Course Notes – G.E.M Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Click to access mmp.pdf

We are nearing the end of the semester in my Theories of Ethics course and have just completed our discussions of my favorite reading, Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy.” (MMP) Not only do I think it is Anscombe’s greatest philosophical accomplishment – beyond her translating, editing, and publishing of Wittgenstein, of course – but it is perhaps the single most important essay on ethics published since the Second World War.  It posed an absolutely devastating challenge to all of the moral philosophy following in the tradition of Kant, Bentham, and Mill, one to which, in my view, philosophers working in these and other modern moral philosophical traditions have never adequately responded.  And it almost single-handedly created the contemporary revival of interest in virtue ethics though, as we will see, this development may be  more at odds with what Anscombe suggests in MMP than in keeping with it.  Alasdair MacIntyre, the second greatest influence on the contemporary revival of virtue ethics recognized this, I think, which is why, in his masterpiece, After Virtue, he says that his work on this front, while “deeply indebted to” MMP, is nonetheless “rather different” from it. (1)

Anscombe does several things in MMP, but I am only going to focus on the most important aspect of it, which is described in the first two statements that she makes at the essay’s outset:

The first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking.  The second 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..; because they are survivals or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives… (2)

Why Anscombe thinks this and what the consequences are for contemporary moral philosophy will make up the rest of this installment of Course Notes.

When explaining Anscombe’s critique to my students, I used a case, drawn from MMP, with my own embellishments added.  I described the case in two “versions”: that of an Aristotelian and that of a Humean.

Version One, as told by the Aristotelian:

  1. I supplied John with a bushel of apples.
  2. John promised to pay me £5.
  3. John owes me £5.
  4. If John doesn’t pay me the £5, he is a deadbeat.
  5. If he does pay me the £5, then he is an honorable man.

Version Two, as told by the Humean:

1′. I handed over a bushel of apples to John.

2′. John uttered the words “I promise to pay you £5.”

3′. John not paying me would consist of John failing to hand over £5.

4′. John paying me would consist of John handing over £5.

The immediately striking difference between the two versions is that the Aristotelian describes the situation with terms that are what I will call axiologically thick – meaning that they have evaluative connotations.  To “supply” someone, in the context of commerce, is to do something that incurs a debt and to “promise” to pay is to acknowledge this and accept it, entailing, as a result, that the person in question “owes” something to the supplier.  To fail to pay someone, when one “owes” him is what it means to be a “deadbeat,” and paying one’s debts is part of what it means to be an “honorable man.”

Why is the story as told by the Humean so different?  The short answer is “the Scientific Revolution happened.”  The longer, more substantial answer is that by the time one gets to Hume, philosophers in the West had changed their minds as to what should be accepted as constituting a “fact.”

For Aristotle, everything in nature – indeed, everything that exists – has a purpose and thus a distinctive good (and bad).  Value is therefore objective for Aristotle – a part of the basic furniture of the universe – and this means that human beings also have  a purpose and thus, a distinctive good, which Aristotle called “Eudaimonia,” which just means “human excellence” or “human flourishing.” And because human beings are complex, their flourishing takes complex forms: we can flourish intellectually – hence, the “intellectual virtues” (both practical and theoretical); we can flourish as builders and makers and artists – hence, the “virtues of craft” – and we can flourish in terms of our non-technical, social and civic activities – hence, the “moral” virtues.  And notice, this is all that ‘moral’ means for Aristotle, something that will become crucial in a moment.

To describe an action as “supplying” or “promising,” then, is, for Aristotle, a straightforward statement of fact, as is to describe a person as “honorable” or as a “deadbeat.”  Indeed, every one of the statements 1 – 5 would be considered straightforwardly factual by an Aristotelian.

This all changes after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.  Nature and the things in it are no longer conceived of as purposeful and the only objective characterizations of things are in terms of mathematically quantifiable magnitudes, which means that their qualitative characteristics have come to be understood as entirely subjective; as mere impressions in our minds.  One cannot characterize motor movements as “supplying” or uttered noises as “promising” or speak of people as “honorable” or “deadbeats” and speak objectively, in the modern framework.  And so the Humean, in encountering such terms, could only conclude, as Anscombe describes it, that “there was a special sentiment expressed by [them] which alone gave [the words] their sense,” which, of course, is just the idea of a “moral sentiment.” (3)

But there is a further problem, for as we have already seen, ‘moral’ doesn’t mean for Aristotle what it means for Hume.  In the modern context, ‘moral’ and the moral ‘ought’ indicate that which is obligatory; i.e. that which is either required or forbidden.  The Aristotelian sense of ‘moral’ means nothing of the sort.  Human flourishing may include moral and intellectual virtues, as well as virtues of craft, but there is no sense in which the cultivation of such virtues are obligatory or required.  For those who wish to flourish – and perhaps, to attain a certain esteem within their society – this is how it’s done.  Put another way, all that Aristotle gets you is a bunch of hypothetical imperatives:  If you want X, then you ought to Y.  And the only thing that makes some of them “moral” is that they have to do with moral subject-matter; that is, with our non-technical, social and civic activity.

Anscombe maintains that the obligatory sense of the moral ‘ought’ arises from the combination of Classical virtue ethics with the law tradition that one finds in Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity.  It’s what you get, when you take the Greek moral virtues and say that they are required by divine command.

The ordinary … terms ‘should’, ‘needs’, ‘ought’, ‘must’ acquired this special [moral] sense by being equated in the relevant contexts with ‘is obliged’, or ‘is bound’, or ‘is required to’, in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or something that can be required by law.

How did this come about?  The answer is history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics.  For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah…

In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for many centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted, or excused became deeply embedded in our thought…The blanket term ‘illicit’, ‘unlawful’, meaning much the same as our blanket term ‘wrong’ explains itself.  It is interesting that Aristotle did not have such a blanket term…He has terms like ‘disgraceful’, ‘impious’; and specific terms signifying defect of the relevant virtue…

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) – that what is need for this, is required by divine law. (4)

So, modern moral philosophy and its contemporary progeny  suffer from two fatal problems which, when combined, leave a radically subjectivist sentimentalism as the only real option in ethics: (a) they deny that there are any genuine axiological facts; and (b) they reject the idea of divine legislation.  The results are values that reflect only what people subjectively prefer/abhor and requirements/prohibitions that have no grounding and hence, enjoy nothing but, as Anscombe described it, “mesmeric force.” (5)  “It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain,” she remarks, “when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.” (6)

Of course, there are those who have tried to provide grounding for the requirement/prohibition side of morality other than divine command, the most famous being Kant, who reconceived the categorical force of moral imperatives as deriving from a kind of self-legislation, but Anscombe dismisses this as absurd on its face:

Kant introduces the idea of “legislating for oneself,” which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0.  The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator. (7)

The most significant reaction to Anscombe, as mentioned, is to be found in the extraordinary revival of interest in classically inspired virtue ethics over the past several decades.  But I seriously question whether this is the proper lesson to take from “Modern Moral Philosophy.”  For just as we no longer accept divine command ethics, we no longer accept a teleological picture of nature.  And just as it is hard to see what could replace divine commands, it is hard to see what could replace Aristotelian teleology, something about which Anscombe is quite explicit:

[P]hilosophically 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. (8)

So, I see no refuge for contemporary ethicists in a revived Aristotelianism, and I see no hope for contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians, given that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to Anscombe’s critique.  That so many are blithely continuing on with this sort of work is not surprising, given the professional imperatives of the discipline – philosophers also have felt free to ignore Wittgenstein’s equally devastating critique of philosophy as a whole, despite the fact that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to it either – but it does lend somewhat of an air of twiddling and fiddling to it, at least for those of us who are familiar with and have fully digested Anscombe’s essay.


