Elizabeth Anscombe

The following was delivered as an introduction to a session on Elizabeth Anscombe, as part of the Portraits of Integrity project.

Elizabeth Anscombe was born in 1919 into a middle class Anglican family. At twelve she discovered Roman Catholicism when reading about the persecution of priests in England under Queen Elizabeth I. She took formal instruction in the religion with a Dominican Priest when she began at Oxford University in 1938 and there met fellow philosophy and convert Peter Geach, with whom she had seven children. Anscombe split her academic life between Oxford and Cambridge. She published three books and over 170 articles and died in 2001, aged 81.

Her work can be split into two parts: analytic philosophy and catholic moral theology. Very few readers treat both parts of her work together. She’s most well known among philosophers for her translation of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, her monograph Intention, and her essay ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, which is associated with the rebirth of virtue ethics. She also wrote extensively on topics in metaphysics and philosophical logic, and published in history of philosophy, especially on Plato, Aristotle, St. Aquinas, and the early modern philosophers, particularly Hume. In Catholic universities in North America it is her essays on chastity, euthanasia, war, marriage, children, and contraception that are widely read – a number of student chastity societies use her name. Anscombe’s views on these topics are usually offensive to readers in the first group, and so there is little appetite to draw together her views, for example, in Aristotelian virtue ethics and her position on abortion. In fact, the two parts of her work are deeply connected, as these readings illustrate.

Background to readings

The papers for this session were all written between 1956 and 1961. This period represents something of a transition in Anscombe’s philosophical interests. Through the 1940s and early 1950s Anscombe was writing exclusively on topics in philosophical logic and history of philosophy. In 1956 she was asked by a colleague, Philippa Foot, to cover the teaching for an ethics course. Through this Anscombe became acquainted with the moral philosophy of her contemporaries. This was the very year her University proposed to offer an honorary degree to Harry Truman. Just over a decade earlier Truman had ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Japanese rejected the Allies demand for unconditional surrender. The bombs killed between 75 and 125,000 people on impact with the same number again dying in the next few months.

Anscombe was horrified that Oxford was prepared to honour a mass murderer – to ‘pretend that a couple of massacres to a man’s name are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour’ – and she tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the nomination. She feared that ‘God’s patience might end’. But she also recognised that the view of what Truman did as deeply unfortunate but reasonable – perhaps even brave and probably necessary given the circumstances – was both entirely in line with the ‘highest and best ideals of the country at large’ and in keeping with oxford moral philosophy as she had found it when preparing to teach Foot’s course. This connection is made explicit in ‘Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?’, where she argues that Oxford moral philosophy does not corrupt the youth, but only because society at large is utterly corrupt and Oxford moral philosophy is ‘conceived perfectly in the spirit of the time and might be called the philosophy of the flattery of that spirit’ (DOMPCY?, 271). She complains that modern moral philosophers ‘have nothing in them by which to revolt against the conventional standards of their kind of people’ and that therefore ‘it is impossible that they should be profound.’ [ Ethics, Religion and Politics, p. 36].


The central corrupting doctrine that Anscombe identifies as dominant in both ‘the country at large’ and oxford moral philosophy is the following: ‘there is no sort of action whatever of which it is correct to say “One doesn’t have to consider whether to do this or not, in any circumstances; it is simply excluded”’ (Anscombe’s Letter). It is this doctrine that deprives moral philosophers of the means to challenge ‘conventional standards’ and compels it to be responsive to requests to be reasonable, realistic, and practical. Anscombe coins the label ‘consequentialism’ for any moral philosophy which holds this doctrine. (This label has come to have a slightly different meaning in contemporary philosophy which I’ll ignore here).

In ‘the country at large’ consequentialist thinking manifests in the behaviour of individuals who are prepared ‘compromise’ in service of a greater good and in institutions which commit injustice in order to alleviate suffering or serve the best interests of the population. It underpins the thought that Truman’s action was right because it pretty certainly saved a lot of lives. Murder, then, is not the sort of action which can be ruled out full-stop; one must consider the circumstances. Anscombe gives other examples. Archbishop Temple held that Christian businessmen and politicians should be prepared to sin in view that their refusal to do so would lead to them all leaving business and politics and then things would be worse. Criminals unjustly tried on the grounds that they are dreadful sinners and deserve to be punished. More current examples include indefinitely locking up people who have committed no crime – because one has reason to think that they will; torturing people in order to get information that may save lives; turning a blind eye to corporate tax evasion in order not to harm economic growth; rejecting a politician on the grounds that his views through right and good are ‘idealistic’; forcibly taking children into care to protect them from possible future harm.

