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Philippa Foot in Memoriam December 6, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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An amazing woman philosopher has passed away. It only just now came to my attention that the British moral philosopher Philippa Foot died Oct.3, on her 90th birthday. It is primarily thanks to Foot that we today enjoy a revival and revision of Virtue Ethics. I hope to write more about Foot at a later date, but for now I will share these words from her obituary in The Guardian with you:

 The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare’s prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.

From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that “the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life” and in what it is rational for humans to want.

In the 1950s she had begun, along with Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things. And “virtuous”, for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own”, advocating “hope and a readiness to accept good things”.

Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions’ consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it. In a paper on abortion (The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, 1967), she used what became a much-cited example to pinpoint fine distinctions in moral permissibility where an action has both good and bad results – the dilemma facing the driver of a suddenly brakeless trolley-bus that would hit five people unless he steered it on to another track into only one person.

Unlike many philosophers, Foot never strained our basic intuitions in the interests of pursuing some wild theory to its (il)logical conclusion. She said that, in doing philosophy, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. But her resolute tapping hit many fault-lines and reduced several inflated edifices. “Very tender and adorable, yet morally tough and subtle, and with lots of will and self-control,” was how Murdoch described her.



1. Dwight Furrow - December 6, 2010


Thank you for this post. I concur with the obit’s assessment of Foote’s importance. Her Virtues and Vices was my introduction to moral philosophy.

2. Paul J. Moloney - December 11, 2010

It seems that Kant was the first great modern thinker, at least great in name, to introduce an ethics without virtue. He specifically said that wisdom and humility were virtues but that virtues were mere ideas. Kant seems to have been more influenced by Plato than by Aristotle. The English seem to have countered with their theory of utilitarianism, which also does not include virtue, but at least, as far as I know, it does not argue against virtue as Kant did. If virtues are ideas than they cannot be practiced. If, though, moral theory could be practiced, it seems that it would no longer be theory. I am going to have to re-read Dwight’s “Against Theory”, which I recommend to anyone who wants an informative update on the topic of ethics.

Asur - December 11, 2010

“If virtues are ideas than [sic] they cannot be practiced. If, though, moral theory could be practiced, it seems that it would no longer be theory.”

This seems a bizarre claim; I’m not sure that it’s coherent to maintain that theory and application are distinct.

Could you explain what you mean?

3. Paul J. Moloney - December 12, 2010

Oh! By the way, I was delighted to hear about Philippa’s accomplishment, but I did not want to make a mere emotional response. I was especially elated to hear about Philippa because, though I have an Irish last name, my grandmother was English. It took me many years to realize that she must have endowed me with her English spirit when she died. I have never considered myself Irish because I have never felt Irish. I have no idea what it is to feel Irish. I have spent most of my life staving off oppression from males on the Irish side of the family. Their idea of an accomplishment is to be able to stop anyone else in the family from actually accomplishing anything. Having this in mind, I can deeply appreciate Philippa’s accomplishment. If males have to endure oppression to accomplish anything worthwhile, I imagine a woman would have to endure even more oppression.

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