James Doyle’s book No Morality, No Self has much to recommend it. Constantine Sandis describes it as “timely and significant” (Sandis 2019), while Jennifer Frey calls it “a tremendous contribution to our understanding of Anscombe” (Frey 2018). In this paper, however, I want to point out a couple of weak points in the first part of the book, which is about Anscombe’s paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (Anscombe 1958). The first point is about the concept of morality. The second, more minor point, is about what it means to have a law conception of ethics.

Doyle writes:

The main point I want to establish in Part I is that, contrary to virtually all subsequent comment on the paper, Anscombe does not maintain in “Modern Moral Philosophy” that the concept of morality was in good order when it was underpinned by a divine command conception of ethics but ceased to be intelligible when this conception was abandoned by philosophers. Her view is rather than the concept of morality was never intelligible, and is in fact not a concept at all, but only a word. (Doyle 2018, p. x)

My goal in this paper is not to defend any particular comment on Anscombe 1958 that Doyle rejects but to criticize some of what he says about morality and about what it means to have a law conception of ethics. Doyle refers to Anscombe’s “vigorous denials that any such concept as morality even exists” (Doyle 2018, 42). It is striking, though, that she never says this. We get the term “moral,” she says, from Aristotle, but he does not use it in the modern sense.[1] It is the modern use, or pseudo-use, of the term that she argues against. So it is not the concept of morality that she opposes. Indeed the word ‘morality’ does not appear in Anscombe 1958. It, or words naturally translated as ‘morality’ and its cognates, does appear in some of Anscombe’s other work, however, and in the work of philosophers she admired, such as Thomas Aquinas. Doyle acknowledges this, discussing Aquinas, Aristotle, and Anscombe herself using what he calls “clearly unobjectionable” senses of the word ‘moral’ (Doyle 2018, 8). If we understand a concept as something like what Doyle calls a sense or use of a word, then, as he agrees, there are multiple concepts of the moral or morality. Talk of “the concept of morality” can only be a potentially misleading way of talking about one particular concept or pseudo-concept.

If it really is Anscombe’s view that morality is not a concept at all but a mere word, then we would surely expect her to avoid the word and to reject uses of it. However, Anscombe’s argument provides no reason not to talk about, say, Christian morality, as Anscombe does herself, contrasting it with “heathen morality”, at the start of her essay “Contraception and Chastity” (Geach and Gormally 2008, 170). Similarly, her essay on “Murder and the Morality of Euthanasia” contrasts “the utilitarian type of morality labelled ‘consequentialism’” with “traditional morality” (Geach and Gormally 2005, 271). There is no suggestion here that morality itself is a nonsense word or pseudo-concept. Sandis also points out that Doyle’s view “runs counter to numerous writings in which [Anscombe] employs explicitly moral terminology” (Sandis 2019, 39). He gives examples from “Authority in Morals” (Geach and Gormally 2008, 92-100) and “Morality” (Geach and Gormally 2008, 113-116). Admittedly, these papers were written after 1958, so Anscombe could have changed her mind, but there is no other evidence that she did so, and “Authority in Morals” was originally presented in 1961, which is not long after 1958. “Perhaps,” Sandis suggests, “Doyle has novel interpretations of these passages up his sleeve, but it is strange that his otherwise meticulous examination of Anscombe’s work ignores them” (Sandis 2019, 39).

In making his point about Anscombe’s alleged rejection of the concept of morality, Doyle says that she emphasizes the point that “the vocabulary of morality” is not the same as the vocabulary of divine law ethics (Doyle 2018, 55). Instead, he says, “It is a descendant of that vocabulary,” which is why, according to him, it is a mistake to think that “Anscombe would accept moral as a legitimate concept if only it were “reinserted” into the relevant theistic form of life” (Doyle 2018, 55-56). He then adds an interesting qualification, though, speaking of “the essence of morality, as most people purport to understand it” (Doyle 2018, 56). This essence includes autonomy from God’s commands. Doyle also ends his chapter on “What’s Really Wrong with the Vocabulary of Morality” with an example of why morality “in the sense deemed objectionable” does not make sense (Doyle 2018, 83). In other words, when he calls ‘morality’ a meaningless word what he often, and perhaps always, means is ‘morality’ when used in a particular kind of way, the way to which Anscombe famously objects. 

So one thing we need to keep in mind as we read Doyle is that when he talks about ‘morality’ it seems that at least some of the time he means morality-as-most-people-purport-to-understand-it, which, of course, is going to mean morality in the modern sense to which Anscombe objects. Which, equally of course, is not what commenters mean when they say that Anscombe would not necessarily object to uses of ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ that are not of the modern kind. 

