Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Foot, Philippa Ruth (1920–)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Foot, Philippa Ruth (1920–)

Foot, Philippa Ruth (1920–)

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Philippa Foot was born in Owston Ferry, Lincolnshire, the granddaughter of Grover Cleveland, President of the USA. She was educated mainly at home before studying PPE at Somerville College, Oxford (1939–42). After receiving an MA in 1947, she became Somerville’s first philosophy tutorial fellow in 1949 and Vice-Principal in 1967. In 1969 she resigned her tutorial fellowship and became a senior research fellow of Somerville (and subsequently an honorary fellow), and spent most of her time in the USA. She held positions at Cornell, Berkeley, MIT, Princeton, New York and Stanford. She settled at UCLA in 1976 and was appointed the first holder of the Gloria and Paul Griffin Chair in Philosophy in 1988, which she held until her retirement in 1991, whereupon she became an emeritus professor. She was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a founder of Oxfam. Her major works are two collections of essays, Virtues and Vices (2002; first published 1978) and Moral Dilemmas (2002), and a book Natural Goodness (2001). The year 1995 saw the publication of Virtues and Reasons, a Festschrift discussing her work which included contributions from many of the leading Anglo-American moral philosophers of the day.

Much of her philosophical worth derives from her attempt to put the ideas of virtue and vice at the centre of professional ethical thought, which, for too long, was dominated by talk of consequences and duties. Along the way she discussed many practical issues, chiefly abortion and euthanasia, as well as more theoretical concerns. Her writing was dominated by two interwoven themes. First, she consistently opposed non-cognitivist positions in ethics. Second, she was concerned with the relation between morality and rationality. She put the chief issue well herself.


The problem is to see how for every person and in every case it can be rational to follow moral edicts – in particular the demands of justice and charity – when these seem to clash with self-interest or desire. We want to be able to say that to act as justice or charity demands is to act rationally in every case, even in the tight corner. But how is this possible?.

 --(Virtues and Vices, p. ix)

I concentrate here on these two themes, sketching the attack on non-cognitivism first.

Moral judgements such as ‘Charity-giving is good’ have the grammatical form of descriptive judgements. It appears that one is trying to pick out some property of, in this case, an action. (Of course, one’s judgement can be correct or incorrect.) Non-cognitivism claims that this appearance is illusory and that moral judgements should not be interpreted as descriptions. Instead, such claims express attitudes (‘Hurrah! Charity-giving’), or commands (‘Give to charity!’), for example. The point is that there is little if any cognitive element to one’s judgement; people are not really trying to pick out some feature of the world. Non-cognitivists typically follow Hume and support their position by thinking about motivation. In normal cases moral judgements are accompanied by motivation of some strength. Yet one can report a fact, such as a table’s colour, without feeling any motivation. (Saying, ‘The table would look nice if blue’ is different. A good way to construe this is as an approval of the table’s becoming blue, and a desire for its being painted by someone will probably accompany one’s utterance.) So, it similarly seems odd to construe moral judgements as attempts to describe facts in the world.

Foot wondered whether non-cognitivism’s construal of moral judgements as combinations of an attitude plus some non-evaluative descriptive element was plausible (see, for example, ‘Moral Arguments’ and ‘Moral Beliefs’ in Virtues and Vices). Non-cognitivists are committed to analysing fairness as, say, ‘actions of a certain type that should be approved of’. But filling in the ‘actions of a certain type’ is essential and has to be done non-morally on pain of eschewing non-cognitivism. Yet even accepting that there can be odd cases, one cannot allow people to judge any sort of action as fair, such as the mere moving of a chair from here to there. There are certain limits as to what can be counted as fair or selfish. Contra non-cognitivism, Foot thought that these limits could not be explained non-morally. This idea has remained powerful to the present day.

We can now introduce the second main theme. From this point, Foot often considered what one should say about justice. In particular, she was interested in what one might say to an egoist who did not care for helping others. How can one get him to see that there is reason for him to approve of and perform just acts? In her earlier work Foot tried to imagine what an unjust life would be like and how deceitful one would have to be to maintain it. She thought that one could not pursue such a life and consistently remain happy. However, she became dissatisfied with this approach and, in 1977, published one of her most famous papers, ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ (Virtues and Vices). As we shall see, in Natural Goodness she returned to her earlier position, but her intellectual journey is worth examination.

In ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ she examined what Kantians and others assume to be the centrally defining quality of moral reasons, namely their binding nature. Her aim was to cast doubt on the (natural) thought that one is irrational if one does not pursue an action deemed right or just, even if the action does not match one’s desires, aims and projects.