  1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 53.
  2. MMP, p. 1.
  3. MMP, p. 5.
  4. MMP, pp. 4-5.
  5. MMP, p. 6.
  6. MMP, p. 5.
  7. MMP, p. 2.
  8. MMP, p. 15.


  1. Dan,

    The issue I see is that laws are absolutist, while ethics are relational. Good and bad are not top down cosmic extremes, but a bottom up biological binary. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. This fact is every bit as real and binding as the existence of the fox and the chicken.

    The situation for civil code is that society needs some group concept of acceptable and unacceptable, in order to function as a whole. As with the individual, there is a multitude of desires, but there is only one will, so with society, there are a multitude of voices, but occasionally judgements have to be made and assigning them to a higher power is a useful tonic.

    The problem is this creates the notion of arbitrariness, rather than a careful and open weighing of the options.

    The notion that if laws are not divinely determined must mean they are completely subjective, aka relativistic, is really a negative absolutism. That without divine force, they have no basis and everything is equivalent. All, or nothing. God, or mush.

    The fact is, God was the lazy method. We evolved minds to distinguish and judge.

    A spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience from which consciousness rises, not an ideal of wisdom and judgment from which it fell. The new born babe, not the wise old man.

  2. This was a brilliant exegesis or summary of an important turn in the history of philosophy. I am currently studying the work of Bernard Williams and am most curious about the connection with Anscombe. I should think they are opposed since I believe Anscombe is a believer and Williams was a devotee of Nietzsche and resoundingly secular. Any ideas?

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. Williams is probably the best ethicist overall, since the Second World War. While he certainly wasn’t an orthodox Christian like Anscombe, he too was very skeptical of modern moral philosophy and favored a virtue theoretical approach himself. These lines of thought and much more can be found in what I think is his greatest book, “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.”

  3. The notion that moral law requires a moral law giver seems no less false then the claim that the laws of logic presuppose a lawgiver (which some Christian apologists have more or less argued). Though the notion of moral obligation may be historically contingent on theistic belief, it is not necessarily the case that the notion is conceptually contingent on theism.

    1. I don’t agree with you. The point is not the capacity to articulate or express a rule. The point is the *force* of an obligation — that something is required or forbidden.

  4. Lovely essay, well argued, lucid and convincing. There is so much to say in reply but the clarity and force of your writing requires I first order my thoughts, or keep silent. 🙂 So for the moment I will confine myself to noting that it is seldom one sees the second meaning of ‘deadbeat‘, as used by you.

  5. “nothing by way of an adequate response to Anscombe’s critique”: I’m not necessarily convinced by all of Parfit’s argument in On What Matters, but I think they take criticisms such as Anscombe’s or Mackie’s head on, and start directly from a base in Sidgwick’s thoughts.

    The problem with discussing debt as an example of morality is that it is a matter of practical forward thinking reason that is essential for a society to work. We shouldn’t look at the question of whether I should pay my debt to the butcher for the sausages he delivered last week, but rather why the butcher thought it rational to deliver sausages to me in the first place. Here we enter the world of game theory as it applies to morality. It’s nicer and less work to interact with men of good will.

    In terms of impartial reason, if another person won’t suffer any cost as a result of helping me improve my situation, it seems irrational if he deliberately avoids assisting me. This gives a minimum threshold for supererogation.

  6. I would like to add my voice to Dan’s on Bernard Williams.

    I see Williams as being a bit like Isaiah Berlin insofar as he was not comfortable with the direction that philosophy took in the latter part of the 20th century. Both thinkers were particularly interested in cultural and intellectual history. Williams stuck with analytic philosophy longer than Berlin did, but in his last years he reverted to classical studies. I think it’s always revealing to see where people turn their attention when they no longer have to engage directly with a particular set of professional colleagues in order to build or maintain their careers.

    Williams was not a moral realist, but he was committed, unlike many Pragmatists and postmodernists, to a sense of reality or truth – or at least to the notion of “accurate information” – in other areas (e.g. history, science, etc.). He believed (as I do) that Nietzsche’s ideas had been misrepresented by many later-20th century thinkers.

    (Practical politics is the only area where I have serious reservations about Williams’s views. I think his politics was too influenced by certain strands of Enlightenment thought, but I won’t go into this here.)

  7. philosophers also have felt free to ignore Wittgenstein’s equally devastating critique of philosophy as a whole, despite the fact that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to it either

    Well there was Carnap’s offhand riposte that Wittgenstein had written a whole book of philosophy on why we can’t do philosophy.

  8. I can’t say that I hold Wittgenstein blameless for such misunderstanding of his work.

    But the Logical Positivists recognized Wittgenstein as an influence not as a Logical Positivist.

    However if the first chapter of TLP does not set out a project very similar to that of the Positivists then he is being even more obscure than even I thought he was.

  9. Anscombe is writing within the British positivist tradition, which shares many interests with the early American Analytic tradition (somewhat more influenced by the Vienna school). And that of course will generate problems, both looking out from that perspective, and also critically looking within it.

    I think it’s safe to say that one will never get an ethical – or unethical – act out of a sentence, or even an argument. Obligations are generated by sentences only in a legal document, with the authority of the state behind it. The motivation for obeying the terms of such agreement have to do with our relationship to state authority as much, or more, as any presumed ethical strictures.

    And of course motivation is the central problem here. Reason can fine-tune our actions, but can never provide the impetus to them. Thus Anscombe is quite right that a philosophy of psychology, that positivist traditions do tend to lack, is a necessary propaedeutic to ethical philosophy.

    I would say that there is a slight misreading of Aristotle here. While Aristotle is largely to be found in the ‘virtue ethics’ camp, it should be remembered that the principle advance in Aristotle out of Plato is his assumption that ethics always derives from, and returns to, a community. In Plato one hears the struggle of the rational to rise above the conventional. For Aristotle, it is more important to find the reasoning within the conventional. Thus I read Aristotle’s texts on ethics always prefaced with something like., ‘We say,’ or ‘so it is agreed,’ and so on. For me, this puts him in a more favorable light, because, while I think occasionally one finds a true savant with deep insight, usually ethics is derived from community relationships. The Enlightenment ideal of the rational individual governing him or her self by principles derived through reasoning is fraudulent from the get-go.

