Foot, Philippa (1920–)

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In the last half of the twentieth century, few philosophers figured as prominently and persistently in the central debates of English-speaking moral philosophy as Philippa Foot. Née Philippa Ruth Bosanquet, she was born in 1920 in Owston Ferry, Lincolnshire, in the United Kingdom. She studied for the PPE (philosophy, political science, and economics) at Somerville College, Oxford, from 1939 to 1942. After receiving an MA in 1947, she became the Sommerville's first philosophy tutorial fellow in 1949 and vice principal in 1967. Moving to the United States, she held positions at Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, New York University, and Stanford University. She settled at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1976 and became the first holder of the Gloria and Paul Griffin Chair in Philosophy in 1988, which she held until her retirement in 1991. A founder of Oxfam, she has been instrumental in bringing philosophy to bear on practical issues.

Although her work on such practical topics as abortion and euthanasia has been widely and justly influential, Foot's fundamental contributions are to the foundational questions of moral theory. Her publications in moral theory concentrate on three interlocking themes: the notion that virtue is central to morality, naturalism in ethics, and the place of practical reason in the moral life. These themes are pursued in a set of forcefully argued, original essays, most of which are collected in Foot 2002 and 2003. Foot's thoughts on these topics culminated in her book Natural Goodness (2001).

Although these themes are a constant preoccupation of her writings, Foot's positions evolve in significant and unexpected ways. This evolution can usefully be divided into an early, middle, and late period (for an excellent discussion of the first two periods, see Lawrence 1995). In several early papers (notably 19581959/2002 and 1961/2002), Foot set herself in opposition to a dominant trend in moral philosophy toward noncognitivism, as represented by the emotivism of Charles L. Stevenson (1947) and the prescriptivism of R. M. Hare (1952). According to these philosophers, evaluative language, and moral language in particular, has a distinctive function or meaning that sets it sharply apart from empirical or factual discourse. On this view, the primary function of a moral utterance is not to describe human actions and choices but rather to express the speaker's attitudes or stances (e.g., emotions or commitments) regarding them. Hence moral judgment is not objective, because it is not answerable to the nature or properties of its subject matter.

Foot strenuously opposed this trend, arguing that the concept of morality concerns what is necessary for human flourishing, and therefore that the truth of moral judgments is fixed by facts about the needs of human beings in relation to one another. This naturalism is intimately linked to Foot's view that "a sound moral philosophy should start from a theory of the virtues and vices" (2002, p. xi). The ultimate standard of choosing and acting well is the natural needs of human beings. And the virtues are those traits that enable us to do so.

This virtue-centered naturalism, which Foot has never abandoned, reaches back to the ethics of Aristotle (1998), and sparked a resurgence of interest in virtue ethics in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Yet her naturalism was in tension with two further views to which she was drawn. If possessing and acting on the virtues is necessary for human flourishing, she thought, then having and acting on the virtues benefits their possessor. But common experience shows that in the case of at least some virtues, notably justice, acting virtuously might not benefit the agent, for justice restricts us from advancing our interests in certain ways. So either justice is not a virtue, or virtues are not necessarily good for us. In that case (as Thrasymachus was made to argue in Plato's Republic ), we cannot honestly recommend justice as a virtue, and we have to concede that not everyone has reason to act justly.

Foot's initial response (19581959/2002) was to take Thrasymachus's challenge seriously, arguing, in effect, that the potential costs of committing injustice, and of being the kind of person who would commit injustice, are too steep to be worth it, that being unjust does not pay. But this response, Foot came to think, rested on a mistaken assumption. Justice is indeed a virtue because of its essential role in human happiness, but the mistake is to think (as Foot had tended to do) that the only way that virtues can serve well-being is by advancing the interests of those who possess them. Justice is concerned with the common good. Human life goes badly when individuals are prepared to cheat, lie, and steal. In this way, a deep connection between virtue and human well-being is retained, but it does not follow that every individual who acts contrary to justice disadvantages himself. This recantation (2002, pp. xiixiii) marks Foot's transition to her middle period.

This reply to Thrasymachus prompted Foot to reconsider an orthodoxy to which she had previously been inclined to subscribe: that "moral judgments give reason for acting to each and every man" (19581959/2002, n. 6). One has reason to do something, Foot had argued, only if doing so contributes to one's ends or good. Since acting as justice or loyalty or charity does not necessarily promote my interests or ends, I do not necessarily have a reason to act in these ways. Foot concludes that the allegiance to morality derives not from the authority of practical reason (as followers of Immanuel Kant (1998) argue) but from contingent attachments and devotions, such as love of the common good and hatred of cruelty. In this sense, Foot argues in a famous essay (1972/2002), moral reasons are "hypothetical," not categorical.

Although this provocative thesis deeply shaped the ensuing philosophical literature on the connection between morality and practical reason, Foot eventually rejected it. This rejection signaled the third period of her work, in which she sets forth an entirely novel conception of practical reason. A vice like injustice is a kind of natural defect, she comes to argue, analogous to the defect in a lioness who neglects her cubs. What makes it a moral defect is that it concerns the will, in a broad sense: the ways in which the individual recognizes and responds to reasons. The virtues are a form of goodness in choosing, that is, in taking certain considerations as reasons for acting and desiring.

This way of linking the concept of the virtues to that of practical reason stands the traditional account on its head. Traditionally, it was supposed that we could develop a robust theory of practical reason independent of an account of virtue, and then we could see how morality measures up by that standard of rationality. This is an error, Foot argues in Natural Goodness (2001), for practical rationality is reasoning well in matters of action, and that cannot be specified without a general conception of what it is to function well as a human being. The theory of practical reason thus depends on a naturalistic understanding of virtue and vice.

Whether this understanding can be developed without relying on an unconvincing Aristotelian conception of human function is a disputed question. One major challenge is to spell out the sense in which goodness is natural. Foot recognizes that assertions about what is and is not rational cannot be settled by the methods of the natural sciences. (For reflections on this challenge, see Thompson 1995.) A related challenge is to understand the role that culture plays in morality. Culture is, of course, natural to human beings, but particular cultures obviously shape the content and understanding of morality by their members. It remains to be seen how these points can be accommodated within a contemporary Aristotelian theory.

See also Abortion; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Ethical Naturalism; Ethics, History of; Euthanasia; Hare, Richard M.; Kant, Immanuel; Metaethics; Plato; Stevenson, Charles L.; Virtue Ethics.


works by foot

"Moral Beliefs" (19581959). In her "Virtues and Vices" and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.

"Goodness and Choice" (1961). In her "Virtues and Vices" and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.

"Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (1972). In her "Virtues and Vices" and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Natural Goodness. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 2001.

"Virtues and Vices" and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

other works

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross; revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Crisp, Roger, and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Darwall, Stephen, ed. Virtue Ethics. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Darwall, Stephen, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton. Moral Discourse and Practice: Some Philosophical Approaches. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hare, R. M. The Language of Morals. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hursthouse, Rosalind, Galvin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn, eds. 1995. Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Lawrence, Gavin. "The Rationality of Morality." In Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, edited by Rosalind Hursthouse, Galvin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

McDowell, John. "Two Sorts of Naturalism." In Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, edited by Rosalind Hursthouse, Galvin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stevenson, Charles L. Ethics and Language. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1947.

Thompson, Michael. "The Representation of Life." In Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, edited by Rosalind Hursthouse, Galvin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gary Watson (2005)