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2 March 2022

Morality after the Bomb

How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch transformed philosophy for a postwar world.

By Tom Whyman

What is the point of moral philosophy? One answer is to tell us how to live. Kantians, for example, say that we should act in accordance with Kant’s “categorical imperative”, never treating another person as a mere means to your ends, but respecting them as an end in themselves. Utilitarians argue that we should act to ensure the best overall outcomes: to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

But these moral philosophers surely face a devastating objection: can you imagine anyone actually living in accordance with these views? Picture a consistent utilitarian – murdering people with chronic pain conditions to minimise their suffering, then harvesting their organs so that others may live. Or a proper Kantian, agonising over whether to enjoy a short break from work, or tell a white lie; desperate never to deceive, always anxious to do things they could justify to anyone, at any time. The utilitarian would be a monster; the Kantian the most annoying person you’d ever met.

Maybe the point of moral philosophy is not to tell us how to live, but to comprehend the mistakes others have made when answering that question. This was Theodor Adorno’s argument. A leading member of the Frankfurt School, Adorno observed – in the face of the Holocaust and the atom bomb – a world so bad that “right living” was no longer possible. He believed moral philosophy could only amount to the critique of ethics: it could not tell us what the good life is. It could only work to denounce the inhuman.

Adorno wasn’t the only mid-20th century philosopher to think this. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s four female philosophers, all of whom were equally determined to respond to the atrocities of recent history, explored a similar idea together.

[See also: The politics of working out]

Their story is not nearly as well-known as it should be. In the early 1940s, when most of the men were away fighting the Second World War, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch – all distinct in their style, temperament and intellectual interests – met while studying at Oxford. Eventually, falling under the influence of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose later work attempted to overcome the endless puzzling of academic philosophy, they grew to despise the shallow posturing and pedantry of senior male colleagues such as AJ Ayer, JL Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and RM Hare. Anscombe and co thought that these men’s conception of the world – one largely deracinated of value, its limits defined by empirical science – was hopelessly inadequate to explain Auschwitz or Hiroshima.

This critique drew the four back to a form of ethical (and metaphysical) essentialism that their positivist, empiricist colleagues rejected. They wanted to supplant the philosophy of thinkers such as Hare – for which the only objective measure of an ethical life was internal consistency – with one that provided a shared basis for talking about what it means to flourish, or not, as human beings. In Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something this endeavour becomes the origin story of “virtue ethics”, now an indelible feature on all Anglo-American undergraduate philosophy courses.

It’s a good story, also recounted in Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. The problem, however, is that it is far from clear that Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch were “virtue ethicists” at all. Certainly, none were keen exponents of the term. Murdoch and Midgley were thinkers defined much more by their concerns than by any particular positions they may have held. By inclination they were unsystematic, open-ended, and better suited to lives as novelists or public intellectuals than as the incumbents of prestigious academic chairs.

Foot, by contrast, was of the sort who flourished in academia. But while she wrote about virtues (and vices), she really believed that ethics ought to be grounded in specifically human needs. Virtues might be essential for achieving the human good, but this didn’t mean that ethics was somehow “all about” the virtues, or that in any given situation one must do “what the virtuous person would do”. Towards the end of her life, Foot was even working on a paper with a working title of “Against Virtue Ethics”.

It is commonly thought that contemporary virtue ethics can be traced to Anscombe’s 1958 paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”. Two years earlier, Oxford University had awarded former US president Harry S Truman an honorary degree. A devout Catholic convert, Anscombe was disgusted. She could not believe that her colleagues would be so comfortable with honouring the man who used the atom bomb to commit mass murder.

Anscombe outlined her objections in a 1956 pamphlet, “Mr Truman’s Degree”, which drew international attention, even if it failed to prevent the university bestowing the honour. But for Anscombe, the moral rot did not end with Truman. It extended to the world-view of all the people who saw fit to honour him, and to the moral outlook of those who accepted a world in which Truman had ordered the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She gave a talk on BBC Radio entitled “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?” in which she argued that it didn’t – but only because its sole purpose was as an apology for the corrupt world that the “youth” would be raised in anyway.

“Modern Moral Philosophy” still seems incendiary today because Anscombe argued that all contemporary moral philosophy rested on a mistake. Moral philosophers talk about what we “ought” (or else ought not) to do. But they also subscribe to an idea of the world in which there are only facts – no values. From this world, no “ought” can be deduced. One cannot, as David Hume had put it in the 18th century, derive an “ought” from an “is”. Individuals require something additional to nature, something more or less real than it, to help them decide what they ought to do. In other words, they require some sort of divine legislator, or else they must make all ethics a matter of purely subjective assertion.

It is this subjectivism – the idea that morality has little or nothing to do with anything objective in the world – which Anscombe saw lurking behind the moral complacency of her colleagues who honoured Truman.

Anscombe believed we are drawn into these subjectivist problems by what she called the special moral use of “ought”. Consider the following point: it is true that human beings need food to survive, and so it is true to say that human beings ought to have food. There is no mystery here. We only get into ethical trouble when we start thinking of our need for food as something that might require some sort of special moral justification. That’s when we start thinking like utilitarians – about maximising pleasure and minimising pain – or Kantians, treating all other beings as ends in themselves. Of course, not everything in life is as simple as: “I’m hungry, so I should eat.” But this, Anscombe thought, is why we need not more ethics or more moral philosophy, but an adequate understanding of human psychology and of human action. Until we understand what we are, and what we do, no ethics is possible.

[See also: Pankaj Mishra’s divided self]

This idea might seem to fall short of Lipscomb’s description of a “revolution in ethics”. But Anscombe’s paper is more – not less – interesting precisely because it doesn’t announce a new ethical system. “Modern Moral Philosophy” can’t tell us how to live – nothing can – but it can help us to think differently. This is the real value of Anscombe’s work and that of her peers: that they provided a new perspective on our problems. If Adorno’s pessimism about the state of the world led to him to reject philosophical ethics as a way to improve it, Anscombe’s critique of ethics demonstrated the moral importance of solving confusions in the philosophy of mind and action.

Lipscomb’s book is a history, recounting the story of how the four established this new tradition of virtue ethics, even if they didn’t all agree with it, and even if they didn’t all realise what they had achieved at the time. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman give us something else: a Bildungsroman. The narrative in Metaphysical Animals ends in 1956, when Truman was awarded his honorary doctorate. The book focuses less on the intellectual results of these women’s mature thought, than on understanding how their shared friendship helped all of them to grow. We see them in tutorials with the brilliant, tortured Christian philosopher Donald MacKinnon, married but in love with Murdoch; in a sea of uncertainty after the war, the turmoil coinciding with their graduation; dwelling together in tumbledown houses full of Anscombe’s many children, who appear to have been tasked with raising themselves. Ensconced in a wealth of this small detail we get a sense of their world and learn to see things as they did, think as they did. Through this, the reader receives, at speed, their education.

And, in a way, this enables the whole clock to be turned back. Virtue ethics was not necessarily where any of these women’s work was going. One need not take from their story a moral philosophy; one can return to what is vital – the critique. Let’s call our horizons into question again.

The Women Are Up to Something
Benjamin JB Lipscomb
Oxford University Press, 344pp, £20

Metaphysical Animals
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £25

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times