    My last point is to remark that (especially given what I have just said), perhaps the proper philosophy of psychology that Anscombe demands may have had at least a good start with the Pragmatists, James and Mead (to some extent Dewey), even if this were not fully developed (tossed out without much ceremony by the Harvard Behaviorists in the ’40s and ’50s).

  10. I don’t see how the scientific revolution changed the Aristotle version. After all if by ‘honorable’ I mean ‘consistently fulfils undertakings’ then someone who regularly fulfils undertakings fits that description and is therefore honorable.

    Even if I don’t think there is a purpose to everything and I don’t accord any ontological status to good, the person who consistently fulfils his undertakings still fits the definition of ‘honorable’.

  11. Robin Herbert,
    An honorable person is not honorable because of a history of consistently fulfilling undertakings; rather he or she develops such a history because of being honorable. If the person has been raised well, then he or she will have this quality of character before ever called to act.

    A person may be fulfilling undertakings for base motives – it gets one something that couldn’t be attained otherwise, it creates a reputation that one can then use, it has benefits of certain social relationships, or reaps material rewards. Such a person cannot be trusted completely; eventually there would come some undertaking they would not fulfill.

    The honorable person can be trusted with every undertaking, because he or she could not be tempted otherwise.

    (That may not be Anscombe’s Aristotle, but that’s largely how I read him, albeit here simplified. This is also the foundation of Aristotle’s differentiation between the good friendship, and the friendships of utility and of pleasure. The good friendship, the truly satisfying and lifelong friendship, is between two inherently honorable people who can trust one another in all matters and in all actions – because of who they are, not just what they do.)

  12. Now, you may be asking, ‘how are we to distinguish the honorable person, if she or he has not yet acted “honorably”?’

    By the signs; by the parents, who they are and with whom they congregate. By the person’s own choices of whom to congregate with. By what makes the person smile, or what makes them flinch with disgust. By the tone of their speech and what they speak about. By their clothing and their posture. By the look in their eyes, and their willingness to look another in the eyes. By their response to praise, and how they respond to danger.

    In a small community such as existed in ancient Greece, these would be enough to tell you all you needed to know about a person.

    In a complex, over-populated, industrialized, heterogeneous culture such as we live in, the signs are far more difficult to read. So we have atomized the individual and hold him and her accountable for their ‘rational’ choices. But we are still the same human being, dependent on others for our survival.

  13. Attributing the is/ought gap to the modern idea that nature is value neutral is a basic assumption of both Anscombe and MacIntyre, and I agree with them.

    1. Daniel, I’m deeply confused by this. Physics is certainly value-neutral, but it seems that nature is not. Freeman Dyson (a physicist) pointed out that the a characteristic of higher life-forms is the dependency on stability for survival. This is a special case of a dictum that I use in political criticism: “it’s far harder to create something than it is to break it.”

      When we say “nature,” I think of living creatures, and find it hard not to see that living things display greater morphological and behavioral diversity than “dead” things. So “nature” as a whole is not value-neutral. It favors life – and if for no other reason than to sustain our own, so should we.

      As a flaneur, I think that your statement is a reference to Utilitarian thinking (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). That to me, however, is an accounting method used to reveal political malfeasance. In other words, it is a prophylactic for immorality, not a lodestone to morality.

      The impotence of attempts to prevent bad behavior is evident in the steady conquest of our political and economic systems by sociopaths. This is no different than it was in Jesus’ day, where he overthrew the Law with “Love God and your neighbor.”

      The implication often missed is that we should not be concerned with “loving ourselves.” We get the government that we deserve when we ask “what has the government done for me lately?” And looking in on a troubled neighbor – that goes beyond “honorable.” “Virtuous” and “noble” are words I might use.

      1. I’m sorry you are confused. I don’t think I can explain it any better than I have. The fact/value distinction is pretty basic stuff in modern philosophy.

        1. You said that nature is value-free. My confusion is that anyone could be so confused as to believe that, given that observation of nature so directly contradicts the proposition.

          But let’s not be confused by the facts…

        2. I’ll elaborate a little: a “fact” is what is. I would argue that “value” can be understand as a measure of what is possible – in other words, facts yet to be.

          Consider the example of the “honorable” man – because we can rely upon him, we can extend our vision of what we can accomplish. Without that trust, we would have to invest resources in contingencies, which limit the possibilities.

          Life multiplies possibilities, and so prefers “value.”

  14. Hi Dan, this was interesting and quite useful for me. It seems I agree with Anscombe on many points but I want to read the original piece by her before replying. Taking the portions from your essay it seems her position is basically the one I came to in college and argued with my Professors about. It would have been nice to have had her work to point to at the time.

    It certainly is devastating, and (you identified) why I have problems with staunch Virtue Ethicists, who use (or try to sneak in) human universals regarding psychology and concepts like “flourishing.”

  15. Dwayne: I’ve asked Massimo about this in our dialogues, more than once I think, and he is of the view that modern science gives us the sort of information we need to speak meaningfully of a human telos. Obviously, I disagree strongly. And the funny thing is, it sounds a lot like Sam Harris, whom Massimo routinely disdains,

  16. Hi ej,

    I am not sure I know any way of telling if a person is honorable other than that they behave according to my definition of honorable. It seems to be one of those things where the proof is in the pudding. If a person fulfils their pledge only when it benefits them and doesn’t when they will suffer no disadvantage, not even to their reputation, then they are not consistently acting in that fashion.

    I don’t even know if I could tell if I was honorable person until I had acted as such. I might feel myself to be honorable and have every intention of acting honorably and then when push came to shove I might welch on every deal.

    And, yes, I can be mistaken about someone being honorable, but I can be mistaken about most things and that doesn’t mean that they can’t be so.

  17. Dan-K,
    I’ve asked Massimo about this in our dialogues, more than once I think, and he is of the view that modern science gives us the sort of information we need to speak meaningfully of a human telos.

    Massimo at first subscribed to Bakker’s theory that we all desire freedom and the virtues are what maximise freedom. This therefore was the fundamental drive behind the development of a virtue ethics system. This, to me, was nonsensical. I later challenged this and offered an alternative theory. He replied that he had changed his position and now believed that the virtues inevitably arose out of the application of reason. He has never clearly justified his position, that I know of.

    This was my tentative hypothesis, for what it is worth. Massimo rejected this.
    1. we are intelligent social animals.
    2. our intelligence and sociability allows division of labour, collaboration, cooperation and provision of mutual support. This is foundational to our success as a species.
    3. trust is the most import single requirement for the functioning of a collaborative society.
    4. consequently we developed mechanisms for detecting, demonstrating and maintaining trustworthiness so that we could have a properly functioning collaborative society.
    5. these are:
    5.1 a theory of mind so we could imagine the other person’s intentions.
    5.2 an exquisite ability to read facial expressions or verbal cues so that we can detect the other person’s intentions.
    5.3 an exquisite ability to read behavioural cues that indicate the other person’s intentions.
    6. these behavioural cues we call the virtues.
    7. the virtues are the fundamental way we demonstrate our trustworthiness or detect trustworthiness so that we can play a useful role in a collaborative society.
    8. the transition to a functioning collaborative society happened long enough ago that this has become an instinctive ‘ought’ embedded in our psyche. But it is recent enough that our own immediate, primate needs/desires still strongly compete with the collaborative, societal ‘ought’ of virtue ethics.
    9. over time the virtues have been extended into the elaborate structure we have today, as society’s needs grew.
    10. all other ethical systems are descendants or modification of virtue ethics.

