23 June 2006

Anscombe's Criticism of the 'Moral Ought': What This Is

Here's a parable to understand Anscombe's point about the 'moral ought'.

Imagine a young woman in school who devotes herself especially to music (she plays the piano), gymastics, and mathematics. Each of these areas, clearly, has its own standards of excellence. What is 'required', what is to be done, is one thing in gymnatics, another thing in music, and something else (the demonstrandum) in mathematics. It would be absurd to suggest that this person in pursuing her education is measuring her actions against some common notion of 'requirement'. It wouldn't help for her to keep constantly in mind that "I'll aim to do always what is required."

Now suppose that her father, whom she loves and admires very much, lately takes a special interest in her education and tells her something like, "It would please me greatly if you excelled in all areas of your study." Perhaps he is a perfectionist, and the woman gets the sense that in meeting the standards distinctive of each of her areas of endeavor, she would also meeting be her father's standards for her. Now it would indeed be possible for her to conceive of her studies with a certain unity, as aiming to 'please her Dad' or 'meet his expectations (or standards)'. But note that this unity would be a posterior, and there would be no question--it would be absurd to suggest--that the father's interest in her education creates standards in mathematics, music, or athleticism.

Anscombe believes that historically Christianity allowed for an analogous unifying of the moral life. It is correct, she believes, to think of requirements ('what is to be done', officia) as, initially, varied and peculiar to different domains of action--what is to be done by a soldier in battle is different from what is to be done by a merchant exchanging goods in the marketplace, etc. But if one holds that the requirements of practical reason in these various domains are expressions of a 'natural law' which is promulgated, as it were, in the very nature of the practical reason that we have, then it becomes possible to view what is required under any virtue as falling under the concept of 'required by divine law'.

In Anscombe's view, when moral philosophers of the 1950s (e.g. Hare) were aiming to analyse 'the concept of morality' and looking for the distinctive 'logic' of the word 'ought' as, it was supposed, used in a distinctively moral sense, they were engaged in a fundamentally incoherent enterprise, that came of imagining there to be a unity to requirement in action, which could not intelligibly be accounted for except for the postulation of a divine legislator or the equivalent.

One finds a slightly similar line of thought in Aristotle's Ethics (although Anscombe does not mention this in her article). I mean Aristotle's discussion of 'general justice' in V.1. He admits that there is a sense in which what is required under any virtue may be regarded as required in the same way, if we regard the acts of the various virtue as all obligatory under some system of law (hence an act of courage and of commercial justice are both alike in being 'what's law-abiding', nomimon.) (I would add that Anscombe's criticism of the concept of 'moral ought' has a similar spirit to Aristotle's criticism of a uniform notion of 'good' in NE I.6.)

It's clear that Anscombe's view, and Aristotle's, have nothing whatsoever to do with the view known as 'voluntarism', viz. that moral obligation must ultimately be explained by appeal to the will of a legislator.

In fact, Anscombe formulates her view in a way that makes it very clear that she rejects voluntarism:

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 needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law‑giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of "obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word "ought" has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of "obligation," it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

In her phrase, 'what is needed for conformity with the virtues, failure of which is the mark of being bad qua man', she acknowledges standards of action which provide, as it were, the reasons why the divine law is as it is.

Anscombe of course knew Aquinas well enough to recognize that this is how he conceived of the natural law also! ("Non enim Deus a nobis offenditur nisi ex eo quod contra nostrum bonum agimus", ScG III. 122, and like principles, were surely known to her.)


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about this. I don't doubt that Anscombe was no voluntarist herself, but I'm having a hard time reading her historical thesis in MMP as anything other than the claim that voluntarism brought about a certain conception of obligation which is incoherent without the notion of the divine lawgiver.

The idea that Christianity unified the moral life as you suggest is very interesting, and possibly right on. But Anscombe's claim seems to have something more to do with a voluntarist or quasi-voluntarist conception of the role of the divine lawgiver than what you describe. In your avoidance of any voluntaristic or quasi-voluntaristic concepts, you show that the divine lawgiver is, at least prima facie, unnecessary. If the various requirements of different domains are promulgated by the 'law' that is derived from practical reason itself, then the divine lawgiver might be invoked as the creator of human beings with practical reason (ala Aquinas, if I understand him correctly). Yet that appeal to the divine would hardly be necessary to maintain the view that the 'law' comes from practical reason, wherever that comes from; it is open to someone who does not believe in (or appeal to) a divine lawgiver to take the same view of the nature of human beings and practical reason. But Anscombe seems to be saying that the divine lawgiver is indispensable to any theory that employs the special kind of 'moral obligation' rather than mere requirements of practical reason. If I understand correctly, this is one major disagreement between Aquinas (who holds that the requirements of the natural law are requirements of human nature and practical reason) and Suarez, who holds that nature and practical reason can tell us what is good for us and how best to pursue the good, but can not bind us to do so -- for that we need the will of God.

My initial understanding of Anscombe's point in MMP was that voluntarism created a special idea of obligation that did not depend on practical reason. If that isn't her claim, then it's hard to take her seriously when she claims that the divine lawgiver is necessary for the kind of 'law conception of ethics' that she is describing. Yet if it is her view, then it is a little bit odd that she did not touch on this problem, that Aquinas is not a voluntarist, but others in the natural law tradition (Suarez et al.) are. That disagreement would seem to show, at any rate, that it is possible to have a 'law conception of ethics' in which there is no notion of 'obligation' which is not tied to practical reason and the pursuit of the good for human beings -- unless Aquinas and Cicero and the view you've described just don't count as 'law conceptions of ethics' for some reason or another.

In the end, I think she was quite right that the concept of 'obligation' used by modern moral philosophers was (is?) untenably detached from the practical reason we possess as human beings in pursuit of human goods. The irony is that Aquinas, the paradigmatic natural law theorist, developed an ethical theory which avoided the errors that Anscombe identified, despite the fact that he was a Christian and thereby might have been expected to be predisposed to a voluntaristic thesis. Anscombe was not the most sensitive historian of philosophy (cf. her typically overblown and silly remarks on Aristotle in MMP and in Intention), so she may have simply overlooked these things, especially since there have been a sizeable number of Thomists who have insisted that Thomas is not strictly speaking an Aristotelian; or she may have avoided the details for some other reason.

Ralph Wedgwood said...

That's a very interesting -- and illuminating -- interpretation of Anscombe's remarks about the "moral 'ought'". Your suggestion that she thinks that the ordinary use of 'ought' is no more unified than your example of the young woman's use of 'requirement' seems to be supported by the following passage from Intention  (p. 64):

"In thinking of the word for 'should', 'ought' etc. (dei) as it occurs in Aristotle, we should think of it as it occurs in ordinary language (e.g. as it has just occurred in this sentence) and not just as it occurs in the examples of 'moral discourse' given by moral philosophers. That athletes should keep in training, pregnant women watch their weight, film stars their publicity, ... that meals ought to be punctual, that we should (not) see the methods of 'Linguistic Analysis' in Aristotle's philosophy; any fair selection of examples, if we care to summon them up, should convince us that 'should' is a rather light word with unlimited contexts of application..."

Perhaps Anscombe also had in mind that the Christian way of unifying the moral 'ought' also makes it obvious what the answer is to the question of why we have to do what we ought to do, whereas the ordinary use of 'ought' doesn't give any single obvious answer to that question. 

Posted by Ralph Wedgwood