Review from TLS, 30th September 2005


G.E.M. Anscombe; Mary Geach (ed.); Luke Gormally (ed.). Human Life, Action and Ethics, St. Andrews: St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 300 pp. £35.00



Elizabeth Anscombe was widely recognized as the most brilliant of Wittgenstein’s students, as well as the pre-eminent translator and interpreter of his works. She was also an original and formidable philosopher in her own right, apparently able to reconcile a staunch Roman Catholicism with what she had learned from Frege, Aristotle, or Wittgenstein himself. She had a subtle and probing mind, often coming at questions in a seemingly oblique way, and whether it is the nature of the soul or the nature of the distinction between acts and omissions, she has interesting and challenging things to say.


She was also a person of legendary force of character, frightening or charming, apparently according to the luck of the draw. Her world was Manichean, and like others in her Church she was quick to diagnose any hint of dissent as a symptom of darkness and corruption, and therefore to be treated as enmity or heresy. Fortunately, she also relished taking the gloves off, as was apparent from her joyously abusive vocabulary. In the present work, Mill is “stupid”, Sidgwick, “vulgar”, Butler “ignorant”, Hume “sophistical”, Kant “absurd”, and the proponent of “hideous fantasy”, while even her beloved Aristotle is sometimes reduced to “babble”. Lesser thinkers are generously sprayed with the acid of her contempt. Philosophers are a robust lot, but even righteousness can be overdone, and one does not have to be a disciple of Nietzsche or Foucault to begin to wonder a bit about the will to power. Nor are suspicions in that direction stilled by the adoring accolades of many of her students, since those prompt only the thought that the students who survived to give the accolades are just the ones who were overpowered.


The twenty-three papers in this collection include five that have not been previously published in English. Of the published papers by far the most famous is the 1958 broadside, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, although that has often been anthologized, and is to be found in the third volume of her collected papers; it adds weight and gives perspective to the current collection. The papers are divided into three groups: human life, action and practical reason, and ethics. The seven papers on human life centre upon such questions as the nature of the soul, the arrival of life, and whether a zygote is a person. The four on action and practical reason discuss such matters as whether an action could be the conclusion of an inference. The twelve papers on ethics explore and defend her rigorous Roman Catholic ethic of absolute prohibitions. Her brilliance is perhaps best displayed here in another well-known and anthologized paper, “Practical Inference”.


“Modern Moral Philosophy” initiated the return to the idea of virtues as the central concepts needed by moral thought. It was enormously influential, turning firstly most of her Oxford generation, and then probably a majority of philosophers worldwide, against utilitarianism as a moral and political theory, but also against the then-prevailing view that ethics is at bottom a matter of personal commitment or choice, a tool for voicing persuasions or exchanging social pressures. If this was not enough, it was also remarkable for two other theses. One 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 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”. That earlier conception of ethics is one which gives central place to a divine law, and Anscombe’s thought was a version of the Dostoievskian claim that if God is dead everything is permitted: “where one does not think there is a judge or a law, the notion of a verdict may retain its psychological effect, but not its meaning”.


Anscombe herself, of course, had no intention of jettisoning the concepts of moral obligation and duty, which are needed to frame her other principal claim, which is that certain things are forbidden, whatever the consequences. There are things that the virtuous person simply will not contemplate—he will not even talk about them, in advance (a peculiar qualification, whose significance has been the subject of discussion). This fragrant bunch includes euthanasia, abortion, idolatry, sodomy, adultery, and the making of a false profession of faith. It is not so clear, although in the first case one can probably guess, where she stands on other things that have at one time or another got onto the philosopher’s index, such as masturbation, or selling your own hair for making wigs. Her favourite example is procuring the judicial execution of the innocent, which does indeed sound beyond the pale, except perhaps to recent Home Secretaries.


The first of these claims, about the disappearing concept of moral obligation, has been surprisingly influential. It is found in some form in writers as diverse as Iris Murdoch and Alasdair MacIntyre, who share Anscombe’s woe at the disappearance, or John Mackie and Bernard Williams, who do not. And it has a philosophical pedigree stretching back beyond both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to the seventeenth-century equation of atheism with libertinism, and then to classical times. I suppose it is a permanent feature of the human condition that persons who entangle their notion of morality with some notion of divine authority cannot imagine that there might be people who have the morality, but who have no need of the supernatural prop. This may be a natural enough frailty, but philosophers should be better able to overcome it, both because there is nothing serious to be said for it and because it was refuted by Plato.


