philo

Intervista a Philippa Foot

Ripropongo qui questa meravigliosa intervista ad una delle più grandi filosofe di tutti i tempi.

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) Written by: Julian Baggini   |    Appears in: Issue 21 of TPM

As a tribute to Philippa Foot, whose death aged 90 was announced yesterday, we are republishing an interview with her that first appeared in our fifth birthday issue in 2003

philippafoot200What is it that makes Philippa Foot one the best and most important moral philosophers of our age? Is it because she possesses a razor-sharp mind and the kind of analytic skill that enables her to dissect an argument at twenty paces? Not according to Foot. “I’m not clever at all,” she says. “I often don’t find arguments easy to follow.” Is it her great scholarship? “I don’t read a lot,” she confides. Is it because of the sheer volume of her output? Not when the hardback editions of her three published books would take up only two inches of your shelf space. Is it because she reflects the broader zeitgeist of contemporary ethical theory? Not when she has stood so resolutely opposed to the popular tides of “expressivism” and the dogma of the is/ought gap, of which more later.

What makes Foot stand head and shoulders above almost all her peers is that her writing is thoughtful, insightful and is never about anything which is not important or interesting. Her work bears the hallmark of many of philosophy’s best in that the reader can always gain something valuable by reading it, even if she profoundly disagrees with its conclusions.

Remarkably, Foot was already octogenarian when her first ever monograph, Natural Goodness, was published last year. This book represents the culmination of a lifetime of thought in ethics, which has been brought together in two collections Virtues and Vices (containing essays from 1958-1977) and Moral Dilemmas (1977-2001). The intellectual route to Natural Goodness can be traced through the two collections, but the book represents the first ever bringing together of the various threads of her work into a mature, single, vision of morality.

One way of getting a first grip on Foot’s ideas is to start with her claim that morality begins with a recognition of the objective needs human beings have, needs which are of the same kind as those of plants and non-human animals. This is what “natural goodness” means: “What any living thing needs for its particular life,” as she puts it. “Not individual needs – these could be anything such as a way out of prison – but what a living thing of that species needs given the habitat it lives in, which is much more determined for plants and other animals than it is for human beings.”

Foot thus bases her ethics on a recognition that facts about the world provide reasons for action. “That children are born helpless and have to be taught to learn language and so on,” she explains, “means already that children have to be looked after.” Crucially, these reasons are “objective and have nothing to do with preferences: some people love children and some people hate them. That doesn’t make any difference.”

To those unfamiliar with recent moral philosophy this might seem unobjectionable, obvious even. But in fact it represents a direct challenge to two dogmas of ethical theory: the so called “is/ought gap” and what Foot calls the “speaker-relative” account of moral judgement. Take the is/ought gap first. Those who maintain the existence of this gap, which is probably the majority of philosophers since Hume first described it in the eighteenth century, say that we can never derive any moral conclusions from merely descriptive facts. So, for example, from the fact that someone is suffering it can never follow logically that they ought to be helped. In order to get from the fact to the moral judgement you need to add something else, a general moral principle, for example, that suffering ought to be relieved. But this principle too cannot be derived from the facts alone.

How does Foot then bridge this gap? “I’ve just done it in this discussion,” she says. “From the fact that human children are not born able to do things, from this fact that they are born helpless, I get an ought: that they are to be looked after. Human beings need to look after children. That’s an example of an is that gives an ought.”

This move can appear baffling, because it just seems to be a denial of the is/ought gap rather than a genuine counter-example. That is to say, someone who believes in the is/ought gap will just reply that the ought doesn’t logically follow. A person who says that they know children are born helpless and need help but they don’t see why they ought to give it may be morally culpable but their logic is not at fault.

Foot, however, is not one ever to say something patently ridiculous, and to understand why her reply satisfies her and many of her admirers we need to consider her account of practical rationality: how we reason with regard to action. Here, Foot borrows a novel move suggested by her late friend and colleague Warren Quinn, to whom Natural Goodness is dedicated. Quinn’s thought is that you need a conception of goodness in order to undertake practical rational deliberation at all: it is “a necessary condition of practical rationality”.

