In the list of influential Catholics in the twentieth century the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who died in 2001, will certainly find a place. She removed the underpinning of moral philosophy, as currently practised, and triggered a revival of virtue ethics. Roger Scruton recently wrote that she was “perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English.”
In her 1958 essay, Modern Moral Philosophy, she argued that the concept of moral obligation, inherited from an earlier, Judaeo-Christian culture, could only have meaning if it were based in law. However modern moralists had excluded God as lawgiver, and had failed to replace him with any alternative.
She analysed, and pooh-poohed, schools such as consequentialism (no moral content) and Kantian ethics (folly to think one can be bound by moral laws you have yourself imposed). And suggested that Hume might, despite himself, indicate a better approach.
Hume argued that there is “no ought from is”. And indeed this is exactly where traditional morality inserts God’s law as an obligation derived from our created natures. Hume, however, accounted for our social feelings by positing an emotional quality of benevolence which inclines us to so-called moral activities. For him, moral sentiment is no more than sentiment. This explanation points towards the consideration of the qualities of the actor rather than the qualities of the act.
Anscombe argued that we should not start by analysing the morality of acts but by considering the virtues of the actor. Thus we should speak of a man as just, or unjust, chaste or unchaste, truthful or untruthful. She suggested that the basis of morality might better be found through the study of the psychology of virtue. That study would prove successful if it resulted in a watertight demonstration that, say, an unjust man was necessarily a bad man.
The reaction to her conclusion has been interesting. There were two general responses. The first was that there was no possibility whatsoever of demonstrating this because it would require a circular, and therefore, invalid, argument. The second was to match up to the challenge and undertake an exploration of the value and imperatives of virtue ethics.
The first response led to the thought that Anscombe was being disingenuous. By setting her fellow philosophers off on a false trail, they would find for themselves that they still could not explain moral obligation without a lawgiver. While the second response would not of itself replace the underpinning of moral philosophy, it might lead to a better understanding. For those of us who also accepted God as lawgiver it could lead in a very enriching direction.
While the New Testament does not abrogate a jot or tittle of the moral law, the whole emphasis is on the qualities of the person, measured by our imitation of Christ. In doing so, it gives meaning to the law, for both the law and the prophets are founded in love for God and love for neighbour. The focus of the moral life is not “what should I do?” but “what should I become?” We are no longer called to observe the law directly but to grow into the just, the chaste, the truthful person who will look to the law not as a burden but as a welcome guide. “The ten commandments protect the outer periphery of the realm in which Christ will be formed in us.” (G. Ermecke)
We will scarcely need reminding that we owe to Socrates the huge step in our understanding that the quality of the human being lies in his virtue as a person. And we see this more clearly laid out in Aristotle, who sets down the cardinal virtues as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. We might translate these as practical wisdom, justice, fortitude, and balance. They are called cardinal, or hinge, because from these all the other virtues descend, and because you cannot effectively practice one without practising the other three.
Not surprisingly the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, which link us to God through grace, were not recognised as such by the ancients. The Greeks did not look towards charity but towards excellence as their goal.
The practice of these virtues leads to mankind flourishing. What Aristotle has in mind here can be most easily seen by analogy. How do we enable a dog to flourish? By treating him according to his nature – thus he will need such things as exercise and human company. And we must apply these according to his breed: we would scarcely treat a husky and a toy dog identically. Similarly, we must look to man’s nature – in its full spiritual and material aspects – to discover how we must behave in order to flourish. And this, of course, is the meaning of natural law. Once again we see the law not as a burden but as an ‘instruction manual’ for our benefit. But, where Aristotle’s starting point is whatever would be agreed upon by well brought-up gentlemen, our starting point is God’s will written in nature.
It is through this approach which Pope Benedict, when a cardinal, sought to reconcile the concept of freedom of conscience with the presence of authoritative law. It is only when we have freely opened up ourselves to love that we see the meaning and purpose of the law to which the Church invites us.
In my next column I want to relate what I have discussed here to deeper aspects of virtue ethics. This will enable us to explore how this approach can release us from the grip of neurobiology and our preoccupation with moral casuistry.