How four women revolutionised ethics

Overcoming the fact-value distinction

The men who dominated British philosophy from the 1920s to the 1950s all agreed: there is a strict dichotomy between facts and values. The world itself contains only facts, values arise only from our own subjective judgements. But four brilliant women philosophers disagreed. Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch thought the image of the world devoid of value was wrong. They would go on to change the field of moral philosophy forever, writes Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb.


Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch met in Oxford as undergraduates and supported and inspired one another for the rest of their lives. I recently published a book about the interweaving lives and work of this extraordinary quartet of twentieth-century philosophers. When my publisher proposed a subtitle that referenced how they revolutionized ethics, I hesitated. Had these four revolutionized ethics? (Has anyone?)

As I’ve reflected on their achievement, though, I’ve come to think that “revolutionized” is the right word. The four were central actors in an intellectual revolution. Their thought was revolutionary in the sense that Thomas Kuhn explores in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Any community of inquirers goes through stretches in which nearly everyone shares the same basic assumptions—the same paradigm. Intellectual progress, in these times, is refinement and problem-solving: tidying up and extending the paradigm. But no paradigm is forever. And when people within a community of inquirers begin highlighting the limitations of a paradigm, and exploring thoughts that won’t fit into it, then you get a revolution. A revolution happened in Anglophone ethics in the second half of the twentieth century, and it was down to these four philosophers.

The old paradigm operated under the fact-value dichotomy, the idea that ethical judgments are subjective projections onto a value-free, factual reality.

The old paradigm operated under the fact-value dichotomy, the idea that ethical judgments are subjective projections onto a value-free, factual reality. It’s an idea that remains powerful. It is reflected in the way children are taught to distinguish “facts” from “opinions,” with all judgments of good or bad, better or worse, lumped in with opinions and distinguished from facts—distinguished, that is, from the real.

There were cruder and more sophisticated versions of this paradigm, but it was the dominant view among the men who dominated philosophy in the 1920s, ‘30s, 40s. A.J. Ayer, apostle of logical positivism, argued that ethical judgments are like cheers or boos at a sporting event, mere manifestations of positive or negative feeling. R.M. Hare, a decade and a half later, argued instead that ethical judgments are like commands issued to self and others: “do this!” “don’t do that!” Hare’s view was an improvement on Ayer’s—a refinement of the paradigm they shared. On Hare’s view, it was possible to infer one ethical judgment from another (there can be no inferences from one boo to another). At a fundamental level, though, Hare and Ayer agreed: ethics is something we impose on the world.

Passionately committed to religious, political and other ideals, these women revolted against the picture of a world bereft of value.

When a paradigm has taken hold of a community of inquirers, people don’t typically support it with reasons anymore. We reason from such assumptions, but less commonly about them. In all the forceful expressions of the fact-value dichotomy, from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, the dichotomy is seldom argued-for. It is instead taken for granted as the only acceptably up-to-date and modern thing to think—what everyone knows. The alternative was unthinkable. What Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch achieved was to make the unthinkable, thinkable again.

Passionately committed to religious, political and other ideals, these women revolted against the picture of a world bereft of value. Foot told and retold a story of when she saw the newsreels from the Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps and thought, Ayer can’t be right. It can’t be the whole truth that what Hitler cheers, I boo, and vice-versa.

That revolt was not an argument, either. But it provoked Foot and her friends to begin looking critically at the equally unargued assumptions of their peers. The first step toward rejecting those assumptions was to reveal their contingency. This was Murdoch’s contribution. As versed in the writings of the French existentialists as in the writings of Ayer and Hare (she published the first study of Sartre’s philosophy in English), Murdoch recognized before anyone that the same background assumptions were controlling the thought of a whole generation, French and English alike—that Sartrian existentialism was another manifestation of the fact-value dichotomy. The associated revelation that this dichotomy was not a philosophical result, but the expression of a late-modern Zeitgeist—a local prejudice—was freeing. If the assumption was historically and culturally local, then she and her friends could look for instruction to other times and places. The aura of the inevitable, and of the unthinkable, was broken.

Anscombe and Foot took the next step, together. The two were colleagues at Somerville College through the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and for years sat down each weekday afternoon to talk philosophy. Anscombe was busy producing her translations of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, but she was always willing to talk with anyone who was as serious about philosophy as she herself was. Foot apprenticed herself to her brilliant, eccentric colleague as she tried to work out what might replace Ayer’s and Hare’s theories. The devoutly Catholic Anscombe eventually directed the atheist Foot to the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. It was what Foot had been seeking since she saw the footage of the camps in the fall of 1945.

For Foot, the key thing about these concepts—virtue and vice—is the way they link fact and value.

 Aquinas centers his ethics on virtues and vices—dozens of them. For Foot, the key thing about these concepts—virtue and vice—is the way they link fact and value. Notwithstanding the tremendous diversity of human lives, there are true generalizations about human life. There is such a thing as anthropology. We are rational, social animals, whose lives are stuffed with complex, cooperative activities. And there are true generalizations also about the attributes that conduce to success or failure in these activities—that is, to success or failure in life. These are the virtues and vices. Is it an evaluation to call stinginess a vice? Yes. But it is an evaluation grounded in fact. Indeed, it is a fact.

It might help a skeptical reader to think about other animals. (Foot once remarked that, in doing ethics, it helps to start by thinking about plants.) Suppose you were charged with reintroducing wolves into a national park. What would the job entail? With reference to a characteristically wolfish life (pack hunting, hierarchies of submission, etc.), you would need to find wolves with the instincts and other attributes to succeed in that life. You would need to find wolves with wolf-virtues. And finding those wolves would not be a matter of projecting likes and dislikes onto animals who weren’t really superior or inferior as wolves. To find those wolves, you would consult a wolf expert. Your judgment would be controlled by the facts.

Murdoch made revolt against the fact-value dichotomy seem possible; Anscombe and Foot suggested an alternative; but it was Midgley who finally articulated the alternative in more-than-schematic terms. She stepped away from Oxford—away from the academy—from the early ‘50s to the mid-‘60s. Freed from the pressure to hone the cutting edge of a technical discussion, she immersed herself in the new science of animal behavior and began thinking about how it could relate to her friends’ emerging project in ethics.

Her contribution has too often been overlooked, partly because she published the first of her sixteen books two decades after her friends began to make their mark, but partly too because what she did—like what her friend Murdoch did—was a step outside standard-model philosophy. It contributed to no technical subspecialty. Rather, it related two large bodies of thought in unpretentious, shared terminology. It is nonetheless where we find the first worked-out—and scientifically informed—expression of the outlook recommended and sketched by her friends. In Midgley’s works, the previously unthinkable becomes fully, concretely thinkable. The revolutionary alternative comes to life.

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Elizabeth Ann Curran 21 January 2022

A new book about these women: Metaphysical Animals-How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill et Al.

hunter drift 10 January 2022

Those are wonderful women. They deserve to be honored!

Marilyn Crook 9 January 2022

Yes more please. Really interesting introduction!

Ann Gamsa 8 January 2022

I agree with Jesper Valgreen.

Jesper Valgreen 7 January 2022

Splendid review. Too bad it ends right where the plot thickens.