A Provocative Pair of Paragraphs (and a footnote)

“To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being a bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) — that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of ‘obligation,’ it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

“It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by ‘criminal,’ which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the notion ‘ought’ was invested with that peculiar for having which it has said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.(2) The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.”

2 They did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man’s incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied merely to the ramified prescriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of ‘natural divine law.’ Cf. in this connection the decree of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator.”

Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy, 5.

CommentHer comments confirm a long held suspicion on my part that the notion of something being “obligated” implies stipulation of punishments. I used to consider, what are the punishments for forgoing “obligation” in the New Testament? Furthermore, her observation about Protestants functionally rejecting the law is fascinating to me, not least because I am from a tradition which explicitly rejects the third use of the law. I suppose I could simply conclude that my Reformation heritage is all the more reason for me to be happy Aristotelian (non-law conception) and reject moral grounding in “divine law.” The question really presses me, is God’s law in the Old Testament really timeless and universally valid? Or was it a construal of his will directed to that time and context–a vehicle of soul-making?

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