To explain, consider the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. ‘If you want to visit Thoemmes Press, you should go to Bristol’ is a hypothetical imperative, whereas ‘Go to Bristol’ is a categorical imperative. The former functions as advice. It is up to any individual to decide what he should do in the end: either to go to Bristol or to fail to go to Thoemmes Press (perhaps because he does not want to visit Bristol). Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, do not give people this leeway since their force does not depend on some further end. There is something that one must do (go to Bristol), and if one does not, for whatever reason and assuming that one can, then one has gone wrong.

Moral imperatives are normally assumed to be the prime example of categorical imperatives and, relatedly, the binding, categorical, nature of moral imperatives is thought to be one of their centrally defining features. Imagine that an old lady needs help across a road. If we detailed the case suitably, one might think that morality dictates that one should help her. However, if morality is to have this binding quality, then it must be the case that one cannot absolve oneself of responsibility by saying that one does not care what happens to her. In fact, more fundamentally, if morality is to bind, then its reasons do not disappear just because they do not match our desires and projects. In this way, moral imperatives are inescapable. In other words, categorical imperatives do not depend for their force at all on individuals’ particular ends. And that matches our intuitive conception of morality. There are some things that one must do, whether or not one wants to.

In ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ Foot wondered whether morality is as special and unique as it is thought to be. After all, rules of etiquette involve words such as ‘should’ and ‘ought’, and they seem to bind in a way that the advice regarding one’s trip to Thoemmes Press does not. Foot gave this example.


The club secretary who has told a member that he should not bring ladies into the smoking-room does not say, ‘Sorry, I was mistaken’ when informed that this member is resigning tomorrow and cares nothing about his reputation in the club. Lacking a connexion with the agent’s desires or interests, this ‘should’ does not stand ‘unsupported and in need of support’; it requires only the backing of the rule. The use of ‘should’ is therefore ‘non-hypothetical’ in the sense defined.

 --(Virtues and Vices, p. 160)

Foot argued that someone who wishes to draw a distinction between etiquette and morality in order to preserve the latter’s special status might correctly point out that we normally think that the rules of etiquette are not binding on people, particularly in more trivial cases. We can reasonably ask why anyone should bother with etiquette at all, and some might, again reasonably, reject its imperatives. This takes us to the heart of things. Foot asked why the same was not true of morality. What is irrational with opting out of it? Why think it so special? Of course, one might feel that morality has a special binding force, but this could be the result only of how stringently its rules are enforced and taught, which in turn might be hangovers from our past, perhaps religious, ways.

The point of Foot’s criticism in ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ should not be misunderstood. She was not advocating moral relativism. She thought that people can still be accused of villainy and that one can still act justly towards others. Some just actions might demand much of the individual, and we should praise her and promote her as an exemplar. But we should replace talk of categorical imperatives with talk of ‘volunteering for the fight for justice’, and describe people more in terms of virtues, as the Greeks did. Her key point was that the epithets ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ should not be ascribed, respectively, to people who do good and bad things. Searching for a ‘fugitive thought’ to underpin morality’s special, inescapable status is futile.

Before discussion of Natural Goodness, it is important to distinguish various claims about reasons. The first is just (1) reasons exist and they demand something of people. This first thought is consistent with (2) some people do and some do not recognize moral dictates; and (3) amongst those who recognize moral dictates, some do and some do not follow them. Additionally, (4) amongst those people who follow them, some follow only because their various desires and personality traits match the dictates, whilst some follow through recognition of the dictates alone, irrespective of their characters. In ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ Foot attacked only (1) and this was undoubtedly the focus of her writing on rationality. But she sometimes confused this with the other ideas, particularly with the claim that if categorical imperatives exist then all who notice them are, by necessity, compelled to follow them. For example, at the end of ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, in support of her position she said,


[I]t is interesting that the people of Leningrad were not struck by the thought that only the contingent fact that other citizens shared their loyalty and devotion to the city stood between them and the Germans during the terrible years of the siege. Perhaps we should be less troubled than we are by fear of defection from the moral cause: perhaps we should even have less reason to fear it if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.

 --(Virtues and Vices, p. 167)

In this example it could still be that morality’s demands are categorical, but whether people decide to follow them is a contingent matter. However, despite this and the other neat distinctions above, it is worth acknowledging that the motivation for claiming that morality’s imperatives are categorical is surely weakened if we find that people adopt moral reasons only as a matter of contingency. Although conceptually possible, one would think that if there were moral categorical imperatives, then in some important cases all who acknowledged them would for that reason alone follow them.