Anscombe notes that consequentialism – as she means it – is inconsistent with Hebrew Christian ethics which is essentially an ethics of prohibition. There are two things to note about that. First, we haven’t even got to the point of debating which acts might fall under an absolute prohibition. For a consequentialist there can be no description of an action which is prohibited as such: boiling babies, torturing grannies, vaporising 100,000 civilians: these cannot be excluded without considering what the consequences might be of restraint, or what good might be done by action. To say that consequentialism is inconsistent with Christian ethics is not to say that any anti-consequentialist position will be consistent with it. So it would be a mistake to worry that agreeing with Anscombe that consequentialism is corrupt compels us to agree with her on abortion or marriage. Second, the question of the source of the prohibitions is obviously a tricky one. Within the Hebrew-Christian tradition we have a divine lawgiver laying down the commandments: ‘Thou shalt not …!’. One might think that without such a lawgiver there can be no commandments – at least none with the requisite force – and hence no prohibitions. So that atheism compels consequentialism. Though Anscombe could avail herself of a lawgiver, in fact she sets out – in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ – a route to an anti-consequentialist ethics via Aristotelian virtue ethics. If this is possible, it would be a secular anti-consequentialist position. It is a further question whether one taking that route will arrive at the same prohibitions as one finds in Catholic dogma – Anscombe thinks she will but it is by no means clear that she’s right about this.


Anscombe identifies a number of features that one can expect to find in a society which promotes good over justice – that is, one which is prepared to do bad things in order to get good results. A central one is set of views about responsibility.

Which of those things that happen in the world are things for which I am responsible, in the sense that we are interested in when we are thinking about right and wrong? Suppose I run over your cat. If I do it on purpose, then I am certainly responsible. If it is a dreadful but unavoidable accident, I am not. However, the concept of responsibility is a slippery one: what if I do it on purpose, but in order to avoid running over your dog? Or if I am on drugs, or suffering a mental breakdown, or if I was brought up in a dysfunctional home, or if I am a psychopath? What if I am behind the steering wheel but someone else is pressing the accelerator? Anscombe associates two modes of thinking about responsibility with consequentialism: she calls them ‘high’ and ‘gentle’.

Both conceptions arise by running together responsibility and causality: ‘to hold someone responsible for what he did is to ascribe the … causality of it as an event to him’ (DOMPCY?, 267). This view of responsibility has the odd effect of simultaneously extending the scope of a person’s responsibility toward the future to such a degree that the possibility of ruling anything out simply in virtue of the kind of act it is becomes completely unavailable and – at the same time – limiting a person’s responsibility toward the past to such a degree that just punishment becomes impossible. The first of these is the ‘high conception of responsibility’ the second the ‘gentle’ one.

Looking toward the future, if I am responsible for what I cause, and I recognise that my inaction will cause dreadful suffering, I am obliged to act: ‘if something seems in itself a bad sort of action, but you calculate that if you do not do it then the total situation … will be worse then if you do it—then you must do it; you are answerable to the future if you can affect it for the better’ (‘DOMPCY?’, 267). Looking backward, since I am only responsible for what I cause, it is ‘unfair’ to hold me responsible when I was only a tiny cog in a causal chain, myself ‘the victim of causality’ (267). So blame and punishment should be replaced by training and treatment.

Here is one point of contact between Anscombe’s moral theology and her work in mainstream metaphysics. A large part of the task of Anscombe’s philosophical work on action and causation is to show that being the cause of something happening, even when one foresees it as a consequence, does not imply one is responsible for that consequence nor that that consequence was an action of yours. A parallel task is to describe the class of intentional and voluntary actions such that we can see why it is just to hold a person wholly responsible for what she does (intentionally and voluntarily), no matter whether her action involved complex causal antecedents or conditions. So, if I refrain from doing something bad knowing that if I do so you will do something even more dreadful, this does not make me responsible for your dreadful deeds. And if commit murder I am vicious, even if I do so as the result of a traumatic childhood or as part of a gang without whose actions I could not have been successful or in order to stop you murdering ten. As Nowell-Smith points out in his ‘Letter to the Editor’ identifying my intentional actions—as opposed to the mere foreseen consequences of my actions—is by no means an easy task. According to Anscombe, is impossible within the framework of post-Cartesian philosophy of mind.


In rejecting consequentialism, Anscombe is defending the command ‘Do no evil that good may come!’. She wants, for example, to insist that killing the innocent as a means to an end is murder and murder is as such prohibited no matter what the consequences might be of refraining.

