In discussing the Bloomsbury Group’s enthusiasm for the ethical theories of G.E. Moore—his intuitionism, his utilitarianism, and his conviction that “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine”— Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “This is great silliness of course; but it is the great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people.” He therefore takes a careful look at sociological reasons that made Moore’s theories should be so plausible to Bloomsbury. He goes on to argue that Moore’s was a key influence on the emergence of emotivism (the theory that moral judgements are merely expressions of emotional approval or disapproval) as the dominant ethic of our time, and then argues that the triumph of emotivism was due to the same sociological factors that made Lytton Strachey compare Moore favorably to all previous ethical thinkers, including “Aristotle and Christ.”
I am not going to go over MacIntyre’s argument (which is very much worth reading in full). Rather, I want to look at one of the most charming expressions of Bloomsbury ethics— Virginia Woolf’s novella Orlando. Orlando is the subject of countless dissertations and papers nowadays because it so perfectly expresses the ethical ideals of contemporary literature scholars. It is a remarkably artful and prettily written book about a somewhat effeminate Elizabethan courtier who is given unending youth, turns into a woman at some point, and then passes through several centuries passing the time with poetry and superficial love-making.
The ethics of Orlando express clearly what I think is the most fundamental error of so much modern ethical thought— an error which underlies the errors of emotivism. It is the error of thinking that since the good is what all desire it is desire that makes things good, rather than it being the goodness of things that cause them to be desired. (See Section 2 of my Josias piece on the good). Consider Woolf’s effusions on the subject of ‘natural desire,’ which are worth quoting at some length:
Behold, meanwhile, the factory chimneys and their smoke; behold the city clerks flashing by in their outrigger. Behold the old lady taking her dog for a walk and the servant girl wearing her new hat for the first time not at the right angle. Behold them all. Though Heaven has mercifully decreed that the secrets of all hearts are hidden so that we are lured on for ever to suspect something, perhaps, that does not exist; still through our cigarette smoke, we see blaze up and salute the splendid fulfilment of natural desires for a hat, for a boat, for a rat in a ditch…
Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Sundays, and singing in a dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging of links and chains, binding the Empire together. Hail even the crude, red bows on shop girls’ lips (as if Cupid, very clumsily, dipped his thumb in red ink and scrawled a token in passing). Hail, happiness! kingfisher flashing from bank to bank, and all fulfilment of natural desire, whether it is what the male novelist says it is; or prayer; or denial; hail! in whatever form it comes, and may there be more forms, and stranger. For dark flows the stream— would it were true, as the rhyme hints ‘like a dream’— but duller and worser than that is our usual lot; without dreams, but alive, smug, fluent, habitual, under trees whose shade of an olive green drowns the blue of the wing of the vanishing bird when he darts of a sudden from bank to bank.
What a perfect expression of the dominant ethic of our day— desire as a dark river flowing where it will, and happiness consisting in following it along whatever route it happens to take, fastening on the objects to which it happens to lead. Not because those objects are themselves good and perfective of the one desiring, but simply because the happen to be desired.
The comprehensively destructive nature of this moral nihilism never clearly emerges in Orlando. Orlando rich enough in material goods and in habituation to older, more noble ideals, to preserve a semblance of good life. His/her tastes in “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments” remain good. I wonder though what, if Orlando had been real, his/her thoughts would have been on the ever more aggressively ugly and base results of such ethical ideals on modern culture. Telling of one of Orlando’s actions (ironically one the better ones), Woolf writes,
here we could only wish that, as on a former occasion, Purity, Chastity, and Modesty would push the door ajar and provide, at least, a breathing space in which we could think how to wrap up what now has to be told delicately, as a biographer should. But no! Having thrown their white garment at the naked Orlando and seen it fall short by several inches, these ladies had given up all intercourse with her these many years; and were now otherwise engaged.
I’m afraid they fall rather more than a few inches short of veiling the culture of emotivistic hedonism. “For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear…”