Thus suppose you are a colleague, and I find you taking bribes in order to fiddle exam results and am shocked and horrified as a result. I believe you have failed in your duty, that you have betrayed your obligations to the university and to your students. Is this “merely” psychological, and am I using words with “merely” talismanic force? Well, just try me. Suppose I break off relations with you, or make the matter public, or invoke sanctions, strip you of your rank or drum you out of your job. Suppose in addition I look askance at anybody who fails to share my outrage, and strenuously try to change their minds. Am I supposed to say, po-faced and even while I do these things or worse: “by the way, I do not say that what you did was morally wrong. That’s a concept I cannot deploy”? This is poppycock: what I do shows in spades that this is exactly how I regard you and your doings. I may choose to avoid the words, if I wish, but that is by itself of no interest, and if I feel I must avoid them because I have been told that they are the private preserve of people who believe in divine law, then I have been hoodwinked and robbed.


Can the weight of Anscombe’s claim be borne by those sinister italicizations of the word “moral”? The idea would be that while secularists, along with other cultures and theorists, might have boundaries and sanctions, and notions of defects and of agents falling short and missing the mark, real morality comes only with the Judeo-Christian law-based conceptions of what is required and prohibited. Often this is supported by citing the supposed absence of any term meaning “morally wrong” in Aristotle. I understand that this claim in turn depends on resolutely avoiding a natural reading of terms like hamartanein, adikein, or dei, and I defy anyone to read Sophocles or Aeschylus without noticing that they think of some things as obligatory, binding and required, so that falling short properly requires shame or guilt and expiation. And if it looks like a moral demand, behaves like a moral demand, and quacks like a moral demand, then that is what it is. This is not to deny that the Judeo-Christian tradition injected new elements into classical ethics, but simply to flag that it is not so simple a matter to describe what they were.


Anscombe’s claim is important, because people can come to live down to it. The bribed colleague may want me to lighten up, and think of me as a bourgeois, middle-class prig, carrying on like that. There may be whole circles, in politics for example, where the decline is already well advanced. Ministers resign in apparent disgrace only to pop back a week or two later, all smiles and cheer. The word “disgrace” can only be used with inverted commas, and any idea of real wrongdoing is a ghost of its former self. But philosophers should not aid and abet such declines into villainy by portraying them as somehow intellectually forced upon us.


Anscombe’s other major theme was a morality of absolute prohibitions. This has its strengths, and we only have to think of the grubby pragmatism of a Rumsfeld or a Blair in order to become aware of them, although in these papers Anscombe showed little interest in applying her doctrine to political rights. Rather, she was interested in the ethics of various medical interventions, particularly at the beginning and end of life. Her case, naturally, hinges on the strict requirement of respect for life, and particularly human life. The things she regards as absolutely wrong express and generate “alienation from belief in the dignity and value of human-ness”. She does not explain why this respect is incompatible with, say, voluntary euthanasia, although she is insistent that it is.


This is the more surprising since she believes that right respect is compatible with swift capital punishment, since this does not “just as such” sin against the human dignity of one who suffers it. Apparently fierce justice can trump, or perhaps nullify, or at any rate live alongside, respect for the dignity of life, but compassion cannot. I could not discover why. There are other arguments against voluntary euthanasia, and Anscombe herself hints at worries about the “slippery slope” which it could open up. But I think it is impossible to base the prohibition on respect for life (let alone respect for dignity), since what it really requires is not respect for life but respect for dying—that is, for treating nature’s frequently cruel, painful, undignified and intolerable procedure for our dissolution as itself sacrosanct.


Even more strange is the demand that we respect procreation by sexual intercourse as the “means of reproduction belonging to our life as the kind of life we are”—this as the ground for prohibiting artificial conception ex utero, and eventually contraception and coitus reservatus and presumably sodomy and the rest. This is the kind of argument Michael Frayn parodied with his invention of the Carthaginian Monolithics, who forbid looking backwards while travelling forwards (and hence ban driving mirrors) on the grounds that they are both contrary to natural law (or else why are our eyes in the front of our heads?) and revealed scripture (Lot’s wife). I could see no good reason why cycling should not equally be prohibited, as failing to respect walking as the “means of locomotion belonging to our life as the kind of life we are”.


While one must balk at some of the applications of Anscombe’s ethic, all moral theorists share the need to articulate the central ideas of the dignity and value in human life, and of the virtues necessary to living it well. She is not dealing with trivial issues, and if we are appalled at some of the prohibitions she willingly embraces, then these essays may force us to ask ourselves why. I am tempted to end on this conciliatory note, but I cannot imagine it placating her embattled spirit, and perhaps the incivility of righteousness is catching. She herself often preferred to end with a parting kick, like this: the index lists eleven pages for justice, and none at all for altruism, benevolence, charity, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, mercy, sympathy, or love.


2001 words


Simon Blackburn is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed was published last month by Allen Lane.