Paging Miss Anscombe

Here’s my writing assignment for week 3 of Phil 250 EL, “Making Moral Decisions” (fully online section). All of the material covered in class was about the advisability or not of drug use; none of it focused on questions of legality or politics.

Directions: Write a 750 word essay outlining the basics of your views on the use of mind- or mood-altering chemical substances for recreational purposes. At one extreme, someone might argue that you ought never to take drugs for recreational purposes. At the other extreme, you might argue, with Sullum, that there’s nothing wrong with doing so. Where do you end up? In particular, how does autonomy figure into your answer?

Representative answers, Type 1 (all emphases added):

(1) For me, the debate on whether or not drugs should be made legal for recreational purposes is pretty black and white.

(2) I believe the use of mind or mood-altering chemical substances for recreational purposes should not be allowed.

(3) Ultimately, I will end up with a belief that marijuana should be legalized for use as a recreational drug….

(4) Whether or not the use of mind/mood altering substances recreationally should be allowed or not is a question that will always be a controversial topic.

Argument form: “Either there is an authoritative law-giver to decide ethical questions, or we are pushed to total subjectivism. There is an authoritative law-giver, and that law-giver says….”

Representative answers, Type 2 (all emphases added):

(1) Since the effects of some chemical substances do not affect others, it is up to the person using them (autonomy) to decide if the risks are worth the rewards.

(2) I tend to believe that people should be able to make a conscience [i.e., conscientious] choice on what they put into their bodies.

(3) I like drugs. I have ever since i was 17 and got high for the first time. If I didn’t like them, I obviously wouldn’t use them.

(4) I feel that use of any mind-altering substance should be a personal choice.

Argument form: “Either there is an authoritative law-giver to decide ethical questions, or we are pushed to total subjectivism. There is no authoritative law-giver (i.e., there is no authoritative law-giver); hence we are pushed to total subjectivism.

Diagnosis via Elizabeth Anscombe (“Modern Moral Philosophy”), mutatis mutandis:

The ordinary (and quite indispensable) terms “should,” “needs,” “ought,” “must”‑-acquired this special sense by being equated in the relevant contexts with “is obliged,” or “is bound,” or “is required to,” in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or something can be required by law.

How did this come about? The answer is in history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah. ….

In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for many centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted, or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought. The Greek word ” ἁμαρτάνειν,” the aptest to be turned to that use, acquired the sense “sin,” from having meant “mistake,” “missing the mark,” “going wrong.” The Latin peccatum which roughly corresponded to ἁμαρτημα was even apter for the sense “sin,” because it was already associated with “culpa”‑-“guilt”‑-a juridical notion. The blanket term “illicit,” “unlawful,” meaning much the same as our blanket term “wrong,” explains itself. ….

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)–that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law‑giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of “obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word “ought” has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of “obligation,” it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.

Or as if the notion “criminal” had been appropriated and transformed by the War on Drugs.

Passing pedagogical question: Is it permissible (ha ha) to downgrade students for misreading the assignment question if, as Anscombe suggests, they are in the grips of broadly cultural assumptions that drive them to their misreadings? Or am I being overly charitable in inferring that anyone can literally be driven by ingrained assumptions to misread a question?

Passing pedagogical observation: Teaching philosophy in a fully online format is one of the dumbest ideas ever to have come down the pike. Don’t believe the hype. (More hype.) But more on that some other time. Back to grading!

6 thoughts on “Paging Miss Anscombe

  1. Well. . . as someone who does teach philosophy fully online, and who puts a lot of work into making sure it’s done well, I can’t agree with that last aside – but perhaps, like you say, a conversation for another time. . .

    As far as the Anscombe thesis goes, I don’t really buy it, any more than I buy other “Athens vs. Jerusalem” (and sometimes adding in “vs. Rome”) sweeping generalizations. Spending a lot of time poking around in the history of ideas, one simply runs across too many counterexamples, and blurred boundaries, borrowings, etc.

    Just to take one example – and not to attempt to rest too much upon it: Sure, “hamartia” means something different, say in Aristotle, than it does in the Gospels. In his legal discussions it denotes a lower level of culpability, because it is “error”, though culpable error. For breaking the law, and moral lapses of serious types, he uses “adikia”. . . which gets closer to what Anscombe is reading into lawgiver-focused theories. It’s not a divine-lawgiver, true, but Aristotle isn’t quite so far from Jews, Christians, or even Stoics as sometimes he gets portrayed as being. One might also do this in reverse with a number of the Church Fathers. . .


