Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Philippa Foot, 1920-2010

I was saddened to learn of the death of British moral philosopher Philippa Foot, at the age of 90.

She had been my landlady at Oxford, when I moved to England to try to produce documentary films (and considered studying philosophy there). Her house at 15 Walton Street was just as one would imagine the home of an Oxford don. Books, velour chairs, velour curtains, lovely views of the hills.  I found it through a listing in the New York Review of Books, to which she had been a regular contributor--until, she explained to me, the clique that ran NYRB decided she wasn't to appear in it anymore.  She was the granddaughter of President Gover Cleveland. She was the daughter of "Baby Ruth," of candy-bar fame. Her father was a British coal baron. Once, she told me she did not like the horsey, doggy, hunting British country life in which she had grown up. She preferred the life of the mind, and she managed to live in it, as an Oxford philosopher, author, and intellectual.

More than that, Philippa Foot a kind soul, and a generous one.  In England, she took me under her wing, introduced me to her sister Marion, who introduced me to London Society at the Garrick Club (at a dinner with pillar Anthony Howard), had me as a guest at Cleveland Hill (there introduced to classicist M.I. Finley, known as "Finley of Harvard" and uncle George Cleveland, son of the American President, who ran a summer stock theatre in Tamworth, New Hampshire), and variously extended unsolicited kindnesses. When Professor Foot came to teach at UCLA, where I was in film school, she invited me to a party at her home, at which my father met Christopher Isherwood--an evening he talked about for years.

All my memories of Professor Foot are good ones. She not only taught "virtue philosophy," she lived it.

Here is an excerpt from her obituary in The Telegraph:
In a key article, Moral Arguments (1958), Philippa Foot challenged this relativistic stance, suggesting that anyone who uses moral terms at all (bad, good and the like), whether to assert or deny a moral proposition, must abide by certain agreed rules for their use . The only recourse of someone who fails to accept the rules, she wrote, would be “to abjure altogether the use of moral terms”.

In her view the distinction between statements of fact and value is based on two false assumptions: first, that any individual may, properly, base his beliefs about matters of value on premises which no one else would recognise as valid; secondly, he may refuse to accept another’s evaluation because their standards are not ones he accepts.

The first assumption is refuted, she argued, by an appeal to the basic idea that words, while they may not have an intrinsic meaning, do have a proper use: “It is surely clear that moral virtues must be connected with human good or harm, and that it is quite impossible to call anything you like good or harm.” Against the second assumption, she put forward the tentative idea that a moral question can be argued down to a point which reveals an “ultimate end” beyond which it is ridiculous to inquire, as it does not make sense to ask: “Why do you hate pain?” or “Why do you want to feel happy?”

In her book Natural Goodness (2001) Philippa Foot rebutted the philosophical distinction between descriptive meaning (which deals with facts) and evaluative meaning (dealing with moral qualities). In the case of living things — plants, animals and humans — she argued that evaluations simply state a special class of fact. Natural goodness can apply as well to physical parts of living beings as to their actions: to say that a tree has good roots, in her analysis, is logically the same as to say that a person performs a good deed. The underlying logic has to do with the assumption that good roots or good actions are those that are necessary in the lives of individuals of that species. Moral goodness should therefore be understood as the natural flourishing of humans as living beings.

And here is an excerpt from her obituary in The Guardian:
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."

Non-cognitivist theories (Hare's prescriptivism, Ayer's emotivism, more recently Allan Gibbard's expressivism), which variously deny that moral statements can be true or false, render moral judgment so subjective and capricious that, strictly speaking, it might just as well extend to "the wrongness of running round trees right-handed or looking at hedgehogs in the light of the moon".

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. 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.

In Human Goodness (a paper included in the book Natural Goodness, 2001), Foot wrote that wisdom and temperance are important virtues, but that often we revere those who lack them and live chaotic lives, which, she added, is probably not "just romantic nonsense". "Of course what is best is to live boldly, yet without imprudence or intemperance, but the fact is that rather few can manage that." She, however, was one of those few.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times obituary by William Grimes:
In her early work, notably in the essays “Moral Beliefs” and “Moral Arguments,” published in the late 1950s, Ms. Foot took issue with philosophers like R. M. Hare and Charles L. Stevenson, who maintained that moral statements were ultimately expressions of attitude or emotion, because they could not be judged true or false in the same way factual statements could be.

Ms. Foot countered this “private-enterprise theory,” as she called it, by arguing the interconnectedness of facts and moral interpretations. Further, she insisted that virtues like courage, wisdom and temperance are indispensable to human life and the foundation stones of morality. Her writing on the subject helped establish virtue ethics as a leading approach to the study of moral problems.

“She’s going to be remembered not for a particular view or position, but for changing the way people think about topics,” said Lawrence Solum, who teaches the philosophy of law at the University of Illinois and studied under Ms. Foot. “She made the moves that made people see things in a fundamentally new way. Very few people do that in philosophy.”