  18. Dan,
    “Attributing the is/ought gap to the modern idea that nature is value neutral is a basic assumption of both Anscombe and MacIntyre, and I agree with them.”

    If this remark was in reply to me, I should point out that I was simply trying to provide a slightly different reading of Aristotle, what it would depend on in practice, and why even in this variant, the practice would now be unworkable.

    While the is/ought gap and the value-neutral reading of nature on which it depends is clearly final as a logical distinction, it’s well to remember that this developed in a culture that was growing increasingly complex and complicated. A small, homogeneous community can make ethical presumptions, and monitor and police behavior accordingly, in a way impossible in modern society.

    It occurs to me, too, that much of this conversation illuminates some of what Mark had to say in his article on Romanticism, especially in its somewhat bleak conclusion.

  19. The only understanding I have of a ‘pledge’ is that among certain parties there is something that certain people do such-and-such if certain other people do another such-and-such.

    If all parties to this understood this to be the arrangement then it is a fact that they all understood this arrangement. That seems to be as good a fact as any other.

  20. I’ll try to think of another way of explaining it tomorrow. Not sure I can do much better than the Course Notes itself, though. It’s pretty much the way I taught it to my students last week.

  21. But Dan, you appear to be describing a situation where philosophers have reached a situation in moral philosophy to which there is no adequate response

    So we can say that we are, at least, no less confused than philosophers on the subject and will have to muddle through with our own account of morality, just as you have to do when not speaking as a philosopher.

    It appears to me that an honorable person is a person who acts in a way that accords with my definition of ‘honorable’ and so I can’t see that I am so very different from the Aristotlean version, other than I would say that if he pays me the money then he is acting consistently with being an honorable person, since one act would not render him honorable. I don’t think Aristotle would disagree with that.

    Maybe Aristotle felt that there was some kind of ontological status to a pledge, but really it would not make much difference to the situation than if the fact only consisted of the fact that the parties involved understood the nature of the agreement and assented to it.

    I don’t know what ‘human flourishing’ might involve but I can see some situations where a change would probably make most people involved happier and more personally fulfilled. There is no particular reason for me to try to work for those kinds of changes other than that I want to.

    The point is, maybe there really is no more to morality than that. Maybe there is no adequate response because you are trying to find out more about something about which there is nothing more to find out.

    1. If you are saying that it is just something subjective, then you are about as far from Aristotle as one can get. If you are saying that it is objective, then I would maintain — with Anscombe and MacIntyre and herds of others — that there is no way to ground it other than in a teleological view of human nature and thus, of human activity.

      As for your latter point regarding flourishing, that’s all fine and well, but it’s not what the moderns think the moral “ought” involves. You can have whatever views about ethics you like, but the essay is about Anscombe and her critique of modern moral philosophy in the tradition of Mill and Kant. That you hold some entirely different view of ethics is very nice, but has nothing to do with the topic of the essay.

  22. It is hardly subjective because I doubt that anyone would say that the person who consistently welches on the deal is the honorable person and the person who consistently holds up his end of the bargain is the deadbeat. “Honorable” is normally used to refer to a certain kind of behaviour. Even if I say there is no ontological status to ‘honour’ and see no particular reason why a person should be honorable, it doesn’t change the fact that we use ‘honorable’ to refer to certain kinds of behaviour and not others.

    And yes, we are discussing Anscombe’s essay in which she says there is (in 1958) a huge gap that is unfillable, not just unfillable by Kantians and Utilitarians.

    And you appear to be saying that in the nearly 60 years since that essay was published the gap is still unfillable. Forgive me if I have misunderstood you on that point.

  23. Robin,
    I only have time now for a short note, perhaps more later.

    I am aware that you have read, perhaps deeply, in the Medieval Aristotelians; But their views were heavily influenced by Divine Command assumptions, and Aristotle was not, or at least not in the same way. Also, as Anscombe points out, they were heavily influenced by the cosmological legalism of the Judaism they inherited (as, again, Aristotle was not). So I think that, yes, Aristotle would disagree that an ‘honorable’ act committed by an otherwise dishonorable person, would be ‘consistent’ with what we would expect from an honorable person; on the contrary, it would be little more than a ruse. Useful in some circumstances, but not to be trusted. Again, an honorable person would be recognized as such prior to any action. You wrote that you didn’t see how this would be possible; I tried to explain that (and incidentally and just BTW, so did labnut), but if don’t see that… well, if you have to ask ‘what is jazz?’ then there’s no explaining it.

    Your insistent digging after the problem of obligation seems to reduce this to something like contract law – “I do X, you do Y.’ But that isn’t actually the base of contract law. Contract law reduces to: ‘I will provide you with material benefit X, if you provide me with material benefit Y’ (with the implicit understanding that ‘if you do not provide me with benefit Y, I will have the courts extract it from you by decree, enforceable by agents of the police’). That difference is extremely important, because it highlights the fundamental difference between governmental/ legislative law and ethics.

    Uncle Midas tells nephew Prodigal, ‘I’ll leave you a million dollars if you go to church every Sunday.’ Prodigal agrees, then spends every Sunday on a drinking spree; but he has a friend collect the church’s ‘Weekly Missive’ which he sends to Midas as ‘proof’ of having attended church. Midas dies; his estate lawyer sues. Does the estate win back the money promised to Prodigal? No; because there was no material benefit promised by Prodigal in return. Has Prodigal acted unethically? According to which theory of ethics? For instance, Midas died happy, convinced Prodigal had reformed; Prodigal is certainly rich and probably happy; the greater number of the parties involve consider themselves well-off. Who is to to say here an injustice has been done? Well, obviously a Deontologist might complain; but only post-facto – the transaction has occurred. While Prodigal may have misused his reason, he was quite clever at it, so there’s not more to be said on the matter. The virtue ethicist will remark Prodigal’s lack of character, but again, so what? Both utilitarianism and deontology insist that the force of reason is on their side; but virtue ethics claims no such force, it is merely a matter of personal judgment. And ‘reason,’ as it turns out, has no real force either – If prodigal wants to get away with this, he will.

    That’s your real problems – ethics does not have the force of law. And, as Ansombe notes (again, just BTW), when we try to impose moral philosophy on law, either as interdict or as explanation, we can end up with absurdities (as with the consequentialism that decides an innocent person should be punished which is unjust on its own terms).

