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Monday, October 30, 2017

On Elizabeth Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy

Elizabeth Anscombe, in her essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” argues that the secular approaches to moral theory, like Mill’s utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, are without any foundation.

She holds that utilitarianism leads one to endorsing evil deeds, while Kantian ethics, with its notion of self-legislation, is incoherent. At the essay’s outset she says: “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 if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.”

She suggests that unless there is a divine entity, the concepts such as “morally ought,” “morally obligated,” “morally right,” cannot be justified. A moral theory, she holds, requires a legislator to legislate what is morally right. In her view the modern ethical philosophers are making a mistake when they talk about actions that are “morally right or morally wrong,” but fail to define the entity which promulgates the moral law.

According to Anscombe, without the idea of divine, the concept of “morally right and morally wrong” is meaningless. She posits that the secular philosophers should use terms such as “untruthful,” “unchaste,” “unjust.” Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

“I should judge that Hume and our present-day ethicists had done a considerable service by showing that no content could be found in the notion "morally ought"; if it were not that the latter philosophers try to find an alternative (very fishy) content and to retain the psychological force of the term. 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 a great improvement if, instead of "morally wrong," one always named a genus such as "untruthful," "unchaste," "unjust." We should no longer ask whether doing something was "wrong," passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust…”

However, Anscombe is not saying that only religious thinkers are entitled to talk about what is morally right and what one morally ought to do. Her view simply is that the “morally ought” is often used by secular philosophers in a way that makes no sense. She says that it will be better if the philosophers use the word “just.”

Anscombe's “Modern Moral Philosophy” has influenced the development of virtue ethics in the past few decades. It is noteworthy that the term "consequentialism" was first coined by her in this essay. She uses this term to describe the central errors in secular moral philosophies, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick.

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