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Quote of the Week: Elizabeth Anscombe

April 25, 2009

Principles that are mistakenly high and strict are a trap; they may easily lead in the end directly or indirectly to the justification of monstrous things. Thus if the evangelical counsel about poverty were turned into a precept forbidding property owning, people would pay lip service to it as the ideal, while in practice they went in for swindling. “Absolute honesty!” it would be said: “I can respect that – but of course that means having no property; and while I respect those who follow that course, I have to compromise with the sordid world myself.” If then one must “compromise with evil” by owning property and engaging in trade then the amount of swindling one does will depend on convenience. This imaginary case is paralleled by what is so commonly said: absolute pacifism is an ideal; unable to follow that, and committed to “compromise with evil,” one must go whole hog and wage war a outrance….

[P]acifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence, seeing no way of avoiding “wickedness,” they set no limits to it. How endlessly pacifists argue that all war must be a outrance! that those who wage war must go as far as technological advance permits in the destruction of the enemy’s people. As if the Napoleonic wars were perforce fuller of massacres than the French war of Henry V of England. It is not true: the reverse took place… Pacifism and the respect for pacifism is not the only thing that has led to a universal forgetfulness of the law against killing the innocent; but it has had a great share in it.

-G.E.M. Anscombe, War and Murder.

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6 Comments
  1. April 25, 2009 3:59 pm

    It’s not clear to me that what Anscombe says here is correct. Certainly people do make the sorts of arguments in defense of war crimes that she notes. It’s not clear to me, however, whether such people would abandon their support of killing the innocent if there were no such thing as pacifism, or whether they would just resort to a different set of rationalizations. Still, it’s an interesting question to ponder.

  2. S.B. permalink
    April 25, 2009 5:02 pm

    Wait, do you actually mean to suggest that Anscombe ever said or did anything outside of her opposition to America’s nuclear weapons? This is quite a revelation.

    Just kidding. I own a copy of “Intention.”

  3. TeutonicTim permalink
    April 25, 2009 9:42 pm

    I’m waiting for Michael I…

  4. April 26, 2009 10:37 pm

    I think just the opposite is true. While we may not agree on whether or not waterboarding is torture, by acknowledging that torture is intrinsically evil, we can agree that pulling out fingernails is never permissible. On the other hand, look at how people have run with the smallest of openings like “just cause,” “grave reasons,” or “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

  5. April 30, 2009 11:58 am

    Did you know Anscombe was the inspiration for the White Witch?

    She famously debated Lewis on a point that was one of the key factors in his conversion to Christianity: his decision that atheism is an inherently irrational position. Anscombe said it was bad apologetics, and Socratically trounced him, which nearly destroyed him.

    A perfect case of a Catholic philosopher choosing reason over faith, an infection that has plagued the Church since the Scholastic era.

    In this case, arguing that absolute principles are bad because they teach us to act deceptively is downright Satanic. “Well, God didn’t *really* mean ‘never’, did he?”

    The problem is not absolute principles. The problem is absolute principles that are not founded in Natural Law and/or the Scriptures.

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