It’s easy to believe that the reach of modern philosophy extends no further than the stuffy ivory towers of contemporary academia. That would be a mistake. Philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and this love, when pursued earnestly, can change the way we think about right and wrong—and about ourselves.
“What sort of person ought I to be?” The question is a simple one, but for those who take it seriously, merely addressing it can have profound consequences.
We all want to be good people, but virtue is more than the mere absence of vice. It takes hard work. With masses of people fleeing conflict and poverty around the globe, we wonder: “Is my latte habit evidence of a greedy disposition?” (After all, that money could be donated to an international charity.) With images of factory-farmed animals just a click away on the internet, we wonder: “Is my fondness for steak the hallmark of a cruel disposition?” (Cows feel pain, too.) And with talk of climate change growing ever more dire, we wonder: “Is my morning commute the sign of a selfish temperament?” (We could cycle rather than drive.) Philosophy may be often abstract and obtuse, but questions of character are as common as they are difficult to face.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that there was a time in recent history when questions of character did not occupy a central position in moral philosophy.
Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” was first published in January of 1958. It was, in many ways, a scathing rebuke of the current state of thinking in the field. In her opening paragraph, Anscombe declares that things have become so muddled that “it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy.” The problem? A philosophical obsession with concepts like duty and obligation and the noxious influence of the moral theory consequentialism.
Take consequentialism first. According to consequentialism, the moral status of an action depends solely on the consequences of that action. If the action maximizes good consequences (such as saving lives or promoting happiness), then the action is morally obligatory. If the action fails to maximize good consequences, it is morally prohibited.
Anscombe came of age during the carnage of World War II. According to her, an unrepentant commitment to consequentialism led to some of the worst atrocities of the war. Although she believed the Allied cause was just, she saw some Allied actions as paradigm cases of the ends not justifying the means. The intentional bombing of civilians is murder, plain and simple, she argued.
It doesn’t make a whit of difference if such bombings shorten the war or otherwise lower the total number of casualties. Murder is always wrong, no matter the consequences. In fact, she famously protested Oxford’s 1956 decision to award the American president Harry Truman an honorary degree, contending that his use of atomic bombs against the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki amounted to mass murder.
The most prominent alternative to consequentialism at the time was a moral theory known as deontology (most famously promulgated by 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant). Deontology seeks to define what moral obligations human beings have to each other (and to themselves) in order to identify which actions are morally required and which morally prohibited. According to deontology, it is not just immoral to shirk one’s moral duty; it is irrational.
Anscombe, however, argued that the ideas of moral duty and moral obligation only make sense if there is such a thing as moral law. And the idea of moral law only makes sense if there is a being capable of playing the role of moral lawgiver. In the history of western civilization, this role was traditionally played by the Judeo-Christian God. But by the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers had long since given up a theistic framework for their ethical theories. Anscombe, herself a committed Roman Catholic, argued that this was an inconsistent position. Philosophers must either acknowledge God as the source of moral law or abandon the concepts of moral duty and moral obligation.
To sum up: at the time of Anscombe’s writing, the central unit of moral investigation was particular actions. A good person was derivatively defined as someone who performed good actions. But according to Anscombe, this was exactly backwards. The proper subject of moral philosophy should be people.
She thought we should first try to determine what makes for a good person, and then derivatively define good action as the sort of thing good people engage in. To do otherwise is to risk both conceptual confusion and the slippery slope toward justifying mass murder.
In place of the then-current approach to moral philosophy, Anscombe urged a return to the ethics of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
The chief aim of Aristotle’s ethical investigation was to discover what it took for humans to live well and flourish. Succeeding at such an inquiry requires not only philosophical analysis but also robust psychological accounts of human happiness, human character traits, human emotion, and human motives. Notably, Aristotle’s ethical theorizing did not require concepts like moral obligation and moral duty.
Virtue ethics, as Anscombe’s approach to moral questions came to be called, is today the fastest-growing area of moral philosophy. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of character traits such as justice, wisdom, and temperance.
Although consequentialism and deontology still have their proponents, Anscombe’s third way reinvigorated the discipline, stimulating debates that continue to this day. In a world accustomed to civilian deaths justified in the name of the greater good, Anscombe’s account of morality offers a radical alternative. This alternative places weight on the justice, wisdom, and temperance of persons themselves, rather than on the consequences of their actions.
Anscombe was a woman writing in a time and field utterly dominated by men. That she succeeded so decisively in changing the course of moral philosophy is testament both to her intellectual brilliance and her academic courage.
Thanks to Anscombe, questions of character are again at the forefront of moral philosophy. One’s own character can only be improved by studying this remarkable story.
- Jason Schukraft