In G. E. Anscombe's article "Modern Moral Philosophy", she thinks that it is meaningless to make moral judgements such as something is right, wrong, permissible and impermissible. Secondly, she thinks that her thick concept / Aristotelian virtue ethics vocabularies such as just, courage, tolerant, and wisdom etc. are better vocabularies. But both kinds are normative judgements except the latter (just, courage, tolerant, and wisdom) are some kind of thick concepts.

But I still do not understand why she thinks her vocabularies are superior in making moral judgements.

  • 1
    'thick concept' is i think a term that appears outside ethics and meta-ethics. apologies for posting, but i'm not familiar enough with the term to do more than post a link
    – confused
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:31
  • 1
    Maybe useful : Thick Ethical Concepts : The designation “thick concept” for concepts that combine evaluation and non-evaluative description originates in Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 12:37

2 Answers 2


Anscombe's concern in Modern Moral Philosophy is that without a divine law theory the idea of "moral obligation" would no longer be what one might term today a "thick concept" if by that one means what Brent G. Kyle calls a "substantively descriptive" concept: (page 15 of the linked file)

Now let us remember that "morally wrong" is the term which is the heir of the notion of "illicit," or "what there is an obligation not to do"; which belongs in a divine law theory or ethics. Here 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. So if the divine law obliges not to commit injustice by forbidding injustice, it really does add something to the description "unjust" to say there is an obligation not to do it.

We generally have the same normative concepts, thick or thin, such as "untruthful", "unchaste" or "unjust", as did Aristotle. But unlike us, Aristotle did not have the concept of moral obligation that adds an obligation not to be "unjust". Anscombe references Aristotle not because his vocabularies are different but rather to provide an example: "...you can do ethics without it [moral obligation], as is shown by the example of Aristotle." (page 7)

Anscombe claimed the law conception of ethics, that is, moral obligation, is what makes us, when we fail, "bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)". To have a law conception of ethics one would need to "believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians". (page 5)

However, today one tries to retain "a law conception without a divine legislator" and the divine law becomes transformed into conscience, norms, pleasure, laws of nature, or contracts (pages 11-12). However, these lead to a justification of injustice that she illustrates with the "judicial punishment of the innocent" under some circumstances. To get around this would require a philosophy of psychology, replacing the divine law and legislator, but that is "conspicuously lacking". (page 1)

To address the question:

But I still do not understand why she thinks her vocabularies are superior in making moral judgements.

The only difference between the Aristotelian vocabularies and those today is the idea of moral obligation inherited from a divine law conception of ethics. Aristotle did not have this. We have it today as an empty concept that we assume exists nonetheless. Otherwise the vocabularies are the same. We could continue an ethics without moral obligation the way Aristotle did.

She does have a "complaint" which might make her position superior if she is correct (page 16).

Our desire to retain moral obligation without keeping a divine legislator forces us to come up with some alternate justification for that moral obligation, such as, conscience, pleasure, social norms, consequences, intentions or physical laws. However, these lead to a potential justification of injustice under some circumstances, that is, to justifications where "one 'ought' perhaps to commit an injustice" under some circumstances.

Because of this potential for justifying injustice found in modern moral philosophy, she recommends ceasing to pursue the idea of moral obligation and follow an ethics based on Aristotle's example.


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

Kyle, B. G, "Thick Concepts" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/thick-co/


Welcome Sanna Lannovna.

So far as I know, Anscombe does not use the term, 'thick' concept, in 'Modern Moral Philosophy : https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf.

Anscombe - the basic claim

Anscombe is writing from the standpoint of a religiously-based ethics. The basic thrust of the article is :

... a forthright case for the claim that, in the absence of a divine law conception of ethics, any specifically moral concept of obligation must be redundant, and that the best that can be hoped for in a secular age is some sort of neo-Aristotelianism. (Maria Alvarez and Aaron Ridley, 'The Concept of Moral Obligation: Anscombe contra Korsgaard', Vol. 82, No. 322 (Oct., 2007), pp. 543-552: 543.)

In the absence of a divine law, to continue to talk of moral obligation is :

... as if the notion of 'criminal' were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. (Elizabeth Anscombe, Ethics, Religion and Politics: the Collected Philosophical Papers Vol III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981): 30. (Or see: https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf.)

Korsgaard contra Anscombe

Anscombe's position is hardly uncontentious. A major, Kantianly-themed objection has been urged by Christine Korsgaard :

...Korsgaard does agree with Anscombe that the notion of 'moral obligation' [and of the morally wrong : GT] requires a law conception of ethics. Part of the task that now confronts her [Korsgaard], therefore, is to show how a distinctive, meaningful, sense of 'moral obligation' can be derived from a law conception of ethics that is, in the relevant sense, non-divine. For this, as we have seen, is something that Anscombe argues cannot be done. Korsgaard's preferred solution is Kant's, namely, that one must be understood as giving the law to oneself, as legislating for oneself - a suggestion to which Anscombe gives short shrift, characterising it as 'absurd'. For, she claims, 'the concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator', just as the concept of a vote requires that there should be more than one voter (i.e. requires that more than one person be eligible to vote).

The conclusion to be drawn from this, in Anscombe's view, is that, whatever we might do, there is nothing that we can do that is properly to be called 'legislating for oneself'. I cannot, she says, give the law to myself: 'whatever you do "for yourself" may be admirable', she writes: 'but is not legislating'. At most, I can frame my own rules of conduct. What is the difference? To regard something as a law is to regard it as something that has a certain authority over one - as something that provides a reason to act in a particular way, for example not to perform a certain kind of action, which is independent of any of the other reasons there may be for or against performing an action of that kind, and which is authoritative irrespective of such reasons. Whereas to frame one's own rules of conduct requires that those rules be, at least in principle, and if the whole process is not to be arbitrary, open to critical reflection (i.e. open to correction in the light, precisely, of reasons), in a way that is not true when what is at issue is the 'law'. So nothing helpful or illuminating is added by calling framing one's own rules of conduct 'legislating for oneself. On the contrary, a level of obscurity about the status of those rules is introduced; and the effect of that, once again, is to leave the sense of 'moral obligation' that is supposed to have been derived from the process of self-legislation bereft of any obvious content. ((Maria Alvarez and Aaron Ridley: 550-1.)

Anscombe and Aristotle

In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man **would require a positive account of justice as a "virtue." This part of the subject-matter of ethics is, however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is-a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis-and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear. For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as "doing such-and- such" is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it; and for this an account of such concepts is required. (Anscombe : https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf.)

The implication is that we do not have an adequate account of such concepts. But whatever his shortcomings, Aristotle offers a second-best. If we cannot give a coherent and cogent account of moral obligation without a law conception of ethics, we can settle faute de mieux for using virtue-language in a way that is workable despite the lack of a rigorously sound philosophy of psychology behind it :

It would be a great improvement if, instead of "morally wrong," one always named a genus such as "untruthful," "unchaste," "unjust." We should no longer ask whether doing something was "wrong," passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust; and the answer would sometimes be clear at once. (Anscombe : https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf.)


What I have attempted here is an explanation of Anscombe's basic views in 'Modern Moral Philosophy'. Nothing I have said indicates my own view of her ethical theory.

  • There is one known law conception of ethics: one must be before one can be moral. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 23:11
  • @EternalPropagation. Exactly true, thank you : GLT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 9:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .