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Entries in G. E. M. Anscombe (8)


Anscombe's "Intention"

I recently picked up Elizabeth Anscombe's monograph, Intention, for a second time after an abortive first attempt to get through it. As before, I found the first half dry and abstract and overly focused on what I take to be the minutia of usage re: some key words and, especially, "intention." But this time I saw the first half through and went on to finish the book. It was better, because of the second half, than I initially thought.

Anscombe contended that one could not properly engage in ethics (the doing of moral philosophy) if one had not already developed a suitable analysis of the concept of intentions, the personal element in every morally relevant human action. Intentions underlie, and so underwrite, human activity in its deliberative mode even if there is a wide range of human actions for which the idea of what is intended is irrelevant. It is the intention of the human agent, she thinks, that gives the act to moral evaluation. We don't judge involuntary or reflex or coerced actions in terms of their rightness or wrongness, of course, but keep such forms of judging for those acts which we think about and choose to do for reasons. Yet, the concept of intention is an odd one as Anscombe demonstrates in the first half of this ninety four page monograph. . . .

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Why Goodness is not a Property

Since G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903) the question of whether "good" denotes a property of something has been important in the field of Ethics. Indeed, one might say it spawned the whole field of metaethics which looks at the epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings of ethical beliefs. Moore challenged the notion of hedonistic utilitarians like John Stuart Mill that we could determine the right things to do, the morally good acts we should perform and support, by a calculus of the acts' effects in terms of how much pleasure or happiness such acts added to, or subtracted from, the world. Formulating his "open question" argument, Moore pointed out that it made no logical sense to suppose that anything that could be brought about in the natural world was what we meant by "good" and so it could never be enough to presume that how much happiness or pleasure, or any other natural phenomenon, was fostered in the world could determine whether or not we should act to bring such things about. This, he noted, was simply because we can always ask a further question of the supposed good, i.e., whether it, itself, is good. That is, since we can conceive of circumstances in which pleasure or happiness are not good (think of the happy junkie or serial killer who takes delight in his pursuits), the term "good" cannot possibly be equivalent to being happy or, indeed, any other phenomenon or condition.

Moore's solution was to suppose that "good" must therefore be understood as denoting something else and, because everything natural (occurring as part of the natural world in which we stand) could be either good or not good (i.e., fell victim to the "open question"), what "good" denotes must, in fact, be understood as being non-natural. That is, Moore suggested, it must be some property of a thing that is outside the natural world. Moreover, he suggested that such a property must be bottom line in its own nature, i.e., it must be unanalyzable to anything more basic than itself. Finally, he reasoned, such a property must be known to us in a way quite different than physical phenomena (natural properties and their aggregates) are known to us. That is, he concluded, it must be apprehended, when it is present, in some direct, intuited way. Thus Moore concluded the word "good," while operating like other words for properties, such as "yellow," must name a kind of property quite different from the sort of thing "yellow" names.

Later thinkers in the twentieth century, while finding Moore's critique of hedonistic utilitarianism compelling, were less moved by his solution. . . .

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Can Moral Goodness Be Based on Naturalism?

ONE OF THE moves in the field of modern moral or ethical philosophy has been to claim that moral judgments of goodness, of what's right for people to do, can be determined by considering the best way for a person to live, i.e., what's good for humans as humans. Among such "goods" are, of course, survival and a full belly and shelter in a storm. But these are taken to be mere animal goods, what any living organism will want for itself in general, i.e., whatever is necessary to survive well, and will include the absence of pain and debilitating conditions. Alone these do not offer a basis for making moral claims, a distinctively human activity. For this we have to go further and look to what's good for humans as humans. And here we come up against the usual problem of determining which things qualify in this respect.

Aristotle supposed the goodness that suited human kind lay in the achievement of a certain balance in one’s life and that this represented the best state a person could be in, i.e., the state in which a human being might be said to do best, to flourish in much the same way as a well watered plant, placed in nutrient rich soil and provided with plenty of sunlight or an adequately fed beast, given the opportunity to exercise sufficient for its health and mental condition might do well. For Aristotle developing various human traits in the best way represented that same sort of phenomenon for humans. He posited that humans do best when they find and adhere to a middle path between extremes of behavior.

Thus, Aristotle famously defined things like courage as a human virtue to the extent it represented a midpoint between the alternatives of timidity or cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness or foolhardiness on the other, courage thus being seen as the condition of knowing when to step up and risk oneself, rather than always fearing to do so, or doing so without regard to any and all consequences. Aristotle proposed that other human qualities, like wisdom, could be seen similarly in this way, as the midpoint between stupidity or dullness, on the one hand, and over attachment to thinking everything through so that one never reached the point of choosing one’s actions and acting, on the other. Charity, on this view, similarly represents the state in which we balance our own needs with those of people we should care about, etc., neither refusing to help those in need when we can nor helping others to such an extent as to impoverish ourselves or those dependent on us.

For Aristotle, to be in the best, or happiest, human state was just to be balanced in this way because it led to the best sort of life a person could live, one that both most satisfactorily served the person himself or herself and also those around him or her (from one's own family to one's community). It generated, Aristotle believed, the best results overall. A happy man in this Aristotelian sense was then a virtuous one where virtue represented such moderation between behavioral extremes.

Other philosophers of the ancient world thought the idea of living rightly, choosing the right sorts of things to do similarly depended on having some form of human happiness as one’s objective. This was often and variously defined in a variety of ways by thinkers of the ancient world, from Aristotle’s concept of virtue to the notion of living in a state which exercised a human being’s unique cognitive faculties to the fullest or achieving a life of moderation which offered a person just enough to keep him or her satisfied but not so much as to bring on undue cares (through excessive pursuit of wealth and the worry and strife that accompanies such concerns) or which might lead to slothfulness or dissipation. Still other ancient thinkers counted human happiness as the state of having sufficient pleasure in one’s life, through the temperate enjoyment of the finer things, and others thought it was to simply achieve a state in which one stood in equilibrium with the world’s vicissitudes, to be unbroken by the trials and tribulations of a lifetime.

