I recently read G. E. M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” for the first time and I think that it is one of the most astute and important essays on ethics that I have ever read. In it, she has three major theses, but it is the second that is the most important and makes the paper a necessary read for anyone interested in ethics. Her second thesis is this:
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. (p. 1)
She wants to take on the ideas that we have a duty to do, or that morality obligates us to do, certain things for which we can be condemned as “morally wrong” if we fail in them (it is important to emphasize that these are all unchosen duties or obligations and that someone voluntarily choosing to take on a duty or obligation is an entirely different issue). She has in her sights any ethical system that utilizes the concept of “duty” or “obligation,” which is nearly all major ethical systems: in utilitarianism you have a duty to maximize happiness, in Kantianism you have a duty to your unknowable nature-in-itself, in religion you have a duty to obey your god, etc. This is no easy task, for if she’s right, then she will take out all of these ethical systems at the base and render them unsupported.
So, what’s her argument?
First, that many people feel that there is some special psychological force involved in moral “shoulds” that make them different from other kinds of shoulds like “you should put gas in your car.” This special “‘moral’ sense” implies “some absolute verdict (like one of guilty/not guilty on a man)” (p. 5). This arises from an equation between “shoulds” and obligations or duties, “in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law” (p. 5).
Second, that this conjunction between “shoulds” and the law has arisen because Christianity has dominated ethics for centuries and it operates via a “law conception of ethics” (p. 5). In this conception of ethics, their god is the lawgiver and his commandments are the law. Of course, this divine law must be obeyed absolutely and is not open to question or amenable to reason.
Third, that failure to do your duty and obey the divine law is not simply to do a single wrong. Rather, it makes a person “sinful” or morally wrong in toto: a person who violates the divine law has become a moral-law breaker or outlaw of the worst kind. This is in marked contrasted with an ethical system like Aristotle’s, which antecedes Christianity, and has no term of absolute condemnation. Rather, Aristotle has terms such as “unjust” or “impious” for discrete acts or terms such as “scoundrel” or “villain” for a person with a bad character, but no way of describing someone who is irredeemably evil.
Fourth, any ethical system that utilizes this framework of duty, but without the idea of the divine lawgiver, has severed the concepts of duty and obligation from the only foundation that might give them meaning. Thus, they are without meaning and illegitimate.
This is an amazing insight and I would rank it among the top most insightful critiques of ethics in the history of philosophy. Certainly it is the most powerful critique of duty-based ethics that I have ever seen and it firmly cuts them off at the base and renders them absurd.
Yet, Anscombe could have made an even stronger case. If she had not been a Catholic (and she was a devout, refused to use birth-control and protested abortion clinics, Catholic), she could have taken the tack that since there is no such thing as a god, the very idea of moral duty to a lawgiver does not make sense. It is, to use her analogy, “as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten” (p. 6). Thus, all ideas of moral duty or obligation in this special sense must resolve to absurdity.
Now, to be fair to Anscombe, she does even apply her argument to the divine command theorist and notes that even someone using a divine command framework must still justify why we have a duty to obey the divine commands (p. 8). This, of course, students of Philosophy will recognize as a take on the Euthyphro problem. Moreover, she notes that the Kantian move, that one has a duty to oneself-in-itself due to one’s noumenally rational nature will fail to justify the legislative framework, since “whatever you do ‘for yourself’ may be admirable; but it is not legislating” (p. 13), and this does seem to be a completely unwarranted jump.
Thus, I think Anscombe has destroyed the idea of unchosen moral duty or obligation. It makes me curious, though, why this essay isn’t more commonly read or cited. Is it because Anscombe is a woman? Is it because people are loathe to give up their duty-ethics? I do not know the answer to this, but I am certain that philosophy is much the worse for this essay not being better known.
My own position, before reading Anscombe’s excellent essay, was that all duty ethics ultimately end up being no more than systems of punishments of the form “You have a duty to do X and if you don’t, you will be punished”. For this reason, they should not even be considered ethical systems at all, but merely systems of rules and punishments (I argue this in my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos, Chapter 1). While I maintain this position, Anscombe’s idea really explains the force that some people feel for duty-ethics.
