CFA and CONFERENCE: God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” At 60

God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” at 60, a graduate student conference sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, will take place at the University of Notre Dame on January 21-23, 2018.

Keynote Speakers

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame

Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes

Rachael WISEMAN, University of Liverpool

Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

In 1958, the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published “Modern Moral Philosophy,” one of the most influential essays in contemporary philosophy. Reacting against a half-century of British moral philosophy, Anscombe charted a path to a revival of Aristotelian moral inquiry, boldly defending three controversial theses. First, that it is “not profitable for us at present” to engage in moral philosophy until there has been the development of “an adequate philosophy of psychology” (i.e. a proper understanding of action, habit, choice etc.). Second, that the concepts “moral obligation and moral duty” presuppose the existence of a divine lawgiver and, in the absence of a belief in such a deity, should be abandoned. Third, that twentieth-century English philosophers are separated by differences “of little importance,” with such authors generally rejecting the existence of absolute moral prohibitions, should consequences be sufficiently detrimental. These claims have played a large role in the forging of contemporary research projects on virtue theory, theological ethics, the history of moral philosophy, and other matters of practical and speculative importance.

Call for Abstracts
We welcome papers from a variety of fields of moral inquiry, including but not limited to philosophy, theology, political science, psychology, and law. Suggested topics include:

  • Divine Command Theory
  • Virtue Theory
  • Neo-Aristotelian Ethics
  • Theories of Intention and Action
  • Natural Law Theory
  • Exceptionless Moral Norms
  • The Relationship Between Legal and Moral Categories

Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words by October 1, 2017 to

For more information in the full Call for Abstracts, click here.

Cooperation in evil and Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of justice


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Kevin Flannery, S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As the participants in our seminar may recall, I am writing a book on the ethics of cooperation in evil. At an earlier meeting of the seminar, I discussed some of the problems contained in the treatment of such cooperation as found in the manuals of Catholic moral theology of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. On that occasion, I expressed agreement with Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of that tradition as vitiated by what she calls “Cartesian psychology,” according to which “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will.” I also expressed then a preference for an analysis in terms rather of Thomas’s Aquinas’s understanding of the moral virtue of justice. In my presentation, I would like describe how I understand this virtue and how it helps us to determine when a person’s—or indeed an institution’s or a government’s—cooperation is immoral. This will involve an explanation of how justice, according to Thomas, stands in relation to the other virtues, especially prudence. It will also involve an account of how justice, which is a virtue of the will, bears upon the consciences of individuals.

VIDEO: Anselm Mueller, “Is Practical Truth a Chimera? Questions for Anscombe”

Anselm Mueller, Trier University gave this keynote “Is Practical Truth a Chimera? Questions for Anscombe”at the workshop Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition, April 21-22, 2017.

In a number of papers, Anscombe raises the “great question”: What is practical truth (PT)? Her answers are not elaborate but clear enough to raise further questions such as: Does PT have truth-conditions? What can be rendered practically true, and by what? – What Anscombe calls PT appears to be secured by actions’ being implemented in conclusion of a valid practical inference in which you derive a way of acting from good ends. But whose truth can be thus secured? If it is practical thought, its PT will require two seemingly separable conditions: goodness of ends, and implementation of the practical conclusion. This would deprive the notion of PT of the unity Anscombe’s explorations insinuate. If, on the other hand, PT is exhibited by actions, how can it also be produced by implementation of practical thought (= action!)? – A solution to the problems I have hinted at is suggested by consideration of the fundamental teleology of human nature.

Interview with Craig Iffland, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Craig Iffland is a John Templeton Fellow at the University of Notre Dame Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Craig Iffland: I’m from Centreville, Virginia, which is a small suburb about thirty minutes outside Washington D.C.

VW: Tell me about your research.

