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The Women Who Restored Moral Philosophy

"Metaphysical Animals" celebrates the four female philosophers responsible for returning morals to metaphysics in the 20th century.

An exterior view of the Peckwater Quadrangle, one of the quadrangles of Christ Church, Oxford, circa 1960. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman (Doubleday: 2022), 416 pages

In 1956, Oxford University awarded former President Harry S. Truman an honorary degree for his role in the Second World War. Such awards were usually approved by the fellowship as a matter of course—but Truman’s degree threw the tranquility of the Senior Common Room into disarray when a Miss Elizabeth Anscombe dared to voice her objections. The bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima may have shortened the war in the Pacific, but that did not detract from the fact that President Truman still had “a couple of massacres to his name.” Anscombe was not a pacifist, nor an advocate of disarmament. She simply balked at honoring a man irrevocably associated with dropping the bomb because “one can share in the guilt of a bad action by praise and flattery.”

Truman’s degree was nevertheless approved, the historian Alan Bullock finding himself forced to defend the former President’s involvement as only having signed the paperwork. Needless to say, it was an incident that did little to enamor the establishment to the new-fangled female academics slowly making inroads into the university. It is also the incident that bookends Metaphysical Animals, a sparkling biography of four women philosophers—Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot—who arrived at Oxford at the outbreak of the Second World War, just as the dominant thinkers of early 20th century moral philosophy were being sequestered to Whitehall and the War Office (or worse). Briefly liberated from received opinions and an unhealthy obsession with logical analysis, these women would find the intellectual space to revive an approach to moral philosophy that found more to judge in President Truman’s actions than just their pragmatic efficacy.

As Bullock’s rather lackluster defense of Truman made clear, moral philosophy was in a poor state during the first half of the 20th century. Before the First World War, G.E. Moore had established that difficulties defining moral properties in terms of natural properties—such as the satisfaction of desire, or the maximization of happiness—showed not that he needed a better dictionary, but rather that goodness must be an irreducible feature of reality, directly accessible through a faculty of moral intuition. By a happy coincidence, this faculty turned out to be peculiarly well-exercised by Moore and his acolytes amongst the Bloomsbury Group, although sadly it proved less reliable in those who didn’t move in the right social circles. When A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic appeared in 1936 arguing that moral statements were nothing more than expressions of approval and disapproval, he was not so much offering an insight into the underlying semantics of moral discourse as describing the moral vacuum at the heart of Britain’s university-educated elites.

The events of the Second World War would shake them from their complacency. R.M. Hare returned from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp convinced of the fundamental incompatibility of competing ethical systems; he would develop a theory of moral prescriptivism focusing on how an individual can at least remain consistent to his own principles in an otherwise indifferent world. Others remained in Oxford, now thronging with refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe. As the reality of the Holocaust became apparent, they struggled to find some moral standpoint from which to do more than “disapprove” of the systematic extermination of 6 million people. And overshadowing it all was Ludwig Wittgenstein, working as a hospital porter in London whilst scrawled copies of his lecture notes were passed around like samizdat amongst the faithful.

Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman paint a vivid picture of the times, and of the formative experiences of the four women who would go on to become some of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Oxford had only begun allowing women to take degrees in 1920 (Cambridge would not follow suit until 1948); by the late 1930s it was no longer necessary for female students to be chaperoned by elderly women “ushered into lecture theaters where they knitted through The History of British Idealism from 1863,” although most tutors continued to advise their students as to which professors would “probably paw you about a bit.” And while dashing young blades like Freddie Ayer and Richard Hare could still be elected to prestigious fellowships before they had even sat their finals, our protagonists—every one of them receiving first class honors—would scratch around for paltry stipends and part-time teaching positions for years after they graduated.

But then again, philosophical innovation rarely comes from the safely tenured. Anscombe, a chain-smoking vagabond with a scandalous reputation for wearing trousers in the classroom, so impressed Wittgenstein that he made her his literary executor. (Some also say she refuted C.S. Lewis so comprehensively that he gave up theology to write children’s books instead.) Mary Midgley (née Scrutton) would become a reassuring intellectual presence on BBC Radio 3, although her withering critiques of neo-Darwinism would later send the high priests of modern science into paroxysms of wounded male ego. Iris Murdoch funneled much of her energy into left-wing politics and other people’s husbands; she would nevertheless still find time to publish the first English language study of Existentialism, and to win the Booker Prize in 1978 for her philosophical novels. Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet) will be well-known to every philosophy freshman for her infamous Trolley Problem (originally introduced as part of an ongoing debate with Anscombe on abortion).

Between them, they began to reassemble a philosophical framework that would take seriously the connection between moral action and human flourishing. Our evaluative language cannot be simply peeled off from the world, leaving behind it the sharp distinction between facts and values that underpins Ayer’s logical positivism. So many of our most basic moral terms are an inextricable jumble of the two—courageous, disgusting, shameful—that factual questions about their correct application cannot be separated from the evaluative judgements they entail. Nor can moral principles be identified purely in terms of their formal structure; unlike the universal prescriptions at the heart of Hare’s moral philosophy, there are intelligible limits to what we can call “good” or “bad” that take into account that it is human beings who are asking these questions and are invested in their answer. Ultimately then, our moral language only makes sense when it is located within a larger pattern of human life, a social context shaped by our goals and our desires and our shared histories, one that sees us as “metaphysical animals” rather than abstract, calculating machines.

And this is why the award of an honorary degree to President Truman was of such concern to Anscombe. It was not simply a question as to whether or not the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima represented a net benefit over a more protracted war in the Pacific. Neither did it involve balancing the deliberate intentions against the unintended consequences of signing a piece of paper. It was about the example it set. We learn our moral vocabulary not via logical definition or some special faculty of intuition, but through growing up in a shared social context permeated with by its own cultural touchstones and moral demonstrations. But more than this:

A child who is given these demonstrations must do more than she gets in the examples. She must see how to go on. Growing up is coming to act and see under the descriptions that our language contains, and that our world and our shared forms of life make possible. This is what it is to know your way about in the world. Reality, human life, imposes limits on which descriptions can intelligibly and truly apply, but when the world changes quickly or violently, the application of descriptions can stop being a matter of course. Possibilities for acting well and badly can shift and subvert in surprising ways as new possibilities for action open up and old ones close down…In a disintegrating or changing world, it is easy to lose sight of what really matters for human life going well, and of which kinds of harms are of serious importance.

For Anscombe, Midgley, Murdoch, and Foot, struggling to rebuild our moral framework after the horrors of the Second World War, bestowing honors upon the man best known for dropping a nuclear bomb on civilian targets was not a good way to “go on.”

As with any good history, there is something eerily prescient in Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman’s account of a university educated cultural elite for whom moral discourse had declined to the point of linguistic one-upmanship—and the subsequent need to reconnect with a more robust notion of virtue, human flourishing, and what makes for a good life. It is no accident that this pushback came from outside a self-entitled establishment who saw political unrest primarily as a managerial problem. The four philosophers at the heart of Metaphysical Animals may have been a product of their time, but it remains a story of peculiar relevance today.

Paul Dicken is a writer and philosopher. He is the author of Getting Science Wrong. Find him on Twitter @paul_dicken.

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