An interesting question is why people feel this force in the first place. I submit that it is not because we are used to a legal framework, since few of us have cause to come in contact with the legal system, especially during the years when we are forming our moral beliefs. Rather, it is that many people learned to be moral by having morality imposed on them from the outside as they grew up, by their parents or caregivers. They never took it upon themselves to actually become moral, they simply followed the moral rules they were given in order to conform to a moral code they didn’t understand. Thus, they want to keep having morality be forced upon them, to conform to the only form of morality they know, while simply substituting the moral rules of duty-based systems for the rules of their parents. This is, I believe, the origin of the force that many feel for “moral duty,” although it is only through Anscombe’s argument that we can understand why the very term falls flat.
Thus, for all these reasons, we must reject duty-based ethical systems as being both empty of content (laws without a lawgiver) and as facades hiding a brutish system of punishments. One can, hereafter, say “Do X or I will harm you,” although obviously this is no moral claim, but can no longer say “You have a duty to do X.” Such a claim is incoherent and brutish.
All references in essay to: Anscombe, G. E. M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy, Vol. 33 (124), p. 1-19.
After much agonizing over this decision, I’ve decided that I will be publishing Eros and Ethos, my forthcoming book on sexual ethics, as two separate volumes. Thus, instead of:
Eros and Ethos: A New Theory and Application of Sexual Ethics
It will be:
Eros and Ethos: Volume 1, A New Theory of Sexual Ethics
Eros and Ethos: Volume 2, A New Application of Sexual Ethics
There are a number of reasons for publishing Eros and Ethos separately. The primary reason is that each half of Eros and Ethos is as long as most nonfiction books by itself: Volume 1 is around 100,000 words or about 210 book pages and Volume 2 is around 95,000 words or about 200 book pages. So, as you can see, publishing them separately makes sense. Moreover, each can easily stand on its own as a separate book. Most importantly, this means that I can focus my attention on finishing the final drafts of Volume 1 and getting it published right away.
Volume 1 should be released within the next 6-8 months and Volume 2 should follow within the next 3-5 years. After both volumes have been published, I will release an omnibus edition, in probably 7-10 years, that will bring together revised editions of the first two volumes and include another 50-100 pages of original content.
This is really exciting news for me, because it means that Eros and Ethos: Volume 1 will be published soon!
I’m so excited about this. I’m excited for you to see it. I’m excited for it to be in the world. I’m excited about all of the original philosophy that it contains, which has never been done by anyone before. I’m excited to have created something that I think is amazing, new, revolutionary, and a boon for human flourishing.
I’m excited to have done something about which I can be proud.
To give you an idea of why I’m so excited about, and proud of, this project, let me give you just some of the things it includes:
A new theory of ethics.
A new theory of emotions, including how to understand the connection between a person’s beliefs and their emotions.
A new theory of erotic love and better ways to think about love more generally.
A new theory of sexual attraction and a full explanation of it.
New ways to understand sexual orientation, sexual identities, as well as masculinity and femininity.
And much more!
AND, most importantly, all of this culminates in a new way to understand sex and its importance in a human life.
I really think that these books have the potential to make the world better and improve people’s lives.
I’ll send out another update once I have a better idea of the publication date, but it’s time to get excited about it.
I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for 11 years already! A lot has happened in the last year, so let me give you an overview of what’s been going on. If you want to stay current with things, you can subscribe to Erosophia or for a more personal touch, subscribe to my new quarterly newsletter.
Last year I said I’d be done with Eros and Ethos by December of 2015. Well, that was optimistic. On the other hand, there has been a lot of work done in the last year and it’s a much better book now. It currently stand at just over 188,000 words and approximately 600 book pages. I’ve listed the current chapters below and how complete they are, with respect to the number draft they are currently on and the total number of drafts anticipated. At the rate I’m going with my current editor, I expect to have a completed penultimate draft by January and to complete the final revisions by this time next year.
Last year I announced that I’m working on my first fictional work called The Wizard’s Tower. I have spent most of the last year working on Eros and Ethos, but I am pleased to announce that The Wizard’s Tower is nearly done in first draft! If you’re interested in more news about The Wizard’s Tower, sign up for the newsletter to be the first to find out what’s going on with it.
If you’ve enjoyed Erosophia these last 11 years, please consider sending me some love.
I’m creating a special newsletter for people who are interested in keeping track of what I’m doing and the progress of my various projects, like Eros and Ethos or The Wizard’s Tower. If you’re interested, head to http://jasonstotts.com/newsletter and sign up there. The first edition will be going out soon and will include some exclusive content not found anywhere else.
