Virtues Of War – Modern Moral Philosophy

Today we turn our attention from the crisis of Veterans Civic Health to the crisis of modern moral philosophy. Although I understand it may come as a shock to many that moral philosophy has suffered a crisis, it is a claim that the two authors we’ll focus on today share. You’ve already been introduced to Alasdair MacIntyre, whose 1981 book After Virtue provides the backbone for this course.

Before we get to Anscombe, we would do well to take a brief look at the way MacIntyre understands the predicament faced by any modern moral philosopher or student thereof. Besides the benefit of being formed by his theses, MacIntyre displays a tendency toward the dramatic which, I think, succeeds in drawing in even a lay person’s interest to the problems he described at length. The first few pages of After Virtue invite us to imagine a dystopian future, one which could easily have been torn from the pages of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchock.

“Imagine,” MacIntyre begins… [read 2 para.]

MacIntyre admits this sounds like science fiction, but he maintains that it is basically the very state in which he and Anscombe encountered moral philosophy. He says it bluntly; “the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I describe.”(After Virtue, 2) Philosophy has suffered so great a catastrophe that we lack the proper language and perspective to even properly diagnose the crisis in the first place. Hell, that “no record of any such catastrophe survives” merely confirms that we have no means of recognizing one in the first place, for we have become culturally unmoored.

In order to diagnose the problem, we would have to abandon the modern value given to morally neutral evaluative criteria, by which the present “moral disorder… remains largely invisible.”( After Virtue, 4) Understanding the history which brought us to this dystopia would require “standards of achievement or failure,” judgments about the right or wrong, proper or improper, means by which to make a definitive claim. Because it is a history we inherit, and one in which we may be indicted, the “academic” ideal of an impersonal, objective appraisal is not possible. In fact, that is part of the problem; this idea that the “best” judgement is one in which no interest or value is assumed.

That is how MacIntyre sees the contemporary crisis, at least. Anscombe is not as focused on the modern fetishizing of impersonality in moral assertions. She is more focused on the how the schism of moral language, between ancient meaning and contemporary usage, has contributed and reinforced the modern moral dystopia. To be fair, she saw it first, and in fact MacIntyre readily admits he is “deeply indebted to” her, even if their claims differ slightly. (After Virtue, 53)

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was an Irish philosopher who studied, like MacIntyre, at Oxford. A devoted Catholic convert, in 1948 she prevailed in a debate with famed Christian writer and WWI veteran Clive Staples Lewis. The loss had such an effect on Lewis, according to his student and WWII veteran Derek Brewer, that it evoked a rare martial memory from Lewis, of “the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack.”[1] Lewis subsequently rewrote the paper, which had been the third chapter of Miracles: A Preliminary Study. The defeat supposedly led to his abandoning theological writing entirely, turning instead to spiritual writing for children.

Her expertise at debate and philosophical acumen were likely a product of her training under Ludwig Wittgenstein, a decorated WWI veteran (an artillery observer, in fact). Wittgenstein has been described by many as the epitome of the traditional, classically conceived genius. His monograph Philosophical Investigations, often cited as the most important work of philosophy of the 20th century, was compiled, translated, and edited by Anscombe. He is most famous for his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only full length book he published in his lifetime.

Despite all this, it was her 1958 essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” for which Anscombe is most widely known. In it, she cites three basic theses;

  1. Scholars should cease talking about moral philosophy, until a philosophy of psychology could is developed
  2. Concepts of duty and obligation like “should” and “ought” should also be avoided until they can be placed within their proper linguistic and philosophical genealogy
  3. Most modern moral philosophers are all basically saying the same thing

She does quickly and cursorily what MacIntyre does expansively; After Virtue spends chapter after chapter debunking most major philosophers, whereas Anscombe only spends a few pages doing the same. Some of whom you may be aware, like Hume, Kant, and Mill. The unifying feature, or flaw, they all share is to have removed moral language from its own history and meaning, namely from Aristotle.