CI: I work in fundamental moral theology. My dissertation focuses on the intersection between law, sin, and obligation in Thomas Aquinas, paying particular attention to his conception of law as a measure and rule. My aim in so doing is to bring some conceptual clarity to debates over exceptionless moral rules, particularly among contemporary moral theologians. As those debates also turn on questions of intention and action, I have had an abiding interest in the thought of Elizabeth Anscombe. As a John Templeton Fellow at the University of Notre Dame Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing, I’ve also had the opportunity to do quite a bit of interdisciplinary research on social cognition, particularly in the area of collective intentionality.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

CI: First, learning from an incredible roster of faculty for this year’s seminar. In particular, I’m excited to get some class time with Talbot Brewer since I never had a class with him during my undergraduate years at the University of Virginia. Second, conversations with my fellow students, particularly those working in psychology. I’ve found that engagement with those working in the sciences really help me to sharpen my own views about the underlying capacities that enable and help shape moral discourse.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

CI: I’m really into movies. My favorite director is Quentin Tarantino. I run a little “film forum” once a month for students at Notre Dame, usually focusing on a common theme or genre (e.g., the “Western”). I like travelling, meeting new people, and making new friends. The place that has the felt the most “home away from home” is Johannesburg, South Africa, where I spent the past two summers doing research.

Jennifer A. Frey on action, knowledge, and human goodness | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

Photo by Jennifer A. Frey.

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

frey_jennifer_15_2aJennifer A. Frey is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the Philosophy faculty, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department. She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

Below you will find her short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”.

ABSTRACT: “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”

Aquinas and Anscombe both held that human action essentially involves a certain kind of practical self- knowledge. I argue that this knowledge is knowledge of action under descriptions that the agent can in principle connect to her general conception of how to live a good human life. An agent demonstrates her ability to make such connections by giving reasons. These rational connections between the particular action and the general practical knowledge of how to live are made explicit in the construction of practical syllogisms, understood as heuristic devices that make explicit the practically rational grammar of the act itself. Such an account of action, I argue, is the necessary foundation for any virtue ethics in which practical wisdom plays an important role. For any theory of practical wisdom must be able to show how it is the virtue that perfects the practical intellect, the faculty that provides the faculty of choice with a particular object of pursuit or avoidance, under some descriptions that can be rationally related to happiness.

Read the full paper here:

Interview with Adam Omelianchuk, our new graduate research assistant


Where are you from?

The Twin Cities of Minnesota.

What drew you to want to work with our project?

There are two things that come to mind. First, there is my long-standing interest in virtue ethics as a normative system that can potentially supply what I call a “thick” view of the good life. What I mean by that is wonderfully illustrated in C.S. Lewis’ little parable of the voyage of the ships, which represent the three concerns any picture of the good life should address:

The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions… But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is try to get to… however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

Lewis’ dissatisfaction with modern ethics, and one that I share, is that the view of the good life is too thin. That is to say, modern ethics tends to care chiefly about not hurting others and secondarily about achieving harmony within the individual; nonetheless, they tend to leave aside altogether the idea that there is some purpose or end for which human life is meant to satisfy. But the sort of research involved with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life does not intend to leave out the third question, even if answering it proves to be notoriously difficult. Hence, my interest.

Secondly, there is my recently formed interest in Elizabeth Anscombe and her theory of intention. It is a long story about how I became interested in her, but the short of it is that I’ve found that her notion of voluntary action directed by reason to some end or goal to be ethically richer than the common tendency to reduce our actions to causal relations between different events of physical activity or inactivity.
So when Professor Jennifer Frey [Principal Investigator with our project], who is on my dissertation committee, kindly asked me to be her research assistant, I jumped at the chance.

Tell me more about your research.

