Philippa Ruth Foot, FBA (/ˈfɪlɪpə ˈfʊt/; née Bosanquet; 3
October 1920 – 3 October 2010) was a British philosopher, most
notable for her works in ethics. She was one of the founders of
contemporary virtue ethics, inspired by the ethics of Aristotle. Her
later career marked a significant change in view from her work in the
1950s and 1960s, and may be seen as an attempt to modernize
Aristotelian ethical theory, to show that it is adaptable to a
contemporary world view, and thus, that it could compete with such
popular theories as modern deontological and utilitarian ethics. Some
of her work was crucial in the re-emergence of normative ethics within
analytic philosophy, especially her critique of consequentialism and
of non-cognitivism. A familiar example is the continuing discussion of
an example of hers referred to as the trolley problem. Foot's approach
was influenced by the later work of Wittgenstein, although she rarely
dealt explicitly with materials treated by him. She is also notable
for being the granddaughter of American President Grover Cleveland.
1 Personal life and education
2 Critique of non-cognitivism
3 The rationality of morality
3.1 "Why be moral?" – early works
3.2 "Why be moral?" – middle works
3.3 "Why be moral?" – later work
4 Ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy
5 Selected works
6 See also
8 External links
Personal life and education
Born as Philippa Ruth Bosanquet, Foot was the daughter of Esther
Cleveland (1893–1980) and Captain William Sidney Bence Bosanquet
(1893–1966) of the
Coldstream Guards of the British Army. Her
paternal grandfather was the barrister and judge, Sir Frederick Albert
Common Serjeant of London
Common Serjeant of London from 1900 to 1917. Her maternal
grandfather was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States,
Foot was educated privately and at Somerville College, Oxford,
1939–42, where she obtained a first class in Philosophy, Politics
and Economics ('PPE'). Her association with Somerville, interrupted
only by government service as an economist from 1942 to 1947,
continued for the rest of her life. She was a lecturer in Philosophy,
1947–50, fellow and tutor, 1950–69, senior research fellow,
1969–88, and honorary fellow, 1988–2010. She spent many hours
there in debate with G.E.M. Anscombe, who persuaded her that
non-cognitivism was misguided.
In the 1960s and 1970s Foot held a number of visiting professorships
in the United States – at Cornell, MIT, Berkeley, City University of
New York. She was appointed Griffin Professor of
Philosophy at the
University of California, Los Angeles, in 1976 and taught there until
1991, dividing her time between the United States and England.
Contrary to common belief, Foot was not a founder of
Oxfam and joined
the organization about 6 years after its foundation. She was an
atheist. She was once married to the historian M. R. D. Foot,
and at one time shared a flat with the novelist Iris Murdoch. She
died in 2010, on her 90th birthday.
Critique of non-cognitivism
Foot's works of the late 1950s were meta-ethical in character: that
is, they pertained to the status of moral judgment and speech. The
essays "Moral Arguments" and "Moral Beliefs", in particular, were
crucial in overturning the rule of non-cognitivism in analytic
approaches to ethical theory in the preceding decades.
The non-cognitivist approach may already be found in Hume, but it was
given its most influential analytic formulations in works of A. J.
Ayer, C. L. Stevenson, and R. M. Hare. These writers focused on
so-called "thin ethical concepts" such as "good" and "bad" and "right"
and "wrong," arguing that they are not employed to affirm something
true of the thing in question, but rather, to express an emotion or
(in Hare's case) an imperative.
This sort of analysis of "thin" ethical concepts was tied to a special
partitioning account of more concrete or "thick" concepts, such as
"cowardly", "cruel", or "gluttonous." These were supposed to combine a
non-cognitive "evaluative" element with the obvious, "merely
Foot's purpose was to criticize this distinction and the underlying
account of thin concepts. Because of the particular way she approached
the defense of the cognitive and truth-evaluable character of moral
judgment, these essays were crucial in bringing the question of the
rationality of morality to the fore.