“Practical rationality is taking the right things as reasons,” says Foot, “so ‘the child is hungry’ is a reason to feed it, and ‘smoking will kill you’ is a reason for not taking up smoking.”

Compare this to the alternative orthodox view, which rests on an assumption that prudential self-interest is unproblematic as a reason for action, but to do anything other than for self-interest presents a problem for practical rationality. Foot, in contrast, argues that practical rationality of all descriptions has to start by taking something as a reason for action and there is no logical reason why prudential self-interest is more of a reason to act than the needs of a child.

Her view can be summed up in the idea that moral reasoning is about practical rationality that recognises the existence of objective human needs as reasons for action. What Foot thinks most significant about this is that it stands opposed to what she calls speaker-relative accounts of ethics found in theories such as emotivism, prescriptivism and subjectivism. She explains the contrast between her view and the speaker-relative one in some detail.

“Emotivism, expressivism and so on (all of them I lump together) think that there is something special in a moral judgement in the way that there is something special about an order. It’s a special bit of language, like an avowal or a wish, or a greeting, although it isn’t any of those. These philosophers all ask what must the circumstances be for a moral word to be used by a speaker? What must he desire, what must he want others to do, what must he feel; all of which are questions about the speaker. That is the right kind of question to ask about an order or a greeting, but I don’t think that that sort of account is right for morality at all. I say that what we’ve got to dig out in order to understand a moral judgement is a particular use of the word ‘good’, and that is nothing to do with what the speaker wants. It’s not dependent on conditions in the speaker, so mine is not a speaker-relative account.

“So I’m really talking about a general concept of ‘good’ that applies to plants, animals and human beings. You can’t understand what I mean when I say I think it is acting badly to break a promise until you first understand that ‘good’ is used of living things in a particular way. It’s not like ‘oh good’ which is speaker relative and it’s not like ‘good vacuum cleaner’ either, which really depends upon the interests of people who use these things. But it belongs only to living things.

“So first I identify this very general sense of good then I try and explain it by its relation to the particular way in which things of that kind, living species, need to do just to survive. You’re defective if you don’t do that. A hedgehog that ran from a predator would be defective, a deer that made itself as small as possible would be defective. That doesn’t mean that just by chance it might not be the one that survives but nevertheless that’s not the way in which a deer defends itself.

“I’m moving in upon this quite alternative account which has no truck with conditions in the speaker. And when we’re thinking about plants and animals we’re not worried about objectivity at all. It’s an objective fact that a fleeing hedgehog would be a defective hedgehog.”

To show that a person’s own present desires and wishes are not needed to generate an ‘ought’ Foot introduces the example of a teenager who we say ought not to start smoking. “The teenager might query our ought, but wouldn’t they be wrong? We take it as a reason and that’s what the ought is saying: that they do have a reason to stop. They might say ‘I don’t care now’ and they are rejecting your ought, but they’re wrong because they do have a reason to stop. This case makes it easier to see that there is something strange about thinking that an ought depends on feeling, desire or whatever. Right now they don’t have any such feelings and doesn’t that destroy the idea that an ought, a value, needs a desire?”

This may seem an irrelevant example because the decision to smoke or not smoke is does not seem to be a moral but a prudential one. “Prudence, as wisdom, is a virtue you know,” she retorts. “It’s a very modern thing to try and distinguish the moral.” Critics risk missing the point of Foot’s approach if they bring with them the presumption that, if we talk about reasons for action, there are going to be fixed points at which we suddenly will move from the factual to the prudential and then into the moral. On Foot’s view, that doesn’t happen.

“Absolutely,” she agrees when this is put to her. “Human beings are defective if their sight is bad so they can’t see other human beings or recognise faces, for instance. But they’re also defective if they don’t look after their children. But the thought people have is, ‘Ah but now we’ve gone to the moral because it’s not just about keeping oneself alive it’s keeping one’s children alive’.”