Another point to note is that Doyle talks about vocabulary while Anscombe talks about words and concepts (and conceptions and notions). In her initial thesis statement she objects to “the concepts of obligation and duty—moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say” (Anscombe 1958, 1). Later, in a passage that Doyle focuses on, she talks about both “the concepts [sic] of ‘obligation’” and “the word ‘ought’.” She explicitly does not reject the word ‘ought’, however, (see Anscombe 1958, 15 and 1, for instance), but only its use in a special ‘moral’ sense, one intended to imply a kind of verdict without allowing for anyone or anything that might render this verdict. It is not vocabulary, in the sense of words, that Anscombe objects to, but certain concepts, and her objection, as Doyle rightly notes, is that they are not really concepts at all. His use of the word ‘vocabulary’ suggests, perhaps unwittingly, that he has in mind words rather than concepts, which is evidently not what Anscombe has in mind.              

As well as this problem, or set of problems, with what Doyle says about morality, another problem is what he says about law conceptions of ethics. Doyle says that Anscombe commits “a slip” when she writes that the search “for the possibility of retaining a law conception without a divine legislator […] has some interest in it” (Doyle 2018, 31, Anscombe 1958, 13). He later calls Anscombe’s reference to the possibility of a “law conception without a divine legislator” something envisaged “in an unguarded moment” (Doyle 2018, 90).  

Anscombe spends a little over a page (in a paper that is less than nineteen whole pages long in total) considering several possible sources of the norms on which such a conception of ethics might be based (society, nature, and human virtues, for instance).[2] She does not hold out much hope of any of these putting us on a good path, but she does think about what they might mean and why they are likely to be bad. As Doyle sees it, though, this is all a mistake, “For earlier she defined a law conception of ethics” as involving divine law and God as a law-giver (Doyle 2018, 31, his emphasis). He refers to the following passage here:

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. (Anscombe 1958, 6)

I have taken this to be a definition before now, but I no longer do.[3] Daniel Lindquist has suggested that an alternative is that what Doyle and I have taken to be a definition is not intended as such.[4] Anscombe does not, after all, say that it is a definition. And, as Lindquist has noted, she uses the term before giving the supposed definition, which would be odd if she meant it in a way that requires a technical or idiosyncratic explanation. If not a slip or a definition, then her statement of what it is to have a law conception of ethics would seem to amount to a description of what it has happened to involve so far in history, as I will explain below.  

If it were intended as a definition one might expect it to have appeared earlier in the paper, since Anscombe has already referred to Christianity’s “law conception of ethics” (Anscombe 1958, 5, her emphasis). Perhaps the italicization of ‘law’ in each case indicates that she is indeed now, on p. 6, explaining what she had meant on p. 5, but if so the explanation or definition seems to apply only to the Christian and Stoic versions of the idea. Anscombe explains that Christianity has a law conception of ethics, “For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah” (Anscombe 1958, 5). The idea seems to be that Jewish ethics is based on laws given by God, and, since Christian ethics come from Jewish ethics, Christianity shares with Judaism a law conception of ethics. If the passage (quoted above) on the next page is really meant as a definition of what this means then it is very odd that it includes so much reference to virtue. Virtue is not an alien concept to Jewish ethics, but it is not obviously central either. Yitzchak Blau, writing of the rise of virtue ethics following the publication of Anscombe 1958, observes that:

This recent trend in moral philosophy has led Jewish thinkers to inquire whether virtue ethics belongs within a Jewish world view. It would, of course, be absurd to claim that Judaism advocates that we do away with rules and laws altogether, as the Halakhah [Jewish law] is full of concrete demands in both the personal and interpersonal spheres. However, the Halakhah may combine a notion of law together with a virtue ethic. In a series of articles and in his book, Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger forcefully advances just such a thesis. (Blau 2000, 20)                 

It would be strange if Anscombe defined a law conception of ethics in terms of virtue and explained Christianity’s having such a conception of ethics by reference to its inheritance from Judaism if Jewish thinkers themselves are not sure whether virtue ethics even belongs within a Jewish world view. It is possible to make the situation seem less strange if we think of possible different uses of terms such as ‘law’ and ‘virtue ethics’, or if we imagine that Anscombe had an idiosyncratic understanding of Jewish ethics. But a much more natural reading of the passage on p. 5 renders such speculation unnecessary. What Anscombe is evidently saying is that Judaism has a law conception of ethics in the sense recognized by Blau and Wurzburger, among many others, and that Christianity derived its ethical notions from Jewish ones, specifically those found in the Torah. At this point she adds the following aside: 

(One might be inclined to think that a law conception of ethics could arise only among people who accepted an allegedly divine positive law; that this is not so is shown by the example of the Stoics, who also thought that whatever was involved in conformity to human virtues was required by divine law.) (Anscombe 1958, 5)

This is a hard sentence to unpack, but I take it to imply that Jews and Christians accept an allegedly divine positive law and that Stoics, while not believing in any such law, do, like Jews and Christians, believe that there is a divine law: one that requires us to do whatever is involved in conformity to human virtues. So there have been at least two kinds of law conception of ethics: the kind shared by Jews and Christians, and the kind accepted by Stoics.

