Anscombe: Modern Moral Philosophy

1 Critical Summary

Three theses:
– moral philosophy unprofitable
– concepts like `moral duty’ useless since assume obsolete background
– all modern (1958) English moral philosophy basically similar

General assault on all moral philosophers
– Butler said to `exalt conscience’; Anscombe objects that someone’s conscience can tell them to do vile things
– But Butler can respond by denying this — perhaps people sometimes act against their consciences

Kant attacked for concept of `legislating for oneself’
– Said to be too legalistic, but this is not what Kant means
– Instead, he relies on the intuition that if action X is right in situation A, then it always will be in similar situations to A
– Anscombe does have a good response here which is to demand specifications of sufficient relevant similarity in A situations

Mill suffers from the same description problem: is it `murder’ or `mercy killing’?
– Without an answer to this, we cannot resolve conflict among utilitarian rules

Anscombe on Hume similarly bizarre to Schopenhauer on Kant i.e. sees all the right answers from all the wrong arguments
– Hume’s arguments moving from `is’ to `owes’ are as inadequate as the ones he castigates for moving from `is’ to ‘ought’; leads to a consideration of `brute facts’

Brute facts
– `He had potatoes carted to my house’ and `they were left there’ are brute facts relative to \he supplied me with potatoes”
– If xyz is a set of facts brute relative to a description A, then xyz is a set out of a range some set among which holds if A holds
– But no set among xyz entails A because exceptional circumstances can always make a difference
– Anscombe now admits the possibility of a transition from `is’ to `owes’ or to `needs’; does not sit well with her previous comments on Hume
– Injustice can now be defined as a set of sub-infringements such as `bilking’; this infraction will have a set of `brute facts’ associated
with it so we can derive a definition
– Need positive account of justice as virtue to show that an unjust man is a bad man: without this moral philosophy cannot proceed
– Legal conception of ethics inherited from religion a mistake; Aristotle believes virtue more a settled state of character than capable of being destroyed by single infractions
– Modern conceptions of obligation or ought-statements as law-like mistaken because there is no longer a law-giver { Nietzsche…
– `Less brute facts’: `is’-statements about a plant for example can lead to `needs’ statements if we want the plant to survive viz. the plant `ought’ to have water if it is going to flourish
– But this says nothing about whether the plant ought to flourish; so still no moral guidance here
– So Hume has shown just that `needs’, `owes’ statements are just variants of `is’-statements i.e. types of fact

Further claim that one cannot even derive `morally ought’ statements from each other, because the term has ceased to have other than
`mesmeric’ force
– Seems too strong; implies that we cannot get to `we ought not to torture cats’ from `we ought not to torture animals’

Utilitarianism and deontology both inadequate
– Cannot derive principle of utility from itself
– Similarly, cannot derive support for `divine law ought to be obeyed’ from within divine law
– Non-divine versions of deontology could be considered
Kant employs a deity but neo-Kantians need not

Virtue Ethics Introduced
– Since no content can be given to `morally wrong’, it would be an improvement to replace that sort of term by analogs of `unjust’
– Sometimes this would clarify viz. while we do not know whether something is `wrong’ we may know more quickly that it is unjust

Contra-utliititarianism again
– Utilitarianism as stated at that time would not allow e.g. absolute prohibition on killing the innocent for any purpose whatsoever
– Using something more modern like Nozick’s rules as side constraints might be more successful
– But unfair to criticize Anscombe for not anticipating future variants

All utilitarianisms incompatible with judaic religions since do not allow for any absolute prohibitions e.g. idolatry, adultery etc.
– Anscombe counts this as a criticism without admitting her own religious perspective; `the zeal of the converted’
– This is then taken to be so devastating as to render insignificant all other differences between the philosophers under consideration thus making out thesis three

– Criticism as `dull’ and `vulgar’ too ad hom to be useful
– Complains that Sidgwick obviously wrong when he thinks that the reason for blasphemy rules is to prevent o ense to
believers without giving an alternative

Sidgwick’s argument that one must intend all foreseen consequences of a voluntary action attacked
– A man who must choose between a disgraceful act and going to prison may not intend to withdraw child support even if that is
a consequence of going to prison
– Anscombe’s criticism fails, for the man has here weighed up the choices including the withdrawal of support and judged them better than the disgraceful act
– `a man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones’ { far too gloomy/Roman/asymmetric
– Similarly, consequentialism attacked for being akin to consideration of temptation