Foot argues that her view provides an objective morality. That rings alarm bells for many contemporary ethical theorists who think the idea of an objective morality is an outmoded dream. The objectivity is provided by the fact that human needs are real, regardless of our desires or preferences. So what about the objection that what is needed for a human life doesn’t seem to be something you could hope to get an objective answer to in the way that you can for a plant, for example, simply because humans have a range of different desires, motivations, interests and so on?

“We live in different cultures. The habitat is much more varied than it is for other living things, and the conditions in which human beings can live given their ability to make clothes, and houses, heat and so on, is obviously much greater,” she replies. “And given we are emotional beings, we have a whole lot of very subtle interests: the family is not just for reproduction. People want different things and there are different cultures. But that is not in favour of subjectivity at all. It only means that you’ve got to differentiate. Certain things are absolutely certain – that the young are helpless and so are the old – they don’t just die suddenly, they get ill and infirm and need help. These are facts for all human beings. They don’t do well being very lonely. When Freud said that love and work are the only two real therapies I think that he said something quite generally true about human beings.

“So neither the fact that there is a differentiation in the detail of what is needed in a particular society, culture of even climates, nor the fact that things are not going to be cut and dry makes for subjectivity. If it moves towards relativism it’s just a kind of cultural relativism. It isn’t basic relativism as beloved by first-year students.”

Foot is confident that differentiation is sufficient to accommodate the variety of human preferences and that only “irreconcilability in principle” would threaten her objective framework. Difficult cases pose no such threat – “It doesn’t matter in the least that there is not an answer to every question.” But she cannot see any compelling examples of such irreconcilability. “The idea that because people have different preferences you can move to the conclusion that there must be a radical breakdown of discussion about good and bad action – that’s exactly what I deny and can’t let past. Some people care about art and some people don’t. Some people want public money spent one way and some people don’t. You don’t conclude ‘so subjectivism’.”

Some of Philippa Foot’s closest philosophical friends have been Roman Catholics. The late Elizabeth Anscombe, her colleague and inspiration, was one, as are the Dummetts. Foot herself, however, is a “card-carrying atheist”. I asked her about the role of fundamental, non-philosophical convictions in the formation of philosophical beliefs.

“Both Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Dummett are much, much better philosophers than me,” she says. “You can be a jolly good philosopher and still not be in their league. I once asked Michael, ‘What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?’ And he said, ‘How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.’ That I take it is the clue, that they think they know that and could as little deny it as that I am talking to someone now.”

In her own case, she carries with her a fundamental conviction of another kind. “I’ll tell you a bit of biography. During the war I went to London to work as an economist as war work, and then I came back and started to work on philosophy. I was just really getting going on moral philosophy when the photographs and films of Belsen and Birkenau came out, and it’s really not possible to convey to people who are younger what it was like. One would have said such a thing on that scale could not happen, human beings couldn’t do this. That was what was behind my refusing to accept subjectivism even when I couldn’t see any way out. It took a long time and it was only in the last fifteen or twenty years that I managed it. But I was certain that it could not be right that the Nazis were convinced and there was no way that they were wrong and we were right. It just could not be.

“That’s why I could never accept Charles Stevenson, say, whose emotivism implies that in the end that you simply express one attitude and I express another. Sure there’s all that about finding out the facts and so on, but in the end it is that. I was just not going to swallow that, in spite of really only being able to chip away at it. That is what has driven all my moral philosophy.”

It would be hard for a young philosopher starting out today to have a career like Foot’s, since there is now so much pressure on them to publish as much as possible. “I didn’t ever have to publish,” admits Foot. “In fact in those days I think people asked those who published a lot why they did so. One had a job for life and a college stood behind one.”

