Philippa Foot, who died on 3rd October 2010 on her ninetieth birthday, was one of the outstanding moral philosophers of the post-war period. One of her best-known papers introduced what’s now known as “the trolley problem” into the bloodstream of philosophy (for more on this, see David Edmonds’ article in this month’s Prospect). But she later described her work in the field of “applied ethics” (thinking about ethics in real-life scenarios) as occupying her only while she searched for ways to approach the foundational questions in ethics—questions like why should we be moral at all.
Though her first paper in moral philosophy was published in the 1950s, and a number of her subsequent papers became landmarks in the literature, her one book, Natural Goodness, did not appear till 2001. The introduction quotes approvingly Wittgenstein’s remark that in philosophy it is difficult to work as slowly as one should. Alluding to this, OUP’s philosophy editor quipped at the launch party that “that is a problem Philippa seems to have solved.”
Yet one of the very appealing aspects of Foot’s philosophical personality was quite the opposite of this: instead of hanging onto an idea for decades until she felt she had got it absolutely right, she would publish, and then, in some cases, later say she had got it absolutely wrong. As a result, even when she gave a paper in her seventies, there was a sense of listening to something that might go anywhere, rather than to an ex cathedra pronouncement.
As the title Natural Goodness suggests, Foot saw her work as a response to GE Moore’s claim that goodness is not a “natural” property, and to the family of “non-cognitivist” views in ethics to which his claim gave rise. While Moore was happy to allow that “charitable giving is good” is a statement of fact, he argued that it doesn’t state the kind of fact which can be established empirically. By contrast, the non-cognitivist holds that ethical statements aren’t statements of fact at all. Therefore the statement “Torture is wrong” is neither true nor false, but rather an expression of attitude (ie “Boo to torture!”) or something like a command (‘Do not torture!’). If this is right, and ethical statements can’t be straightforwardly true or false, the idea of moral rights and wrongs needs to be laboriously reinterpreted. This was the dominant view in moral philosophy when Foot entered the field, and variants of non-cognitivism remain influential today.
Foot’s basic thought in Natural Goodness is that moral goodness is an aspect of practical rationality. There is, however, an obvious reply to this view. Of course I will be much better off in a world where everyone keeps their promises, respects property rights and so on, than I would be in a world in which no one does these things. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t follow from this that it’s rational for me to keep my promises. For I may be even better off in a world in which everyone else keeps their promises and I don’t, because I can reap all the benefits of others’ good behaviour without incurring any of the costs of behaving well myself.
The mistake here, Foot argues, is not to try and link morality with rationality, but to start off with too narrow a conception of rationality—roughly, rationality as self-interest. Not that self-interest has got nothing at all to do with rationality. The point is rather that rationality includes both self-interest and morality. Rationality is the excellence possessed by people who weigh these different kinds of considerations well, and there is no saying in advance which kind of consideration must win out in any particular case.
But that is only part of Foot’s picture. Equally central is Foot’s insistence that what this excellence amounts to is rooted in facts about our specifically human natures—thence the “natural” in Natural Goodness. As animals of a certain kind, there are things we need to do in order to be as we naturally should be: wolves need to hunt in packs, and we need (for example) to cooperate with one another. So a good human being will be a cooperative one. Correspondingly, we all know that parents who don’t teach their children what they need to know in order to survive are bad. But, to Foot, this is simply a matter of their being defective members of their (our) kind, in just the same sense in which owls are defective who can’t see in the dark. According to Foot at least, the “gap between fact and value”—often presented to beginners in philosophy as the plainest of plain truths—just isn’t there.
Philippa Foot, 3.10.1920 – 3.10.2010