Suggestions for Modern Moral Philosophy

Ethics Term Paper, Vered Arnon

A growing number of modern moral philosophers have become dissatisfied with the study of ethics as it stands. Some, such as G E M Anscombe, advocate a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics. I agree that the modern study of ethics has reached a point of stagnation and that returning to the vibrancy of the past is definitely necessary; however, I think that Anscombe’s advocacy for virtue ethics reaches too far into the past, overlooking very significant advances in ethics that have been made since. In my opinion, a return to some “golden era” of moral philosophy would not involve embracing Aristotle, as many current philosophers find tempting, but rather would be a return to G E Moore’s Principia Ethica, which would restore an analytic aspect to the study. A return to the two fundamental questions laid out by G E Moore in his Principia Ethica will remove modern moral philosophy’s preoccupation with psychology, and will resolve its concerns with moral language as well. In this paper, I will have two main foci. First, I will discuss Anscombe’s article “Modern Moral Philosophy”, then secondly, I will explain how G E Moore provides solutions for problems raised by Anscombe’s view.

Anscombe’s article covers three main points. She claims first of all, that it is not profitable to do moral philosophy until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology. Secondly, she claims that some of our current moral language is irrelevant. Finally, she claims that modern moral philosophers don’t have significant differences of opinion, and thus modern moral inquiry is stagnant and uninteresting. I will address each of her points in turn.

Anscombe’s claim that a philosophy of psychology is necessary before moral philosophy can be profitable is misguided. She discusses various moral thinkers’ views on topics such as pleasure. Indeed, a philosophy of psychology would elucidate the concept of pleasure greatly. Thinkers who write about pleasure, and the moral philosophy called hedonism, have been accused, and rightly so, of committing the naturalistic fallacy, whereby they define good as pleasure and then claim that pleasure is good, which ends up becoming a discussion of how pleasure is pleasant. They don’t even attempt to escape from their tautology. Anscombe asserts that they don’t commit this fallacy, claiming that these charges are incoherent, but I believe my statement above summarises the charge quite coherently. To refuse to accept their fault is one of the main reasons why modern moral philosophy seems to need a better account of psychology.

She also claims that a philosophy of psychology is essential in order to discuss whether an unjust person is a bad person, and whether just acts are good acts, and so on. Again, her view is misguided. She states, “An account of what type of characteristic a virtue is [is] a problem not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis”. Her assertion that conceptual analysis is not part of ethical inquiry is confusing. Ethics is about concepts, conceptual analysis is part of the process of ethical inquiry. Psychology would analyse the psyche, the intricate processes that form an individual’s personality. This is not necessary when one merely desires to determine whether a ‘just’ act is ‘good’ or not, since this question merely involves determining whether or not the concept ‘just’ (or the concept ‘virtue’) meets the criteria of the attribute ‘good’.

Anscombe’s claim that some of our current moral language is irrelevant is a justified claim only in regards to the notion of obligation. This will be the main focus of this paper, since this is where G E Moore’s Principia Ethica is most relevant, and I will elaborate on this later on. Anscombe discusses in length the deep and important question that is raised by the is/ought gap. She explains that the notion of obligation is incoherent without a theory of divine imperative or law. Previous moral systems included this notion, when the notion of God was universally accepted by moral theorists. But modern moral theory has dropped the notion of divine law etc, while still holding on to the notion of obligation. This is ineffective, she claims.

There is no way to bridge the gap between right and wrong versus obligation, Anscombe claims. But even though we can’t bridge this gap, she explains, we can still do ethics. We just need to shift our focus, to bring things up do date, and establish coherency. We need to focus not on right and wrong versus obligation, but instead on just and unjust versus virtuous. Updating moral language in such a way will bridge the gap in a way that is compatible with modern moral theory.

Anscombe’s final point is that modern moral philosophers don’t have significant differences of opinion, and thus modern moral inquiry is stagnant and uninteresting. An abundance of varying theories have, however, been formulated and stated. I think that different philosophers do have significant differences of opinion, but, indeed, many do present variations on the same theme. The formulation of one theory after another doesn’t advance the field of inquiry, it merely clutters it. Which of these theories are pertinent? Which open the way for interesting questions about the concepts that make up what we call the study of ethics? I think a comparison of existing theories and an evaluation of whether or not each of them meets the criteria of ‘good’ could be a productive step to take at this point. Anscombe advocates one theory, virtue ethics, over the others, but any philosopher could make a similar argument and claim that the theory they favour is more up to date or fosters more differing opinions.