Foot’s work could only have come out of this kind of environment where thoughts are given time to gel and develop. Whereas a lot of papers published in philosophy today are good at the mental gymnastics, they don’t necessarily get at the nub of the issue. There’s a certain perceptiveness in Foot about what is at stake and what is important. Is that mode of philosophising under threat from the way that academic philosophy is going now, when people have to produce more and more quickly?

“Yes, I think so, “ says Foot, “with these awful official reviews there’s much too much out. Philosophy is also going in a slightly technical direction, I think. I couldn’t have done that. I’m not clever at all. I have a certain insight into philosophy, I think. But I’m not clever, I don’t find complicated arguments easy to follow.”

Foot also shows a healthy disregard for the need to show a wide command of the current “literature” on any given subject. “I can’t remember all these books and all their details. I think I’ve done philosophy through discussion and reading just a few great things over and over again. I couldn’t tell you about some philosophers, such as Spinoza. I’m very uneducated really. But one learns from one’s pupils, graduate students and I learned from marvellous colleagues in UCLA.”

Foot talks fondly of her long conversations with colleagues such as Elizabeth Anscombe (“She must have been putting to me the questions that Wittgenstein put to her. Practically every day we talked for hours. I was incredibly lucky.”) If she feels fortunate then so must her interlocutors, since she is a generous, thoughtful and insightful discussant.

“It’s a very peculiar and rather painful way of doing philosophy,” she says, “because I really am terribly ignorant about much philosophy, I have a terrible memory and I don’t do it in quite the way clever people who have very good memories and are splendid scholars do it.”

For which we should say, thank goodness for that, since Foot’s distinctive approach has yielded one of the most distinctive and valuable contributions to contemporary moral philosophy.

