by Jason Stotts
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.