Two paragraphs later, when Anscombe tells us what it is to have a law conception of ethics, she need not be read as giving a definition but can instead be taken to be explaining our current situation. She has, after all, just been giving a history lesson in ethical concepts in the paragraph that comes between the passage under discussion on p. 5 and the one on p. 6. Where we are now, perhaps by historical accident rather than by definition, is that people with a law conception of ethics believe “that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man […] is required by divine law.” The belief she describes sounds very Stoic and not very Jewish, but perhaps it is intended primarily as a description of what non-Protestant Christians believe.[5]

Alternatively, the ‘definition’ on p. 6 really might be meant as a definition. But then we need to decide where the slip is. Because either the definition is wrong or else the search for a law conception of ethics without a divine legislator has, in fact, no interest in it whatsoever. It is surely easier to believe that the single sentence containing the definition, if it is one, is the slip, rather than that Anscombe spent over a page considering ‘possibilities’ that were non-starters by her own definition.

Doyle says that “whatever view we end up attributing to Anscombe on the matter, it makes more sense overall to think of  ‘law conceptions’ as indeed essentially theistic; that is, to think of them in line with her definition as opposed to her second thoughts” (Doyle 2018, 206). In defence of this position he says that he “cannot see how, by her lights, it could ‘add something to the description ‘unjust’ to say that there is an obligation not to do [some action]’ (MMP, 17), if that obligation is supposed to have its origin in a contract, however implicit or abstract” (Doyle 2018, 87). What Doyle is looking for is some non-virtue-related reason not to do what is unjust in addition to the virtue-related, though obscure, reason that it is not in one’s eudaimonia-seeking self-interest to do what is unjust. Let us suppose that people have found it useful to have a criminal justice system in which, as far as we can manage it, the guilty are punished and the innocent are not, however tempting it might be to behave differently in particular cases. So we agree or contract to operate with such a system. The system obliges us not to punish the innocent. It would be unjust to do so, yes, but now it would also violate the terms of the contract. And, I am supposing, the contract is useful. One violation of it probably will not bring the system down, but it will be a violation, just as cheating in a game breaks the rules. Doyle brings up the question “What if I don’t?”, to which the answer here might be “Then you will have behaved unjustly” or “Then you will have broken the law/rules/terms of the contract” or “Then you will have undermined a system that we all rely on.”[6] As obscure as the virtue of justice, and its relation to eudaimonia, is, these do not appear to be the same answer, so a contract looks as though it could give reasons to avoid injustice in addition to those offered by an egoistic version of virtue theory.

What Anscombe says is that, whereas calling something “morally wrong” says nothing, “it really does add something to the description “unjust” to say there is an obligation not to do it; for what obliges is the divine law—as rules oblige in a game” (Anscombe 1958, 17-18). In her essay on “Rules, Rights and Promises” (in Anscombe, 1981) Anscombe explains how she thinks such obligations arise. Games might be socially constructed but it is still true that certain things are against the rules of a given game and that therefore there is a sense in which one cannot do those things. The rules, and the people who play the game, tell you that you cannot do them. Similarly, if an unjust act is also forbidden by God (or some agreement between people) then calling it forbidden is saying something in addition to recognizing its being unjust.          

Doyle is quite right that Anscombe’s work has not been well understood. He is right also about what is wrong with what he calls the concept of morality as Anscombe sees it. However, as I hope to have shown, he is not as careful as he might be about distinguishing between words and concepts, and between different uses of words such as ‘moral’ and ‘morality’. He is also, I think, wrong about what Anscombe means by a law conception of ethics, although, as he rightly notes, this is a point of secondary importance.

[1] See Anscombe 1958, 1.

[2] See Anscombe 1958, 13-15.

[3] See Richter 1995, 71 and Richter 2011, 76.

[4] See Daniel Lindquist’s comment at 2:33 pm April 11th 2019 on the blog “Language Goes on Holiday” at http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/2019/04/me-vs-jimmy-doyle.html?showComment=1555007639287#c7149348962193236104.

[5] Anscombe explains in Anscombe 1958, 6, note 1, why she does not take Protestants to believe in divine law in the relevant way.

[6] See Doyle, 87. 


Anscombe, G. E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (January 1958): 1-19.

___________. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, Volume Three: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981.

Blau, Yitzchak, "The Implications of a Jewish Virtue Ethic," The Torah U-Madda Journal 9 (2000): 19-41.

Doyle, James. No Morality, No Self: Anscombe’s Radical Skepticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Frey, Jennifer. Review of No Morality, No Self , by James Doyle, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, September 26, 2018. https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/no-morality-no-self-anscombes-radical-skepticism/.

Geach, Mary and Luke Gormally, eds. Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005.

___________. Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G. E. M. Anscombe. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008.

Richter, Duncan,  “The Incoherence of the Moral ‘Ought’,” Philosophy 70, no. 271 (January 1995): 69-85.

___________. Anscombe’s Moral Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.

Sandis, Constantine. “Neo-Anscombians,” review of No Morality, No Self , by James Doyle, TLS, May 24, 2019: 39.

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