G. E. M. Anscombe (1919-2001) lived her principles in a way that makes her stand out from most professional philosophers while also conforming to the stereotype of the philosopher as unworldly to an almost comical degree. When faced with a mugger on a visit to Chicago, for instance, she persuaded the man that this was no way to treat a visitor to his city. He ended up not just leaving her alone but leading her to a safer part of town. On another occasion, upon being told that women were not allowed to wear trousers in a certain restaurant, she proceeded to take hers off. Her fearlessness comes through in these anecdotes, but so does her commitment to old-fashioned values such as hospitality, her strictly logical reasoning, and her refusal to put up with nonsense. All three traits characterise her work in philosophy.
As far as this work goes, she has four main claims to fame. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, translating his Philosophical Investigations and writing an important commentary on his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. She was also part of the impressive generation of women philosophers working in Oxford after World War II, which included Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Warnock. Thirdly, she is widely credited with having revived interest in virtue theory with her paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”. Finally, she is also credited with reviving the philosophy of action with her book Intention, which no less a figure than Donald Davidson called the most important work on the subject since Aristotle.
Anscombe’s work generally tends to point back to Aristotle, as well as to Wittgenstein and to St Thomas Aquinas, whose Catholic faith Anscombe shared. The most obvious example of this is probably her essay on “Modern Moral Philosophy”, which was published in 1958. In this essay she presents three theses: that we should stop doing moral philosophy, at least until we have a better philosophy of psychology; that, if possible, we should give up the concepts of moral duty, moral obligation, and of what is morally right or wrong; and that the well-known English moral philosophers from Henry Sidgwick to “the present day” (i.e., the late 1950s) are all much the same in all important respects. Rejecting both the consequentialism (a term she coined) of Sidgwick, et al., and Kant’s ethic of moral duty, Anscombe recommends a moratorium on ethics or a return to an earlier kind of ethics, explicitly the kind preferred by Aristotle but perhaps implicitly the Christian ethics of Aquinas.
Why reject modern ethical theories? The two main ones are consequentialism and Kantianism, and the reason to reject each is different. Consequentialism regards the consequences or results of an action as the only relevant feature when considering the morality of the act. In particular, it ignores intentions. Anscombe rejects this kind of view on the grounds that it is unethical. There is no act, or kind of act, that a consequentialist will rule out (except on account of its likely effects). So torturing prisoners of war, executing people known to be innocent, or any other crime you care to name are all, so to speak, on the table. And this is true not only in exceptional circumstances but in all circumstances until the probable results are predicted. Consequentialism is thus incompatible with such ancient ethical ideas as that we should let justice be done though the heavens fall, or that we do not do evil in order that good may come (see Romans 3:8). Anscombe prefers the more old-fashioned view, which she sees as putting her at odds with the major British ethicists of her day. One illustration of this occurred when Oxford University decided to award an honorary degree to President Truman in 1956. Truman’s decision to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima is accepted, and even applauded, by many people on consequentialist grounds: it is believed to have shortened the war and meant that fewer people were killed than if Japan had been invaded with conventional forces. Anscombe’s view was that bombing cities constitutes mass murder. She was one of only a tiny minority that voted against honouring Truman with a degree.
For full clarity it is tempting to add “and mass murder is wrong” to the objection that bombing cities is mass murder. However, this would be to speak as if the unacceptability of murder did not go without saying, which, in Anscombe’s view, would be a grave error. It is precisely this error that reveals the corruption of consequentialist thinking, as she sees it. A consequentialist does not accept “but that would be murder” or “and that would be sexual assault” as, in itself, reason not to commit the act in question. This is why she rejects consequentialism.
The problem with Kant’s ethics, as she sees it, is not that it is corrupt but that it is incoherent. Kant regards ethical action as necessarily both free (if I am made to do it then I am not responsible for the act in question) and governed by law (because ethics is concerned with the law-like principles on which we act). His proposed solution to the question how an action can be both required by law and freely chosen is that the law is imposed by rational beings on themselves. Kant himself recognises the peculiarity of this idea. Anscombe rejects it as nonsense: any law that I “impose” on myself cannot possibly be binding. She also rejects the less theoretical suggestion that some things are simply “forbidden” or “obligatory”. Who or what might do the forbidding or obliging in question? It could be anything. But if we take our orders from tradition, or the majority, or nature, then we are not likely to end up with good ethical codes. The language of permission and obligation in ethics, as Anscombe plausibly sees it, comes from religion. If we aim to obey God, though, then we are following an ancient ethical path, not any distinctly modern, let alone specifically Kantian, moral philosophy. And if we aim to obey God’s commands but reject belief in God then, Anscombe would surely agree with Nietzsche, we are fools.
Most ethicists do not believe that she is right, although explicit rejections of her conclusions are often based on misrepresentations of her arguments. For instance, it is sometimes said that Anscombe thinks legalistic ethics can only be accepted by those who also accept the existence of a divine legislator, but she explicitly acknowledges the possibility of following a moral law based on the norms of society. She rejects this as a bad idea, not as incoherent nonsense.
If she is right, then one way to deal with this would be to accept her religious position. Another option might be to eschew notions such as “morally wrong” and to stick to more concrete facts. In this case we might, for instance, see that the course of action we were considering would involve the judicial execution of an innocent man and reject it right away. Unfortunately for Anscombe, however, as she well knew, we might see this and carry on with an unconcerned shrug. Whether this is a flaw in that way of thinking about ethics or simply a reflection of the unavoidable fact that philosophy will never make our choices for us is a question I leave for the reader. Anscombe’s own recommendation, perhaps surprisingly, was not that we all become Catholic but that we (or at least her audience in the 1950s) stop doing moral philosophy and work instead on the philosophy of psychology.
This is what she did in her book on Intention. There she argues against the idea that an intention to do something is an internal mental object or event that either causes action or provides evidence that the action is likely to be done. I might not know the biological or perhaps subconscious causes of my action but I do, in normal circumstances, know my intentions. That is, for instance, I know that I intend to go to the supermarket and buy the items on my list. In this case what I intend is not the cause of my action. It is the action itself: going to the supermarket and shopping for dinner. So intentions, while psychological, are not hidden away in the mind. They are publicly observable in the actions that embody them. This is not behaviourism, though, a reduction of the psychological to the behavioural: I know what I intend without observing my behaviour.
Intention seems to be essential to understanding behaviour. For instance, it might sometimes be hard to tell whether someone is trying, but failing, to sing well or, instead, succeeding in mimicking a bad singer. Knowing their intention would tell you which it was. Ethics, in a different sense, also appears to be key to understanding what someone is doing. Knowing someone’s intention is helpful to understanding both what they are doing (music or comedy) and why they are doing it (to practice, to entertain, or whatever it might be). But a person’s reason for action must be connected to something we can understand them to regard as good. Robbing banks is not usually thought of as good, but it is understandable why someone would rob a bank. That’s where the money is. It is much harder to imagine why someone would collect cups full of mud. There are apparent connections, then, between rationality, goodness, and our ability to make sense of people and their actions. Anscombe did not develop a full theory of how these all connect (although Aquinas did), but she cleared some ground for others to explore.