Are consequentialism and deontology not even wrong?

I was stunned to read the ac­counts quoted be­low. They’re claiming that the no­tion of moral­ity - in the sense of there be­ing a spe­cial cat­e­gory of things that you should or should not do for the sake of the things them­selves be­ing in­her­ently right or wrong—might not only be a re­cent in­ven­tion, but also an in­co­her­ent one. Even when I had read de­bates about e.g. moral re­al­ism, I had always un­der­stood even the moral ir­re­al­ists as ac­knowl­edg­ing that there are gen­uine moral at­ti­tudes that are fun­da­men­tally in­grained in peo­ple. But I hadn’t ran into a po­si­tion claiming that it was ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble for whole cul­tures to sim­ply not have a con­cept of moral­ity in the first place.

I’m amazed that I haven’t heard these claims dis­cussed more. If they’re ac­cu­rate, then they seem to me to provide a strong ar­gu­ment for both de­on­tol­ogy and con­se­quen­tial­ism—at least as they’re usu­ally un­der­stood here—to be not even wrong. Just ra­tio­nal­iza­tions of con­cepts that got their ori­gin from Judeo-Chris­tian laws and which peo­ple held onto be­cause they didn’t know of any other way of think­ing.

As for morally, we must ob­serve at once – again fol­low­ing An­scombe – that Plato and Aris­to­tle, hav­ing no word for “moral,” could not even form a phrase equiv­a­lent to “morally right.” The Greek thik aret means “ex­cel­lence of char­ac­ter,” not “moral virtue”; 2 Cicero’s vir­tus moralis, from which the English phrase de­scends di­rectly, is sim­ply the Latin for thik aret. This is not the lex­i­cal fal­lacy; it is not just that the word ‘moral’ was miss­ing. The whole idea of a spe­cial cat­e­gory called “the moral” was miss­ing. Strictly speak­ing, the Aris­totelian phrase ta thika is sim­ply a gen­er­al­iz­ing sub­stan­tive formed on th, “char­ac­ter­is­tic be­hav­iors,” just as the Cicero­nian moralia is formed on mores. To be fully cor­rect – ad­mit­tedly it would be a bit cum­ber­some – we should talk not of Aris­to­tle’s Ni­co­machean Ethics but of his Stud­ies-of-our-char­ac­ter­is­tic-be­hav­iors Edited-by-Ni­co­machus.
Plato and Aris­to­tle were in­ter­ested – es­pe­cially Plato – in the ques­tion how the more stringent de­mands of a good dis­po­si­tion like jus­tice or tem­per­ance or courage could be rea­son­able de­mands, de­mands that it made sense to obey even at ex­treme cost. It never oc­curred to them, as it nat­u­rally does to mod­erns, to sug­gest that these de­mands were to be obeyed sim­ply be­cause they were de­mands of a spe­cial, mag­i­cally com­pul­sive sort: moral de­mands.
Their an­swer was always that, to show that we have rea­son to obey the strong de­mands that can emerge from our good dis­po­si­tions, we must show that what they de­mand is in some way a nec­es­sary means to or part of hu­man well-be­ing (eu­daimo­nia). If it must be clas­sified un­der the mis­con­ceived mod­ern dis­tinc­tion be­tween “the moral” and “the pru­den­tial,” this an­swer clearly falls into the pru­den­tial cat­e­gory. 4 When mod­ern read­ers who have been brought up on our moral/​ pru­den­tial dis­tinc­tion see Plato’s and Aris­to­tle’s in­sis­tence on root­ing the rea­sons that the virtues give us in the no­tion of well-be­ing, they reg­u­larly clas­sify both as “moral ego­ists.” But that is a mis­ap­pli­ca­tion to them of a dis­tinc­tion that they were right not to rec­og­nize.
When we turn from the Greeks to Kant and the clas­si­cal util­i­tar­i­ans, we may doubt whether they shared the mod­ern in­ter­est in find­ing a neat defi­ni­tion of the “morally right” any more than Plato or Aris­to­tle did. Kant pro­posed, at most, a nec­es­sary (not nec­es­sary and suffi­cient) con­di­tion on ra­tio­nally per­mis­si­ble (not morally right5) ac­tion for an in­di­vi­d­ual agent – and had even greater than his usual difficulty ex­press­ing this con­di­tion at all pithily. The util­i­tar­i­ans of­ten were more in­ter­ested in ju­rispru­dence than in in­di­vi­d­ual ac­tion, and where they ad­dressed the lat­ter – as J. S. Mill of­ten does, but Ben­tham usu­ally does not – tended, in the in­ter­ests of long-term util­ity, to stick re­mark­ably close to the de­liv­er­ances of that ver­sion of “com­mon-sense moral­ity” that was rec­og­nized by high-minded Vic­to­rian liber­als like them­selves. When Kant and the util­i­tar­i­ans dis­agreed, it was not about the ques­tion “What are the nec­es­sary and suffi­cient con­di­tions of morally right ac­tion?” They weren’t even ask­ing that ques­tion.
[Ti­mothy Chap­pell: Virtue ethics in the twen­tieth cen­tury. In The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Virtue Ethics (Cam­bridge Com­pan­ions to Philos­o­phy) (pp. 151-152). Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press. Kin­dle Edi­tion.]