The happiest state for persons, of course, may be defined in any number of ways and each definition will find its adherents . . . .

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Are There Intrinsic Goods?

ONE WAY OF dividing up the different principles by which we acknowledge or ascribe goodness or badness to things (whether objects, actions, goals, states of affairs, etc.) is to suppose that there are some things that are good because they help us achieve other things, some of which must be just good in themselves. The first sort of goodness, the one dependent on the effectiveness of the object of reference (whether physical objects or other type) to perform some function for us or bring something about, is often classified as "extrinsic," as in being outside the object itself. That is, we would not care to obtain or achieve or use such objects if they did not serve our purpose in achieving something else. Some of those things which fit into the class of "something else" are then taken to have so-called "intrinsic" goodness, i.e., to be good no matter what purpose we mean to put them to because we desire their possession just for what they are.

Thus, philosophers have often divided the world of possible goods between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. The notion of extrinsic, or instrumental, goodness is easy enough to understand and largely uncontroversial. We have no reason to doubt the goodness of a thing which serves to get us whatever it is we want, that is to say, we have no reason to doubt its goodness for that purpose. And no one seems disposed to claim that there is no such thing as this kind of goodness (to the extent they are prepared to acknowledge that there is goodness at all). The problem arises when we turn to the moral case, however, for here what we want to call "morally good" produces a special class of things (actions, generally) which, if they are called good just because they are thought to be instrumentally so, do not seem to fit that case.

That is, while there are any number of moral claims we can make, far and away the most important are those which are motivated by concern for another's interest and not strictly for our own. Giving charity, avoidance of doing harm to another, reaching out to support others in moments of pain, respecting their persons, avoiding lying to, stealing from or otherwise injuring them, etc., all typically fall under the moral case. And yet, if we do any of these sorts of things because we wish to obtain some benefit for ourselves, we would not grant that they were motivated in a moral way.

To the extent that we undertake a so-called moral act only to bring about some other good that we want or need for ourselves, that act appears self-interested – and self-interest abrogates the moral basis since, in any case in which self-interest is the predominant basis for acting, a different action, which lacks moral standing according to ordinary moral usage, may be justified or more justified. And so the fact that a presumptively morally good act may be justified by self-interest undermines that very justification for, if some things were different, the same justification would support our acting in what we take to be an immoral way . . . .

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Anscombe's Antidote

According to Duncan Richter in his book, Anscombe's Moral Philosophy, her position on what is good behavior boils down to this: There are certain states of affairs to do with human beings (being a human) which are part of the nature of humankind. That is, they represent practices, institutions, ways of being in the world that are part of what it means to be human. Those acts that are morally good will be seen to express, reflect or be consistent with those human activities and institutions. Given her strong religiosity (she was a committed, practicing Catholic) she holds that these natural human propensities are part of God's plan for mankind and so consistent with what God wants for us. Therefore, to abide by them is to conform with God's will. But we do not do them because God commands it. Moral actions (or ethical behavior, since she rejects the notion of "moral" as inappropriate for our age -- a period in which we view the divine differently than mankind once viewed it) is thus to be consistent with God's will but not necessarily to act out of the desire to obey.

Anscombe thus rejects a morality based on duties. To have duties implies some kind of adverse repercussions for failing to obey them but moral claims (perhaps "ethical" claims better captures her view here) have no such consequences in and of themselves. That is why we can act immorally if we like, with impunity (other than some prospect of a judgment visited upon us in the afterlife which not everyone will grant even though everyone is presumed morally assessable in this life). Duties imply commands and an enforcer who punishes deviance from those commands. To suppose one has duties without the possibility that one can suffer adverse consequences for specifically failing to fulfill those duties is to render the very notion of duty empty. Richter doesn't maintain that Anscombe rejects the idea of duty per se though . . .

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Obligation and Goodness

As Duncan Richter has pointed out, Anscombe and some others reject the idea of duty-based ethics, of morality as obligation. Setting aside, for the moment, Anscombe's additional rejection of the term "moral," as it is ordinarily used, and her apparent preference for "ethical" in lieu of "moral," and taking both terms, for argument's sake, to be roughly the same in ordinary use, what we're left with is the question of whether the idea of obligation underlies moral judgments or vice versa. That is, do we have certain obligations because we recognize them as morally good or do we find the morally good by recognizing certain obligations which we cannot shirk? Richter writes that Anscombe rejected the idea that moral claims were founded on duties of this sort and, in doing so, apparently rejected the very notion of a duty-based ethics . . .

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Anscombe Comments on Identity

In the third essay of the book, Human Life, Action and Ethics, titled Human Essence, Anscombe takes up the question of the relation between grammar and essence in light of Wittgenstein's remark that grammar expresses essence. Beginning with an explanation and brief analysis of Frege on numerical functions and shifting to Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, she explores how we use words to express ideas and the nature/status of concepts as a lead-in to her attempt to answer the question implied by the title of this essay (what is meant by "human essence"?). Along the way she has occasion to speak of the concept of identity, which I thought interesting because of the pivotal role that concept has played in our many arguments about ways to explain consciousness on this and earlier lists.

It's often argued by some here that one has to grant that either the mental is identical to the brain processes we discover in conscious, thinking entities' brains via instruments like the fMRI or it is not and, if it is not, then it is something else and therefore irreducibly different and distinct from the brain and its goings on. . . .

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