I have already pointed to the difficulties in defending that imperative if one assimilates responsibility to causality. However, there is another set of objections in terms of ‘high-mindedness’ and ‘hypocrisy’ with which Anscombe is concerned and which connect quite clearly with questions about integrity, and in particular it’s demands. It is here that we find the grounds for her – surprising – attack on pacifism.

The imperative – ‘Do no evil that good may come!’ – might be associated with a pejorative kind of integrity. There is a moral outlook – one which we’ve come across in our discussions – which involves keeping one’s hands clean and protecting a kind of purity, probably at the expense of others. We might think: if Truman hadn’t given the order someone else would have had to, and so Truman took one for the team by taking that on himself. It may also seem that even if one did try to take that ‘clean hands’ stance it would be unrealistic and impracticable and would require withdrawal from the world. Living a human life in a society like ours – one shaped by wars and complex institutions, and competition – just makes such a standard impossible. Hence one claiming to live by such standards is both selfish and a hypocrite. Recognising this, one might think that all there is to do is make the best of a bad lot. Anscombe argues that what is evil about pacifism is that it encourages such thinking by promoting the ‘false hypocrisy of the ideal standard’:

I have very often heard people say something like this: “It is all very well to say ‘Don’t do evil that good may come.’ But war is evil. We all know that. Now, of course, it is possible to be an Absolute Pacifist. I can respect that, but I can’t be one myself, and most other people won’t be either. So we have to accept the evil. It is not that we do not see the evil. And once you are in for it, you have to go the whole hog. (69)

If one accepts this outlook then Anscombe’s ‘Do no evil!’ imperative is high-minded in the sense that only a privileged few could follow it. Saints and people who have withdrawn from the world. Anscombe associates a kind of respect for unliveable virtue with a view of Christianity as impracticable, but pure; pacifist, loving, gentle and of Christ as an object of admiration but not a model for living. I want to end with that idea of a model for living.

Practicable but severe

Anscombe is opposed to the pacifist view of Christ and Christianity. Christianity, she says, is practicable but severe (‘War and Murder’, 48). And these go together: the severity requires the practicability. It would be unjust if Christianity asserted prohibitions that could not be followed but by saints. It would be hypocritical if Christ did not provide an actual model for living.

Anscombe’s work in philosophy of action is, I think, an attempt to provide a metaphysics of action which shows how such prohibitions could be practicable. They are clearly impractictible given the conception of responsibility as causation. But Anscombe identifies a number of other features of our thinking about action and intention which – she thinks — make it impossible to frame the relevant distinctions between what I do and what happens and between the intended and foreseen consequences of my actions. Part of this involves recovering a pre-Cartesian conception of intention which will allow her to ground the Catholic doctrine of double effect. Part of it is showing that the topic of causality is not part of the topic of intention and intentional action. Part is setting out how what a person thinks about what is happening can determine the facts. With all that in place she thinks it will be possible to ask oneself ‘Is this murder?’, ‘Is this gluttony?’, ‘Is this malice?’, and so forth, and thereby recognise whether what one proposes to do is prohibited. In which case, one must find another means or reassess one’s end. Of course, circumstances may be such as to make this very difficult, and temptation to ignore a prohibition very great; however, it need not be impracticable.

It might be helpful to reflect on this quote from a contemporary of Anscombe’s at Oxford. The author is describing his experience of conversion to Catholicism and I think it captures something of the kind of ‘model for living’ that Anscombe is after. One that is both a ‘revolt against the conventional standards’ and lived in that world:

One was joining something which put a strange gulf between oneself and the world as one knew it … I discovered there were people about me who lived by vows (of poverty, chastity, and obedience) so strange and extraordinary that in meeting them I felt I was moving into another world. Until then I had only remote people of moral genius, like Tolstoy and Gandhi, who lived by renunciations as total as that in the modern world. No I found they existed in absurd places like Birmingham and Peckham Rye. One could actually meet them.

One of the difficulties we keep coming up against is the unliveability of the lives we’ve been looking at; we don’t want to give up all our worldly belongings, leave our families, eschew pleasure and comfort. The suggestion I take from Anscombe is that the thought that we must is itself a kind of corruption.


Further reading

About Rachael Wiseman

Rachael is an Addison Wheeler Research Fellow at Durham University. She works on philosophy of action, especially Elizabeth Anscombe's, and her research project -- Integrity, Speech and Action -- is developing a taxonomy of pretense and lying, and examining the kinds of deceit that are a threat to integrity.
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