Elizabeth Anscombe, Metaethics, and the Language Games of 20th Century Moral Philosophy

Whether by studying the best theory to frame the Christian ethic in light of the myriad of philosophical families or trying to think through the ethical contours of issues ranging from marriage and sexuality to war and abortion, evangelicals rightly focus on the practical aspects of ethics asking questions about ‘how’ and ‘what’ we are to do. While these dual emphases on normative and applied ethics respectively are in desperate need today given the widespread moral confusion and heated debates over basic human goods, we often lack a substantive focus on the ‘why’ of ethics — or the meaning and use of moral terms in our reasoned pursuit of the good. Rarely do our courses and textbooks address these types of philosophical and theological questions in depth which have become known in broader philosophical circles as the study of metaethics.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries of English moral philosophy, the discipline of ethics was particularly focused on these ‘why’ questions in light of the revolutionary thesis offered by G.E. Moore and his open question argument and Ludwig Wittgenstein and his emphasis on the use of language in philosophy continuing on with A. J. Ayer and later C.L. Stevenson’s theories of ethical emotivism and the linguistic shift in moral philosophy. Much of the debate surrounding emotivism and more broadly metaethics of that period focused on the meaning and use of moral terms. This environment — known to many simply as “modern moral philosophy” — is the milieu in which the Oxford philosopher G.E.M Anscombe was trained and one that she pointedly addressed throughout her storied career. Although she wrote about a wide array of moral and philosophical problems often addressing metaethical themes in her work, she never published a sustained study on the topic leaving some to overlook her immense contribution to these important ‘why’ questions of ethics.

Nevertheless, Anscombe’s insights into these critical questions of moral philosophy are quite instructive for the field, especially as they aid Christian ethicists in refining our understanding and engagement with some of the most consequential moral dilemmas in philosophical and theological ethics today. To that end, this paper will first introduce this towering and at times intimidating 20th century moral philosopher. Second, an inquiry will be made into the metaethical questions raised in one of her most influential papers, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” And finally, her contributions to moral philosophy will be briefly applied to contemporary metaethical debates and to the task of Christian ethics today given her emphasis on the need for precision in our use of language and moral evaluations.

Keywords: Christian ethics, moral philosophy, metaethics, Elizabeth Anscombe, virtue ethics, ethical method

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Anscombe, Metaethics, and the Language Games of 20th Century Moral Philosophy”

  1. Important topic, but . . .
    The first paragraph of the proposal was wholly unnecessary, while the second assumes readers don’t know their history of 20th century ethics. The proposal would have been stronger if it focused on the argument that would be developed on the basis of Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy.”


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