Anscombe, G. E. M. ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19.
Before you start reading the summary…
The influence that this article — or more correctly, this unrelenting attack — had on moral philosophy, especially the impetus it gave to virtue ethics, is difficult to overstate.
For somebody new to moral philosophy, the article will be a difficult read. Not only because Anscombe is engaging with moral philosophy since Aristotle up to the mid-twentieth century and assuming, obviously, a learned reader but also because she does it with frustrating brevity — she disposes off a procession of some of the most prominent moral philosophers, Joseph Butler, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, with a few terse paragraphs in less than a page! As such, I have added more than a few hyperlinks. The interested (and intrepid) student may follow them for more.
[I find analytic philosophers generally unpleasant to read. While the concise, rigorous, matter-of-fact arguments present themselves with, to invoke Hume — Anscombe also invokes Hume but for more philosophically pertinent reasons — force [the doctrines of the tradition in which she is writing has no small determining influence on this particularly economical manner of writing!], they are sorely lacking in the vivacity which would beckon and then hold the reader’s mind.
To get a glimpse of such writing, and these are only the few that I have encountered, see Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [Anscombe, in addition to being greatly influenced by, was actually friends with, Wittgenstein!], Willard Van Orman Quine’s On What There Is and Two Dogmas of Empiricism [Quine can be humorous, as much as a logician can], as well as Anscombe’s own Intention. What these have in common is that they have all been unfathomably influential on philosophy in addition to being admirably brief.]
Three theses will be presented in the article. First, that moral philosophy should be abandoned until such time as an adequate knowledge of psychology has been acquired. Second, that moral obligation and moral duty, moral rightness and wrongness, and the moral sense of ought be abandoned as well. Third, that the differences between well-known moral philosophers writing in the English language are inconsequential.
The contrast between Aristotle’s Ethics and any modern work on moral philosophy is telling. Aristotle distinguishes between intellectual and moral virtues. But what he calls moral virtues have nothing to do with our notion of moral. There is no discussion of moral blame. Nor of moral obligations to do or not do certain things.
If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such, he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don't come together in a proper bite.
Aristotle cannot, therefore, elucidate the modern way of talking about morality. And the best writers on ethics in modern times fail to provide any “direct light on [morality]”.
“[Joseph] Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.”
“[David] Hume defines ‘truth’ in such a way as to exclude ethical judgments from it, and professes that he has proved that they are so excluded.
“[Immanuel] Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself,’ which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0.
“Bentham and Mill do not notice the difficulty of the concept ‘pleasure.’ … The reason is simple: since Locke, pleasure was taken to be some sort of internal impression. But it was superficial, if that was the right account of it, to make it the point of actions.
In the article, Anscombe’s defines brute facts as those facts “which held, and in virtue of which, in a proper context, such-and-such a description [of a state of affairs] is true or false”. For the description — for instance, that I owe someone a certain amount of money — to be true, both the facts of the description — the fact: that I ordered potatoes, that you supplied them, that you sent me a bill etc. — and the context — the existence of certain market institutions — must hold. In a situation where all of these hold, me may call the facts of the description as brute relative to the description and the context. Having said this, it is possible that special circumstances — perhaps the exercise was part of an act in a movie, or perhaps the grocer decided to let me have them for free after he had sent the bill, etc. — will intervene to upset the truth of the description.
The point, really, is that brute facts are brute relative to some description [of a state of affairs, or fact] and some context, i.e. they are not absolute. And it is brute facts along with a certain context (which can always be altered or rendered inapplicable by extraordinary circumstances and which therefore cannot be theoretically anticipated) which makes a description true. But moral philosophy is populated with notions such as theft, adultery, slander, and punishment of the innocent, to use her examples, which are conceived as always (or absolutely) wrong. Anscombe’s argument is that the description, for instance, that I should never steal does not hold true absolutely but holds only in the context of certain background institutions (which can, as we have seen be upset by extraordinary circumstances) and certain facts which are brute relative to that description and context.]
“[I]n present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology.” [Thesis I] Why? Because to give such an explanation would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue” and this is impossible unless we have an account of what type of characteristic virtue is. This problem ultimately reduces to coming up with an account of human action and how specific actions are affected by motives and intentions, i.e. coming up with an understanding of human psychology.
