What Does Obligation Add to Virtue-Descriptions? Some Uses of Anscombe's Law/Game Analogy: Articles

Christian Bioethics 14 (2):165-174 (2008)
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We can describe certain actions as defective in a particular virtue, for example, as “unjust” or “intemperate.” We can take the additional step of describing such actions as “morally wrong” or “contrary to moral obligation.” A key claim of Elizabeth Anscombe's “Modern Moral Philosophy” is that if we choose to describe virtue-defective actions as “morally wrong,” because we are “obliged” or “bound” or “required” not to do them, we are in fact taking an additional step and that this step stands in need of explanation. Just what, if anything, is added to the description of an action as “unjust” when we say there is an obligation not to do it? Anscombe thinks “the answer is in history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics.” 1 In this paper, I shall confront this question in two parts. First, I will consider the possibility, argued for by Simon Blackburn, that Anscombe's historical explanation cannot answer this question because her history is based on the false premise that the Greeks do not possess the “moral ought.” Describing an action as contrary to obligation may still add something to “unjust,” but historical genealogy of Anscombe's sort will not shed any light on the question. Since I think that Blackburn's arguments, although important, are not conclusive, I will proceed to consider the implications of Anscombe's own view of what talk about obligation adds to descriptions of actions as defective in virtue. This will require elaboration of her cryptic Wittgensteinian remark that “it really does add something to the description ‘unjust’ to say there is an obligation not to do it; for what obliges is the divine law—as rules oblige in a game.” 2



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