Phillippa Foot died yesterday. Once upon a time, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger force fed me platters of Phillippa Foot’s philosophic writings on ethics. For Wurzbuger, the writings of Foot were basic for formulating a contemporary philosophy of halakhah. Unlike the Kantians and Utilitarians, Foot stressed the lived elements of human life and purposeful aspects of ethics. Similar to Prof. Isadore Twersky’s presentation of the law in Maimonides, halakhah has a telos. Foot also taught the non-reducibility of ethic to a single factor. Like halakhah, there are always multiple variables to be considered. Foot rejected subjectivism, helping Wurzburger formulate an Orthodox rejection of Buber. Finally, Foot turned to the importance of Virtue Ethics and Wurzburger followed suit. Even though no one in the US cares about a philosophy of halakhah anymore, it is still nice to remember the attempts. Now I must get back to Hilary Putnam.
Obituary from The Guardian – full text here
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.
Yet her comparison, in a well-known paper (Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives, 1972) between Immanuel Kant’s view of moral law as “inescapable” in some special way, and the demands of etiquette, was intended to argue that people who follow either morality or etiquette without questioning them “are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral ‘ought’ a magic force”. Later, she rejected this position, and was irritated to be still credited with it. Moral constraints, she came to believe, were indispensably a rational part of flourishing as a human being – in this, they did not resemble etiquette.
Foot pooh-poohed what she called the “rigoristic, prissy, moralistic tone” so frequent in moral philosophy, and the way it had lost touch with real life. “I do not know what could be meant by saying that it was someone’s duty to do something,” she said, “unless there was an attempt to show why it mattered if this sort of thing was not done.”
But she opposed such theories not just because they were too wide, but because they were too narrow. 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.