Anscombe wants to resurrect the “ought” based on flourishing rather than morality but fails to give a descriptive or even a working account of what flourishing is, means or entails. Shocking how she claims that Mill and the Utilitarians are confused about pleasure, and fail to give a working account or definition of pleasure (which is a self-evident thing to my mind) while she wants to create a nutritive “ought” without giving any type of argument of why nutrition is good or being alive is preferable to being dead. Why is virtue good? If it is good for something then it is good within a consequentialist construct, at-least broadly speaking. If it is good in-itself why is virtue good for its own sake?
Nietzsche’s critique of the universalization of ethics in Christianity, which is also an aspect of most Greek Virtue Ethics, only holds if these morals and virtues are consequential in nature. It is absurd to be absolutely universal in one’s depiction of how we ought to live considering the massive distinctions in individuals and the complexity of life. We cannot all, for example, be expected to practice the virtue of courage as much as a warrior fighting for a just or unjust cause for example. And the fact that he may be using his courage for an ill end shows Kant’s point that all things (though he makes an exception for the good will – which I think in some ways holds and in some ways doesn’t which I won’t go into here) are subject to scrutiny and cannot be either goods in themselves or perfect ways of attaining that which is good in itself. However, if our understanding of Virtue Ethics and Divine Command Theory is that we care about virtue for virtue’s sake, and we care about the word of God not because of the consequences of following said authority, but simply through the nature of the authority we are expected to obey then the criticism falls apart.
However, I would claim that both Virtue Ethics and Divine Command Theory interpreted in this non-consequentialist way are absurd and have nothing to do how to live; instead they deal primarily with satisfying one’s Ego in the former and mindless submission to a higher authority without just cause in the case of the latter. There is to my understanding little debate about how to interpret Divine Command Theory, but there is in regards to Virtue Ethics. I think it is essential, before all other questions are considered, to ask whether or not Virtue Ethics is consequential. If it is in some way, then we must examine how it works functionally and potentially distinguish it from Utilitarianism. If it is not Consequential, then it has nothing to do with our lives and therefore should be rejected as a “moral” justification for vanity. It is then something that should still possess historical but no “intellectual” import and though its ancient and contemporary defenders may be correct about specific ethical or non-ethical arguments, must be rejected and put aside when it comes to the general question of “what is ethics?” or “what does it mean for an action to be right?”
She claims she wants to remove all moral “ought” and have only a “factual” or causal “ought.” For example, I want to ride my bike, so I ought to pump up the tires. Or her example, I want to be just (or not be a “bilker”) so I should pay my debts. She half-acknowledges that this is only significant if we presume that we want to be just but ignores in my mind its true weight and significance. Why should I want to be just? If we take the point of a character in Plato’s Republic, couldn’t I live just as well, in some cases even better, if I merely appear to be just when I need to be and in reality behave like a scoundrel whenever it’s of no harm to me? And even this line of reasoning presumes certain values. That I value pleasure and sensual delights let’s say, or rather, that I value certain consequences of my actions. She ignores the fact that without any form of normative “ought” (the thing she says is a predecessor of a dead ethical construction) there is no way to arrive at the values necessary to ground justification for the “descriptive” or non-moral ought. That is to say, without knowledge that to repair my bike is ethical, or at-least not harmful or unethical, that is to say, is a justified action, how do I know that in a more radical deeper sense I ought to even attempt to know the mechanics of fixing it?
Normative claims surpass descriptive ones, because the normative deals with an actions justification, rather than simply its execution. And whether an act should occur will always be of greater significance than how to do it. If it shouldn’t be done it doesn’t matter how it’s done – you shouldn’t do it. Anscombe’s attempt then to remove the moral “ought” (as if it lost its true meaning in modern philosophy which is a claim she doesn’t defend well) is in essence to remove the notion of justification for our actions. She begins the paper by saying we first should have a Theory of Psychology, but is the psychology of something something that surpasses its justification? No. Psychology is merely the field broadly speaking that deals with a descriptive account of human action, behavior and thought. That is why people think, feel and behave as they do – which has nothing to do with how they ought to behave in the moral sense, which as I’ve already argued is superior to (that is is higher than in importance and preliminary reasoning) any descriptive account.
Her insistence that a philosophy of psychology is required to do ethics also expresses the confusion in virtue ethics with normative and descriptive ethics. Or as she puts it “that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a "virtue." This part of the subject-matter of ethics is, however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is-a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis-and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear. For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as "doing such-and-such" is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it.” To say that what type of characteristic a “virtue” or the traits and qualities of morality are is first a non-ethical one is to claim that the descriptive or the non-ethical precedes the normative. That we look at the world and see “virtue” as some light, some greatness of some man standing on a hill and later ascribe the traits as what we should aspire to, what is an normative ought. We ought to be brave. But what good is bravery? This question surpasses any descriptive account of bravery.