Philippa Foot – On goodness
What is it that makes Philippa Foot one the best and most important moral philosophers of our age? Is it because she possesses a razor-sharp mind and the kind of analytic skill that enables her to dissect an argument at twenty paces? Not according to Foot. “I have a certain insight into philosophy, but I’m not clever at all,” she says. “I often don’t find arguments easy to follow.” Is it her great scholarship? “I don’t read a lot, and I can’t remember all these books and all their details; I’m undereducated really,” she confides. Is it because of the sheer volume of her output? Not when the hardback editions of her three published books would take up only two inches of your shelf space. Is it because she reflects the broader zeitgeist of contemporary ethical theory? Not when she has stood so resolutely opposed to the popular tides of “expressivism” and the dogma of the is/ought gap, of which more later.
What makes Foot stand head and shoulders above almost all her peers is that her writing is thoughtful, insightful and is never about anything which is not important or interesting. Her work bears the hallmark of many of philosophy’s best in that the reader can always gain something valuable by reading it, even if she profoundly disagrees with its conclusions.
Remarkably, Foot was already octogenarian when her first ever monograph, Natural Goodness, was published last year. This book represents the culmination of a lifetime of thought in ethics, which has been brought together in two collections Virtues and Vices (containing essays from 1958-1977) and Moral Dilemmas (1977-2001). The intellectual route to Natural Goodness can be traced through these two collections, but the book represents the first ever bringing together of the various threads of her work into a mature, single vision of morality.
One way of getting a first grip on Foot’s ideas is to start with her claim that morality begins with a recognition of the objective needs human beings have, needs which are of the same kind as those of plants and non-human animals. This is what “natural goodness” means: “What any living thing needs for its particular life,” as she puts it. “Not individual needs – these could be anything such as a way out of prison – but what a living thing of that species needs given the habitat it lives in, which is much more determined for plants and other animals than it is for human beings.”
Foot thus bases her ethics on a recognition that facts about the world provide reasons for action. “That children are born helpless and have to be taught to learn language and so on,” she explains, “means already that children have to be looked after.”
Crucially, these reasons are “objective and have nothing to do with preferences: some people love children and some people hate them. That doesn’t make any difference.”
To those unfamiliar with recent moral philosophy this might seem unobjectionable, obvious even. But in fact it represents a direct challenge to two dogmas of ethical theory: the so called “is/ought gap” and what Foot calls the “speaker-relative” account of moral judgement. Take the is/ought gap first. Those who maintain the existence of this gap – which is probably the majority of philosophers since Hume first described it in the eighteenth century – say that we can never derive any moral conclusions from merely descriptive facts. So, for example, from the fact that someone is suffering it can never follow logically that they ought to be helped. In order to get from the fact to the moral judgement you need to add something else, a general moral principle – for example, that suffering ought to be relieved. But this principle too cannot be derived from the facts alone.
How then does Foot bridge this gap? “I’ve just done it in this discussion,” she says. “From the fact that human children are not born able to do things, from this fact that they are born helpless, I get an ought: that they are to be looked after. Human beings need to look after children. That’s an example of an is that gives an ought.”
This move can appear baffling, because it just seems to be a denial of the is/ought gap rather than a genuine counter-example. That is to say, someone who believes in the is/ought gap will just reply that the ought doesn’t logically follow. A person who says that they know children are born helpless and need help but they don’t see why they ought to give it may be morally culpable but their logic is not at fault.
Foot, however, is not one to say something patently ridiculous, and to understand why her reply satisfies her and many of her admirers we need to consider her account of practical rationality: how we reason with regard to action. Here, Foot borrows a novel move suggested by her late friend and colleague Warren Quinn, to whom Natural Goodness is dedicated. Quinn’s thought is that you need a conception of goodness in order to undertake practical rational deliberation at all: it is “a necessary condition of practical rationality”.
“Practical rationality is taking the right things as reasons,” says Foot, “so ‘the child is hungry’ is a reason to feed it, and ‘smoking will kill you’ is a reason for not taking up smoking.”
This can be compared to the alternative, orthodox view, which rests on an assumption that prudential self-interest is unproblematic as a reason for action, but to do anything other than for self-interest reasons presents a problem for practical rationality. Foot, in contrast, argues that practical rationality of all descriptions has to start by taking something as a reason for action and there is no logical reason why prudential self-interest is more of a reason to act than the needs of a child.
Her view can be summed up in the idea that moral reasoning is about practical rationality that recognises the existence of objective human needs as reasons for action. What Foot thinks most significant about this is that it stands opposed to what she calls speaker-relative accounts of ethics found in theories such as emotivism, prescriptivism and subjectivism. She explains the contrast between her view and the speaker-relative one in some detail.
