Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mounce on Winch and Anscombe

I had a feeling I wasn't going to agree entirely with Howard Mounce's paper in the latest Philosophical Investigations. The paper is mostly about Winch on the Good Samaritan story. Winch says that the Samaritan sees something different from what the Levite and the priest see. Mounce raises doubts about this, which is fair enough. But he says some more questionable things too.

He claims (on p. 244) that Anscombe thinks that the idea of an absolute or unconditional ought depends on the idea of divine law for its sense. I'm not sure that this is what she says though. Does she talk about an absolute ought at all? (In what follows I'm relying on my memory, but you can check what she says here.) She talks about the special moral sense of ought, and suggests that this makes no sense outside a divine law context, but she also discusses the possibility of moral oughts based on social norms or on nature. Her objection to these seems to be that they would be bad, not that the idea makes no sense. Mounce goes on to say that the unconditional "use of ought depends on the idea of divine law for its very sense." But I'm not sure that Anscombe thinks it makes any sense at all. Mounce doesn't say what he means by 'unconditional,' although it seems to be interchangeable with 'absolute.'

If he means 'absolute' in the sense of having no possible exceptions, then Anscombe might disagree. Take the rule against murder. Like the rest of us, Anscombe regards murder as out of the question. So this might look like an exceptionless rule. But what if you're Abraham and God tells you to murder Isaac? Anscombe objects to those who think in advance that murder might be something we should not rule out, but I don't think she would necessarily insist that Abraham tell God to take a hike.

If Mounce means 'absolute' in the sense of having no possible foundation or justification then, again, I think Anscombe might disagree. There are things that a theist can say to someone who asks why we should obey God. These include things about God's nature, things about the relationship between God and humanity described in the Bible, and things about the specific things that God is said to have commanded.

On pp. 244-45 Mounce claims that "many philosophers" (he mentions Mackie, Rorty, Williams, and Nietzsche) "have agreed with Anscombe" that "without the idea of God, our values must be seen as relative." Where does she say this? Where does Rorty agree with Anscombe? What, to get to the point, does Mounce mean by 'relative' here? "Not absolute," perhaps, but he hasn't explained that term ('absolute') either, as far as I can see. If Mounce thinks that Anscombe is a sort of deontologist who regards the only coherent alternative as relativism (in the PH 101 sense of 'relativism') then he is way off, it seems to me. Her objection to consequentialism is not that it is incoherent or a form of relativism. Her objection is that it is corrupt. And if she thought that only divine law theories of ethics made sense then she surely would not have recommended Aristotelianism as she did. This seems so obvious that I think it cannot be a relevant objection to what Mounce means. But it looks like a relevant objection to what he says.

Two last objections. One: on p. 247 Mounce claims that "the attitude exemplified by the parable" of the good Samaritan is "hardly discernible in the species before the existence of Christianity." One wonders how anyone understood Jesus' parable if that were so. Also, see Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”      

Two: in the last footnote Mounce writes that "it is obviously absurd to judge Him in terms of good and evil, since He is the source of that very distinction." Judging God seems more wrong than absurd, but what about the time when God was supposedly put on trial? There is a play based on this event, which I think was reported by Primo Levi. Supposedly a group of rabbis in a concentration camp tried God, found Him guilty, and then went off to pray. This is an interesting story, but is it absurd? Maybe, but I suspect not quite in the sense that Mounce means. And certainly many believers think it makes perfect sense to judge God to be good. Maybe they are confused. But I don't think it's obvious that Mounce is right about this.  


  1. "Judging God seems more wrong than absurd, but what about the time when God was supposedly put on trial? There is a play based on this event, which I think was reported by Primo Levi."

    There's another famous story of God being put on trial. It's not entirely clear what the charges made were, but he ends up being executed on a hill between two thieves. It's rather contentious just what the point of this story was supposed to be, but "absurdity" seems rather too narrow to catch what the authors were getting at.

  2. can you use mounce's retort with other predicates too?

    'it's obviously absurd to judge Him in terms of real or unreal, since He is the very source of that very distinction'

  3. Could be. If God is the standard by which reality and goodness are measured, He might be like the meter stick in Paris. This would point to the via negativa, which isn't so bad, but isn't necessarily the way that all believers would want to go.