    Well, my short note turned out longer than intended. But I agree with Dan that you are misreading Anscombe here; and I am also suggesting that if you want to know what Aristotle intended, that you go to the source, and avoid his interpreters. For Aristotle human nature has a telos; my own point was that this is realized in community, and inculcated through education (which point Anscombe doesn’t quite do justice; but few having to wrestle with the positivistic inheritance of the Analytic tradition really has).

  24. In re-reading my last comment, I recognized that Prodigal was open to the charge of fraud for sending Midas ‘Weekly Missives’ from a churh he actually hadn’t attended.

    First, if he simply sent the ‘Weekly Missives’ without further comment, then the charge is moot; Midas interpreted this as he chose.

    But what if Prodigal included such notes as ‘Attended church again, here’s the proof.’ Then the question would be, did Prodigal intend to defraud Midas, or did he merely intend to make Midas feel better about their relationship?

    The first question (somewhat paradoxically) would depend on a prior judgment of whether Prodigal owed Midas anything at all. The latter question involves no fraud, and is thus only relevant as to motive.

    As Prodigal’s lawyer, I would surely argue that Midas’ expectations were unconnected to Prodigal’s behavior. Midas’ promise was merely the promise of a gift, realized in his will. Prodigal’s behavior is irrelevant to that.

    Now, it might be argued that as a lawyer, I am acting unethically by finding some way to justify Prodigal’s defrauding his Uncle Midas. But on the contrary: The American Bar Association not only expects but demands that I take Prodigal’s word on this matter in good faith and act entirely on his interests – if I don’t, that’s grounds for disbarment.

    One might demand, ‘well, what has this to do with ethics?’

    Yes, that is the problem.

    Benjamin N. Cardozo was always my hero on the Supreme Court. When he thought a cause just, his decisions would work curlicues of sophistical reasoning in order to bring it into compliance with Constitutional law.

    But that’s what the dance between ethics and the law is always about. This leads directly into politics. But since there is neither an essential ethics, nor an essential law, to politics – that’s a different matter.

  25. Dan-K,
    [P]hilosophically 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. (8)

    My comment, above, about virtues arising out of our need for trust in a collaborative society, is my attempt at providing such an account. By this account, the end(telos) is productive trust-based collaboration and not flourishing. Flourishing is a natural outcome of such collaboration. I find ‘flourishing’ to be a hopelessly vague and unsatisfactory concept.

    My thesis is based on twin pillars:
    1) all the goods of life are crucially dependent on the interlocking collaboration of society.
    2) collaboration is absolutely dependent on trust.
    therefore are our value systems arose out of the need for trust, to detect trustworthiness, to demonstrate trustworthiness and to maintain trustworthiness.

  26. The fundamental problem, as I see it, is the question of why we are cable of feeling an ‘ought‘ in the first place. To say that it arose out of societal need for trust is not to explain it but to describe it’s origins. We often mistake a description of origins for an explanation.

    As you said earlier:
    Attributing the is/ought gap to the modern idea that nature is value neutral is a basic assumption of both Anscombe and MacIntyre, and I agree with them.

    Quite right.

    If nature is value neutral then how is it possible, even in principle, that we can feel the force of an ‘ought‘? There is no way, in principle, that I can construct a computing machine that can feel the force of an ‘ought‘ . Adding complexity to machines simply adds complexity of function but does not produce an entirely new kind of thing, such as an ‘ought‘. And we are merely machines, of a biological kind, which only means we are unusually complex machines.

    The fundamental problem, in a deterministic world, is that the future is contained in the past, and the future is determined from the past by the laws of nature. If the ‘ought‘ is not contained in the past we will not find it in the future. And matter how hard we look, we cannot find an ‘ought‘ in the facts of physics or biology.

    Where then does an ‘ought‘ come from? There are only two ways out of this conundrum:
    1) ‘ought‘ is part of the laws of nature. This would explain how the laws of nature, applied to the facts of the past, can produce an ‘ought‘ in the future.
    2) one of the varieties of deism or theism.

    (2) is everybody’s least favourite explanation so we are left with (1), it is an, as yet undiscovered, part of the laws of nature. But this makes everyone deeply uncomfortable because it is perilously close to deism/theism.

    Since nobody likes (2) and (1) has uncomfortable implications, the current fashion is to deny the ‘ought‘ altogether and replace it with some form of consequentialism. This of course licenses the powerful and the privileged to satiate their desires at the expense of the rest of us. Heaven help us 🙂

  27. Dan-K,
    Anscombe maintains that the obligatory sense of the moral ‘ought’ arises from the combination of Classical virtue ethics with the law tradition that one finds in Judaism and pre-Protestant Christianity.

    This is not the whole story. The Romans had a highly developed legal tradition that even to this day influences our law. Cicero, after all, was a prominent lawyer before he became a Senator.

  28. Dan-K,
    How did this come about? The answer is history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah

    This also is incomplete and indeed misleading. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching was to move the emphasis away from the Law towards a more Aristotelian conception of virtue where Love became the central virtue. To emphasise the move away from an emphasis on Law he repeatedly taught forgiveness and tolerance, something which is at odds with a law tradition.

    Today Catholicism has rediscovered virtue ethics, under the influence of Alisdair McIntyre. A more nuanced Catholic position today is the following:
    1) we are invited to model ourselves on Jesus, to become more Christ-like. This is an invitation, an opportunity and not a divine command. As you said of Aristotle “For those who wish to flourish … this is how it’s done.
    2) Jesus is the perfect exemplar on whom we should model ourselves.
    3) The special emphasis of Jesus’ teaching was on love, service and forgiveness.
    4) We are expected to serve others in the way that Jesus did.
    5) We are expected to behave as the proxy for Jesus in this world. St. Teresa of Avila expressed this beautifully in her prayer:

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

    I quote this to show how far a modern day Catholic conception is from the legalistic understanding of Christianity. But I am the first to admit that the Christian world is really quite confused about this because they also assign a lot of weight to the Old Testament, so different denominations will emphasise different aspects of of the Old and New Testaments.

    But it is true that the Jewish conception of the law, married to Roman conceptions of law and sustained by Christianity has produced the effect you describe. It had the beneficial effect of inculcating a bone deep belief in a law driven, orderly universe and this belief, in turn, enabled the scientific revolution.

  29. Labnut: That is not the way it was understood in pre-Protestant Christianity. Indeed, that is the tremendous innovation that Luther brought into the faith. Anscombe was an orthodox Catholic.

  30. As is often the case, EJ put my point better than I did.

    Anscombe directly addresses the contractual treatment of obligation and — in my view, correctly — rejects it. I just didn’t cover that part in my summary, as I didn’t teach it in my class.

  31. Dan-K,
    That is not the way it was understood in pre-Protestant Christianity.

    But that is not what I claimed. I explicitly claimed this was the present day view. I would need to research medieval Catholic views to comment intelligibly on your statement. I do have a very detailed study of virtue ethics in the Church in the Middle Ages so clearly the idea held a lot of sway then. Saint Teresa of Ávila lived from 1515 to 1582 and her famous prayer is illustrative of some beliefs/attitudes of that time.