“Emotivism, expressivism and so on (all of them I lump together) think that there is something special in a moral judgement in the way that there is something special about an order. It’s a special bit of language, like an avowal or a wish, or a greeting, although it isn’t any of those things. These philosophers all ask, ‘What must the circumstances be for a moral word to be used by a speaker? What must he desire, what must he want others to do, what must he feel?’ all of which are questions about the speaker. That is the right kind of question to ask about an order or a greeting, but I don’t think that this sort of account is right for morality at all. I say that what we’ve got to dig out in order to understand a moral judgement is a particular use of the word ‘good’, and that is nothing to do with what the speaker wants. It’s not dependent on conditions in the speaker, so mine is not a speaker-relative account.
“So I’m really talking about a general concept of ‘good’ that applies to plants, animals and human beings. You can’t understand what I mean when I say I think it is acting badly to break a promise until you first understand that ‘good’ is used of living things in a particular way. It’s not like ‘oh good’ which is speaker relative and it’s not like ‘good vacuum cleaner’ either, which really depends upon the interests of people who use these things. But it belongs only to living things.
“So first I identify this very general sense of good, then I try to explain it by its relation to the particular things which beings of that kind, living species, need to do just to survive. You’re defective if you don’t do that. A hedgehog that ran from a predator would be defective, a deer that made itself as small as possible would be defective. That doesn’t mean that just by chance it might not be the one that survives but nevertheless that’s not the way in which a deer defends itself.
“I’m moving in upon this quite alternative account which has no truck with conditions in the speaker. And when we’re thinking about plants and animals we’re not worried about objectivity at all. It’s an objective fact that a fleeing hedgehog would be a defective hedgehog.”
To show that a person’s own present desires and wishes are not needed to generate an ‘ought’ Foot introduces the example of a teenager who we say ought not to start smoking.
“The teenager might query our ought, but wouldn’t they be wrong? We take it as a reason and that’s what the ought is saying: that they do have a reason to stop. They might say ‘I don’t care now’ and they are rejecting your ought, but they’re wrong because they do have a reason to stop. This case makes it easier to see that there is something strange about thinking that an ought depends on feeling, desire or whatever. Right now they don’t have any such feelings and doesn’t that destroy the idea that an ought, a value, needs a desire?”
A possible objection here is that the existence of a reason doing something – for example, stopping smoking – does not seem to be sufficient to generate the conclusion that one ought to do that thing. What then would make it a sufficient reason?
“It’s that the reason is the kind of reason that if you don’t do it then you’ll be acting badly,” Foot replies. “This is about the difference between the moral judgment that really is a must, and you’ll be acting badly if you don’t act in accordance with it, and the moral judgement that says it would be good to do a certain thing, that there is a good reason for doing it, but we haven’t got this compulsion.
There is some circularity here, and that’s because there is a connection of meaning between ‘should’ used in this sense and the idea that you act badly if you don’t act in this way. So if I say something like you should give up smoking, then I’m saying that you are acting badly, imprudently, if you don’t give up. So there are these connections of meaning. However, I’m not basing one on the other; I’m just saying that there is this connection.
“It is genuinely complicated because there are a lot of things, such as giving all your money to Oxfam, that you are not bad if you don’t do them. But there are other cases where if you say you should do something, then you’re saying you’re bad if you do not. However, we mustn’t lose sight of the important point here, which has to do with the demystification of “should” and “ought” by taking them to mean to do what is good for one’s health, family, future, children, and country perhaps. At no point does it seem that you have to talk about speakers’ attitudes.”
If then, for example, you confront a smoker in their forties, and they just say they don’t want to give up, they’re aware of the risks, but they are prepared to accept them and carry on smoking – are they making a mistake?
“It depends on what they say,” Foot replies. “If they follow Hume and say that it is not contrary to reason to prefer one’s own lesser good to one’s greater good, then they are making a mistake, it is contrary to reason. But it’s a different matter if the person says ‘I’ll jolly well go on doing it and you’re not going to stop me. You haven’t told me anything that is going to affect me.’ So it would depend on what is said as to whether a mistake is being made or not.”
The example of stopping smoking might strike some people as being redundant, since the decision to smoke or not to smoke does not seem to be a moral but a prudential one. “Prudence, as wisdom, is a virtue you know,” Foot retorts. “It’s a very modern thing to try to distinguish the moral.” Critics risk missing the point of Foot’s approach if they bring with them the presumption that, if we talk about reasons for action, there are going to be fixed points at which we suddenly move from the factual to the prudential and then into the moral. On Foot’s view, this doesn’t happen.
“Absolutely,” she agrees when this is put to her. “Human beings are defective if their sight is so bad that they can’t see other human beings or recognise faces, for instance. But they’re also defective if they don’t look after their children. But people tend to think, ‘Ah, but now we’ve gone to the moral, because it’s not just about keeping oneself alive it’s keeping one’s children alive’.”
