Moral Absolutism

Moral absolutism is the ethical belief that there are absolute standards by which moral questions can be judged and that there are acts that are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. The key advantage of this concept is that it provides an objective moral guide that can be followed universally. The main disadvantage is that it does not take into account that moral values may at times come into conflict with one another.
The concept of absolutism extends back to the fathers of philosophy with early study by Socrates, and later Plato and Aristotle believing in a kind of absolutism called Universalism. Moral Absolutism is popular among philosophers who practice deontological ethics. Immanuel Kant, the founding father of categorical imperative is one of the first philosophers to promote moral absolutism in his teachings.


Elizabeth Anscombe & Moral Absolutism


Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret (G.E.M) Anscombe( 1919–2001), better known as Elizabeth Anscombe was a British analytic philosopher who was considered to be on the most influential of the 20th century. She is considered by many to be “a bold and original thinker” who wrote on a wide variety of topics including ethics, practical reason, language and thought, just to name a few. [1]
Despite his role as one of the fathers of ethical theory, Anscombe did not see a place forAristotle’s teaching in her idea of absolutism. She felt that the modern use of the word ‘moral’ was a departure from the Aristotelian use of it. Where Aristotle distinguishes between ‘moral’ and ‘intellectual’, Anscombe believed that “…it is impossible to have a moral virtue without any intellectual virtue…”.[2]
Anscombe is known for coining the term consequentialism which has greatly impacted the study of ethical theory.Consequentialism is the denial that there is any significant moral difference between results of action that are brought about intentionally and those that are foreseen but not intended. It might be thought of as the theory that intention is unimportant in ethics.[3] Consequentialism and determinism are both ethical theories rejected by Anscombe. In her book Intention (1957), Anscombe discusses the concept of intention and the difference between intentional rational action and non-rational behavior [4] . Her research in the field of intention has been immensely influential,David Donaldson referred to Anscombe book as the “most important philosophical action since Aristotle” [5] She claimed that intentional action was subject to "knowledge without observation", and that all intentional action involved acting under a description.

In Anscombe’s famous essay of 1958, Modern Moral Philosophy she discusses three main theories. These theses are formed by her critique of three dominant and influential trends of thought, Hume’s concept of fact/value distinction, Kant’s legalistic conception of morality and consequentialism. [6]

Hume’s concept of fact/value distinction (originator of the modern belief/desire model) contests that “reason is necessarily impotent either to produce or to justify human actions”.[7] While Anscombe’s critic of Hume is quite detailed, it can be summarized by stating that the Humean view of ethics is actually more closely related to the philosophy of psychology and that philosophers should sort this out prior to delving into the study of ethical theory.[8]

Anscombe’s second thesis is related to Kant’s legalistic conception of morality or motive of duty. Legalistic conception of morality is the idea that duty is created by rules or laws and motivation by duty consists of bare respect for lawfulness.[9]

Anscombe’s final theory is on consequentialism. Anscombe key issue is with the concept of theDoctrine of Double Effect, which states that it is acceptable to cause harm if it is side effect of a good result. Anscombe contests that there is a difference between intended effects of foreseen ones. She argues that the defining error of consequentialism is denial of any difference.[10]







  1. ^ ^ Teichmann, R. (2008). The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^


    ^ Geach, M. & Gormally, L. (2005). Human Life, Action and Ethic: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe. Charlottesville: Imprint Academic. See page. 85.
  3. ^


    ^ http://www.iep.utm.edu/anscombe/#H5.
  4. ^

    ^ http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674051027.
  5. ^ ^ http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674051027.
  6. ^

    ^ See page 84, Teichmann, R. (2008).
  7. ^

    ^ See page 84, Teichmann, R. (2008).
  8. ^ ^ See page 114 from Geach, M. & Gormally, L. (2005).
  9. ^


    ^ See page 114 from Geach, M. & Gormally, L. (2005).
  10. ^


    ^ Geach, M. & Gormally, L.. (2011).From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe. Charlottesville: Imprint Academic.