    A close reading of the Four Gospels supports my interpretation(if one resists the verse cherry picking approach of fundamentalists but reads them as a whole).

    As I noted at the end of my comment, the Church has always had mixed views on the subject, drawing both on the Old Testament and the New Testament. And so for this reason they pursued a mix of law-like and virtue ethics approaches. You however presented it as only a legalistic, divine command approach. This was misleading and indeed wrong and I thought it needed to be corrected as the truth is rather more nuanced.

    1. Labnut: the Course Notes are about Anscombe. These are her views I am describing, though I agree with them to a great extent. And one area that I agree with her is that the distinctive sense of moral obligation that one gets in the Western tradition — which the Greeks did not have — is a combination of the Greek virtues and human flourishing with the idea that the virtues and flourishing are *required* by divine command, an idea that comes from the Christian Greek/Jewish synthesis. Indeed, I think this is the *least* controversial aspect of her thesis and is one largely shared by MacIntyre as well. (I am starting to teach MacIntyre in my ethics class today.)

  32. I disagree to some extent but won’t pursue the matter since I have neither the time nor the inclination to research it properly. In any case the central point remains unchanged.

    (I am starting to teach MacIntyre in my ethics class today.)

    Now that should be interesting. Please share your course notes.

    1. Well, comments remain open for quite a while, so if you change your mind, I’d be more than happy to pursue it. I don’t mind at all going beyond Anscombe, but I just want it to be clear when we are doing that, given the nature of the Course Notes posts.

      And I certainly will do a Course Notes on MacIntyre, once I’m done.

  33. Fascinating account. Thanks for bringing up Anscombe’s Paper, which I was not aware of. This is a good overall critique.
    To get more specific than “psychology”, with the hindsight of today, I see the important scientific fields as Developmental Psychology, Anthropology, Ethnology, and Institutional Economics. We can get to a satisfactory solution to the dilemma between scientific explanation and normative force by thinking more systematically about what morality is, and how it originated. I recommend seeing morality as an informal system amongst a group of from thirty to a hundred people. Why this number? I think it likely that the first humans lived in groups of this size.
    Humans have a markedly longer period of immaturity, ie., childhood, than any other animal. It takes us nearly three times as long to be recognized as a mature responsible adult, than it does to have mastered our first language. This suggests that morality is more fundamental than language.
    Why do humans have morality and animals not? Hobbes answer is that we agree to follow one person with the monopoly of force. Economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work on Collective management of “Common Pool Resources” Her field observations demonstrated that CPR’s could be successfully managed for long periods of time if the participants followed certain management design criteria. These were good-fitting rules, commitment to the rules, to monitoring compliance, and to applying sanctions, a workable collective choice procedure for changing the rules, and a strong sense of group boundary.
    I submit that these are the conditions that make morality possible. Hobbes’s sword is replaced with the social contract itself. It is maintained by the commitment of the entire group to monitoring and applying sanctions to group members. This is David Sloan Wilson’s point in “Does Altruism Exist?”. Morality protects the group from selfish group members. The strong sense of group identity is used to protect the group from outsiders as well. Moral sentiments are ways that we socialize ourselves, ways that help us to inhibit over-stepping moral boundaries.
    “It takes a Village to raise a child” The origins of morality lie in the effectiveness of a moral system as a solution to social choice problems. As Kant realized, morality is categorical. It cannot be evaded. Everyone is subject to it. This suggests a group origin for morality and a collective essence. Morality is, in effect, a Common Pool Resource. It can benefit everyone, but the more people who violate the rules, the more it is undermined. Humans follow rules because they live in groups. The long period of childhood, larger brains, development of language and culture are made possible by a moral system which creates the conditions for prolonged childhood (a period of greater neuroplasticity)
    I’m partially following Bernard Gert in “Morality: It’s Nature and Justification” but also Christopher Boehm: “Moral Origins” and “Hierarchy in the Forest”, the writings of David Sloan Wilson, Frans de Waal, on Apes, and Elinor Ostrom, “Governing the Commons”

  34. Hi Dan, yes, well Massimo has changed his mind on Ethics from time to time. So perhaps he’ll see the somewhat glaring issue at some point. I hope?

    I still haven’t got to the paper, but I am curious to see how she handles Hume. I get the idea of Hume representing the “scientific” view, barren of moral content/weight. Yet at the same time, after showing it is not within nature itself, he did go on to argue for a form of consequentialism (indeed utilitarianism) based on an understanding (as he argued it in pre-scientific times) of human psychology. So he tried to do what Anscombe was calling for (as a prerequisite), and Massimo (as well as lesser authors) claim to have found.

    I rejected Hume’s position, as I have Massimo’s and all else. All I’ve seen is overconfidence in thinking we’ve figured people out already, based on customs at the time, and people are treated as practically a monolith. Massimo’s surprise and fury at Trump and Trump voters suggests that perhaps scientists and Stoics haven’t figured out what people are really about yet.

    My thought is: never will. It doesn’t work like that.

  35. It’s worth noting that MacIntyre changed his mind very considerably from After Virtue (1982) to Dependent Rational Animals (1999). The first book accepted Anscombe’s way of stating the fact/value problem, though like her her he wanted a way out of it — and couldn’t at that time find one without going “back to Aristotle”, though his Aristotle was shorn of A’s teleological biology. The second book argued for a basis for ethics precisely in modern biology. It is pretty much the same position as stated by labnut’s 10-point program posted on April 17.

    (Wikipedia’s entry on AM covers the ground quite well.)

    This means that for MacIntyre (and the many ethicists that were thinking through the same problems in this period) there is a “way out” of the fact/value problem through an account of the biological basis of human sociability.

    Personally, I agree more with Robin Herbert’s sort of view above, which is roughly that the supposed fact/value problem is deeply misconceived and we need more than a new biology to explain the way it is not really a problem. We also need a non-positivist theory of meaning and an account of the necessity of cooperation.


  36. alan: I know that MacIntyre’s position has evolved, but I’m not sure I think it is a good development. I think the works subsequent to After Virtue are decidedly inferior to it.

    I also think biology is decidedly the wrong place to look in order to ground a modern version of human flourishing. My own personal jury is still out on whether I think it is possible to have such a notion, in the modern framework, but I am pretty sure it cannot come from any framework belonging to modern natural science.

  37. Hi Labnut (and Alan), while I think the “10-point program” is interesting, the idea that the specific concept of “ought” or Ethics in general are products of evolutionary development (that is biologically determined) seems problematic.

    Why can’t it be that we have personal desires/interests and advanced mental capacities which allow, through social contact, mechanisms to evaluate and express our interests, and navigate those of others? That is any ethical “development” is social/cultural and not physical, not instinctual (as opposed to habitual).

    Also, while I grant that trust means a lot to a social species, it seems to me that there are virtues pertaining to the self alone, and different cultures may have very different ideas of what is virtuous.

