The Moral Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe

A collection of essays explain and extend her ethical thought

Posted Feb 12, 2019

If you are not yet familiar with philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, her influential life is memorably summed up here.

For a thorough overview of her thought, please see the entry written by philosopher Julia Driver in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A bit unusually for an analytic philosopher, Anscombe referred to ethics as “first order topics,” and wrote on plentifully on them. The Moral Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe is comprised of fourteen original essays that reflect back on Anscombe’s ethical arguments.

So broad was Anscombe’s focus that the essays cover the issues of our spiritual nature, obligation, promising, killing, Just War theory, the human embryo, lying, sincerity, sexual ethics, the moral education of children, and then some. The chapters, to a one, elucidate Anscombe’s positions and reasoning, but also put them in the context of ongoing ethical debate, extending, rejecting, and otherwise apportioning her insights so that a reader can take them up.

I see this as a great assist! Anscombe's ethical work has been quite memorably accused of being uniquely inaccessible. In a 2005 review, fellow philosopher Simon Blackburn pointed out that Anscombe is unduly intolerant of the views of others, and that she jumps to contentious conclusions with impossible-to-follow reasoning. He makes this case even against her “Moral Modern Philosophy,” written for a non-philosophical audience.

But the essays in this volume manage to slow Anscombe down. The authors display perfect familiarity with her views but not reverence. She is corrected throughout, more than a few of her “grand” views are gingerly dialed back. The authors display the very charity that Blackburn asks for in Anscombe’s own essays. For example, a contributor can be found telling us that though he “earlier quoted Anscombe as saying” X, “on the face of it,” X cannot be right. The next sentence develops the account with X removed from it (142).

You will find, again and again, authors quickly noting that “there is a connection here that Anscombe fails to draw.” They go on to draw it. You will read, “Anscombe herself never gave a systematic, positive account of obligation” but I will “flesh out the lines that such an account by elaborating on some of what she did say” (76).

And also, “I am trying to interpret Anscombe’s thought, even though the structure and some of the arguments cannot be found in her writings” (57). This kind of cheery engagement with her work gives the reader the best of two worlds: a review or introduction to what Anscombe actually said, and an opportunity to move past that to consider the issue at hand with further resources.

As an example, Anscombe’s thought on moral education is presented in the chapter “Internalized Others, Joint Attention and Moral Education” by Edward Harcourt. He explains that in “Moral Environment of the Child” Anscombe “touches on” the issue of how a child becomes her own authority, if “willing cannot be taught.” He then does the work of connecting her points in “Moral Environment” to those in “Authority in Morals” and even “Intention,” as well as to the work of David Velleman, to make the case that Anscombe must recognize that we receive childhood lessons about desire from our parents’ reactions to it. He ends up suggesting that this comes about, not through parental authority, but due to a type of joint-attention with the child. He concludes by offering this interpretation of the passage of Anscombe’s with which he began, “a child can be encouraged to have certain ends and concerns by the attitude of its adults, and sometimes by being associated with the adults in promoting and pursuing them” (260).  

Anscombe's daughter, philosopher Mary Geach contributes a fascinating and trenchant take in the chapter “Anscombe on Sexual Ethics.” Views like: “every single sexual act is significant”, those who attempt to make sex casual become “shallow,” and yet those who think sexual activity requires excuse are “regarded as having an attitude as coming from a faulty moral psychology” (234) are the type of assertions (or prohibitions) that Blackburn looks upon so skeptically. But in Geach’s hands, her mother looks to be consistently maintaining a perspective on virtue (and a seeming contender among the current alternatives).

Roger Teichmann explains and explores Anscombe’s suggestion that sincerity and insincerity can be features of thoughts themselves. In his contribution, “Sincerity in Thought,” he, like Harcourt, begins with a phrase of Anscombe’s and offers an extended consideration of it. The phrase is “suppressing the knowledge that makes the thought deceitful” (from “On Being in Good Faith”). He then goes on to consider inner statements, false smiles, and evidence of the genuinely insincere, before returning to argue that Anscombe must not think insincere thought results from “the occurrence of any hypothetical acts of suppressing” of the knowledge that makes a thought doubtful. Insincere thought instead results from “certain failures on the person- in particular, the failure to think and reflect properly” (219). This amounts to, as the Geach chapter also does, a way of situating Anscombe’s concerns into mainstream virtue ethics, rendered ready to pick up.

As one more bit of evidence of the finesse with which the authors are working, Jose Torralba, in “On Morally Neutral Actions, and the Relevance of Practical Truth for Action Theory” sets aside Anscombe’s division between action theory and ethics. He explains Anscombe’s classification of syllogisms and tracks her reliance on Aristotle, and comes to the conclusion that it is possible to say that actions are true and false, and that they may even be attributed “goodness value,” which would sync up with her definition of practical truth, “truth in agreement with right desire” (70).

Certainly this collection will appeal most to those already at work on Anscombe. But I hope it reaches a wider readership for two reasons. One, because, due to the fine work of the authors, it carefully introduces some fresh angles to contemporary debates. As Candace Vogler puts it, in “Anscombe on Promising,” “lining up” Anscombe’s views with “recent Anglophone philosophical forays into the topic is not perfectly straightforward. The problems that capture her interest are more basic than those that haunt the pages of recent books and journal articles” (119).

Despite this need for “lining up”, Anscombe’s brilliance on these basics (Blackburn did not dispute that!) shines through.

And so the second reason is Anscombe herself.

Most of us are vested in but a few of her topics, reading her (or about her) expands these interests. She is not predictable and does not rely on a “framework” that we can see coming. She neither respects our starting points nor approaches issues as if they only require nuance. Yes, it seems that she was impatient in communicating her bold insights. She was not fully interested in demonstrating her conclusions to us. But Plato does not fill in all of the arguments either.

If philosophy is for the purpose of getting us to think, Elizabeth Anscombe is a consummate philosopher.


Anscombe, G. E. M. Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers Volume III. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981.

Anscombe, G. E. M. Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G. E. M. Anscombe, edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008.

Anscombe, G. E. M. Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe, edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005.