How did things change so much? Here’s a quote from G.E.M. An­scombe’s Modern Mo­ral Philos­o­phy (1958), at­tribut­ing the de­vel­op­ment to the in­fluence of Chris­ti­an­ity:
The terms “should” or “ought” or “needs” re­late to good and bad: e.g. ma­chin­ery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that run­ning with­out oil is bad for it, or it runs badly with­out oil. Ac­cord­ing to this con­cep­tion, of course, “should” and “ought” are not used in a spe­cial “moral” sense when one says that a man should not bilk. (In Aris­to­tle’s sense of the term “moral” [...], they are be­ing used in con­nec­tion with a moral sub­ject-mat­ter: namely that of hu­man pas­sions and (non-tech­ni­cal) ac­tions.) But they have now ac­quired a spe­cial so-called “moral” sense — i.e. a sense in which they im­ply some ab­solute ver­dict (like one of guilty/​not guilty on a man) on what is de­scribed in the “ought” sen­tences used in cer­tain types of con­text: not merely the con­texts that Aris­to­tle would call “moral” — pas­sions and ac­tions — but also some of the con­texts that he would call “in­tel­lec­tual.”
The or­di­nary (and quite in­dis­pens­able) terms “should,” “needs,” “ought,” “must” — ac­quired this spe­cial sense by be­ing equated in the rele­vant con­texts with “is obliged,” or “is bound,” or “is re­quired to,” in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or some­thing can be re­quired by law.
How did this come about? The an­swer is in his­tory: be­tween Aris­to­tle and us came Chris­ti­an­ity, with its law con­cep­tion of ethics. For Chris­ti­an­ity de­rived its eth­i­cal no- tions from the To­rah. [...]
In con­se­quence of the dom­i­nance of Chris­ti­an­ity for many cen­turies, the con­cepts of be­ing bound, per­mit­ted, or ex­cused be­came deeply em­bed­ded in our lan­guage and thought. The Greek word “aiu,avravav,” the aptest to be turned to that use, ac­quired the sense “sin,” from hav­ing meant “mis­take,” “miss­ing the mark,” “go­ing wrong.” The Latin pec­ca­tum which roughly cor­re­sponded to aiu,avriiu,a was even apter for the sense “sin,” be­cause it was already as­so­ci­ated with “culpa” — “guilt” — a ju­ridi­cal no­tion. The blan­ket term “illicit,” “un­lawful,” mean­ing much the same as our blan­ket term “wrong,” ex­plains it­self. It is in­ter­est­ing that Aris­to­tle did not have such a blan­ket term. He has blan­ket terms for wicked­ness — “villain,” “scoundrel”; but of course a man is not a villain or a scoundrel by the perfor­mance of one bad ac­tion, or a few bad ac­tions. And he has terms like “dis­grace­ful,” “im­pi­ous”; and spe­cific terms sig­nify­ing defect of the rele­vant virtue, like “un­just”; but no term cor­re­spond­ing to “illicit.” The ex­ten­sion of this term (i.e. the range of its ap­pli­ca­tion) could be in­di­cated in his ter­minol­ogy only by a quite lengthy sen­tence: that is “illicit” which, whether it is a thought or a con­sented-to pas­sion or an ac­tion or an omis­sion in thought or ac­tion, is some­thing con­trary to one of the virtues the lack of which shows a man to be bad qua man. That for­mu­la­tion would yield a con­cept co-ex­ten­sive with the con­cept “illicit.”
To have a law con­cep­tion of ethics is to hold that what is needed for con­for­mity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of be­ing bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua crafts­man or lo­gi­cian) — that what is needed for this , is re­quired by di­v­ine law. Nat­u­rally it is not pos­si­ble to have such a con­cep­tion un­less you be­lieve in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Sto­ics, and Chris­ti­ans. But if such a con­cep­tion is dom­i­nant for many cen­turies, and then is given up, it is a nat­u­ral re­sult that the con­cepts of “obli­ga­tion,” of be­ing bound or re­quired as by a law, should re­main though they had lost their root; and if the word “ought” has be­come in­vested in cer­tain con­texts with the sense of “obli­ga­tion,” it too will re­main to be spo­ken with a spe­cial em­pha­sis and spe­cial feel­ing in these con­texts.
It is as if the no­tion “crim­i­nal” were to re­main when crim­i­nal law and crim­i­nal courts had been abol­ished and for­got­ten. A Hume dis­cov­er­ing this situ­a­tion might con­clude that there was a spe­cial sen­ti­ment, ex­pressed by “crim­i­nal,” which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume dis­cov­ered the situ­a­tion which the no­tion “obli­ga­tion” sur­vived, and the no­tion “ought” was in­vested with that pe­cu­liar for hav­ing which it is said to be used in a “moral” sense, but in which the be­lief in di­v­ine law had long since been aban­doned: for it was sub­stan­tially given up among Protes­tants at the time of the Re­for­ma­tion.2The situ­a­tion, if I am right, was the in­ter­est­ing one of the sur­vival of a con­cept out­side the frame­work of thought that made it a re­ally in­tel­ligible one.