For a long time after the publication of ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ the idea of morality having no less binding force than etiquette was known as ‘Foot’s position’. However, she abandoned the central idea soon after, during the early 1980s. She began to worry whether it was acceptable to think that moral dictates have no special binding force. In subsequent work she wanted to show how moral imperatives can be binding and that non-volunteers to the moral cause could be criticized legitimately, whilst showing that there was room for virtue that the Kantianism taught in much Anglophone philosophy of the time ignored.

Looking back, she often said that she was seduced into the position of ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ because she accepted the neo-Humean account of practical reasons. Imagine we ask why one performs action A. Perhaps one does it in order to do B. But why does one do B? And so on. To have ‘neat’ justification, such reasoning would have to end somewhere. The neo-Humean says, and Hume himself said, roughly, that what grants the final action in the chain as having value or reason-giving force is only that the agent desires it, or some such. Hence the neo-Humean suspicion of categorical reasons. Foot, in her mature work, typically responded with the following idea. (For example, see Natural Goodness, p. 22, and some papers in Moral Dilemmas that predate it.) Why cannot some chains, at least, be halted not because one likes Z, say, but because one recognizes that Z gives one a reason to act? Only someone in the grip of neo-Humeanism could fail to see this as an option. In relation to this idea she often used a thought due to Warren Quinn. We think that practical reasoning is a valuable thing in a human life. But why would it be valuable if it would be rational to pursue any desire, no matter how despicable or trivial? Why are desires and likes the only things that matter in the end? In her later writing Foot aimed to make good on these thoughts and show that there is a plausible alternative to neo-Humeanism. It is clear that here the two main themes in her work come together. Why think that the normative and the evaluative can be reduced to talk of what humans desire?

She described her mature position in Natural Goodness as a ‘species-dependent account of virtue’. Her general idea can be stated thus. Contra ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, there is something that grounds the importance and special nature of moral reasons, and that something is what is good for us as a species. The word ‘good’ here is key. She took from P.T. Geach the idea that ‘good’ is an adjective that is always context sensitive. That is, one can talk of goodness only when one is talking of something being good of its kind. So, one might consider good something that fulfils the ends that will allow a thing, such as a plant or a knife, to flourish or to perform the function for which it was designed. Although humans are more complex entities, the same basic principle applies. There are certain things that humans need and desire and which allow them to flourish. These are not just basic resources such as food and shelter, but also things such as human company and, further, a society based on trust in which rules of conduct are followed. What one has to find are ‘patterns of natural normativity’, ways of living and acting that are good for the species and which ground reasons for action. In ‘Rationality and Virtue’ she said,


As Elizabeth Anscombe has said about one aspect of justice – the keeping of promises a great deal of human good hangs on the possibility that one man can bind the will of another by getting him to promise to do something. As she says, the institution of promise-making and -keeping is ‘an instrument whose use is part and parcel of an enormous amount of human activity and hence of human good; of the supplying both of human needs and of human wants so far as the satisfaction of these are compossible … It is scarcely possible to live in a society without encountering it and even being involved in it.’

 --(Moral Dilemmas, p. 168)

This position raises a number of issues. I deal with five here. First, one might be suspicious of marking an explicit parallel between what is good for plants and animals, and what is good for humans. But it is clear that she was not committed to thinking that they are exactly the same. After all, she thought context to be important, so the good for plants can be similar to, but not identical with, the good for humans. And it does not seem that strange to claim that there are parallels regarding flourishing and the like.

Second, how can one identify the ‘good’ activities of the thing in question? How can they be distinguished from the thing’s harmful activities, or from its merely statistically prevalent activities? After all, a tree’s leaves often rustle and people often comb their hair. Is it important and key that they do and, crucially, do such things form the basis of reasons for action, especially in the human case? Foot appealed here to common sense. We know generally what things to look for. We know that pliability is good in a reed but a defect in an oak. And we also know that activities that seem innocuous and trivial at first sight reveal important social facts, such as chimps’ grooming activities. From a detailed study of the species in question one will be able to form a good impression of what is important and be able to distinguish ‘mere’ hair grooming from that which plays an important social role.

