Monday, October 30, 2017

Elizabeth Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy

In her essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Elizabeth Anscombe argues that the secular approaches to moral theory, like Mill’s utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, are without any foundation. She says that utilitarianism facilitates the endorsement of evil deeds, while Kantian ethics, with its notion of self-legislation, is incoherent. She begins her essay with these words: “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 requires a legislator to legislate what is morally right. The 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 the divine, the concept of “morally right and morally wrong” is meaningless. She posits that secular philosophers should use terms such as “untruthful,” “unchaste,” “unjust.”

“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…”

Anscombe is not claiming that only the religious thinkers are entitled to talk about what is morally right and what one morally ought to do. Her contention is that the “morally ought” is often used by secular philosophers in a way that makes no sense. She holds that it will be better if the philosophers use the word “just.” The term "consequentialism" was first coined by Anscombe in the essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy." 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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