Two Cases of Moral Corruption

In her radio talk “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?,” Anscombe offers an argument against the accusation that the moral philosophy dominant in Oxford in the 1950s “corrupts the youth.” In a characteristically polemical style, however, Anscombe’s argument is not to be taken as a defence of her Oxford contemporaries. The talk is dense with sarcasm, vitriol, and side-swipes against the current trends dominating moral philosophy in the English-speaking world, particularly philosophy closely connected with linguistic analysis (Anscombe 1957, 266).

Anscombe’s central argument in this talk is that Oxford moral philosophy cannot corrupt the youth, because this philosophy is “perfectly in tune with the highest and best ideals of the country at large” (Anscombe 1957, 267). It’s evident, however, that Anscombe does not think that this is a good thing. Philosophy shouldn’t aim to be “perfectly” in line with what people already think and believe — it should challenge and bring into question our existing ideals, prejudices, and conventions. Instead, Oxford philosophy is a philosophy fitted precisely to the “flattery” of the “spirit of the time” (Anscombe 1957, 271). For Anscombe, the problem is clearly that Oxford isn’t corrupting enough.

This line of argument runs in contrast with Anscombe’s infamous reference to corruption in her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Here she claims that if someone really thinks that it’s open to question whether we should execute the innocent, “[they] should be quite excluded from consideration” because “[they] show a corrupt mind” (Anscombe 1958b, 14). Here, someone having a corrupt mind is clearly a bad thing, and is even a reason for excluding them from philosophical discussion.


Excluded from Consideration

In “Modern Moral Philosophy” Anscombe seems to say that when we’re doing philosophy, philosophers who espouse certain beliefs or attitudes need to be simply “excluded from consideration” from the offset. Importantly, moreover, she isn’t just saying that certain beliefs shouldn’t be taken seriously; she’s also saying that the person who espouses these views should be excluded from consideration. Her tone here is overtly moralistic — it’s not just that certain opinions are too irrelevant or ridiculous to be given a real hearing, but rather that they are a sign that something is wrong with the person who sincerely voices them.

On the face of it, this attitude seems problematic — flat out refusing to engage with certain persons because they believe something radically different to us can be a swift route to dogmatism. It also seems radically at odds with Anscombe’s approach to philosophy in general, since she frequently argues against thinkers whose ideas she takes to be corrupting and morally abhorrent.

What are essays like “Mr Truman’s Degree” and “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?” if not attempts to argue against views that Anscombe considers corrupt? And she is very clear that she considers the views discussed in these essays to be corrupt ones. Added to these are essays which, while not setting their sights directly against views which Anscombe explicitly calls corrupt, do spend considerable time dwelling on views which Anscombe elsewhere calls corruption. In “The Influence of Pacifism,” for example, she again attacks the wartime conduct of the Allies, the bombing of civilian targets and the policy of seeking “unconditional surrender.” Her special target is people who, admitting that war is an evil, argue that nevertheless once one is engaging in war one might as well try to win by any means possible, even up to the dehousing attacks, Dresden, and Hiroshima: “seeing no way of avoiding ‘wickedness’, they set no limits to it.” (Walter 1968, 49). Anscombe compares this to a merchant who defends his cheating with the argument that “If then one must ‘compromise with evil’ by owning property and engaging in trade, then the amount of swindling one does will depend on convenience.” (Walter 1968, 48). Similarly, in “Knowledge and Reverence for Human Life” she pauses to consider defenders of abortion who “invent reasons, which sound like ones belonging to a very special religious position, why someone objects to abortion,” for example that objectors “think there is a soul” (Geach and Gormally 2005, 65). In fact, says Anscombe, the objection is simply that “what was inside a pregnant woman was a small human being” just as “what was inside a pregnant mare was a little horse, or what was inside a pregnant cat was a little kitten” (Geach and Gormally 2005, 66); and therefore it is a case of killing an innocent human being.