The third worry is whether, in the human case and no matter how detailed the account, we have something on which one can build categorical imperatives. Much of Foot’s response to this worry depended on thinking that morality is concerned with life’s fundamental aspects. (This can be seen as an elaboration of her earlier position, pre ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’.) If one asks the question ‘Why act justly?’ then the sort of thing one would say in response is ‘What if no one helped anyone; where would we be then?’ Justice is a form of rational behaviour because it is interwoven with so many aspects of our life. Asking this question leads us to reflect on the many ways in which humans act and think, what they typically feel for those close to them, and how they wish to be treated by strangers. In contrast, rules of etiquette are not so important (apart from when they also have moral aspects). It is harder to defend the rationality of replying to letters in the third person, if they are written in that form, because there are simply fewer and less significant aspects which render such rules important.

The following, fourth, worry is the most significant. Foot sought to derive categorical reasons from what is good for a species. But what about individuals? What reason do they have to act morally rather than selfishly, and what do we say to the, possibly egoistic, agent in the ‘tight corner’?

To begin, we should realize that we should not condemn all who fail to help others. Humans have many reasons for action and what we seek are good reasons that excuse their behaviour. Even for less complex creatures, such as chimps, Foot did not claim that all chimps should be grooming most of the time. Similarly, to take an example where justice is not involved, although it might be a natural defect in a female human not to be able to reproduce, for individual humans to choose not to reproduce need not be bad, and can be good, assuming that enough others are reproducing (Natural Goodness, p. 42).

Foot’s argument turns on an agent having to justify his actions to us. Some situations are straightforward. For example, someone might be physically unable to help or have to choose between helping X alone and helping Y alone. The key case, as mentioned, is where someone acts egoistically and fails to help because of his own self-interest. When we confront him he might say ‘What reason have I to do this?’ We then move to show him that practices of trust (if that is appropriate to the case) are good things to uphold and good for people to enter into. If he then accepts that his actions are bad but asks why he should refrain from performing bad actions (that is, actions considered under that description), Foot said we must show him the conceptual connection between acting rationally and acting well. If he continues to ask why acting rationally is good, then it is unclear whether he is asking for anything reasonable. He is asking for reasons where reasons must a priori come to an end (Natural Goodness, p. 65).

Responding to the egoist is thought to be a key part of any theory of moral reasons. Does this manoeuvre succeed? It is not so clear that it does. For a start it depends on the egoist accepting that the actions he performs are bad. He might well reject our view of what is good for the species. Even if he accepts that it is bad for others that he acts as he does, he can still regard his actions as good for himself, laugh off Foot’s worries and free ride. Perhaps, though, we are asking for too much. Foot is right in her identification of the place where reasons end and it seems too much to demand of a moral theory that it convert all egoists. What we might have the basis of is an account where one can convince neutrals that one’s criticism of egoists is legitimate.

There is one last issue I have left hanging. Foot criticized neo-Humeans and non-cognitivists for making use of only desires when explaining value and reasons. But she wished to make use of desire in some sense also. For her, reasons are based on what is good for us as a species, what it can be said that we approve of in a very broad sense. After all, we aren’t going to like certain diseases which debilitate many of a species’ individuals, nor social rules which cause people to be undernourished or severely depressed. One might wish to dismiss a neo-Humean about reasons who thinks that reasons exist for an individual only if they match what that individual wants. Yet modern day non-cognitivists (and anti-realists more generally) have gone to great lengths to construct inter-subjective notions of what it is right to do (independent of any individual’s preferences) although still based on the notion of what many of us approve and disapprove of. (Particularly prominent here are Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard.) How, then, does Foot’s account differ from this? In other words, we need a firmer grasp on the notion of a ‘desire’ or ‘want’ in her work and how it differs from modern types of anti-realism. One could sketch the start of an answer here. Foot’s position is essentially realist in that she takes our attitudes towards patterns of life as themselves a natural part of what it is to be human. One cannot choose such things. Our evaluative practices are already shaped and help make us the beings we are; they themselves are patterns of natural normativity. However, more detail is needed to make this thought convincing and modern non-cognitivists have made great strides in showing how their account can accommodate this thought whilst working with anti-realist resources.

Although this entry is partly critical, that is only because Foot raised such interesting questions in a notably pointed fashion. She set many good and central debates in motion. Her work deserves to be read and reread in subsequent generations.


Virtues and Vices (Oxford, 1978; 2nd edn, Oxford, 2002).

Natural Goodness (Oxford, 2001).

Moral Dilemmas (Oxford, 2002).

Other Relevant Works

(Ed. with intro.), Theories of Ethics (Oxford, 1967).

Further Reading

Blackburn, Simon, Ruling Passions (Oxford, 1998).

Hursthouse, Rosalind, Gavin Lawrence and Warren Quinn (eds), Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory (Oxford, 1995).