    • Greg,

      I agree that Anscombe plays fast and loose with textual claims about Aristotle (and many others) in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” but that isn’t essential to her thesis, or at least to the part of it I was quoting and commenting on. I take her main point to be that we (those of us living in what used to be “Christendom”) are heirs to a bastardized form of divine command ethic. We now habitually interpret moral requirements as claims about the demands of a law-giver rather than claims about, say, virtue and flourishing. As a result, confronted with the question “Should one smoke pot?” educated people translate the “should” in terms of the demands of law. If they can’t interpret a moral requirement that way, then, as far as they’re concerned, there is no requirement.

      Even if Anscombe’s interpretations of Aristotle (et al) are wrong, this last point could be (and I think, is) correct. As I read her, Anscombe’s main point hinges not on her interpretation of any particular text, but on her interpretation of how those texts have been received as a matter of history and practice in “the modern West.” Even as I write that, it occurs to me that she’s engaged in a fair bit of hand-waving–she vehemently asserts what really amounts to a conjecture–but it is striking how diagnostic her analysis ends up being.

      Let me re-phrase what I wanted to say about teaching philosophy online: For one thing, I was talking about standard-issue fully online platforms, where “discussion” takes place by static “threaded discussion,” and not by some equivalent of instant messaging. Also, what I meant to deride was the idea that fully online teaching can supplant on-ground teaching, or is superior to it. I don’t mean that fully online teaching should never be engaged in, or is bad if engaged in.

      That said, what I’m disputing is a party line one increasingly hears from a certain kind of administrator as well as from a certain sort of critic of higher education. The idea is that fully online philosophy teaching is pedagogically indistinguishable from hybrid or fully on-ground teaching, so that there’s no cost involved in equating them, and nothing wrong with replacing hybrid/on-ground teaching with fully online teaching because there’s no pedagogical loss involved. That idea, as far as I’m concerned, is preposterous. I linked to Charles Murray’s Real Education, because Murray seems to hold it in a particularly popular-yet-implausible form (pp. 154-62).

      The problem becomes apparent in a hybrid format, and becomes overwhelming with fully onlines: much of philosophy consists of conversation, but there is no way to have a pedagogically effective conversation in a fully online format in anything like a cost-effective manner. You can mimic conversation through threaded discussions, but a threaded discussion is a very poor substitute for a real-live conversation. Most obviously, it just takes an extrordinary amount of time and effort to type out a conversation vs. to have one live. Take any moderately complex philosophical text, and compare the time and effort it takes–online vs. on-ground–to answer a relatively simple query asking the professor to clarify something in the text. There simply is no comparison between them: a perfectly successful three minute on-ground conversation can easily become an hour of painstaking online responses, none of which quite answers what was being asked in the first place. It’s also much easier to misunderstand someone in an online “conversation,” e.g., by missing visual cues, or misunderstanding elliptical expressions. This very exchange we’re having is a case in point: it’s probably taking both of us three times longer to type out our claims than it would have taken to have a conversation about them.

      To add insult to injury, fully online teaching that takes place in an institutional setting is usually regulated by what administrators like to call “best practices.” Translated into English, “institutionalizing best practices” really means “complying with arbitrary bureaucratic dictates that are rationalized as ‘best practices’ but are just tedious, time-consuming, jargon-laden ways of wasting everyone’s time, destroying the spontaneity of the learning process, and killing everyone’s love for learning–with flow charts.” I realize that this criticism is not intrinsic to online learning as such, but concerns online learning as currently practiced within mainstream, accredited, brick and mortar institutions. But it’s so ubiquitous that I think of it as the rule rather than the exception.

      Bottom line: online teaching is not so terrible if you’re not regulated by a bureaucracy, if you have access to instant-messaging-type technologies, and if you have enormous amounts of time to spend on relatively small classes. Even then, I would say it’s sub-optimal relative to on-ground teaching. But those conditions are so rare that I ignored them in what I wrote. Most online teaching is highly bureaucratized, takes place in threaded discussions, and involves severe time constraints. Under those conditions, it sucks.


    • I actually think the more dubious claims in Anscombe’s MMP are about modern philosophy or ‘our’ moral discourse, though I suspect much has changed, in philosophy at least, since 1958, at least in the way the word ‘moral’ is used. Insofar as her claim there is that Aristotle and Greek ethics more generally do not make use of a concept of morality as a distinct variety of practical reasons distinguished from prudential and other sorts of reasons by their peculiarly prescriptive and categorical character, I think she’s entirely right. But for an extended defense of that claim by a more esteemed Aristotle scholar than I, you might have a look at Richard Kraut’s ‘Doing Without Morality: Reflections on the Meaning of Dein in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 30 (2006), 159-200. I think resistance to this thesis is mainly driven by the confused insistence that Aristotle et al. recognize many or most of the sorts of concerns that we (or some of us) call “moral”; that is true, but it is hardly sufficient for showing that they deploy a concept of the sort that Anscombe denies to them.

