Elizabeth Anscombe on the Hebrew-Christian Ethic and Utilitarianism

After my post of yesterday about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alex Plato tipped me off about this passage from philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001):

Now this is a significant thing: for it means that all these philosophies [i.e., of English thinkers from Sidgwick to the present] are quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic.  For it has been characteristic of that ethic to teach that there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten, such as: choosing to kill the innocent for any purpose, however good; vicarious punishment; treachery (by which I mean obtaining a man’s confidence in a grave matter by promises of trustworthy friendship and then betraying him to his enemies); idolatry; sodomy; adultery; making a false profession of faith.  The prohibition of certain things simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences, is certainly not the whole of the Hebrew-Christian ethic; but it is a noteworthy feature of it; and, if every academic philosopher since Sidgwick has written in such a way as to exclude this ethic, it would argue a certain provinciality of mind not to see this incompatibility as the most important fact about these philosophers, and the differences between them as somewhat trifling by comparison.

—From “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 1958

Thanks, Alex!

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Note: Anscombe first presented her essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” to the Voltaire Society in Oxford. It was published in the journal Philosophy, vol. 33 (1958): 1-19.

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