My research primarily focuses on the issues relevant to moral status, specifically, the properties by virtue of which something is made morally considerable when judging a practice or action to be permissible or not. This concern motivates further research in metaphysics, particularly in the areas of human ontology and personal identity as well as general moral theory. The concrete results of this research has already yielded published articles on topics ranging from the wrongness of killing to the equality people share with one another by virtue of being human. Currently, I am writing my dissertation on what makes killing for organs wrong, which in turn, results in a defense of the so-called ‘dead-donor’ rule in transplant ethics. In my view, the rule says if the surgery used to retrieve the relevant organs would kill the patient, we ought not perform it. Thus, I seek to explain why killing for organs is wrong even if the donor consents to be killed.
As I have come to work out of my views, I have found that contemporary moral values such as “do no harm” and “respect people’s autonomy” to be far too weak for making sense of our most deeply held moral beliefs, which are often shaped by concepts of sanctity and dignity. No doubt, making sense of these concepts is difficult, but the view I am attracted to currently is one that is influenced by Thomistic and Aristotelian streams of thought: different kinds of things are to be distinguished by their potentialities, and the non-instrumental worth things possess involves the ends to which they are directed.

What do you like to do outside of academia?

I like to read fiction, keep tabs on cool new cars, participate in the life of my local church, cook a nice meal for my wife, and play with my two-year old daughter.

Adam Omelianchuk is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Anscombe on Belief: “Belief and Thought”

Elizabeth Anscombe (G. E. M. Anscombe).

G.E.M. Anscombe (1919-2001) was a British analytic philosopher often credited with initiating the return to the study of the virtues in her famous essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy” and with revitalizing interest in the philosophy of action with her enormously influential monograph, Intention.  In this series of posts, we will explore some of her later writings about beliefs and how our epistemic agency might be part of our overall character formation. Note: This is part three of the three part series. 


The St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs, a series run under the auspices of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews and overseen by John Haldane, has now published the fourth and final volume of Elizabeth Anscombe’s hitherto uncollected and unpublished papers, Logic, Truth and Meaning: Writings by G.E.M. Anscombe, Edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. For those who have been waiting to see what remains of her Nachlass that has been deemed worthy of publication, this is a significant event. Of special interest in this volume are three essays on beliefs, all of which are undated typescripts. These are “Motives for Beliefs of All Sorts,” “Grounds for Belief,” and “Belief and Thought.” My previous two posts discussed “Motives for Beliefs of All Sorts” and “Grounds for Belief.”


And now we come to the most substantive essay on belief, “Belief and Thought.” It too is unfinished (there is a footnote that references two further sections that have either been lost or that never came to fruition). The essay is mostly taken up with various puzzles about belief and thought that arise as we think through assent and assertion, concepts that are central to the distinction between thinking and believing. Its main contribution, I think, is its attempt to take seriously the separation of the logical and the psychological in an account of belief.


Anscombe notes that belief is a “curious concept” because its grammar seems to shift when we apply the concept in different contexts. Sometimes belief is treated dispositionally, but in other cases it isn’t (cases of suddenly believing something, for instance). It seems wrong to say that there are two equivocal senses of belief, as there are two equivocal senses of bank. Nor does it seem right to say that the non-dispositional use signifies a mental act or state of consciousness, since we fail to find such a thing when we survey our mental lives.


A somewhat traditional understanding of the distinction between mere thought and belief is that belief is what one gets when something is added to a mere thought: a mental act of assent. We are tempted by the view that something needs to be added to thought because thought can be a mere grasping of a sense, and understanding, without endorsing what is thought – without in any sense taking it to be true. Thus we can separate judgeable content, something assertable, and assent to what is assertable. When someone does think that such and such is the case, he has done two things: grasped a judgeable content and inwardly assented to it.


Assent is assertion of what is assertable (perhaps the assertion is only inward). There are two ways we might conceive of this. The first is that it is an extra feature that attaches to thought; the second is that it is intrinsic to the thought unless special circumstances take it away. Let us call the former the additive view and the latter the defeasibility view.


