Gertrude Elisabeth Margaret Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy, in “The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy“, 1958
“Anscombe’s article “Modern Moral Philosophy” stimulated the development of virtue ethics as an alternative to Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and Social Contract theories. Her primary charge in the article is that, as secular approaches to moral theory, they are without foundation. They use concepts such as ‘morally ought,’ ‘morally obligated,’ ‘morally right,’ and so forth that are legalistic and require a legislator as the source of moral authority. In the past God occupied that role, but systems that dispense with God as part of the theory are lacking the proper foundation for meaningful employment of those concepts. There are two ways to read this article. The first is to read it straightforwardly as an indictment of the moral theories prevalent in the 1950s and a subsequent argument for the development of an alternative theory of morality that does not postulate a legislator, but then also does not try to keep the defunct legislative structure that naturally falls out of religiously based ethics. On this view we need to develop an alternative that is based on moral psychology, moral virtue, facts of human nature, and an account of the good for humans based on this approach. A major mistake made by modern moral philosophers is that they try to provide an account of ‘morally right or morally wrong’ that really has no content outside of the legislative arena provided by the divine. Anscombe writes: “It would be most reasonable to drop it. It has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics; they are not going to maintain such a conception; and you can do ethics without it, as is shown by the example of Aristotle. It would be great improvement if, instead of ‘morally wrong,’ one always named a genus such as ‘untruthful’, ‘unchaste’, ‘unjust’ ” (MMP, 8–9). Thus, many take her to be arguing for this alternative—the alternative that, like Aristotle’s account, relies on richer, or ‘thick’ concepts such as ‘just’ as opposed to ‘thin’ concepts such as ‘morally wrong’ which—outside of a certain metaphysical perspective—lacks content. This quite naturally then leads to an emphasis on developing a virtue ethics that would be distinct from the modern approaches Anscombe attacks in MMP.
This is the prevalent reading of MMP and the reason why it is widely interpreted as encouraging a virtue ethical approach to moral theory. For example, Crisp and Slote note that Anscombe suggests the alternative that “…ethics can be based, instead, on the idea of a virtue…”, but, as they also note, this idea itself is also not clear and that what we need to be doing is some basic moral psychology to get clarity on notions such as ‘intention,’ ‘desire,’ ‘action,’ and so forth (1997, 4). Yet another crucial notion, for the sake of understanding virtue, is ‘human flourishing.’ Anscombe is doubtful we will be able to reach a satisfactory understanding of this notion.
An alternative reading is as a modus tollens argument intended to establish the superiority of a religious based ethics. (For more on a skeptical reading of MMP, see Crisp 2004.) Assume for the sake of argument there is no God, and religiously based moral theory is incorrect. On Anscombe’s view modern theories such as Kantian ethics, Utilitarianism, and social contract theory are sorely inadequate for a variety of reasons, but one major worry is that they try to adopt the legalistic framework without the right background assumptions to ground it. An alternative would be to develop a kind of naturalized approach where we carefully consider moral psychology as it relates to the human good. However, this approach itself is problematic. The prospect of articulating a complete and plausible account of the human good along these lines is dim.
Here is the straightforward interpretation in simple modus ponens form:
(1) If religiously based ethics is false, then virtue ethics is the way moral philosophy ought to be developed. (2a) Religious based ethics is false (at least for her interlocutors) (3a) Therefore, virtue ethics is the way moral philosophy should be developed.
But one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens:
(1) If religiously based ethics is false, then virtue ethics is the way moral philosophy ought to be developed. (2b) It is not the case that virtue ethics is the way to develop moral philosophy (3b) Therefore, it is not the case that religiously based ethics is false.
Thus, according to the alternative reading, one can conclude that Anscombe is arguing that the only suitable and really viable alternative is the religiously based moral theory that keeps the legalistic framework and the associated concepts of ‘obligation.’ This interpretation is more in keeping with Anscombe’s religious views and with her other ethical views regarding absolute prohibitions. There were plenty of actions she took to be morally wrong, so it seems clear—as Simon Blackburn noted—that she herself was not out to jettison these terms. But one can defend an even stronger claim. MMP is a carefully crafted argument intended to show the absurdity of rejecting the religious framework—along with it’s metaphysical underpinnings—when it comes to moral authority. But many readers simply stuck to the straightforward modus ponens reading of the argument. Support for (2b) is provided by her doubts that virtue ethics can really get off the ground as a normative theory using a distinctly ‘moral’ ought. In MMP she writes about pursuing the project of ethics as Plato and Aristotle pursued it, along virtue ethical lines:
…but it can be seen that 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’. And it is the last concept that appears the most doubtful. (MMP, 41)
But, by and large, MMP was read against a backdrop in which a religious basis for ethics had been discredited. Thus many writers took up the challenge to develop a psychologically rich virtue ethics rather than abandon secular morality.