In these examples, it seems that people with corrupting views are precisely those that she wants to bring into the conversation, and look at with philosophical scrutiny. This gives us some reason to think that when Anscombe says we should exclude certain persons from consideration when we do moral philosophy, she does not mean that we should simply ignore them. However, Anscombe does not try seriously to set out and challenge such positions by argument. Her responses are more like attempts to expose or draw attention to a gap or misdirection.

In “The Influence of Pacifism”, the interlocutor’s pointing out that, whether you fire-bomb Dresden or not, you’re still falling short of the real ideal of Christian peacefulness is not so much an argument for firebombing as a way of obscuring or glossing over the fact that, even in the context of war, it is possible to pursue better and worse policies — indeed, for Anscombe the difference in a case like Dresden comes to one of being guilty or not guilty of a mass murder. Likewise, in “Knowledge and Reverence for Human Life” the “aparatczyk’” who brings up the argument about souls, which he doesn’t believe in, as a way of dismissing objectors to abortion is not presenting a serious argument but deflecting from what Anscombe considers the real issue: that an unborn human is a human, whom, in another context, we have no difficulty in understanding why a nurse might “earnestly try to save” (Geach and Gormally 2005, 65).

This strategy of showing the reader what is missing or misfiring, rather than arguing systematically, is perhaps even more clear when we look to how Anscombe treats academic philosophers, particularly Hume. Anscombe describes Hume as a “mere — brilliant —sophist” (Anscombe 1958b, 3), and despite her evidently low opinion of him Anscombe frequently uses Hume to elucidate her own non-empiricist commitments. In “On Brute Facts”, for example, she challenges Hume’s account of the fact/value distinction, but at no point does she attempt to give Hume a serious, charitable reading, or to answer any objections that a Humean might have to her line of argument. The paper runs to only four pages. Similarly in “Knowledge and Reverence for Human Life”, she attributes to Hume the claim that “all truth is ‘indifferent’” and attacks this without giving a serious presentation of why Hume thinks this in the first place (Geach and Gormally 2005, 59). In these papers, Anscombe sketches out the problem which she thinks is highlighted by Hume’s “sophistical” argumentation, and offers alternative pictures which allow us to account for what she sees as the shortcomings of his empiricism. Anscombe is not interested in hearing Hume out and seeing if he’s right, but in exposing his ideas as sophistry. Neither of these papers would convince a reader committed to Hume’s position, and they’re clearly not intended to.

So, it seems that Anscombe’s decision to “exclude from consideration” views which she considers corrupt should not be taken as an outright refusal to engage with such views. Still, this leaves open the question of why she does not choose to straightforwardly argue against Hume, or other corrupt minds. We can get some further insight into why Anscombe does this by turning to her understanding of truth.


Anscombe on truth

In her Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Anscombe takes Wittgenstein to be offering an account of propositional truth in which any given proposition is true if and only if its negation is false. If I say, “I have a cold,” this makes sense to us because we know what it would mean for me to not have a cold, and this understanding allows us to tell the difference between times when the statement is true (and I do have a cold), and when it is false (and I don’t).

One reason Anscombe is unsatisfied with this account is because it doesn’t adequately accommodate sentences which don’t have a negation that we can make sense of, such as tautologies or contradictions. On this propositional account, tautologies and contradictions are both nonsensical: they express nothing, because we do not have a sense which can apply differently to reality according to different possible truth-values. On Anscombe’s reading, Wittgenstein tries to accommodate statements like this by taking tautologies and contradictions to be non-propositional: rather than being statements which tell us things about the world, they are more like mathematical equations which show us what to do. For example, the equation “x = n – 2” shows us how to find x by subtracting 2 from n. Like equations, such sentences “depict nothing” because they do not describe anything significant about the relation between the words in the sentence and the objects in the world that they signify (Anscombe 1963, 76). So, for example, the claim “p ˅ ¬p” could show us how to derive p from the knowledge that ¬¬p, but this does not teach us any new facts about what objects or properties there are in the world.