This post isn’t like most of my posts. In fact, it came together quite by accident. You see, just a little over a week ago, I watched a friend defend his dissertation and earn his Ph.D. (congrats, Dr. Moore!). What’s interesting about this is the subject of his dissertation, which was a phenomenological investigation into how we experience reading. This got me thinking about how I read and I eventually wrote him this letter titled “On Reading”:
I’ve been thinking about my own experience of reading recently and have some interesting insights I wanted to share with you. First, some back-story.
A couple of years ago I developed a pretty bad allergy to something that blooms in the Spring here. As a result, this year, I’ve been on antihistamines all Spring. At first I just felt tired and “out of it” and that was all the more I could describe it as. I’ve been changing antihistamines and finally settled on Allegra. Now, that’s not very interesting in itself, but it’s important to understand for what follows.
Usually when I read fiction, I do not experience the words on the page and, instead, experience pretty vivid mental imagery. In fact, I know that my mind has wondered when I start seeing the words again and then I go back and pick up the thread again. I experience reading fiction as a meditative experience or trance where I am not aware of my surroundings at all and I am immersed in the story and its images.
On the other hand, when I read nonfiction, I don’t experience the words imagistically. Indeed, I don’t usually find my mind populating the concretes subsumed under concepts when I think of the concepts (e.g. when I hear “table,” I don’t immediately start picturing all of the tables I have ever seen or even any of the things I know to be tables). When I do philosophy and read nonfiction, my mind stays in a purely conceptual frame, without images. When I think of arguments, I think of them as “flowing” or perhaps as links in a chain (although not with images), but rather they have a “feel” of one thing flowing or leading to another. (Partly, I’m sure, this is also my subconscious telling me whether things cohere with my own antecedent belief structure or what people call “intuition”.)
Anyway, my question at your defense grew out of thinking about my own experience of reading. I realized that the act of reading must first involve perception of the words on the page. However, concepts cannot be understood perceptually and words are simply symbols to stand in for concepts, so we must process the words conceptually. For me, then, when I deal with nonfiction, my mind stays in this conceptual area that doesn’t involve imagery. However, when I read fiction, my mind converts the concepts back into perceptual data based on story (e.g. reading “the moonlight shone softly across the water, highlighting the snow along its banks, and transforming the scene into a softness that enveloped them in its embrace” would give me the visual experience of this.) Now, you might be right that this isn’t a per se perceptual experience. Certainly, it’s what we would call the imag-ination in Aristotelian philosophy of mind, or the faculty of the mind that is capable of having visual experiences that are not immediately tied to our senses.
All of this, though, is partly a pre-amble to something I just realized: my ability to read is not the same right now as it usually is. Because of the allergy I’ve been on antihistamines. I’ve read several fiction books during this time, but even though they were well written and I enjoyed them, I couldn’t quite “see” them in the way I usually do. I realized that it started when I started taking the antihistamines. It seem that something about them prevents me from visualizing fiction in the way I usually do. To double check, I reread a passage from a book I’ve read several times and with which I usually visualize. It was the same: I was stuck seeing the words and not seeing the action.
Moreover, I also realized it’s deeply affected my ability to be creative while I’m writing. Even when writing nonfiction, I’m struggling to access my creativity in a way I don’t usually and I’m having a much harder time writing.
I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.
This is not a joke. It is not “blowing my mind” a la BuzzFeed’s “8 Things You Won’t Believe About Tarantulas.” It is, I think, as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.
Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.
If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.
You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.
I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.
What did you do today?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.
Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.
And if you ask about my day, there’s a good chance that—having had no time to prepare—I’ll lie to you.
It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why. And there is a sadness, an unflagging detachment that comes from forgetting your own existence.
Imagine how I felt reading this! My mind was blown (but don’t actually form images of my mind being blown, or else we’ll be in different places). His account goes a long way in explaining the way I experience the world, although it’s not quite to the same degree as Blake. As a matter of course, I do not remember things imagistically. I can form mental images and hear music and such, but it’s very hard and comes with effort, I don’t simply do it (except for music, which comes easily). This has led me to have a very bad memory for what I’ve done in a day as well (or what Blake calls “experiential memory”), but a very good memory for philosophy and arguments: I can recall philosophic texts I read more than 10 years ago pretty clearly.
Just like with Blake, this leads me to forget things that I’ve done, even with people I care about, unless there was also some cognitive content with the experience to tie it all together. This is one of the reasons I like taking pictures so much: I really won’t remember how things looked without them.