The article has clearly had an impact on the development of virtue ethics. Part of its influence can be traced to its negative assessment of the leading theories of the day, particularly Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics. On her view, Utilitarianism commits one to endorsing evil deeds, and Kantian ethics, with its notion of ‘self-legislation’ is just incoherent. If the main choices are either evil or incoherent, that’s a serious problem and calls for the development of some alternative approach. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Anscombe’s overall project, her audience regarded the supernaturalized approach as more problematic than the naturalized . If we are to go back to very early approaches, such as Aristotle’s, then the natural approach to developing the alternatives is as a ‘virtue ethics’ and digging into the messy issue of human flourishing and good.
MMP also touched a nerve with philosophers who advocated one or the other of the condemned views. One reason for this was the rather dismissive or moralistic tone she took in some of her criticisms. Perhaps one of the more well known is given in the following passage when she condemns Utilitarianism—or, more generally—Consequentialism, for leaving open the possibility that it may be morally right in some context to advocate the execution of an innocent person.
But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind. (MMP, 17)
Anscombe is not making a subtle point here, and this comment prodded philosophers such as Jonathan Bennett to defend the view that consequences certainly mattered in determining the moral quality of an action—indeed, he questions the adequacy of accounts that rely on a dubious act/consequence distinction. This does not by itself get one to Consequentialism. Indeed, Anscombe’s comment here goes beyond a mere condemnation of Consequentialism to a further condemnation of any view in which consequences are weighed in determining moral rightness or wrongness. She is a moral absolutist. Some things are wrong and ought not to be done, whatever the consequences. So, for example, Bennett was concerned to undercut a popular distinction between killing versus letting die which was made on the basis that killing is just the sort of act that is wrong, period, no matter what the consequences, whereas letting die is not as bad as killing, even if the consequences were the same and were known to be the same.
When the killing/letting-die distinction is stripped of its implications regarding immediacy, intention etc.—which lack moral significance or don’t apply to the example—all that remains is a distinction having to do with where a set of movements lies on the scale which has ‘the only set of movements which would have produced that upshot’ at one end and ‘movements other than the only set which would have produced that upshot’ at the other. (Bennett 1966, 95)
Thus, a person’s doing a results in an upshot x and at one end of the action scale a is the one action that can result in x; refraining from a is compatible with a whole range of alternative actions—walking to the grocery store, weeding in the garden, reading a book—all of which have x as a result. But there is no morally relevant difference, here. There is nothing in the ‘act itself’ of killing that distinguishes it, in a morally relevant way, from letting die when things like immediacy, intention, and so forth are held constant.
Anscombe’s comment on Bennett’s criticism comprises one of the briefest philosophical essays, which I quote in its entirety here:
The nerve of Mr. Bennett’s argument is that if A results from your not doing B, then A results from whatever you do instead of doing B. While there may be much to be said for this view, still it does not seem right on the face of it. (Anscombe, 1966)
Aside from the profound problem of commending vicious acts, Anscombe also believed that consequentialism failed to capture, indeed, must fail to capture, crucial elements of moral psychology. The theory cannot account for backward looking justifications, or reasons, for performing certain actions. Teichmann notes, in his work on Anscombe, that, though it seems superficially intuitive that reasons are understood in causal terms, this does not, in Anscombe’s opinion, withstand scrutiny. In response to “Why did you kill him?” (using Anscombe’s own example), Teichmann holds that though one intuitive reason might be “In order to get revenge”, it is also the case, in Anscombe’s view, “…the sense of ‘In order to get revenge’ in fact presupposes the force of such reasons as ‘Because he killed my brother’, and not vice versa” (Teichmann, 124).
The absolutist stance informed a good deal of her other work in moral philosophy. In her famous pamphlet Mr. Truman’s Degree (1958), Anscombe protested Oxford’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary doctorate. Her view was that Truman murdered large numbers of innocent persons, civilians, with nuclear weapons in order to get Japan to surrender. On her view, the end does not justify the means. It is not permissible to kill innocents for the sake of some greater good to be realized as a consequence of such action. Some, though it is worth pointing out not all, consequentialists will disagree that such cases are just out of the question (and many straightforward consequentialists could well agree that Truman was not an example of someone using means/end reasoning in a justifiable way). Anscombe’s discussion, though, informed later discussions of absolute prohibitions in wartime such as Thomas Nagel’s discussion of the attractive features of the absolutist position in “War and Massacre” (1972).” (tratto da SEP)