A Philosopher’s Gem by Stewart Goetz

A Philosopher’s Gem

Human Life, Action And Ethics: Essays By G. E. M. Anscombe
edited by Mary Geach & Luke Gormally
Imprint Academic, 2005
(298 pages, $69.90, hardcover)

reviewed by Stewart Goetz

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001) was a first-rate philosopher, who for sixteen years held the chair of philosophy at Cambridge University earlier occupied by her teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, a surprise in the world of academic philosophy, a devout Roman Catholic. Many readers of Touchstone will recognize her name because of her famous critique (delivered at the Socratic Club in Oxford University in 1948) of C. S. Lewis’s argument against naturalism in his book Miracles.

Anscombe’s many academic accomplishments include her translation of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and her monograph Intention, which the well-known American philosopher Donald Davidson regarded as the best work on practical reasoning since Aristotle, which is high praise indeed.

As competent as anyone in making the careful philosophical distinctions, Anscombe was equally adept at making fine-grained distinctions in her private life. On one occasion, she pledged to God that she would give up cigarettes, if her son (she and her husband, the philosopher Peter Geach, had seven children) were to recover from a serious illness. After her son got well, and missing the pleasure of tobacco, she concluded that her oath to give up smoking had not included cigars, and so she took up cigar smoking.

Anscombe’s storied private life was complemented by significant social activism. As a young woman she was outspoken in protesting the conferment of an honorary degree on Harry Truman because he had committed murder with the killing of innocents in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in her later years she was arrested for her pro-life activity.

Being Human

A collection of twenty-three essays largely devoted to moral philosophy, Human Life, Action and Ethics begins with a section about the question of what it is to be human, followed by sections on action and practical reason and on ethics.

The first seven chapters concern the question of what it is to be human and deal with topics such as the existence and nature of the soul and human dignity. In two essays in particular, Anscombe illustrates the importance of the soul and human dignity for practical life by discussing their relevance to the issue of abortion.

She defends the Aristotelian/Thomistic view favored by Catholics that a human being is a living organism in virtue of having a principle of life or soul. Because human beings are capable of reasoning, the human soul is a rational soul. She maintains that a human being has dignity because of his nature as an organism with a rational soul, and this dignity makes the choice to take the life of one who is innocent unjust.

One might be inclined to reason that because a zygote is a human life, it must possess a rational soul and, thereby, be a human being with dignity. Moreover, because it is innocent, aborting it is murder. Anscombe thinks this line of reasoning moves too quickly. What should make us pause is the phenomenon of twinning, which is the early division (perhaps within one week) of one cell cluster into two.


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