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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Elizabeth Anscombe on Justice

Alice C. Linsley

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) was one of the 20th century's most remarkable philosophers. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein and upon his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. She translated Wittgenstein's unpublished writings, preparing them for publication after his death, and she wrote a book entitled An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

In 1970, Anscombe was appointed to the chair in Cambridge that had been held by Wittgenstein. Despite her concern to preserve the writings of her former teacher, Anscombe was not a Wittgenstein disciple. Her great intelligence and originality led her in different directions and to different conclusions.

In 1958, Anscombe produced a paper titled “Modern Moral Philosophy” in which she offered a critique of prevailing academic approaches to ethics. In this paper, she pointed out that while Aristotle had much to say about virtue and vices, he did not think of morality as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition do. Our conception of morality comes from centuries of Christianity, as it emerges from the Jewish Apostles and their biblical reflections on the Torah. The Judeo-Christian conception of moral obligation is based on codified law. From the first century A.D., Greek-speaking converts to Christianity sought to conform to virtues and avoid vices because these were viewed as a requirement of divine law.

Anscombe’s work restored interest among philosophers in the Aristotelian idea of virtue. Her paper on modern moral philosophy advanced “virtue ethics” in the 20th century. Her influence is seen in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue (1985) and Onora O'Neill’s book Towards Justice and Virtue (1996).

It was in the area of moral philosophy that Anscombe countered Heidegger’s bleak existentialism. She argued that since 20th century western society is no longer Christian, the terms “good” and “evil” or “right” and “wrong” are no longer useful. These terms are only meaningful as they are attached to the Judeo-Christian concept of a law-giving Creator God. Anscombe believed that in the post-Christian world most philosophers become consequentialists, judging rightness by the consequences. She held that consquentialism is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian ethic, since the latter insists that there are some actions that are always forbidden regardless of the consequences. She then proposed a way forward. She recommended discarding the notions of duty and of moral right and wrong in favor of justice and injustice.

Let us consider Anscombe’s argument. First, she assumes that the world is a place where the reasoning individual can be assured that concepts of justice, good, and moral obligation have meaning. This suggests that Heidegger’s “nothing” which causes us anxiety has a binary opposite – something – and this something potentially relieves anxiety. The logic of her argument is that when we feel the anxiety of injustice (which is negating) we should perform justice. Justice then is not a state of affairs, but a practical virtue of a good person. It is perhaps the derived virtue of being made in the image of a Good God.

In this view of justice, Anscombe replies also to Leibniz’ criticism of traditional conceptions of God as good. Leibniz wrote: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions (Reflections of The Common Concept of Justice). Anscombe’s argument is that humanity’s anxiety about death and negating injustice can only be there because humanity knows the Good. Her argument is the reverse of Heraclitus’ (540-480 BC) who said “If it were not for injustice, men would not know justice.” Essentially, Anscombe is saying that the rational study of Man as subject leads logically to the conclusion that were it not for justice, humans would not know injustice.

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