Practical considerations involving "thick" ethical concepts – but it
would be cruel, it would be cowardly, it's hers, or I promised her I
wouldn't – move people to act one way rather than another, but they
are as descriptive as any other judgment pertaining to human life.
They differ from thought such as it would be done on a Tuesday or it
would take about three gallons of paint, not by the admixture of what
she considers to be any non-factual, attitude-expressing "moral"
element, but by the fact that human beings have reasons not to do
things that are cowardly or cruel.
Her lifelong devotion to this question appears in all periods of her
The rationality of morality
"Why be moral?" – early works
It is on this question – the "why be moral?" question (which for her
may be said to divide into the questions "why be just?", "why be
temperate?", etc.) – that her doctrine underwent a surprising series
of reversals. In "Moral Beliefs," she had argued that the received
virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and so on – are cultivated
rationally, and that it was thus rational to act in accordance with
them. The "thick" ethical concepts that she emphasized (without using
this expression) in her defense of the cognitive character of moral
judgment were associated with such rationally cultivated traits, i.e.
virtues; this is how they differ from randomly chosen descriptions of
action. The crucial point was that the difference between "just
action" and "action performed on Tuesday" (for example) was not a
matter of "emotive" meaning, as in Ayer and Stevenson, or a secret
imperatival feature, as in Hare.
"Why be moral?" – middle works
Fifteen years later, in the essay "
Morality as a System of
Hypothetical Imperatives", she reversed this when it came to justice
and benevolence, that is, the virtues that especially regard other
people. Although everyone has reason to cultivate courage, temperance
and prudence, whatever the person desires or values, still, the
rationality of just and benevolent acts must, she thought, turn on
contingent motivations. Although many found the thesis shocking, on
her (then) account, it is meant to be, in a certain respect,
inspiring: in a famous reinterpretation of a remark of Kant, she
says that "we are not conscripts in the army of virtue, but
volunteers"; the fact that we have nothing to say in proof of the
irrationality of at least some unjust people should not alarm us in
our own defense and cultivation of justice and benevolence: "it did
not strike the citizens of Leningrad that their devotion to the city
and its people during the terrible years of the siege was contingent".
"Why be moral?" – later work
Her book Natural Goodness attempts a different line. The question what
we have most reason to do, is tied to the idea of the good working of
practical reason. This, in turn, is tied to the idea of the species of
an animal as providing a measure of good and bad in the operations of
its parts and faculties. Just as one has to know what kind of animal
one is dealing with in order, for instance, to decide whether its
eyesight is good or bad, the question of whether a subject's practical
reason is well developed, depends on the kind of animal it is. (This
idea is developed in the light of a conception of animal kinds or
species as implicitly containing "evaluative" content, which may be
criticized on contemporary biological grounds; although it is
arguable, even on that basis, that it is very deeply entrenched in
human cognition.) In our case, what makes for a well-constituted
practical reason, depends on the fact that we are human beings
characterized by certain possibilities of emotion and desire, a
certain anatomy, neurological organization, and so forth.
Once this step is made, it becomes possible to argue for the
rationality of moral considerations in a new way. Humans begin with
the conviction that justice is a genuine virtue. Thus, the conviction
that the well-constituted human practical reason operates with
considerations of justice, means that taking account of other people
in that sort of way is "how human beings live together." (The thought
that this is how they live must be understood in a sense that is
compatible with the fact that actual individuals often do not – just
as dentists understand the thought that "human beings have n teeth" in
a way that is compatible with many people having fewer). There is
nothing incoherent in the thought that practical calculation that
takes account of others and their good might characterize some kind of
rational and social animal.
Similarly, of course, there is nothing incoherent in the idea of a
form of rational life within which such considerations are alien;
where they can only be imposed by damaging and disturbing the
individual person. There is nothing analytic about the rationality of
justice and benevolence. Rather, human conviction that justice is a
virtue and that considerations of justice are genuine reasons for
action, is the conviction that the kind of rational being that we are,
namely, human beings, is of the first type. There is no reason to
think such a kind of rational animality is impossible, so there is no
reason to suspect that considerations of justice are frauds.