For Aristotle, intention and acts were much more closely aligned than they seem to be for contemporary philosophers. Anscombe hints at the tragic irony that, in modern moral philosophy, “an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 4) The need for explanation would confuse the premodern moral philosopher because it would have been self-evident that an unjust person or action was “bad.” But in modernity, it is actually debated whether or not it is “wrong” that an elected official may profit from their office or that acts of marital infidelity are merely ‘affairs’ and not deeply damaging moral transgressions.

But we should not take this too far and assume that individual acts reflect the nature of a person. Anscombe illustrates that someone like Aristotle would be confounded by modern moral language in order to make a larger argument, one which will help us understand this course in light of soldier stories and their narrative trajectories. She brings to light the modern situation in which we are embedded; of “the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 5) It is noteworthy that she links the emergence of this situation with the Protestant Reformation, which may make much more sense when/if we were to consider the nature of Christendom and the epistemological monopoly the Church held throughout Europe. But that is a reeeeaaallllllly deep rabbit hole.

Remember when I asked whether elements of your story might be true, but bad, or good, but false. I suggested that might motivate you to adjust or ignore those parts of your story which you did not prefer to be known. This is what’s at stake for modernity moral discourse; Anscombe is suspicious of the “linguistic analysis” by which “you frame your ‘principles’ to effect the end you choose to pursue.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 8) As soon as moral language and principles become mobile, you can be sure that you’ve stopped doing good philosophy.

This essay coined the term “consequentialism” (ibid.) to describe utilitarian ethics, the other major modern school of thought after deontology, for a rule-based system. Perhaps because of her devotion to Catholicism, she does not accept utility as a moral philosophy, in part, in light of the “Hebrew-Christian” absolute prohibition on some acts, like killing innocents. While she does not wish to import this particular religious framework wholesale onto secular moral philosophy, she does insist it names a category of action which modern philosophers have largely ignored; acts “forbidden whatever consequences threaten.” (ibid. Emphasis in original)

The failure of consequentialism as a coherent philosophy is found in the fact that one “can exculpate [ex – out of, culpa – blame] oneself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make a case for not having foreseen them.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 10. Emphasis in original) It might be important to point out that Anscombe’s most noted work is Intention, also published in 1958. Rather she claims that people are “responsible for the bad consequences of [their] bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of good actions.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 10)

As to deontology, the second form of ethical framework we’ve discussed, Anscombe is more amenable to its potential coherence. She notes that deontological ethics, in the modern era in which the Church no longer commands universal intellectual authority, must address “the possibility of retaining a law conception without a divine legislator.” (ibid.) In other words, some entity must be given ultimate authority: the rules must come from somewhere. I won’t dwell on deontology, as it does not seem nearly as dominant as consequentialism in liberal democracies like ours.

As complicated as this may be, Anscombe does leave us some straightforward take-aways.  For one, she asserts “the superiority of the term ‘unjust’ over the terms ‘morally right’ and ‘morally wrong.’” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” 14) Indeed, most virtue ethicists will cite Justice as the crowning virtue, or being in some way unifying of the various individual moral or intellectual virtues. As for the attachment of justice to people, “a good [person] is a just [person]; and a just [person] habitually refuses to commit or participate in any unjust actions for fear of any consequences, or to obtain any advantage, for himself or anyone else.” (ibid.)

In other words, just people are just just, just because justice is the just-est good.

Finally, Anscombe claims that all acts carry moral substance, substance which adheres to the person, even if the person (in the Christian conception) is ultimately good. Anscombe helps illustrate what justice has to do with the virtues and why they provide an escape from the incoherence dominating modern moral philosophy, several decades before MacIntyre’s influential contribution. She puts it plainly enough;

virtues and vices are built up by the performances of the action in which they are instanced, an act of injustice will tend to make a [person] bad; and essentially the flourishing of a [human person] qua [human] consists in [their] being good (e.g. in virtues); but for any X to which such terms apply, X needs what makes it flourish, so a man needs, or ought to perform, only virtuous actions.

