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.
Take a look at this very well-done little video. I think it perfectly captures the religious inclination to destroy all that glorifies man in order to appease their resentiment and hatred of human life.
It’s time for everyone who cares about freedom to stand up and assert that freedom of speech is more important than anyone’s magical sky friend and that people have an inviolate right to their own life.
Radical Islam, or any form of organized irrationality that we call religion, is a powerfully dangerous force in the world and we must mock it openly and fight against it with everything we have. Civilization hangs in the balance.
Nudity has now been legalized in Munich Germany, which is Germany’s third largest city. The city, in what I think is a reasonable compromise, designated six different areas around the city where nudity is permitted. Additionally, the city is very tolerating of nudity and has a tradition of what they call Freikörperkultur or “free-body culture.”
I think this is a move in the right direction and I hope that more cities adopt this, especially in the US. Frankly, I think it’s deplorable that some people think that they should be able to control the actions of others, even when they are not violating anyone’s rights. Nudity should be legal. It most certainly shouldn’t be a “sex crime,” like it is here in the US where one can be equated with a rapist for doing no more than exposing one’s body. The body is not always sexual. And, contrary to christianity and islam, the body is not evil.
Now, of course, if you want nudity prohibited on your private property, that is your right. But you don’t have the right to force others to always remain clothed, even when being naked would be preferable or objectively better (like at a beach).
Making the body taboo makes us all worse off. But, today, I’ll let Lord Russell have the last word:
The proper place for nudity is out-of-doors in the sunshine and in the water. If our conventions allowed of this, it would soon cease to make any sexual appeal; we should all hold ourselves better, we should be healthier from the contact of air and sun with the skin, and our standards of beauty would more nearly coincide with standards of health, since they would concern themselves with the body and its carriage, not only with the face. In this respect the practice of the Greeks was to be commended.
I’ve argued before that I don’t think porn addiction is a real thing (here and Erosophia Podcast #14 & #15). I’ve also referenced Dr. Marty Klein’s essay on it. But, here’s an angle that I haven’t pursued enough yet: why do people think they’re addicted to porn in the first place?
It turns out that it might be because they’re religious:
Compared with their less spiritual peers, people who identified as very religious were more likely to have a perceived Internet pornography addiction, no matter how much porn they actually consumed, according to a new study.
“We were surprised that the amount of viewing did not impact the perception of addiction, but strong moral beliefs did,” the study’s lead author Joshua Grubbs, a doctoral student in psychology at Case Western Reserve University, said in a statement. (LINK)
In some ways this isn’t surprising, because it is religion that labels porn wrong and we can only have addictions to things that are “wrong.” If you don’t think that’s right, consider that I have a strong chemical addiction to caffeine. Not only that, it’s easily available, lots of people have this same addiction, and some people spend lots of time and money on their addiction. But, even though this is a chemical addiction with literally all the signs and symptoms of an addiction, this isn’t an “addiction.”
Actually, and this is rather off-topic, but I am reconsidering my views on “addiction.” After taking classes in addiction and substance abuse for my MFT program, I’m not sure that I even think that the idea of “addiction” is a useful concept. In fact, I think it probably does more to obscure the true problem than elucidate it. The idea is this: people use drugs because they are in pain and don’t know how to cope with it. I don’t think I would have accepted this idea before my classes and before attending a SMART Recovery (cognitive based recovery, which is a really good program) meeting and some AA meetings (which I think do more harm than good). Before, I thought of drug addicts in the stereotypical way of purposely doing something immoral and being completely culpable for this. While at the Smart meeting, I heard the addicts there describe their pain and how good their substance made them feel, when nothing else would help. How they came back to their substance of choice when things got worse, in a very vicious cycle, because they needed their substance more when it was hard and not less. I initially couldn’t quite understand this, how these people could keep using their substances even in the face of all of the problems mounting because of their use. Now I understand that they don’t escalate their use in spite of their mounting problems, their mounting problems are another reason they use! I can’t help but think this idea, that people use because they are in pain, restores the humanity to drug addicts. It also gives us a clear place to begin in treating addiction and helping the addict to overcome their problems. If we can’t help them to overcome their deeper pain, all we’ll do is send them into an endless cycle of relapse. But, once we can help them to heal their inner pain, we can help them to quit using or to control their using. I think that it also explains addiction more thoroughly than other frameworks, including why addiction can be self-perpetuating as the pain increases from the addiction itself. Moreover, it explains the apparent contradiction in the disease model whereby the disease model cannot explain why some people with very strong genetic dispositions to addiction never actually use and why some people with no genetic disposition to use become addicts. Frankly, the disease model is a bad metaphor gone awry. One does not “catch” alcoholism like one catches herpes. There is no virus or bacterium that causes addiction. While it might cause dis-ease in a person’s life, it shares nothing in common with the common usage of that word and to continue to call it a disease is both wrong and misleading.
Anyway, getting back to “porn addiction,” of course those who feel that porn is wrong are going to have a problem with watching porn. Since they’re watching porn to masturbate (because really, why else do you watch porn?), and masturbation is also a sin, but sexual needs are real needs and important needs, but their “addiction” to watching porn makes them look at porn, which makes them touch their dirty genitals, well…you can see how their god wouldn’t be happy. Since watching porn is both immoral and feels good, the christian comes to think that there must be something wrong with them that makes them feel pleasure in this “immoral act.” But, the problem is their christianity and mistaken beliefs, not the pleasure they get from porn and masturbation.
So, the easiest way to get rid of “porn addiction” is just to get rid of christianity.