Dissertation

In my dissertation, I articulate and defend a novel account of absolute moral prohibitions, from a broadly Aristotelian perspective. The starting point of my argument is the work of Elizabeth Anscombe. The absence of absolute moral prohibitions from modern philosophical discourse is arguably Anscombe’s main concern in her seminal paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958). Throughout that famous critique of consequentialist moral philosophy and its metaethics, Anscombe returns repeatedly to the same point: modern moral philosophers have no concept of absolute prohibitions—which is to say, exceptionless prohibitions—against specific forms of wrongdoing. Anscombe punctuates her argument by suggesting that in light of modern moral philosophy’s failures, we should rehabilitate the pre-Christian ethical language of virtue, vice, and justice. Her argument is widely interpreted as a call to rehabilitate Aristotelian ethics, and accordingly inspired a renewal of interest in Aristotle’s ethics among Anglo-American philosophers. But few among the scholars who responded to Anscombe’s call have dealt head-on with her insistence that modern moral philosophy’s central failure is its inability to account for absolute moral prohibitions. Fewer still have hoped to ground absolute prohibitions by turning to Aristotle. I argue that not only does Aristotle endorse the view that some actions are always wrong, and therefore never to be done, but also that this view is of genuine philosophical interest and merit. My aim is to rehabilitate absolute prohibitions, both as a subject of philosophical inquiry and also as an important part of our ethical lives. Against the predominant view of absolute principles as crude instruments of dogmatism, I argue that a commitment to some absolute moral prohibitions is compatible with, and indeed an important part of, the neo-Aristotelian’s conceptual repertoire.

To make this argument, I start from an Aristotelian picture of practical reasoning and the human good, in which, I propose, basic facts about human life and nature make certain goods essential to our flourishing. True claims about how, as human beings, we should act and live are grounded in a rich understanding of who we are: rational, social, mortal beings whose flourishing depends in great part on our states of character. These claims leave room for value pluralism in a broad range of human pursuits, but do set some boundaries on what can count as a good human life. Once we identify particular goods as fundamental, it becomes clear that some courses of action are inherently, and therefore always, corrosive of those goods. In light of this, I argue that several norms generated by this account of value will necessarily become absolute, when it can be shown that violation of those norms is always incompatible with the good. 

The importance of absolute prohibitions, for the neo-Aristotelian, shows up first in our moral education. I take it to be an important feature of Aristotle’s view that we are not, ethically speaking, blank slates. Our moral development begins from certain essential starting points that orient our practical reasoning and affective responses as we move through the world. It is therefore critical that we have the right essential starting points in place. Picking up on Anscombe’s seemingly blithe remark about corrupt minds in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” I argue that it reflects a substantive insight about the nature of moral reasoning. Without the right starting points, we risk corruption as agents and as thinkers. These starting points turn out to be very basic principles about how one should act, that help generate and guide our habituated attitudes toward the issues the principles target.

In the second half of the dissertation, I turn to Thomas Aquinas to articulate the specific formulation of absolute moral prohibitions. On Aquinas’s account of action, species of action are bad or good in virtue of their objects, and specific instances of action are bad or good in virtue of both external facts about the action, including object and circumstance, and the intentional states of the agent. The contours of this analysis shape my outline of absolute moral prohibitions as principles targeting intentional actions taken towards exceptionlessly bad ends. Absolutely prohibited actions, on my view, are those that in their object are contrary to human good, and gravely so. And agents will be liable, or blameworthy, for violating a prohibition if they do so intentionally under the description that corresponds to the prohibition. Though unlike Aquinas, Aristotle does not posit a distinct faculty of the will, I argue that this analysis is consistent with Aristotle’s account of practical reason and voluntariness. In the final chapter of the dissertation, I put my account to the test by narrowing in on a single (and singularly challenging) prohibition—the absolute prohibition against murder—to illustrate how such a principle might be formulated and implemented.

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