The words ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘needs’ relate to good and bad — “machinery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that running without oil is bad for it, or it runs badly without oil”. Here, these words don’t have a moral sense. In this conception, the sentence “I should not steal” would have no special moral sense. But to us, this sentence does have a special moral sense in that the word ‘should’ implies an absolute verdict on the action that is described, i.e. that it is morally wrong to steal.
How did this come about? Because of the dominance of Christianity, in the time between Aristotle and us, with its law conception of ethics. “To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues, failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician [as Aristotle would hold]), is required by divine law.” Even if this conception based on divine law has now been abandoned, the special moral sense and weight which it bequeathed to the concepts of ‘obligation’ and of being bound or required as by a law has remained.
It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by “criminal,” which alone gave the word its sense.
[The next few paragraphs expound and extend Hume’s argument about the logical invalidity of going from is statements, i.e. positive statements like “Human females evolved to take care of children” to ought statements, i.e. normative statements like “Women ought to stay in the house and take care of children” [example from this explainlikeimfive post]. Forgive the digression, but this is the famous is–ought problem. A search on jstor for articles whose titles contain “ought” and “is” throws up 141 results. Oh! and there is a book about it.]
The argument is that the word “ought” — so invested with a moral sense which is the legacy, a “survival”, of an ethical system we have since abandoned, more or less — now posseses merely a “mesmeric” force and that “no [ethical] content [can actually] be found in the notion ‘morally ought’”. Therefore, “[i]t would be most reasonable to drop it.” [Thesis II]
In all modern English moral philosophers starting from G.E. Moore, the overriding concern of ethics has become consequences. “The ‘right action’ is the action which produces the best possible consequences.” Of course, it is possible to generate diversity of views by probing various interpretations of “right” and “best” as well as the connections between them. But underlying this diversity, which is only apparent, lies a unity which is revealed by the fact that “every one of the best known English academic moral philosophers [since Henry Sidgwick] has put out a philosophy according to which, e.g., it is not possible to hold that it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.” [Thesis III]
This is significant because this is quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic which prohibits a lot of things “simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences”.
Sidgwick’s defense of a notion of intention covering all foreseen consequences is problematic. Say a man is responsible for maintaining a child. If he deliberately stops supporting the child because I.a he no longer wishes to do so or I.b by doing so he would compel someone else to do something, say an admirable thing. Now, consider that that man has to choose between II.a doing something disgraceful and II.b going to prison, which would necessarily mean I. For Sidgwick, there is no point of choosing between I.a I.b and II.b because in all cases case, the consequences are the same, i.e. the child loses its maintenance, even if the motivations — self-regarding in I.a, consequence regarding in I.b, and unavoidable consequence in II.b — are different.
The man then has only to choose between II.a and II.b, and if he thinks that the former is less vicious, he’ll do it. It is not the intrinsic goodness and badness of the action which matters but the consequences. Now, it may be that the man misjudged things and II.a is in fact more vicious than II.b. However, given Sidgwick’s definition of intention, he would get away with his action because its consequence was not what he had foreseen. For Sidgwick, the badness of an action is dependent on its expected consequences. This is troubling because if we pair it with his definition of intention, we see that one can get away with the (terrible) actual consequences by making a case that they were unforeseen (or unexpected).
“The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences ... explains the difference between old-fashioned Utilitarianism and ... consequentialism.”
Also, consequentialism cannot deal with borderline cases. And such cases are commonplace in ethics. The consequentialist can only say in such borderline cases that a person must not bring about this or that. What ‘this or that’, i.e. the consequence, is will of course be judged on the basis of standards invariably determined by current standards in society. What are the chances that the standards of a society will be decent?
There are people who accept the notions of ‘obligation’ and of the ‘moral’ ought but reject the notion of a divine legislator. They look for non-divine sources of moral norms: society, reason or legislation by oneself, contract, human virtue.
Society, it will be obvious, is hardly a steady standard for decent norms. Legislating for oneself sounds good but it must be realised that left to his own reason, ahem, devices, a person will more often than not come up with rules he thinks are good on the basis of custom, determined by his society. With contract, it is difficult to determine who promulgated it to whom and whether, if, or how, we are party to it. Also, even if these are worked out, it is likely that the norms arising will be largely formal — along the lines of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — and not at all concerned with ethical particularities.