Of course, it might be suggested that this is precisely not the case,
that human beings are of the second kind, and thus that the justice
and benevolence we esteem are artificial and false. Foot would hold
that considerations of machismo and lady-likeness are artificial and
false; they are matters of "mere convention," which tend to put one
off of the main things. That being how it is with justice, was the
position of the Platonic "immoralists" Callicles and Thrasymachus, and
that being how it is with benevolence, was the view of Friedrich
In the case of Callicles and Nietzsche, this apparently is to be shown
by claiming that justice and benevolence, respectively, can be
inculcated only by warping the emotional apparatus of the individual.
Foot's book ends by attempting to defuse the evidence Nietzsche brings
against what might be called, the common sense position. She proceeds
by accepting his basic premise that a way of life that can only be
inculcated by damaging the individual's passions, filling one with
remorse, resentment, and so forth, is not true. She employs exactly
the Nietzschean form of argument against certain forms of femininity,
for example, or exaggerated forms of acceptance of etiquette. Justice
and benevolence, she claims, however, "suit" human beings, and there
is no reason to accept the critique of Callicles or Nietzsche in this
Ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy
Nearly all Foot's published work relates to normative or meta-ethics.
Only once did she move across the boundary into aesthetics. This was
in her 1970 British Academy Hertz Memorial Lecture, Art and Morality,
in which certain contrasts are drawn between moral and aesthetic
judgements. She appears never to have taken a professional interest in
political philosophy. Geoffrey Thomas, of Birkbeck College, London,
recalls approaching Foot in 1968, when he was a postgraduate student
at Trinity College, Oxford, to ask if she would read a draft paper on
the relation of ethics to politics. 'I've never found political
philosophy interesting', she said. She added, 'One's bound to interest
oneself in the things people around one are talking about', with the
implication, perfectly correct, that political philosophy was largely
out of favour with Oxford philosophers in the 1950s and 1960s. She
still graciously agreed to read the paper. Thomas never sent it to
Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Berkeley:
University of California Press; Oxford: Blackwell, 1978 (there are
more recent editions).
Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
Moral Dilemmas: And Other Topics in Moral Philosophy, Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 2002.
Morality and Action, ed.
Philippa Foot (Introduction,
ix–xii), Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Judith Jarvis Thomson
G. E. M. Anscombe
^ Eilenberg, Susan (5 September 2002). "With A, then B, then C".
London Review of Books. 24 (17): 3–8.
^ Grimes, William (9 October 2010). "Philippa Foot, Renowned
Philosopher, Dies at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April
Philippa Foot obituary". The Guardian. 5 October 2010.
^ Critique of Practical Reason, Book 1, Chapter 3, "[W]e pretend with
fanciful pride to set ourselves above the thought of duty, like
volunteers.... [B]ut yet we are subjects in it, not the sovereign,"
^ Virtues and Vices, p. 170
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Philippa Foot
Links to biographical memoirs of fellows of the British Academy,
including Philippa Foot
Iris Murdoch: Memoir of Philippa Foot
Philippa Foot in
Philosophy Now magazine, 2001.
Interview with Foot by Alex Voorhoeve A revised and slightly expanded
version of this interview appears in Alex Voorhoeve, Conversations on
Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2009.
A bibliography of Foot's works through 1996
"Philippa Foot, Renowned Philosopher, Dies at 90," by WILLIAM GRIMES,
The New York Times, 9 October 2010
[Phillipa Foot-find a grave] 
Ethics of care
Good and evil
Suffering or Pain
Augustine of Hippo
Georg W. F. Hegel
John Stuart Mill
G. E. Moore
J. L. Mackie
G. E. M. Anscombe
R. M. Hare
Robert Merrihew Adams
Ethics of eating meat
Ethics of technology
Ethics in religion
History of ethics
Philosophy of law
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