Now I will address each of Anscombe’s points in terms of the philosophy of ethics that G E Moore lays out in the Principia Ethica. I will begin with a quote, which outlines the fundamental importance of his focus on ‘good’ which modern moral philosophy has neglected, and which Anscombe overlooks.

“There is a simple, indefinable, unanalysable object of thought by reference to which [the subject matter of Ethics] must be defined… The words which are commonly taken as the signs of ethical judgments all do refer to it; and they are expressions of ethical judgments solely because they do so refer” (Moore, p21).

To address Anscmbe’s first point, I will explain in greater detail why a philosophy of psychology is not necessary for a profitable study of ethics. Ethical inquiry, if it is to be a valid field of philosophy in its own right, should be able to stand independently. If a philosophy of psychology were essential, then the study of ethics would be a study of psychology. There are two main questions that ethical inquiry deals with, according to G E Moore: “What is ‘good’?” and “what causes things that are ‘good’?” The question of “what should we do” is not a psychological one, but an analytical one. Inquiry into the nature of ‘the good’ and what it means, finds its basis in logic and linguistics. The question of “what should we do?” is a question of cause and effect, inquiring into what actions will be the cause of an effect that meets the criteria of ‘good’. A philosophy of psychology is not only unnecessary, but also irrelevant, to this inquiry. Moore writes that what makes any statement an ethical statement is its concern with the ‘good’, either things that possess this quality, or things that cause it or cause things which possess it. Moore’s book Principia Ethica has been said to have defined and laid out the study of ethics. Moral philosophers who deviate from the focus on ‘good’, are not really concerning themselves with ethics anymore.

This leads back to Anscombe’s second point, and the most important point of my paper, which is the state of moral language. The reason why concerns of moral language have arisen is precisely because philosophers have lost their focus, and are not really pursuing ethical inquiry. As long as people think ethics is concerned with psychology, rather than a field of study independent and philosophical, the notions which they attach to words will pose problems.

Updating moral language in the way that Anscombe suggests would not solve the problem. She suggests discarding the notions of right and wrong together with the notion of obligation, and replacing them with the notions of just and unjust. While the notion of obligation that depends on a theory of divine imperative is outdated and ineffective, there is still a basic sense in which “ought” is still a relevant and important notion. Ethics is concerned with what actions cause good results/ lead to good effects. Thus, if one’s objective is the good effect, then the notion of “ought” in the context of “what should we do” is merely asking what actions will cause the sought-after results. So some senses of current moral language are outdated, but the vocabulary terms still have other senses, and thus are still useful for moral philosophers. This, I think, is a much simpler suggestion than the distinctions Anscombe draws between “morally ought” and “ought” in the conventional sense. When the distinction is discarded, the word itself no longer poses a problem.

The notions of right and wrong need not be supplanted by just and unjust. Rather, they merely need to be understood in light of the first fundamental question of ethical inquiry, which is, “what is ‘good’”. In light of this, then, right would be that which meets the criteria of good, and wrong would be that which doesn’t. Focusing on the notions of just and unjust would be to commit the Naturalistic Fallacy, which G E Moore explains in length.

One of Moore’s fundamental claims is that ‘good’ is an unanalysable organic simple. By this he means that it cannot be defined in terms of any other concept. Anscombe’s suggestion of focusing on just and unjust would commit the Naturalistic Fallacy by defining ‘good’ in terms of ‘just’. This is a problem from which the virtue ethics approach cannot escape. Whether it be ‘just’ or ‘excellence’ or ‘flourishing’, virtue ethics defines ‘good’ in terms of its desired end. Anscombe writes about how it is important to be able to ask whether a just act is right or wrong. Rather than merely adopting the virtue ethics perspective, in order to develop an effective moral philosophy, I think one should go further and ask whether ‘flourishing’ in given cases may be right or wrong. Without a coherent notion of ‘good’, inquiry into virtue and flourishing is ineffective.

The problem with moral philosophy is that it has lost track of its two most fundamental questions. Anscombe’s article is full of criticisms and suggestions, but none of her proposals solve these problems. A return to G E Moore’s analytic approach would help to get ethical inquiry back on track. Ethical inquiry can be very interesting and profitable, so long as one is indeed following the proper steps of ethical inquiry. Moral philosophy, when brought back on track, still has many interesting questions for us to consider.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *