–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

“Modern Moral Philosophy,” by G.E.M. Anscombe (1958)

by | Jun 13, 2024

Not only do I think that “Modern Moral Philosophy” (MMP) is G.E.M. Anscombe’s greatest philosophical accomplishment – beyond her translation, editing, and publishing of Wittgenstein – but it is perhaps the most important essay on ethics published since the Second World War. It posed a serious challenge to the moral philosophy following in the tradition of Kant, Bentham, and Mill, one to which, in my view, philosophers working in these and other modern moral philosophical traditions have not adequately responded. And it almost single-handedly created the contemporary revival of interest in virtue ethics though, as we will see, this development may be more at odds with what Anscombe suggests in MMP than in keeping with it. Alasdair MacIntyre, the second greatest influence on the contemporary revival of virtue ethics recognized this which is why, in After Virtue (1981), he says that his work on this front, while “deeply indebted to” MMP, is nonetheless “rather different” from it.

Anscombe does several things in MMP, but I am only going to focus on the most important aspect of it, which is described in the first two statements that she makes at the essay’s outset:

The first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking. The second is that the concepts of obligation and duty – moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say – and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned..; because they are survivals or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives…

Back when I was still teaching, when explaining Anscombe’s critique to my students, I would use a case, drawn from MMP, with my own embellishments added. I described the case in two “versions”: that of an Aristotelian and that of a Humean.

Version One, as told by the Aristotelian:

[1]  I supplied John with a bushel of apples.

[2]  John promised to pay me £5.

[3]  John owes me £5.

[4]  If John doesn’t pay me the £5, he is a deadbeat.   

[5]  If he does pay me the £5, then he is an honorable man.

 Version Two, as told by the Humean:

[1’]  I handed over a bushel of apples to John.

[2’]  John uttered the words “I promise to pay you £5.”

[3’]  John not paying me would consist of John failing to hand over £5.

[4’]  John paying me would consist of John handing over £5.

The striking difference between the two versions is that the Aristotelian describes the situation with terms that are axiologically thick – meaning that they have embedded evaluative connotations. To “supply” someone, in the context of commerce, is to do something that incurs a debt and to “promise” to pay is to acknowledge this and accept it, entailing, as a result, that the person in question “owes” something to the supplier. To fail to pay someone, when one “owes” him is what it means to be a “deadbeat,” and paying one’s debts is part of what it means to be an “honorable man.”

Why is the story as told by the Humean so different? The short answer is “the Scientific Revolution happened.” The longer, more substantial answer is that by the time one gets to Hume, philosophers in the West had changed their minds as to what should be accepted as constituting a “fact.”

For Aristotle, everything in nature – indeed, everything that exists – has a purpose and thus a distinctive good (and bad). Value is therefore objective for Aristotle – a part of the basic furniture of the universe – and this means that human beings also have  a purpose and thus, a distinctive good, which Aristotle called “Eudaimonia,” which just means “human excellence” or “human flourishing.” And because human beings are complex, their flourishing takes complex forms: we can flourish intellectually – hence, the “intellectual virtues” (both practical and theoretical); we can flourish as builders and makers and artists – hence, the “virtues of craft” – and we can flourish in terms of our non-technical, social and civic activities – hence, the “moral” virtues. And notice, this is all that ‘moral’ means for Aristotle, something that will become crucial in a moment.

To describe an action as “supplying” or “promising,” then, is, for Aristotle, a straightforward statement of fact, as is to describe a person as “honorable” or as a “deadbeat.” Indeed, every one of the statements [1] – [5] would be considered straightforwardly factual by an Aristotelian.

This all changes after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Nature and the things in it are no longer conceived of as purposeful and the only objective characterizations of things are in terms of mathematically quantifiable magnitudes, which means that their qualitative characteristics have come to be understood as subjective; as impressions in our minds. One cannot characterize motor movements as “supplying” or uttered noises as “promising” or speak of people as “honorable” or “deadbeats” and speak objectively, in the modern framework. And so the Humean, in encountering such terms, could only conclude, as Anscombe describes it, that “there was a special sentiment expressed by [them] which alone gave [the words] their sense,” which, of course, is just the idea of a “moral sentiment.”

But there is a further problem, for as we have already seen, ‘moral’ doesn’t mean for Aristotle what it means for Hume. In the modern context, ‘moral’ and the moral ‘ought’ indicate that which is obligatory; i.e. that which is either required or forbidden. The Aristotelian sense of ‘moral’ does not mean this. Human flourishing may include moral and intellectual virtues, as well as virtues of craft, but there is no sense in which the cultivation of such virtues are obligatory or required. For those who wish to flourish – and perhaps, to attain a certain esteem within their society – this is how it’s done. Put another way, all that Aristotle gets you is a bunch of hypothetical imperatives: If you want X, then you ought to Y. And the only thing that makes some of them “moral” is that they have to do with moral subject-matter; that is, with our social and civic activity.

Anscombe maintains that the obligatory sense of the moral ‘ought’ arises from the combination of the Greek ethics of virtue with the law tradition one finds in Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity. It’s what you get, when you take the Greek moral virtues and say that they are required by divine command.

The ordinary … terms ‘should’, ‘needs’, ‘ought’, ‘must’ acquired this special [moral] sense by being equated in the relevant contexts with ‘is obliged’, or ‘is bound’, or ‘is required to’, in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or something that can be required by law.

How did this come about?  The answer is history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah…

In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for many centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted, or excused became deeply embedded in our thought…The blanket term ‘illicit’, ‘unlawful’, meaning much the same as our blanket term ‘wrong’ explains itself.  It is interesting that Aristotle did not have such a blanket term…He has terms like ‘disgraceful’, ‘impious’; and specific terms signifying defect of the relevant virtue…

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) – that what is needed for this, is required by divine law.

So, modern moral philosophy and its contemporary progeny suffer from two problems which, when combined, leave a subjectivist sentimentalism as the only real option in metaethics: (a) they deny that there are any genuine – objective/mind-independent – axiological facts; and (b) they reject the idea of divine legislation. The results are values that reflect only what people subjectively prefer/abhor and requirements/prohibitions that have no objective grounding and hence, enjoy nothing but, as Anscombe described it, “mesmeric force.” “It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain,” she remarks, “when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.”

Of course, there are those who have tried to provide grounding for the requirement/prohibition side of morality other than divine command, the most famous being Kant, who reconceived the categorical force of moral imperatives as deriving from a kind of self-legislation, but Anscombe dismisses this as absurd on its face:

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. The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator.

The most significant reaction to Anscombe, as mentioned, is to be found in the extraordinary revival of interest in classically inspired virtue ethics over the past several decades. But I seriously question whether this is the proper lesson to take from “Modern Moral Philosophy.” For just as we no longer accept divine command ethics, we no longer accept a teleological picture of nature. And just as it is hard to see what could replace divine commands, it is hard to see what could replace Aristotelian teleology, something about which Anscombe is quite explicit:

[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.

So, I see no refuge for contemporary ethicists in a revived Aristotelianism, and I see no hope for contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians, given that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to Anscombe’s critique. That so many are content to continue on with this sort of work is not surprising, given the purely professional imperatives of the discipline – philosophers have felt free largely to ignore Wittgenstein’s equally devastating critique of philosophy as a whole, despite the fact that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to it either – but it does lend somewhat of an air of twiddling and fiddling to it, at least for those of us who are familiar with and have fully digested Anscombe’s essay.