Some excellent (if, scattered) points on moral knowledge, gleaned from Elizabeth Anscombe

Anscombe, Environment of Child


No one could have the concepts corresponding to the words used in teh commandments, if he had not lived in an environment in which he learns the inwardness of all sorts of ways of going on: he must live a specificaly human life with human practices....


Moral action descriptions are not natural event descriptions.  But it is part of the natural history of mankind that the human young acquire concepts corresponding to them, or in some cases, at least concepts in which tehy are rooted, as adultery is in that of marriage, or stealing in that of property.




In short, a human being of normal intelligence can’t grow up without being able to use a host of descriptions which are either already moral descriptions or the basis for moral descriptions (see above). But he can do so without acquiring the habit of either condemning or exonerating, accusing or exusing himself or anyone else.  Usually, he learns to do these things; but he need not.  His subjectivity need not be called into play except as that of a being with feelings and objectives.


This division is important.  It means that human subjectivity is trained or formed ethically in two different ways.  One way is the formation of the will and the education of the emotions.  The other is the training in justification, in judgment of good and evil in human action and in what is called “conscience.”



The only sort of moral action that can be pretty well guaranteed by training, by upbrining, is such as is counted absolutely obligatory in a society and whose performance or non performance is quite open and visible: like the prayers at fixed times in a strict Muslim town or the supply of small coins for beggars in their shops.


230 The virtues and vices as filling out moral vocabulary; contentless otherwise

Anscombe, Natural Community of Marriage

"For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language.  It is part of the creation of humanity and if we’re lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it.  If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing."

- Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity"

Anscombe On Intentions in Contraception vs. NFP

“Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. .. But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing.  The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act of altogether.”

- Elizabeth Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity"

Anscombe, Human Dignity

"What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your vital thirst is slaked forever and always. It’s this potentiality; this incredible potentiality, of the knowledge of God of such a kind as even to be sharing in his nature, which Christianity holds out to people; and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, must be treated as precious. Its potentialities in all the things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it’s for. We can’t ever know that the time of possibility of gaining eternal life is over, however old, wretched, ‘useless’ someone has become."

- Elizabeth Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity"