Feeling Moral Obligation and Living in an Organic Unity: Virginia Woolf’s response to G. E. Moore

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Shukla, Rohini
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This paper explores the precise influence of Moore’s thought on Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. I begin with a brief exposition of Moore’s notion of ‘the good’ as experiencing moral obligation within an organic community. In doing so, I highlight a crucial loophole within his conceptual framework - he does not theorize the conditions for the possibility of experiencing moral obligation, and therefore renders the good ultimately ineffective in taking moral decisions. In the second section, drawing on Martin ?telf’s work, I read To the Lighthouse as conceptualising precisely the conditions for the possibility of moral obligation lacking in Moore’s framework, in explicitly epistemological terms - Mrs Ramsay’s ability to experience states of heightened perceptive intensity. Woolf thereby partakes in the anti-metaphysicalist and anti-naturalist rebellion characteristic of Moore’s ethical theory. In contrast to writers like Heidi Storl however, who consider Woolf’s works as mere literary embodiments or instantiations of what other ‘philosophers’ have said, I further argue that Woolf’s systematic philosophical intervention lies in the new kind of materialism she espouses, which is at once logically continuous with Moore’s realism and critical of the subject–object dichotomy he upholds.
G.E. Moore, Good, Morality, Principia Ethica, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf