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!

Points of Interest:

Books of Interest:

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.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Elizabeth Anscombe on the Hebrew-Christian Ethic and Utilitarianism

  1. Alex says:

    Dear Doug,

    Thank you for posting this. Anscombe, I think, was one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the 20th century. Never did she discuss trivial abstractions nor compromise for the fashions of the academy. She followed Wisdom, regardless of the consequences to herself or career. Once she was arrested for protesting abortion and had to be defended by the philosopher and lawyer John Finnis. Like Kierkegaard she censured those within Christianity that claimed to be discovering new things in the old religion and unmasked the pretense of the evasion characteristic of affluent Christian leaders. She somehow pulled off being a world-renowned philosopher and a mother of seven. Her husband Peter Geach, also one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the 20th century, is still living.


  2. cam says:

    This is an excellent piece to go alongside the Bonhoeffer entry.

    Not knowing anything about Anscombe I can only guess that the foundation of her perceptions of the Hebrew-Christian ethic are found in the the Bible. If that is the case, I believe her list of forbidden things is perhaps over-reaching and that seems to contrast her beliefs with those of Bonhoeffer.

    Most of us are not personally familiar with war and have not been participants. Because of that I think some of our strongly held ethic values might become more developed or matured if we were forced to enter into that realm.

    I think what is most significant is that Bonhoeffer sought to discover God’s will through close study of His Word. I think this is the very best any of us can do as fallen beings in a fallen world.

    I sure reading the new book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
    would give some insight into the thinking of this devoted Christian in dire circumstances.


  3. Matt says:

    A friend of mine came up with an idea for “Christian Utilitarianism” in a vein similar to Piper’s Christian Hedonism. Instead of the right action being the one that creates the most balance of good over bad/pleasure over pain, the right action is that which brings the most glory to God. So it’s still consequentialist in a sense because the right action is determined by whether or not it brings the most glory to God. All of the actions Anscombe mentions, idolatry, killing the innocent, etc., would all be deemed bad actions because they don’t bring as much glory to God as some other action. I guess one could ask, what is it about these actions that brings glory to God? And then have to refer back to some non-consequentialist type of ethic. But it’s still interesting to ponder.


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