by Emily Lataif
The Anscombe Society is the newest club at the University of Dallas and our semester is off to a great start, thanks to an event highlighting the group’s namesake, “The Anscombe Behind the Anscombe Society” earlier this month. Dr. Jonathan Sanford, a philosophy professor at UD and expert on G.E.M. Anscombe delivered the lecture to a room of fifty UD students who spent an hour of their Thursday night with us to learn about the Anscombe Society.
Dr. Sanford began by giving a brief background on Elizabeth Anscombe who he described as “tenacious” and shared several anecdotes of her life, including a time when, after Oxford University decided to give President Truman an honorary degree, she led students in prayer as a public sign of opposition to his decision to drop the atomic bombs.
He then spent some time explaining her approach to philosophy, specifically her action theory and idea of moral absolutes, in order to lay a foundation for the final portion of his talk, a discussion of her essay “Contraception and Chastity.”
Anscombe was concerned with the shallowness of modern moral philosophy. “What unified contemporary moral philosophy is the idea that there are no moral absolutes,” said Sanford. There are situations in modern moral philosophy, he continued, where killing an innocent person is justified. This is what Anscombe was reacting against. “We’ve abandoned the framework, the structure of exceptionalist moral norms, and yet we still pretend like we’re doing moral philosophy,” said Sanford. “Well, we should stop pretending. You’re not doing moral philosophy if you’re not beginning with these fundamental principles: that there are certain actions that one must never do.”
He then broached the often-uncomfortable subject of contraception. Anscombe argues that contraceptive sex, even if it takes place within the confines of marriage, is not truly marital. Why? Because marriage is mutual commitment where we agree to give up some of our autonomy. As Dr. Helen Alvare said at the 2015 SIU Conference, part of being open to marriage is being open to the idea of giving up some of our independence.
The conjugal act is an expression of that total self-giving, but by using contraception, says Anscombe, you withhold something from your partner. Her radical claim that contraceptive sex is not truly sex again courted controversy during her time at Oxford.
Later during the Q&A, Sanford told us to “be a sign of contradiction without withdrawing from the world…We have this presumption today that that’s crazy that people would abstain…but that’s a really low view of humanity. We have remarkable capacities of reflection and making hard choices. We can call on people to exercise rigorous thought in their own action. I think it’s fundamentally insulting to a human being to suggest that they can’t practice chastity.”
Sanford left the crowd on a hopeful note, encouraging us to keep in mind human dignity when confronting the social ills that have splintered and confused our society.
We couldn’t be more excited about the possibilities for Anscombe at UD. Stay tuned!
Emily Lataif is a senior at the University of Dallas studying English and the founder and president of the UD Anscombe Society.