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The Concept of Moral Obligation: Anscombe contra Korsgaard

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2007

Maria Alvarez
University of Southampton
Aaron Ridley
University of Southampton


A number of recent writers have expressed scepticism about the viability of a specifically moral concept of obligation, and some of the considerations offered have been interesting and persuasive. This is a scepticism that has its roots in Nietzsche, even if he is mentioned only rather rarely in the debate. More proximately, the scepticism in question receives seminal expression in Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 essay, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, a piece that is often paid lip-service to, but—like Nietzsche's work—has only rarely been taken seriously by those wishing to defend the conception of obligation under attack. This is regrettable. Anscombe's essay is powerful and direct, and it makes a forthright case for the claim that, in the absence of a divine law conception of ethics, any specifically moral concept of obligation must be redundant, and that the best that can be hoped for in a secular age is some sort of neo-Aristotelianism. Anscombe is right about this, we think. And, among those who disagree, one of the very few to have taken her on at all explicitly is Christine Korsgaard, whose Kantianism of course commits her to the view that the concept of moral obligation is central, with or without God. Here, we try to show that Korsgaard loses the argument.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2007

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1 See, e.g., Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1993), ch. 10Google Scholar.

2 In Philosophy 33 (1958) 1–19; reprinted in Anscombe, Elizabeth, Ethics, Religion and Politics: the Collected Philosophical Papers Vol III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), 2642Google Scholar. Page references here are to the reprinted version.

3 For some interesting recent dicussions of this essay, although not for ones that make the points made here, see O'Hear, A., ed., Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 In Korsgaard, Christine M., Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 4376CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Ibid., 50.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 50–51.

8 Where, as will become clear in section IV, what matters above all is the structure of divine law, rather than its being legislated by God.

9 Anscombe, op.cit., 30.

10 Ibid., 42.

11 Ibid., 32.

12 Ibid., 30.

13 Ibid., 38.

14 Ibid., 40.

15 Ibid., 39–40.

16 Ibid., 40.

17 Ibid., 41.

18 Ibid., 27.

19 Ibid., 37.

20 The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 104.

21 In saying that Korsgaard is returned to the structure of a divine law conception of ethics, it should be clear that we are not claiming either that Korsgaard secretly believes in a divine legislator or that she would have to believe in one in order to rescue her position. Rather, our point is simply that, in introducing the distinction between legislator and agent (between ‘thinking self’ and ‘acting self’), and in excluding the latter from the process of critical reflection that might result in the judgement, for example, ‘this is right’, she reduces the agent to a status incompatible with the agent's adopting the allegedly ‘agent-centered (…) perspective’ that Korsgaard endorses, and that we have labelled ‘A’. And this leaves the agent standing in the same relation to the law (as laid down by the ‘thinking self’) as the believer stands in to the law laid down by God—subject to something properly to be called ‘obligation’, to be sure, but not at all in the way that Korsgaard requires.