Anscombe's Relative Bruteness

Philosophical News 18:135-145 (2020)
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Ethical beliefs are not justified by familiar methods. We do not directly sense ethical properties, at least not in the straightforward way we sense colors or shapes. Nor is it plausible to think – despite a tradition claiming otherwise – that there are self-evident ethical truths that we can know in the way we know conceptual or mathematical truths. Yet, if we are justified in believing anything, we are justified in believing various ethical propositions e.g., that slavery is wrong. If ethical beliefs are not justified in these familiar ways, how are they justified? In her widely read, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” and in her short complimentary paper, “On Brute Facts,” G.E.M. Anscombe answers this question with a compelling and unorthodox account of justification in ethics. Because of her polemical tone and because “Modern Moral Philosophy” does so much else besides, this contribution is easy to overlook. But her account is worth taking seriously, since (a) it is an underappreciated yet plausible account that sidesteps traditional controversies, (b) it offers rich conceptual tools for interpreting and critiquing ethical theories, (c) it suggests an appealing account of the place of ethical theory in ethical knowledge and, (d) it provides useful guidance for doing applied ethics.
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