Might we find ‘norms’ in human virtues? Perhaps, it is a norm that man qua social/moral/political being has such-and-such virtues in the same way that it is a norm that man qua biological being has so many teeth. However, in this sense, the notion of ‘norm’ no longer has the distinctly Christian meaning. Instead, it has become Aristotelian. If this direction is where we want to go, “the notions of ‘moral obligation,’ ‘the moral ought,’ and ‘duty’ are best put on the Index”.
But meanwhile — is it not clear that there are several concepts that need investigating simply as part of the philosophy of psychology and, — as I should recommend — banishing ethics totally from our minds? Namely — to begin with: ‘action,’ ‘intention,’ ‘pleasure,’ ‘wanting.’ More will probably tum up if we start with these. Eventually it might be possible to advance to considering the concept ‘virtue’; with which, I suppose, we should be beginning some sort of a study of ethics.
“I will end by describing the advantages of using the word ‘ought’ in a non-emphatic fashion, and not in a special ‘moral’ sense; of discarding the term ‘wrong’ in a ‘moral’ sense, and using such notions as ‘unjust.’”
It is quite possible to distinguish between what is intrinsically unjust and what is unjust given the circumstances. To arrange that a man be convicted for a crime he did not commit is intrinsically unjust. To deprive a man of his property without legal procedure, to not pay debts, to break contracts, etc. are unjust given the circumstances. Circumstances are crucial to determining questions of justice and injustice, and the circumstances may sometimes include expected consequences.
A man’s claim to a property, i.e. a matter of justice, will be nullified if its seizure can avert some obvious disaster, i.e. an expected consequence. This is not to say that consequences always overrule considerations of intrinsic justice. The point is that the lines to be drawn between intrinsic and circumstantial (including consequential) factors in determining justice is complicated and that in particular cases, the line is drawn “according to what’s reasonable”. In other words, “there can in principle be no canon other than giving a few examples.”
That is to say, while it is because of a big gap in philosophy that we can give no general account of the concept of virtue and of the concept of justice, but have to proceed, using the concepts, only by giving examples; still there is an area where it is not because of any gap, but is in principle the case, that there is no account except by way of examples: and that is where the canon is ‘what's reasonable’: which of course is not a canon.
In the intrinscially unjust example, it is clear that no circumstances or consequences would modify the description of the action as unjust. However, in English moral philosophy since Sidgwick, it is possible to question the description. Might it (arranging for a man to be convicted for a crime he did not commit) be morally right in some circumstances? The point again is that we lack the philosophic equipment to answer this question with any certitude.
There is a dilemma here. If we are to use unjust as a factual description, without the moral connotation of wrongness, it is open to ask whether one ought to do injustice? [If unjust, understood to be determined by a consideration of whether it is right to do so-and-so in such-and-such circumstances, is used with the moral connotation of wrongness, the question (whether one ought to do injustice) simply does not arise!] One could reply to the question by determining moral rightness in terms of some other principles or make a principle out of injustice itself (that injustice is morally wrong). But however we reply, so long as the term unjust remains factual, the moral propriety is determined not by the term ‘unjust’ but instead by a decision that injustice is wrong. If one grants this, he cannot criticise someone who does not make that decision.
We find that in this discussion of the dilemma, the moral sense of the term wrong is retained while its substance is quaranteed quite null.
And I should be inclined to congratulate the present-day moral philosophers on depriving “morally ought” of its now delusive appearance of content, if only they did not manifest a detestable desire to retain the atmosphere of the term.
If we discard the notion ‘morally ought’ and return to its ordinary notion, we might reasonably ask if commiting injustice would be the beast thing to do. The answers will be various. A philosopher might, à la Plato and Aristotle, permit only just actions since just, i.e. virtuous, actions are necessary for a man to be good (to flourish) even if such actions might actually make him flourish less, or not at all.
[P]hilosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human “flourishing.” And it is the last concept that appears the most doubtful. For it is a bit much to swallow that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is “flourishing,” as Aristotle himself admitted.
A person unimpressed by this argument might, faced with a hard choice, answer that given such-and-such requirements, which we can’t fulfill without doing injustice, we ought to do it. And it has been the job of modern moral philosophers since Sidgwick to construct systems according to which this person may be virtuous!