    Finally (to Alan)…

    “the supposed fact/value problem is deeply misconceived and we need more than a new biology to explain the way it is not really a problem. We also need a non-positivist theory of meaning and an account of the necessity of cooperation.”

    I don’t understand how that is misconceived (and wonder if you could explain?). Hume did a pretty good job dissecting the issue. And it seems to me what you call for will explain the “why” of people behaving ethically, or thinking about ethics, but not provide a moral force that they “should” do X, Y, or Z.

  38. Hi Dan, I agree with your last comment.

    Biology can of course inform us on many things, but how can it possibly tell us what we (all) want without us providing the selection to select from first? What’s more, before science could tell us anything, it would have to involve a lot of experimentation with many different possibilities, particularly beyond those of our current culture.

    One would think that simply looking at any street in a big city, or venturing to different cultures, would give an idea that there will not be one idea or way of “flourishing” (whatever that is), common to most or all. At least none that will be useful when dealing with ethical issues.

  39. Brodix wrote:

    The notion that if laws are not divinely determined must mean they are completely subjective, aka relativistic, is really a negative absolutism. That without divine force, they have no basis and everything is equivalent. All, or nothing. God, or mush.

    The fact is, God was the lazy method. We evolved minds to distinguish and judge.

    = = =

    I think your response is the “lazy method.” It fails to engage with a single one of the substantive arguments that Anscombe makes. And it fails to recognize that she also explains quite convincingly why our own minds and judgments cannot provide the relevant authority.

    This comment is little more than a handwave. If you want to engage with the substance of Anscombe’s critique, great. If you didn’t read it, do so. If you read it and didn’t understand it, ask some questions. But don’t think you can simply wave off one of the strongest critiques of modern moral philosophy ever written. Things don’t work that way.

  40. Thanks Dan – This was really helpful !

    I get the intuitive desire to try to find a ground for morality in nature. I also understand why cooperation would be a reasonable place to look for that grounding. Even if we unwisely ignore Anscombe’s argument I just don’t think it works. People can give their trust to a group promoting in-group cooperation with sometimes horrible results. If we lose autonomy we are more likely to fall in with a cult, or look at those outside our group a less than those in the group. People will do things in gangs they would never do on their own. We need to balance our connection to groups with our independence of thought in ways that I don’t think can systematized.

    As for the idea that ‘stability’ is natures foundation for morality, I find that at least equally flawed. Evolution depends again on a balance between stability and adaptability at various levels. Culturally, a stable dynamic between species may be parasitic which would be hard view as moral. Or within species you could have a stable dystopia like the one in ‘Brave New World’.

    I am finding myself drawn to deflationary accounts with regard to a lot philosophical concepts (truth, mind, morality etc…).

    I don’t think first post went through – If it did ignore this one.

  41. Mackie comments:

    Elizabeth Anscombe has argued that modern, non-Aristotelian, concepts of moral obligation…are survivals outside the
    framework of thought that made them really intelligible, namely the belief in divine law…There is much to be said for this view…[I]t would be a mistake to see the whole problem of the claim to objective prescriptivity as merely local and unnecessary, as a post-
    operative complication of a society from which a dominant system of theistic belief has recently been rather hastily excised. As Cudworth and Clarke and Price, for example, show, even those who still admit divine commands, or the positive law of God, may
    believe moral values to have an independent objective but still action-guiding authority. Responding to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, they believe that God commands what he commands because it is in itself good or right, not that it is good or right merely
    because and in that he commands it.

  42. dbholmes, I can reply very briefly. The argument is that the biology of any social species has social values built into it (as well as survival and reproductive values). These values can manifest in many ways, but they involve taking it as given that social life is a good thing. In dolphins (MacIntyre’s example) empirical research shows how those values are cultivated and sanctioned. In humans, moral concepts fill out and guide our natural predisposition towards sociality. These concepts are at their core universally held (prohibiting arbitrary killing, for example).

    It is a big topic, of course.

    Here’s a link to some current research work combining biology, anthropology and philosophy:

  43. “…I see no refuge for contemporary ethicists in a revived Aristotelianism, and I see no hope for contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians, given that there has been nothing by way of an adequate response to Anscombe’s critique. That so many are blithely continuing on with this sort of work is not surprising…”

    Two points which may be of interest by way of this remark:

    1. Brewer’s “The Retrieval of Ethics” and Sanford’s “Before Virtue” both address the fact that much of what goes on under the heading of “virtue ethics” in contemporary ethics has continued on as if Anscombe never wrote MMP. Whatever we might make of an Aristotelian ethics, or a virtue ethics, we aren’t going to arrive at it by treating it as one more normative ethical theory sitting at the table with the Kantians, contractualists, and utilitarians.

    That point I think is well taken. What Brewer spells out is an alternative program, one which isn’t interested in taking for granted even the assumptions about agency and practical thought which seem to lead us into

    2. Regarding a replacement for teleology, Michael Thompson provides an excellent case that we don’t have to replace it so much as refine our conception of it and attend (in a very Wittgensteinian manner) to the logical grammar of our life-form concepts and judgements. See “Apprehending Human Form” and his book-length treatment “Life and Action”. Philippa Foot builds on this work in her (quite underrated, in my estimation) “Natural Goodness”, spelling out what an Aristotelian (and again, very Wittgensteinian-flavored) ethics might look like with these thoughts in mind.

    John McDowell also has some interesting thoughts in this direction. “Two sorts of naturalism” attempts to show how practical reason might be naturalized once we do away with some of the modern presuppositions inherited from Kantian philosophy and the naturalistic reaction to it; the account of practical _logos_ that he develops in the closing sections of the paper is consistent with his other remarks on reason and action in inter alia “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following” and “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule”, which follow PI’s lead in attempting to show how the correctness of an action doesn’t require us to step outside the practices and uses of language in which our actions are made intelligible.

    Whether these are convincing cases is, of course, a different matter; but the problem hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed, thankfully.

  44. alandtapper1950 ,
    The problem with biological/ evolutionary ethical theory can be summed up in two words: so what?

    Such theories have no greater force of argument – and no greater non-argumentative impulsion – than any of the ethical theories of the 18th and 19th century that Anscombe deconstructs.

    We’re a kind of hominid which evolutionary pressures towards socialization. At best this gets a meta-ethical explanation of why there are any ethics at all; but it doesn’t get you any moral good that is somehow realizable in some great awakening of consciousness.

    I’m here reminded of the ‘Age of Aquarius’ we were all promised during the ‘Summer of Love’ when were just on the cusp of a new age of peace and universal oneness. That didn’t work out very well; why might bio/evo meta-ethics prove any more appealing?

    For me, the value of ethical philosophy is deepening my understanding, raising questions about my own choices, and learning to discuss community issues in a more involved manner with others. The search for world peace I’ll leave to the other hominids.