Importantly for Anscombe, this type of statement must also include a number of theological claims, for example about the nature of God. This is because “in natural theology […] propositions are not supposed to be the ones that happen to be true out of pairs of possibilities; nor are they supposed to be logical or mathematical propositions either” (Anscombe 1963, 163). This is part of Anscombe’s commitment to Thomism. For Aquinas, when we grasp a created truth (such as “I’m drinking tea”) we grasp something that is not eternally or immutably true, and which depends on various contingent facts about time, place, and circumstance (at some point I’ll no longer be drinking tea). Understanding this kind of truth means understanding what would be contrary to it; this seems to be implied by Aquinas himself in his discussion of created truth in q. 1 art. 6 of Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. Natural theology, however, depends on a different kind of truth, a kind which is true regardless of any contingencies. For instance, Anscombe looks at the claim that “God is simple” (Anscombe 1963, 163). This kind of statement is intended by Aquinas to be similar to a tautology or contradiction, in that we couldn’t make sense of what it would mean for it to be false. However, such claims are also unlike mathematical equations because they aren’t just non-propositional instructions about how to go on; they are substantial metaphysical claims about what the world is like. “God is simple” is not an arbitrary rule or axiom which we just take as given when we do theology, as, for example, we take “All right angles are equal to one another” as given when we do geometry. Rather, Aquinas and Anscombe take this claim to be saying something significant about God’s nature and how we stand in relation to God.

The question, then, is how statements like theological (and, as we will explore, moral) claims can be necessary, whilst at the same time expressing something substantially true about the world. Departing from this Tractarian picture of truth, Anscombe goes in the direction of something more reminiscent of the later Wittgenstein’s idea of grammar. Rather than looking at truth through the lens of how words or statements correctly refer to objects in the world, we can look at how statements can express truth by reminding us how we should see or understand a given situation. Cora Diamond gives an example of this in discussing Anscombe’s remark that “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder” (Anscombe 1981, 64). Diamond understands this remark as a kind of Wittgensteinian reminder, the point of which is to turn us back to the meaning of our moral concepts: “this is part of the grammar of murder; and she takes us to be losing the conception of murder. This is a corruption of thought, a going astray of thought” (Diamond 2019, 225).

The political rhetoric surrounding the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the defence of Truman by Mr. Bullock described in Anscombe’s essay, do not really bring into question the belief that killing an innocent person is murder, or the belief that this kind of action is morally wrong. Neither do they suggest that our current concept of murder is unhelpful to us in this situation and that we should revise our definition of it, as we might revise social conventions about politeness to better fit different contexts. Rather, such rhetoric obscures, deflects, or glosses over the possibility of applying the concept of murder to Truman’s action. When in the grip of such rhetoric, we fail to use the concept properly, and so we lose the insight that Truman has murdered the innocent and all the moral gravity that should come with this.

This is a quite different kind of error from being mistaken about a fact. If, say, I believed that Truman was not a murderer because he was not responsible for the bombings, for example because I think approval was given by someone else without his knowledge, then I have a clear sense of what it would mean for me to be mistaken. But the dons defending Mr. Truman haven’t doubted that he had a share of responsibility, that the bombs killed a lot of innocent people, and that to kill the innocent is murder. They’ve failed to recognise the moral significance of these things. Outside of the most arcane cases,[1] we can’t really doubt the fact that killing an innocent person is murder; if someone thinks this statement is wrong, they have misunderstood the meaning of the concepts involved.

In the picture which Anscombe presents us with, a fundamental moral claim like “killing an innocent person is murder” is neither a contingent fact about the world or human behaviour which just happens to be true; nor is it something like a rule or instruction without truth-evaluable content. Such claims are instead expressions of meaning: they serve to remind us of how to properly use our concepts. They also, in doing this, tell us something about what our concepts are.

