G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”

Back in I gushed and gushed about Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. I’m not taking any of that gushing back today — I still think it was an exciting argument and one that has continued to resonate with me.

But this week I finally got around to reading G.E.M. Ans­combe’s essay “Mod­ern Mor­al Phil­os­o­phy,” which pre­dates Mac­Intyre’s book by two dec­ades, and I found that she had al­ready put for­ward much of the core of Mac­Intyre’s later ar­gu­ment there. Mac­Intyre only men­tions Ans­combe’s es­say in a brief paren­the­ti­cal in his book (in which he says that parts of his own ar­gu­ment are “both deeply in­debted to and rather dif­fer­ent from that of Ans­combe 1958”). To me it feels more like Mac­Intyre fur­ther elabo­ra­ted a pro­ject and a the­o­re­ti­cal frame­work that Ans­combe de­serves credit for estab­lish­ing.

I’ll try to summarize her 26-page argument in sixteen paragraphs, in the hopes of whetting your appetite for reading the whole thing:

Anscombe argues that concepts like “moral obligation,” “morally right and wrong,” and “the moral sense of ‘ought’” have lost their meaning. Such phrases “ought to be jettisoned” by philosophers “because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives” and so are now just confusing. (This is not because she is a moral nihilist — she’s about as far from that as you can get — but because she thinks philosophy has become hopelessly confused and needs to reset.)

She traces the term “moral” to Aristotle (if I remember right, Aristotle used ἠθικός which got translated into moralis in Latin). But because of how the meaning of “moral” has shifted over time, to read Aristotle in translation today means to “constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite.”

Words like “should”/“ought”/“needs” are used in two senses: First, to describe the requirements for things with purposes (this machinery needs oil, ought to be oiled); secondly, in the modern moral sense to indicate obligation. This second sense has a historical pedigree. Anscombe believes it resulted from the Judeo-Christian belief in divine law. Christianity borrowed terms from Greek philosophy and put a divine law spin on them, so that, for example, the Greek word for going astray or being mistaken (ἀμαρτάνειν) became the word for sinning: breaking the divine law.

When Christianity changed the meanings of concepts like sin and virtue in this way, they made moral terms like “should” and “ought” appropriate to them. But over time moral philosophy shed divine law but tried to keep the virtues. In doing so, it found that this foundation had been pulled out from under them. If moderns continue to talk about virtues in terms of “should” and “ought” without the Christian appendages that those terms could successfully attach to, they’re talking empty nonsense. Anscombe calls this “the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one” that has had the effect of rendering “[the] word ‘ought’… a word of mere mesmeric force.… a word retaining the suggestion of force, and apt to have a strong psychological effect, but which no longer signifies a real concept at all.”

European ethical philosophers of note have tied themselves in knots trying to make sense of the moral ought. Butler put “conscience” first, “but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.” Hume was “a mere — brilliant — sophist” who removed ethical judgments from the category of things that can be true. Kant establishes the “absurd” idea of “legislating for oneself” and takes it to uselessly rigid conclusions. Bentham and Mill (whose utilitarianism was “stupid”) got lost in a thicket of “pleasure” as an end, though not because of a supposed “naturalistic fallacy” about which Anscombe “do[es] not find accounts of it coherent.”

Sidgwick and Moore are what Anscombe calls consequentialists — using a term that is now standard, but that she herself coined for this essay. She means the term to describe someone who reasons more or less like a utilitarian but without necessarily specifying “utility” as the criterion — someone who believes that we are acting ethically if and only if we are acting to optimize some quality or other of the future state of the world.

Sidgwick in particular advanced a theory of responsibility that Anscombe says was particularly seductive and harmful. In brief, that theory is this: “it does not make any difference to a man’s responsibility for an effect of his action which he can foresee, that he does not intend” that effect. There is something to this idea, which is what makes it so seductive, but left as-is and not examined further it can have terrible consequences. The terrible consequences in this case turned out to include consequentialism.

If you blindly follow Sidgwick’s idea to its logical conclusions, those conclusions are of the ends-justify-the-means variety: It is justified to do the most shameful awful vile thing, if an unintended but foreseeable hypothetical consequence of not doing it is sufficiently bad. Furthermore, “you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for having not foreseen them.”

(Anscombe suggests a more sensible formula wold be this: “[A] man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; and contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of his good actions.”)

By swallowing Sidgwick’s terrible idea whole, says Anscombe, the consequentialists have elevated a moral temptation to the status of a moral philosophy. Furthermore, because their philosophy demands prescience about consequences, but they can’t predict the future any better than the rest of us can, they cannot give us any actual practical ethical advice. Instead, they give us the terminology in which we can better articulate our temptations to do shameful things, and they give us the predisposition to consent to the casuistry of other bad actors.

Is there a way to get back to moral oughts, or something like them, without divine law? For example, a plant “needs” water, and you “ought to” see that the plant gets some if you want the plant to thrive. But that “if” is where the problem lies, because “ought to” in the moral sense is supposed to somehow work without any “if” clause attached. However, to the plant itself there doesn’t seem to be such a problem: it ought to pull in some water through its roots because otherwise it’s obviously doomed, and so pull water it does. Is there some sense in which human beings “need” the virtues in order to thrive in the same sort of way that plants need water, in which case it would not be controversial that the fact of such a need generates (at least a rebuttable presumption of) an ought?

Even so, a modern moral philosopher could argue that we’ve just moved the problem rather than resolved it. I need something to thrive, and I presumably ought therefore to pursue it if I want to thrive… there’s that “if” again. (Some philosophers even try to attack divine-law theories on this ground, saying that even if you believe in divine law, its “oughts” have no force to compel action unless you also add “if you want to obey the divine law” to the end of them.)

What alternatives remain to the old-fashioned divine law model? One possibility is a sort of natural law: divine law without the divinity. Maybe such a law can be found in “natural religion”, or maybe in the norms of society (though when you see what kinds of norms societies have had, or take a close look at how nature legislates, maybe that’s not such a great idea). Can you come up with laws on your own — legislate “for yourself” in a Kantean (or existentialist?) way? Such things, Anscombe says, aren’t really laws; they’re at best a sort of stand-in for laws. What about contractualism — the idea that moral law reflects an ancient or inevitable or mythical social contract? Anscombe is skeptical, though says there is room for investigation in some of these paths.

Ah, but what about virtue ethics in the Aristotelian vein? Anscombe considers this, and thinks it works, but only if you remember that Aristotle’s ethics predates the Christian change in moral terminology. If you rewind the clock back that far, you go from the modern incoherent and mesmeric moral “ought” to the divine law’s commanded moral “ought” and then finally to an ethics in which the moral “ought” no longer makes an appearance. So you aren’t going to solve the problem of making the moral ought make sense that way. But that might be just fine: Anscombe thinks it’s time to put that problem on the shelf anyway.

But, says Anscombe, we are still a long way from being able to create a robust virtue ethics, as “philosophically 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.’”

But that daunting project seems to Anscombe more promising than the project of modern Anglophone moral philosophy circa 1958: to create ethical systems under which no act is so vile that some future hypothetical circumstance might retroactively justify it.