      I have (what I think is) a slightly different reading of Irfan’s students’ responses, though. I don’t think they’re conflating ethics and law, I think they’re just confusing them. That is, they (well, most of them) don’t seem to be addressing the ethical question about recreational drug use on the assumption that a negative assessment requires that there be some sort of authoritative lawgiver (divine, political, natural, conventional, whatever); they seem instead simply to be addressing the question of whether recreational drug use should be legal. I suppose they could be using terms like “allowed” and “permitted” in “the peculiarly moral sense,” and hence treating ethical questions on the model of authoritative laws. But with no further context to go on, they seem instead to simply be considering whether there should be laws against recreational drug use. This is a common confusion among students, in my experience. What I find amusing about it is that it is usually “liberal” kids, who insist on “separating morality and politics,” who seem most resistant to thinking about ethical questions precisely as such, leaving legislation and the like aside. Not that “conservative” students don’t frequently display related sorts of confusion about law and ethics, but it is usually not that mistake. Then again, while my classes tend to involve lots of ethics, I don’t actually teach “contemporary moral problems” type courses, so perhaps my experience is idiosyncratic.


      • There’s certainly some plausibility in your interpretation of my students’ responses–that they literally construed the ethical question as a legal one. I thought about that possibility, but rejected it on the grounds that the assignment question asks an ethical rather than legal question, and the materials they studied discussed ethical rather than legal questions, and I mentioned at least once that we were discussing an ethical rather than legal question. They could still be answering the legal rather than the ethical question, but in that case the question would arise why they manage to confuse the two things despite my making every effort to distinguish them. To my mind, some version of conflation would have to explain the counter-factual rigidity of the propensity to confuse. If they confuse, they do so consistently. The explanation for consistent or insistent confusion is conflation.

        So ultimately, I’d offer a disjunctive account: either they’re conflating ethical and legal considerations, or if they’re confusing them in the face of persistent attempts to keep the two sets of issues separate, the tendency arises from some conflation of the sort Anscombe identifies. It’s almost as though, if you force students to focus on the ethical question and not the legal one, they draw a blank, and then default back to the legal one for lack of anything to say about the ethical question–without realizing that they’ve done so.

        Interestingly, I have a somewhat similar experience when I teach the Fourth Amendment as a “core text” in classes on ethics and the philosophy of law. I will sometimes assign the Fourth Amendment as the only reading students have to do for a given class, warning them that “there will be a quiz on it next time.” Well, the Fourth Amendment is just one (long) sentence, so how hard could that be? The quiz question is always, “Name the right that the Fourth Amendment protects.” The answer is something like, the right to security. But few students get it right, or even approximately right. The answers I get oscillate between two extremes. One set of students simply blanks out. Another set says, “The right to a warrant.”

        Something similar is going on there, I think. It’s as though either the text discusses a technical legal issue–or it doesn’t discuss anything you can nail down. What gets lost in the shuffle is the idea that the Fourth Amendment gives legal protection to a moral right that can be discussed independently of the text of the Amendment itself. That’s the point I was making in this paper. I wrote the paper years ago, but its thesis has held good since.


        • “It’s almost as though, if you force students to focus on the ethical question and not the legal one, they draw a blank, and then default back to the legal one for lack of anything to say about the ethical question–without realizing that they’ve done so.”

          That is pretty much what I have in mind. I think you’re right that they’re not simply making the mistake of supposing that you’re asking a legal or political question. But if they’re anything like the students I’ve taught and talked with, they do have a distinction between law/politics and ethics/morality. It’s just that, when asked to discuss the latter, they in fact discuss the former — not the latter on a peculiarly legalistic conception of it, but simply the former. Perhaps you’re right that one major reason for this is that they assume, however sub- or self-consciously, that aside from the legal/political question there is nothing to discuss because it’s just a matter of sheer preference.


          • Next time, I should grade the papers earlier, and then just ask them what they were thinking. In fairness to my students, I wrote that post before I’d graded all the papers, and it turned out that the papers ultimately divided evenly into thirds. One third gave the legalistic answer, one third gave the purely subjectivist answer, and one third tried to answer the ethical question on its own terms. This latter third then divided two ways, into those who seized on some specifically medical objection to drug use, and those who laid out the ethico-medical pros and cons of drug use, excluded the obviously irrational options (e.g., recreational heroin or crack use), and then said, in effect, “the rest is a matter of preference.”

            Incidentally, it turns out to be amusingly difficult to convince students that alcohol, caffeine, and even nicotine are “drugs.” Why? Well, because they’re legal and socially accepted. I mean, how can something be a drug if it’s legal and it’s socially accepted? “My philosophy professor is totally crazy! You know what he said today in class? He said that coffee has drugs in it! Coffee! I mean, what next? He wants to ban Red Bull?”


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