The prohibition of murder is, for Anscombe, always and unconditionally true, and in this respect is fundamentally unlike socially constructed rules or laws. Anscombe compares the Allies’ attitude to the area bombing of civilian targets to their attitude to the Queensbury Rules: a matter of honour to be abided by only so long as the enemy does the same (Anscombe 1981, 62). When we stop applying such rules, they essentially stop existing; they lose their force and slip into irrelevancy. By contrast, killing innocent people is always murder, and this is always wrong, and this remains the case even if we lose sight of the concept; the prohibition’s “force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned” (Anscombe 1981, 64).

From this vantage we can see more clearly what it means to “corrupt someone’s mind” in Anscombe’s philosophy. Since these moral statements are grammatical claims rather than propositional ones which could conceivably be false, someone who is mistaken about them commits a different kind of error from someone who is merely mistaken about a fact or misapplying a rule. Such a person is instead using their concepts wrongly, for instance by failing to remember how such concepts are properly applied. They are not in fact challenging what we know to be true, but rather obscuring or distorting it, causing us to have blind-spots in our thinking.

If Anscombe is right about all this, then the right response to someone in the grip of this kind of conceptual loss should not be to examine their argument and unpick the premises and inferences their conclusion supposedly depends on. Sophists can be “brilliant” (Anscombe 1958b, 3), they can appeal to reasonable intuitions, and they can be completely internally consistent. The problem is not in their argument, but in what they miss out. Instead, what a philosopher can do is elucidate whatever it is that the sophist has distracted our attention away from. We can remind them, and anyone who might be influenced by them, of the relevant concepts they are missing, and demonstrate what they show us.

Finally, we can return to the contrast raised at the beginning of this paper between Anscombe’s two cases of corruption. Ironically, what Anscombe has been doing in all these examples where she rejects corrupt ideas could itself be taken as a way of corrupting our values. She takes the prejudices, presuppositions, and misleading pictures that underpin our ways of thinking about morals and challenges us to reject them in place of something else. Not only is she going against those who advocate for “the spirit of the times,” she’s also refusing to play the same game as them. She doesn’t, for example, look at perceived inconsistencies in Hume or Truman’s arguments and try to address them — she dismisses their ways of thinking outright. This is exactly what the “Oxford moral philosophers,” in Anscombe’s view, are failing to do. They accept our pre-existing “common standards” of goodness, take these to be “satisfactory” and “arbitrary,” and go in whatever direction these point us in (Anscombe 1957, 270-271). Anscombe wants us to do something more radical — she wants us to look at our values, actions, and ways of thinking, and see how we can be getting moral concepts dangerously wrong.  Like the opponents she attacks as corrupt, her strategy rests on changing, undermining and reinforcing our concepts. She corrupts our existing moral standards by disturbing conventional ways of looking at morality, calling us to amend our concepts. Hopefully, with the right motivations, and philosophical scrutiny, this corruption can help us rebuild a better morality.

[1] In “Two Kinds of Error in Action,” Anscombe considers the case of a public executioner who is presented with a man who has had his trial and been sentenced, whom he privately knows to be innocent, but on evidence that is not admissible and can’t reverse the conviction (Anscombe 1981, 7). If he goes through with the execution, we might not know whether to call it murder. But the thing which makes it difficult to apply our concept of murder comes from the fact that the victim is being executed after a fair trial. Truman’s case is not like that one; if only because there were children in Nagasaki.


Anscombe, G. E. M. 1957. “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?,” The Listener (February 14th 1957): 266-271.

__________. 1958a. “On Brute Facts.” Analysis, Vol. 18, No. 3 (January, 1958): 69-72.

__________. 1958b. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (January 1958): 1-19.

__________. 1963. An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. New York: Harper Torchwood.

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

Aquinas, Thomas. Questiones Disputatae de Veritate, “Disputed Questions on Truth,”  accessed online 25/07/19 at Trans. Mulligan, R. (1952). Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Diamond, Cora. 1988. “Losing Your Concepts.” Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988), pp. 255-277. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

__________. 2019. Reading Wittgenstein with Anscombe, Going on to Ethics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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

Stein, Walter, ed. 1968. Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response. London and New York: Sheed and Ward.


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