that some proposed course of action is right will be causal evidence that the course of action will bring about such and such results or consequences. In addition, it will be necessary to know that the consequences are intrinsically good. It is necessary, therefore, on Moore’s view, first to know what kinds of things are intrinsically good, that is what kinds of thing ought in general to exist, before it is possible to embark on any demonstration that a certain course of action ought to be undertaken, since the evidence brought up to support this last contention must contain some statement of the former kind.

This, then, is what Moore took to be the main purpose of his book, namely to distinguish those ethical judgments which were susceptible of proof by reference to evidence from those which were not. The first step in establishing this distinction was to consider the concept of goodness, in order to show that “good” was simple and indefinable, and to this consideration the first chapter of the book is devoted. In this chapter Moore expounds his famous theory that it is fallacious to attempt to define “good” in any way, and, particularly, fallacious to attempt to define it in terms of a natural object. Moore calls the attempt to define “good,” which is indefinable, The Naturalistic Fallacy. But it is important to notice that the fallaciousness consists in the attempting of a definition at all, rather than specifically in defining a so-called non-natural object in terms of a natural object. Moore says (p. 13) that if anyone confused two natural objects together, and defined one in terms of the other, this would be to commit the very same fallacy as that contained in the attempt to define good, only in this case there would be no reason to call the fallacy “naturalistic.” The appropriateness of that name does come from mixing the two classes, natural and non-natural; but even if “good” were a natural object “that would not alter the nature of the fallacy, nor diminish its importance one whit.” It is clear, then, that first and foremost it is supposed to be fallacious to define “good” and secondly it is fallacious to define a non-natural in terms of a natural object. I have labored this point, not without reason. For people often talk not only as if Moore were interested in nothing except exposing a logical fallacy for its own sake, but also as if the nature of this fallacy were simply to confuse a natural with a non-natural object, to define the latter in terms of the former. And it must be admitted that the name “Naturalistic Fallacy” does carry this suggestion. But Moore does not care much for the name. “It does not matter what we call it provided we recognize it when we meet it.” The true fallacy is the attempt to define the indefinable.