Elizabeth Anscombe on Why Intentions Matter

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Elizabeth Anscombe was inspired to theorise on morality after converting to Roman Catholicism. Photo of Chichester Cathedral, by Janet Cameron

Converting to Roman Catholicism inspired Elizabeth Anscombe to theorise on morality. Photo of Chichester Cathedral by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919-2001) was born in Limerick, Ireland. From 1970 to 1986, she was Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge.

Anscombe is also noted as being responsible for bringing Ludwig Wittgenstein to the public’s attention; she met him during World War 2 at Cambridge, and attended his classes before becoming his greatest friend.

After Wittgenstein’s death in 1951, Anscombe helped edit his posthumous material and translated his Philosophical Investigations to great acclaim.

Neumann University describe her as “one of the twentieth century’s most provocative and highly regarded philosophers.”

Elizabeth Anscombe: The Rise of the Dragon Lady

This remarkable women, dubbed by some as “The Dragon Lady” and noted for her eccentricity, was enormously influential in moral philosophy. Elizabeth Anscombe was rude and unconventional; she liked to puff on a cigar, and, according to Jane O’Grady in her Guardian obituary, “Once, entering a smart restaurant in Boston, she was told that ladies were not admitted in trousers. She simply took them off.” 

She caused an uproar in the establishment by saying exactly what she thought, however unpopular her views. Her views on sexual ethics were extremely conservative, and she upset the famous philosopher Bernard William by writing papers condemning both contraception and homosexuality.

Although Anscombe gave birth to seven children by her husband, philosopher Peter Geach, she always insisted being called “Miss Anscombe” – a stance that caused raised eyebrows in polite society.

Anscombe was devoutly Roman Catholic, and it was her religious conversion that inspired her passion for the nature of morality and virtue ethics. Her other main interest was the meaning and limits of language.

“Bluff, courageous, determined, loyal, she argued that the word ‘I’ does not refer to anything, but she certainly believed in the soul,” says Jane O’Grady.

Anscombe’s Theory of Right and Wrong

In Elizabeth Anscombe, Jane O’Grady explains how Anscombe’s philosophical theory was more “systematic and thoroughgoing than Wittgenstein’s cryptic suggestive hints, and was also, distinctively, her own.”

Anscombe argues that moral obligations, duties, rights and wrongs are out of date, and originate from the Judeo-Christian law of God. While she believes in God, she criticises the way we use language. For Anscombe, it is not the case that “the right action is the one that produces the best possible consequences.”

Anti-Deterministic Theory of Intentions

Elizabeth Anscombe was fiercely anti-deterministic, and this is integral to her work in the nature of intentionality. If determinism is valid, then we are not free to act as we choose. Therefore, it is senseless to assign responsibility to people for their actions. If we believe in determinism, then only consequences can matter.

We are subject to both intentional rational behaviour and non-rational behaviour. If we have a twitch, or any other involuntary action, although this behaviour might have a cause, it is certainly not one of intention. There would be no reason for us, intentionally, to move in this way.

Intentional action is different. It’s about the meaning of actions. We can ask another person to tell us the reason behind their action, or their purpose in deciding to behave in that way.

“This sets them [intentional actions] apart from questions about causes, since I might not know what caused me to sleep so restlessly but I cannot be so ignorant of my intentions.  I could hypothesize that dehydration caused me to sleep badly, but if I get up to drink some water then it is no hypothesis on my part that I am heading to the kitchen to get something to drink.” (Quoted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [IEP].)

Consequentialism, a term she invented, is suspect because it justifies execution of an innocent person as a possibly correct action. Anscombe sees this as corrupt. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder,” she says, adhering to Aristotle’s concepts of virtue and reason. This statement resonates with a confrontation with her university over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which she considered mass murder.

In “Professor G.E.M. Anscombe, the Telegraph‘s obituary reporter says:

“… in 1956, she caused something of a sensation when she opposed the conferment of an honorary degree by Oxford on President Truman. In her essay, ‘Mr Truman’s Degree,’ she pointed out that he had been responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that the consequent death of innocents, even as a necessary means to an end, remained murder. ‘You may not do evil,’ ran her injunction, ‘that good may come.’”

All Modern Philosophers are Consquentialists, Claims Anscombe

Anscombe applies the moral theory of consequentialism, which she opposes, to all modern moral philosophers beginning with Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900.)  She raises these issues in her most important work, Modern Moral Philosophy.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article “Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001)” says:

“Contemporary interest in virtue theory can be traced directly to this paper, which put forward three theses: that all the major British moral philosophers from Henry Sidgwick on were essentially the same (that is, consequentialists); that the concepts of moral obligation, the use of the word “ought” with a special moral sense, and related notions, are harmful and should be dropped; and that we should stop doing moral philosophy until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology.”

Here is another more dramatic example from the IEP article, describing the necessity of defining intentionality:

“To see this point more clearly, imagine a climber who loses the will to live and so lets go of the rock and falls to his death. This was intentional, an act of suicide. Now imagine that he simply loses his grip and falls. This is unintentional and not suicide but a tragic accident.”

The Importance of Establishing Intention

Generally, unintentional behaviour is not something we would be judgemental about since it would be irrelevant to ethics, but intentional behaviour is what ethics is all about. For example, regarding the example in the previous paragraph, many religious people consider suicide a mortal sin.

Generally, we know very well what our intentions are, and it is vital to understand the difference between intentional, rational behaviour, and non-rational behaviour. However, sometimes our intentions don’t play out quite as we have planned. The following quotation from the IEP article, explains how human error and mistakes can thwart intentions.

“It is possible to act badly because of having a bad intention, of course, but it is also possible… for action to go wrong because of errors in execution.”  (The example given is the intention of writing a name on a chalkboard, but the board is slippery and the chalk makes no mark.)

Anscombe’s Works

Besides her Modern Moral Philosophy, there are three-volumes of Collected Philosophical Papers (1981), which covers epistemology, metaphysics, history of philosophy, and philosophy of religion.

Causality and Determination is her inaugural lecture on becoming professor of Cambridge in 1970. Other papers, quoted by Neumann University and included in their March 2014 conference, are Catholic Moral Theory, Double Effect, Souls and Persons, and Marriage and Women.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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