  45. ejwinner, I don’t disagree with your basic point. The biological story serves as an explanatory background, and may help those who have trouble in understanding where values come from. To get from there to some definite “moral good” requires a whole lot more argument.

    I missed out on the “Summer of Love” (1967, I was still at school and in a foreign country), but I do gather from reports that it didn’t work out all that well.

  46. Hi Alan, thanks for your reply. EJ has already diagnosed a major portion of the problem with your position, but I want to amplify what he said. In fact, I think I will write an essay on this issue because it is important to me… I hope you will be around for that one, because I would appreciate your feedback.

    As a short response…

    “The argument is that the biology of any social species has social values built into it (as well as survival and reproductive values). These values can manifest in many ways, but they involve taking it as given that social life is a good thing.”

    This seems a conflation of innate behaviors and desires with moral *value*. There is no question we have evolved into a social species. That means that there are, generally speaking, biologically based pressures and cognitive functions which promote/facilitate sociability.

    But those are not the same thing as *values* or what is considered *good* in the moral sense, nor can they support such conclusions. To try that is a commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    “In humans, moral concepts fill out and guide our natural predisposition towards sociality. These concepts are at their core universally held (prohibiting arbitrary killing, for example).”

    I had an essay at Agora, debunking such concepts as human universals ( The fact is, if these were universal, biological, moral codes then people would not be engaging in immoral behaviors, because they could not think otherwise. Unless of course they are mutants, or had some sort of impaired physical development.

    You don’t have rules against something, if there is not a present urge in many people to do something.

    “Here’s a link to some current research work combining biology, anthropology and philosophy:”

    I went to the link and indeed he has a very interesting project going on. Maybe I’ll apply to his group. However, in addition to pointing to problems with the position you have expressed, there are clear problems with his project.

    Following quotes are from his site…

    “Oliver’s research investigates the nature, content and structure of human morality. He tackles such questions as: What is morality? How did morality evolve? What psychological mechanisms underpin moral judgments? How are moral values best measured? And how does morality vary across cultures?”

    This gets us to the hows and whys of moral judgment. What it does not get to is the whether we ought to… which is what Ethics is about and the concern behind the is/ought problem. To say P,D, and Q *is* why you feel like X *ought* to be done, does not support an argument that X *ought* to be done.

    “His work argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation and conflict recurrent in human social life. ”

    I have absolutely no problem with this, though in reading his approach I’m worried he may over-emphasize the biological to the detriment of culture and personal psychology. The problem for your position is that as soon as culture enters the picture, the is/ought problem (as Hume discusses it) becomes a solid problem. There can be few, if any assumptions of universal desire/interest.

    “Analysis of the ethnographic records of 60 societies found that, contrary to widely-held moral relativist views, these types of cooperative behaviour were indeed considered morally good wherever they arose, in all cultures.”

    Here he is going wrong, even on the social science side. Do all cultures share the same sense of “good”? Are the reasons the same? Are commonalities in such understandings supportive that such values are warranted? How can modern surveys, taken after most cultures have been largely affected by the influence/imposition of Western culture discover what all possible human cultures have or can hold as moral beliefs?

    “A classic twin study will help tease apart the relative contribution of genes and environment to the development of morality, and clear a path to investigate which specific genes, and which aspects of the environment, make a difference and why. ”

    Uhmmmm… I believe the group my lab is now a part of is one of the leading groups in this kind of research, having recently put out a massive analysis of gene contribution to complex traits based (in some part) on twin studies. I’m personally quite skeptical of this research and conclusions coming from it (having argued some with the lead of that group). But accepting what she has said, and not my more skeptical position, the contribution of genes is really very very small.

    But either way, this points to the ongoing problem, it is a combination of genes and culture. You can figure out what has made a difference, but it cannot tell you what difference *should* be made in the future.

    I would point out that he is allied to an organization which is trying to shape culture/behavior, which means set norms and genetic influences are not the end of the story.

    Damn, that was supposed to be short.

  47. EJ,
    The problem with biological/ evolutionary ethical theory can be summed up in two words: so what?
    Such theories have no greater force of argument – and no greater non-argumentative impulsion – than any of the ethical theories of the 18th and 19th century that Anscombe deconstructs.

    That sounds a little cynical. Ethical behaviour is not simply a matter of knowing what it is you should do. Ethical behaviour is more than an intellectual exercise, it is a fraught process with a tangible outcome. This process has four major components(after James Rest)

    1) Moral sensitivity
    A strong awareness of the fundamental importance of ethical behaviour. The ability to identify and discern situations with ethical dimensions.
    2) Moral judgement.
    The ability to explore the ethical dimension and to make reasoned ethical assessments.
    3) Moral motivation.
    A desire to act ethically and prioritise ethical decisions over other concerns.
    4) Moral character and commitment.
    Having the strength of one’s convictions to act morally.

    Moral behaviour is not an intellectual exercise and reading about the three great schools of ethics will not, by itself, produce this result . Instead it is a four stage process of becoming morally sensitive, learning to exercise moral judgement, inculcating moral motivation and developing moral strength of character.

    For all of this to happen you must truly believe in your chosen ethical system, because, after all, ethical choices frequently result in difficult choices or denial of desires. It is a process of education, training, habituation and reinforcement that requires commitment.

    Why should you have such a strong strength of belief in your chosen moral system that you are prepared to do this? What makes it credible? The answer to that is you believe it has a strong grounding that gives it sufficient legitimacy that you are prepared to give assent to its truth claims. Its legitimacy, derived from its grounding, is sufficient to make its truth claims compelling.

    So I am afraid you cannot dismiss questions of ethical grounding with an airy ‘so what’.

  48. EJ,
    …That[the ‘Summer of Love’] didn’t work out very well; why might bio/evo meta-ethics prove any more appealing?

    You are asking the wrong question. The failed experiment of the ’60s has complex causes that has nothing to do with this discussion. That is a very different kind of discussion that Dan-K might one day wish to entertain.

    Not only that, no-one is claiming that this explanation is more appealing than a failed ’60s experiment. In fact I find the comparison so strange that it borders on obfuscation.

    We are discussing this matter because we are
    1) curious, especially about causes and origins;
    2) seek understanding;
    3) and think moral behaviour is important.

    these seem to me to be good reasons for asking the question and seeking some answers.

  49. EJ,
    At best this gets a meta-ethical explanation of why there are any ethics at all; but it doesn’t get you any moral good that is somehow realizable in some great awakening of consciousness.

    See my above comment. We are curious, we seek answers and finding the answers may lead to important destinations. This is its own justification. Until we find answers we do not know where they may lead. So we keep our minds open and continue with a diligent search.

    Curiosity is a delightful thing and is its own reward.

    …doesn’t get you any moral good that is somehow realizable in some great awakening of consciousness.

    You are answering a claim that was never made. We have had great awakenings of [ethical]consciousness in the past and they were the result of great figures such as Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, etc. I list only some of them. No-one expects our curiosity about origins and causes to produce such a profound result so your criticism seems misdirected and not at all a good reason to confine our curiosity.

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