There are many considerations that seem to support the additive view. First, the same judgeable content when placed in an if-then clause is not asserted. Second, one can obey a command to think something as being so without thinking it as so: one says, “think of a man with a horse’s tail” and straightaway I do it. Third, things can just cross my mind, but this in no way implies that I believe them. Fourth, when fictional accounts are brought to the mind I don’t believe that they are true. And so on.


But there are equally many reasons to think that assertion is not something added to thought. First and foremost, there is the fact that when I search around for this inner act of assent, I simply do not find it. And though it is true that thoughts can come before the mind, this is thought understood in its logical and not its psychological sense, and thought in its logical sense can contain within it assertion in its logical sense. Assertion needn’t be some extra, psychological ingredient.


Ultimately, Anscombe rejects both accounts. She writes:


Each seems to involve a myth: the defeasibility theory, that of a sort of content which if it occurs in the mind at all must be being believed, or must be being believed unless there is some explanation why not…; and the other, that of the indescribable addition, the act of assent. Both views must arise from a failure to understand. (163)


I think the failure that Anscombe is pointing to is the failure to see the distinction between logical and psychological accounts of assertion.


The defeasibility theory fails as a psychological theory; it says that we must believe any judgeable content that is present to our minds unless special circumstances can explain our not doing it. But this denies the possibility of entertaining mere ideas. It also has trouble accounting for negation. If ‘p’ is before the mind, then the mind must be assenting to it. But if ~p is before the mind, then so is p, for the negation contains the thought that it negates. But I can’t be assenting to both at the same time. But if we say that the corresponding negative idea is not in the offing, then it is unclear what assent amounts to.


Anscombe thinks it will help us to distinguish between grammatical kinds of assertion – logical and psychological. Assertion might be a personal act of mind, but it might also be “a logical character of the proposition as such” such that it can be the “instrument of personal assertions” (166). But there is still logical unassertedness, such as what falls within an if-then clause – here the propositions are asserted in neither sense. How can we say both that the proposition itself asserts and that it occurs unasserted?


Anscombe’s solution, which she takes from Julianne Mott Rountree, is that assertion is context dependent and that we need to be able to grasp the completeness of a context in order to know whether a proposition is asserted. Skipping over the technical details, assertion is not a matter of adding something or taking it away in specified circumstances; rather, “a proposition in itself is an assertion” but “it is not asserted in every context in which it occurs.” The basic notion here is “assertedness in a context”; if the context is simply the proposition, then it is logically asserted, but if it is placed in a different context, say within an if-then clause, it is not. We can only get there if assertedness is fundamentally contextual. The understanding of the completeness of a context is a kind of skill or knowledge-how, rather than a knowledge that, and this implies that once again this knowledge is justified by one’s mastery of a practice and a set of rules. It is also important to this account that psychological assertion depends upon the logical character of assertedness. She writes:


Personal asserting is something we can do because the tools of assertion – the propositions we can construct in our language – lie ready to our hand, and it is not the personal act of asserting which confers their assertive character on the propositions. (169)


So much, then, for the traditional view of the distinction between thought and belief.


The essay ends with some reflections on Moore’s paradox. Moore thought it was absurd to say “I believe p, but not p” or “p, but I don’t believe that p.” It is tempting to understand the paradox in terms of contradictory assertions, but Anscombe thinks that would be a mistake. First, “I believe p, but perhaps not p” has nothing wrong with it; whereas both “p, but perhaps not p” and “I say that p, but perhaps not p” are objectionable. The absurdity of the paradox is better understood in terms of expressions of beliefs. For p does not occur asserted in “I believe that p” and the problem with assertion drops out. The absurdity is just that one cannot at one and the same time take p to be the case and p not to be the case. Here we see something fundamental about what it is to express a belief – to express that one does so take p. To believe something is indeed to mean to believe it.


This series originally appeared as “The Capacious and Consistent Mind of Elizabeth Anscombe” in International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol 24, 2016, Issue 2.

Jennifer A. Frey is a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.