Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Jon Garthoff

Committee Members

E.J. Coffman, David Palmer


Virtue Ethicists who follow the arguments set out in Elizabeth Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy have consistently referenced problems with modern ethical thought. It is unclear, however, whether a single theme unites their dissatisfaction. Discovering ‘the problem’ is important for two reasons: first, it is, itself, historically interesting were there to emerge a common thread running through modernity; second, it is potentially insightful for providing future direction to ethicists. In the following two sections I argue, respectively, that such a theme underlies modern ethics and, further, that it is problematic.

In Section I, I take up three influential dichotomies. I situate historical claims made by Alasdair MacIntyre (1982) and Iris Murdoch (1970) into a broader framework. MacIntyre argues that each Hume, and Kant and Reid incorrectly reduce the content of ethical thought to an impersonal moral value. Iris Murdoch, however, argues the problem with modern ethical thought is that it either concerns only overt actions, the behaviorist tradition, or internal movements of the will, the existentialist tradition. I argue that the problems described by MacIntyre and Murdoch are explained by a false dichotomy between Empiricists and Rationalists. Each neglect that apprehending morality requires first person understanding, that is, a method of understanding, which includes the world as it appears through the senses and my unique perspective. The problem of modern ethics is, therefore, one about methodology.

In Section II, I argue that first person understanding is necessary for a complete account of ethics. I move forward in two stages. First, I argue that first person understanding is indispensible to human action. In order to act, I must see doing so as choiceworthy, but this requires both my first and third person understanding. Hence, a gap emerges between why I act and why I am approved by modern ethics. Second, I argue that the gap is problematic: first it reduces the scope of moral inquiry; second, it separates morality from flourishing; third, it undercuts attempts to explain ethical overridingness. If this is plausible, it is important for theorists to reconsider the role of first person understanding in moral inquiry.

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