It’s weird to think about how different my experience is from other people’s. I already knew, for example, that I am nearly indifferent to other people’s emotions: unless I already care about you, your emotions will not affect me in the slightest. Even then, I don’t always know how to handle other people’s emotions. This, however, may be tied to the same issue of visualization: I can’t actually imagine myself in your shoes (which I now assume might be literal).
Now, to bring everything together, I’ve noticed that since I’ve been on the antihistamines, my visual experience has been even more paltry, closer to Blake’s, than it usually is. I would have never noticed this, except that I noticed it in how I read and my friend’s dissertation defense got me thinking about the experience of reading. So, I’m wondering if there isn’t some connection between some part of the brain that antihistamines affect and our ability to form mental images. Undoubtedly, I would be a bad test subject, because I’m already bad at it. But, maybe by standing just on the cusp of being able to do it, I was able to notice the effect of the antihistamines in a way that others don’t, because they only have a small change.
Anyway, I will definitely be thinking more about this and its impact on my life, now that I have a clearer idea that its going on and how it is divergent from others’ experiences.
Sometimes people try to purposefully spread misinformation to confuse issues. This is an interesting analysis of the phenomenon as well as a more general discussion of how people get information and form beliefs.
Usually, in early January, I do a big “Best of” the year post that highlights my best essays from the year. This year, however, there weren’t many essays on Erosophia. Nevertheless, it’s been a really big year for me! (Older best of’s: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)
First, Erosophia turned 10 this year! I’ve been blogging for ten and a half years now. It’s funny, because I started blogging on a lark. At some point I started to really enjoy it and people kept reading it, so it’s just worked out that I’m still doing it.
Second, I graduated with my Master’s in Clinical Psychology in 2015 and started work as a MFT Intern specializing in sex therapy in Palm Springs (more details here).
Third, I started my first full-length fiction book “The Wizard’s Tower”. It’s about half done now and I hope to release it in the next year or two. As I get closer to releasing it, I’ll give out more details about the book and maybe even put up the first chapter here on Erosophia.
Finally, 2015 was a huge year for Eros and Ethos: A New Theory and Practice of Sexual Ethics, my forthcoming book on sexual ethics. I started writing it in January of 2008, so I’ve been at it 8 years now! I finished the complete first draft of E&E in 2014 and spent 2015 working on revising it and making it into a much better book. I’m about halfway through the third draft now and then there will only be one last quick copy-editing draft. I’m expecting to complete it and offer it for sale this year (hopefully!!!).
As we get a little closer, we’ll be setting up a website for the book launch at www.ErosandEthos.com (it’s not live yet). We’ll also announce a firmer publication date and set up a pre-order system. I’m also planning on doing a limited print of 50 or 100 books that are numbered and signed. They will be available through the Eros and Ethos website. The print version will follow the digital by a couple of weeks.
There is, however, one potential problem. Eros and Ethos is long. The present word count is a little over 170,000 words, which makes Eros and Ethos 20,000 words longer than both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets combined. Depending on the words per page calculation, publishing it as a single volume will be between 680 pages (at 250 wpp, which is what Amazon recommends), to 566 pages (at 300 wpp, which is average nonfiction), to 378 pages (at 450 wpp, which is pretty small print on large pages). Given that most nonfiction books clock in around 200-250 pages (at between 300wpp and 450wpp), this is a problem as it might disincline readers, who will think it’s simply too long to read.
So, one option I’ve been kicking around is separating Part 1 from Part 2 and publishing them separately as Volume 1 and Volume 2. This would yield two regular sized books. The problem is that both ways have pros and cons, which I’ve tried to list below (you’re welcome to add to the lists in the comments).
– The reader can start with either the theory or the applications
– One unified volume
– Won’t have to separate out references to missing parts
– Won’t have to edit to disentangle Part 1 and Part 2
– Won’t need new covers
– Less $, since selling 1 books vs. 2
– Longer time to completely publish (need to wait between volumes)
– Too long of a book might discourage readers (some people may never read who might have read a shorter book)
– Fewer published books (author’s vanity)
– Publish 1st book sooner (less time to edit it all)
– More overall $
– Shorter books, easier to read and more likely people will read
– More total books published
– Build reputation for subsequent releases (maybe)
– Will need new covers
– Potential continuity issues
– Only get 1 shot to impress readers and people might prefer theory to applications or vice versa (This is my biggest worry)
What do you think of the publishing issue? Realistically, I think that it’s full of good and interesting stuff and everything that’s in it is in it for a reason.
Either way, 2015 was a great year for me and I’m hoping that 2016 will be even better and see the publication of Eros and Ethos.