Philosophy

Research Article

The Concept of Moral Obligation: Anscombe contra Korsgaard

Maria Alvareza1 and Aaron Ridleya1

a1 University of Southampton

A number of recent writers have expressed scepticism about the viability of a specifically moral concept of obligation, and some of the considerations offered have been interesting and persuasive. This is a scepticism that has its roots in Nietzsche, even if he is mentioned only rather rarely in the debate. More proximately, the scepticism in question receives seminal expression in Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 essay, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, a piece that is often paid lip-service to, but—like Nietzsche's work—has only rarely been taken seriously by those wishing to defend the conception of obligation under attack. This is regrettable. Anscombe's essay is powerful and direct, and it makes a forthright case for the claim that, in the absence of a divine law conception of ethics, any specifically moral concept of obligation must be redundant, and that the best that can be hoped for in a secular age is some sort of neo-Aristotelianism. Anscombe is right about this, we think. And, among those who disagree, one of the very few to have taken her on at all explicitly is Christine Korsgaard, whose Kantianism of course commits her to the view that the concept of moral obligation is central, with or without God. Here, we try to show that Korsgaard loses the argument.