– Previous point about `no law without a law-giver’ revisited with the aim of reviving the law-giver — this is disingenuous
– Criticism of Sidgwick et al as `conventional’ has no force because absent an argument that the conventions are wrong; some societies would be acceptable to Anscombe — nunneries perhaps
– Criticism of society as source of norms includes the consequence that `it might lead one to eat the weaker according to the laws of
nature’ indicates that Anscombe does in fact understand the naturalistic fallacy despite her protestations to the contrary

Distinction introduced between `morally wrong’ and unjust; illustrated by idea of judicially punishing an innocent man { this could be morally right but could not be just

We are not even permitted to consider execution to save millions; we have `corrupt minds’ if it is even a question!

2 Questions

1. How is Anscombe’s paper a response to Prichard?

(a) Prichard argues that contemporary (1912) moral philosophy rests on a mistake, being the belief that it is possible to answer the question `what ought we we to do?’ analytically or provide a proof that the dictates of conscience are in fact correct.
(b) Anscombe would share Prichard’s lack of faith in the current state of moral philosophy in her era, but would presumably differ from him in employing a divine law-giver to guarantee the dictates of conscience.

2. How does Anscombe think a `virtues’ approach to morality would differ from `traditional’ approaches?

(a) It avoids the errors associated with utlititarianism (not self-sufficient, no allowance for absolute prohibitions) and deontology (not self-sufficient, who is the law-giver when not divine).
(b) It is unclear why Anscombe thinks that religions are self-sufficient other than by assertion or why absolute prohibitions are good.

3. What are `brute facts’, and how do they work in her theory of evaluation?

(a) Some among a range of facts which must be true if A holds.
(b) If A is an infraction of virtue e.g. an injustice, then some set of brute facts must also be true, consideration of which should allow
discrimination of whether there has in fact been injustice.

4. Does the theory preserve the `moral ought’?
(a) The initial line appears to be that no sense can be given to the term within the context of current moral philosophy.
(b) This is later { again, disingenuously { treated as a reductio i.e. we must in fact have the law-giver because we must have the `moral
ought’ with the force of divine/external law and we cannot get that otherwise

G E M Anscombe
Modern Moral Philosophy
Philosophy Vol. 33, No. 124, Jan. 1958


3 Responses to Anscombe: Modern Moral Philosophy

  1. Mike Magee says:

    Has she nothing to say about evolutionary morality? When some behaviour or quality is evolutionarily necessary, then what is can be a what ought to be, because the absence or loss of that behaviour will kill or irretrievably change the species. Humans have evolved to be highly social animals, and would not be human without it. Morality is behaviour conditioned by our sociality. When society encourages competition between individuals, it is extolling immorality, and directing us back to the solitary, unsocial state. Yet that is precisely what the economic system everyone in the west — almost all claiming to be moral (Christians) — advocate. We can justifiably say we ought to be moral if we wish to remain social animals and therefore human beings. Our social nature replaces our idea of God as the authority for morals, and, indeed, the notion of God came from primitive society, when humans began to wake into rational consciousness and wondered about their situation. They realized society was an insurance against starvation and danger, and that it already lived when they were born, and lives on when they are dead. Personified through the idea of ancestor spirits, it became God to them! Surely this, and not historical reviews, ought to be the start of discussions of morality today.

  2. timlshort says:

    Not in this paper. But I agree with you – I might quibble about the use of the loaded term `ought’ in this context, but basically you are right, to some extent evolution has produced organisms that are partially appropriate for their environment. We need to be wary of various `local minima’ issues which can make the lack of intelligent design in evolution apparent. So I accept your point that we could have evolved morality. But that does not assist Anscombe in her claim that we should return to holy books. They would be a side issue in an evolved morality. And if indeed we have evolved it, that does not in any way support the likelihood of its precepts being correct.

    I don’t agree that everyone in the developed world claims to be christian. That may well be true of the US but church attendance in Europe is very low.

    I think I can take a stance against murder purely on a practical basis without getting involved in moral discussions. That would enable me to live socially, if I wanted to — and I do, of course. But need I have that forced upon me? Maybe even if your line is correct, I should be allowed to choice the amount of `moral cost’ I pay for the `social benefit’.

    I agree fully with your final points.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, excellent summary! 🙂

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