Next week, we will get into the classical virtues, what they were and where they flourished. The next four weeks will be spent unpacking “the present disordered state of” moral philosophy. (After Virtue, 3) Following MacIntyre’s three stage model from his first chapter, we will begin by exploring where and why the virtues flourished; Ancient Greece, Classical Rome, and Medieval Europe. If we have time, we may discuss whether the early Enlightenment period represents the second stage, in which moral philosophy “suffered catastrophe” before entering the third and final ‘modern’ stage, in which moral philosophy was “restored but in damaged and disordered form.” (ibid.)

The function of understanding virtue will be to allow us to press into whether there may be a distinctive martial account of the virtues, the premise of your first assignment. Virtue rides on the back of characters and narrative, to which we will turn in the next phase of the course, when we critically examine popular soldier stories and their origins as autobiographical narrations.

Questions to guide discussion based on Anscombe and MacIntyre;

  • What is meant when we say or hear “judgment” (i.e. “don’t judge me”), and what does that disclose about the disordered nature of our moral language?
  • Is impersonality truly required for empirical, scientific inquiry? If so, how does that affect our definition/s of “truth”? Is it simply that the “humanities” and the “sciences” are fundamentally distinct?


[1] Derek Brewer, “The Tutor: A Portrait” in CS Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences (ed. James Como), 1992, p.59

One thought on “Virtues Of War – Modern Moral Philosophy

  1. In the selected readings of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre refers to characters as, “social roles which provide a culture with its moral definitions” (31). I find this an interesting juxtaposition to Lindemann’s theory that characters are moral representatives of their culture. I can see certain similarities between the two theories, but there seems to be a clear difference in which comes first; the characters or the culture.
    Lindemann would contend that narratives create characters within society. These narratives are created by culture, media, and societal beliefs. This can be particularly damaging to characters because of a moral constraint that is placed upon those characters to fit what society believes about them through popular narratives. This leaves characters open to potentially damaging master narratives that can reinforce stereotypes and limit the roles society believes a character can play.
    On the contrary, MacIntyre argues in After Virtue that character roles give definition to moral beliefs held in society. For MacIntyre it is the collective opinion of rational agents that creates character roles, and that pluralism rather than narratives is what defines disagreements about characters. Furthermore, once pluralism has determined character roles, it is those roles that define moral definitions for any given character.
    The philosophy of Lindemann and MacIntyre share some similarities. For one, they both talk about how societal definitions of characters provide some sort of boundary or role for said character. Furthermore, both philosophies are not mutually exclusive. Much of MacIntyre’s philosophy about pluralistic determination leaves character roles open to manipulation of the master narratives described in Lindemann’s theories. One differentiating feature that I see between the two philosophies is that MacIntyre’s relies on pluralistic belief while Lindemann’s master narratives do not.
    In my opinion, Lindemann’s philosophies are more applicable to views that I see permeating through today’s society. Beliefs about a character do not have to be pluralistically accepted for them to be damaging to a character’s role or moral definition. Master narratives that permeate modern culture can do damage by reinforcing stereotypes about character roles that may not be believed by a plurality, but can be believed by a vocal minority. As is evidence by actions taken by political leaders in the past week, a vocal minority can do a lot to implement change. Furthermore, I feel as though MacIntyre’s philosophies assume equal power within society. This may be true in a philosophical sense when talking about implementing change within a democracy, but I do not believe that it covers the power of individuals within a practical scope of societal life. There are certainly individuals with more power than others within a democracy in both a political and corporate sense. These individuals have the power to positively or negatively influence the lives of other individuals within a society, and if they hold a damaging belief about that individual’s character role then they can damage that individual regardless of what the pluralistic belief within that society is.

    -Alec Kunzweiler
    Duke Political Science ’17

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