Virtue Ethics as separate from consequentialism and deontology then should not be deemed a fully normative ethical theory but one that confuses the ethical with the descriptive. Yes, people value bravery and intelligence, you’ve described this well let’s say (as Aristotle does) but you have yet to give me an account of why these things are good. Aristotle holds that we value these things in in order to be happy; it is then the consequences of virtue that ground the goodness or value of the virtues in such an account. The alternative is, as I’ve said, to conflate the descriptive with the normative, to create a philosophy of psychology and describe in details the motives and operations of a brave man and then somehow from there demonstrate that bravery is good. You have not dealt with any value claims in your descriptive account (for descriptive accounts cannot deal with value-claims, only what appears in the world) so your descriptive account has no value in the realm of normative claims, or of value judgments. This shows also the distinction between the moral and scientific studies. Science can help us immensely with how to get what we value but never in the larger normative sense what to value.
She wrongly and oddly claims that a Divine Command Theory of Law is required for the moral form of “ought.” This simply isn’t true. Regardless of Negative Utilitarianism’s validity it proposes the moral “ought” deals with the prevention, alleviation or reduction of suffering. I “ought” not to torture because it brings about harm to someone. I “ought” to donate money to the poor box because it alleviates the suffering of the lower class. I ought still to donate that money to a legitimate charity or political group that will offer fundamental change in society through social and legal change, rather than merely putting a Band-Aid on the problem which is the solution of charity. Here the normative “ought” can easily be understood conceptually regardless of its validity. The idea that the normative “ought” can only come from Divine Command Theory is the implicit statement that normative ethics and any reasoning for any course of action can only come from the dictates of a God. It is a small-minded view that completely destroys the very real possibility of human beings of finding the good and bad on their own, and using their reasoning to find the best course to live – rather than living on the dictates of a cruel and primitive deity that was created by Man before he knew what a germ or a star was.
Ultimately virtue ethics divorced from consequentialism and is instead concerned for virtue for its own sake is something that is based on a need or desire for the ego to validate itself and the traits that it values. It is psychological primarily, and not ethical, perhaps which is perhaps why without her knowing that Anscombe says we first must look at psychology then delve into ethics.
It’s rather odd that Anscombe is noted for coining the term “consequentialism” since she uses it in a way that is different than its modern use, and in a way I would consider its improper usage. She uses it as a distinction between itself which begins with Sidgwick and classical Utilitarianism, when it should be clear from reading this paper that I use consequentialism as the broad ethical claim that only consequences have ethical significance in themselves – in this sense it is well known and taught that Utilitarianism is a form of Consequentialism.
For all of her smarminess, she doesn’t seem to understand what she criticizes. She writes: But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them. Whereas I should contend that a man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; and contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of good actions. She clearly is stuck in the logic of Virtue Ethics and obedience to Divine Law. She is incapable of understanding that a consequentialist isn’t concerned with moral judgment the same way Aristotle is for example, whether we can assign moral blame for what a person does, or whether someone knowingly sinned against the Creator for example or did so in ignorance. The only cause for punishment is if it produces good consequences. Therefore it doesn’t matter if someone claims whether or not he is believed that they did not intend bad results, the only thing that matters is if punishing him produces good or bad results. Whether an action is good or bad isn’t evaluated on my stated intentions or beliefs of action, but instead on the actual events that follow. There is no such thing as good actions with bad consequences in consequentialism. That is what she cannot comprehend. There is such a thing as good intent, good character, good will, but not good action. So yes, on one hand a man can be held responsible but in the consequentialist sense, not the radical sense of moral “responsibility” that is not the focus of consequentialism.
Will punishing a man who intended no harm be more harmful than beneficial? It depends on the situation. It may be wise to provide some measure to someone who accidentally killed someone drunk driving. Now the fact (presumed fact) he did it unintentionally shows he’s someone unlikely to have malice – something to look at for the reason that people who acted on malice are seemingly more likely to again act on said malice and bring about more suffering. But there are other reasons why they might do the action again, even if it was an accident. Therefore Consequentialism is not focused on blame but with results. The drunk driver will have his license taken away and will be ordered to attend some form of counseling or rehabilative function for the good of others and of himself. Those who propose jail either do it on un-consequential grounds (he “deserves” in some radical sense to suffer, which is to be considered irrational in reasoning and sick in exhibition of moral character) or on the grounds that it will be better all-things-considered for him to be in jail. Jail as fundamental punishment is fundamentally unjust, but since we live in an imperfect world, it is reasonable to say that although the suffering of those who are in jail is never acceptable in-itself, it is acceptable when considering the potential greater pain that those who would commit wrongful and violent acts would with good probability commit.
In closing she spends very little time giving credence to her sweeping blows against the Utilitarians and Kant. She doesn’t seem to understand Consequentialism’s intentions or goals, and she seems ultimately to be unnerved by the prospect that no action or character trait is ever “good-in-itself” but is good to the extent that it has good effects on the world. This need for absolute certainty and definitiveness into the nature of reality and right and wrong is a neurotic impulse that leads towards sloppy thinking and rationalizes bad motives and psychological impulses – including its own. Consequentialism is a simple philosophy conceptually but very complex and nuanced in practice – for it contours to the complexity and nuanced situations of our world. People who are small-minded and need a simple universal “right” and “wrong” will be attracted to Divine Command Theory, Deontology and Virtue Ethics, for they make promises of character we admire being good in-itself (e.g. “intelligence is always good or is good in its own right.”) or being able to evaluate a situation solely by the person’s intentions (e.g. “they meant no harm so nothing bad occurred.”), rather than the results of their actions in the world with regard to intent and character only to the extent that they factor into the world and altering them will improve the world.