Foot argues that her view provides an objective morality. This rings alarm bells for many contemporary ethical theorists who think the idea of an objective morality is an outmoded dream. The objectivity is provided by the fact that human needs are real, regardless of our desires or preferences. So what about the objection that what is needed for a human life doesn’t seem to be something you could hope to get an objective answer to in the way that you can for a plant, for example, simply because humans have a range of different desires, motivations, interests and so on?
“We live in different cultures. The habitat is much more varied than it is for other living things, and the conditions in which human beings can live given their ability to make clothes, and houses, heat and so on, is obviously much greater,” she replies. “And given we are emotional beings, we have a whole lot of very subtle interests: the family is not just for reproduction, people want different things and there are different cultures. But that is not in favour of subjectivity at all. It only means that you’ve got to differentiate. Certain things are absolutely certain – that the young are helpless and so are the old – they don’t just die suddenly, they get ill and infirm and need help. These are facts for all human beings. They don’t do well being very lonely. When Freud said that love and work are the only two real therapies, I think that he said something quite generally true about human beings.
“So neither the fact that there is a differentiation in the detail of what is needed in a particular society, culture, or even climates, nor the fact that things are not going to be cut and dry, makes for subjectivity. If it moves towards relativism it’s just a kind of cultural relativism. It isn’t basic relativism as beloved by first-year students.”
Foot is confident that differentiation is sufficient to accommodate the variety of human preferences and that only “irreconcilability in principle” would threaten her objective framework. Difficult cases pose no such threat. “It doesn’t matter in the least that there is not an answer to every question.” But she cannot see any compelling examples of such irreconcilability. “The idea that because people have different preferences you can move to the conclusion that there must be a radical breakdown of discussion about good and bad action – that’s exactly what I deny and can’t let past. Some people care about art and some people don’t. Some people want public money spent one way and some people don’t. You don’t conclude ‘so subjectivism’.”
Some of Philippa Foot’s closest philosophical friends have been Roman Catholics. The late Elizabeth Anscombe, her colleague and inspiration, was one, as are the Dummetts. Foot herself, however, is a “card-carrying atheist”. I asked her about the role of fundamental, non-philosophical convictions in the formation of philosophical beliefs.
“Both Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Dummett are much, much better philosophers than me,” she says. “You can be a jolly good philosopher and still not be in their league. I once asked Michael, ‘What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?’ And he said, ‘How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.’ That I take it is the clue, that they think they know that and could as little deny it as that I am talking to someone now.”
In her own case, she carries with her a fundamental conviction of another kind. “I’ll tell you a bit of biography. During the war I went to London to work as an economist, and then I came back and started to work on philosophy. I was just really getting going on moral philosophy when the photographs and films of Belsen and Birkenau came out, and it’s really not possible to convey to people who are younger what it was like. One would have said such a thing on that scale could not happen, human beings couldn’t do this. That was what was behind my refusing to accept subjectivism even when I couldn’t see any way out. It took a long time and it was only in the last fifteen or twenty years that I managed it. But I was certain that it could not be right that the Nazis were convinced and that there was no way that they were wrong. It just could not be.
“That’s why I could never accept Charles Stevenson, say, whose emotivism implies that in the end you simply express one attitude and I express another. Sure, there’s all that finding out about the facts and so on, but in the end it is just that. I was not going to swallow this, in spite of really only being able to chip away at it. So there is something that has driven all my moral philosophy: the Holocaust, and the shock that it was to someone in their twenties that it could have happened.”
What then would Foot say to the person who claims to be an emotivist, and yet says that they are vehemently opposed to the Holocaust; that they consider it a barbarism. Is there something not true in what they’re saying?
“No, they’ve just got their philosophy wrong,” she replies. “Somehow we must be able to show that the Nazis were just wrong, that they were making mistakes, saying things that weren’t true. I don’t think the emotivists have done much harm, whereas certainly I’ve been accused of doing a lot of harm because I encouraged people to think there was objectivity and then when they discovered there wasn’t, they would throw morality out of the window.”
It would be hard for a young philosopher starting out today to have a career like Foot’s, since there is now so much pressure on them to publish as much as possible. “I didn’t ever have to publish,” admits Foot. “In fact in those days I think people asked those who published a lot why they did so. One had a job for life and a college stood behind one.”
Foot’s work could only have come out of this kind of environment where thoughts are given time to gel and develop. A lot of papers published in philosophy today are good at the mental gymnastics, but they don’t necessarily get at the nub of the issue. There’s a certain perceptiveness in Foot about what is at stake and what is important. Is that mode of philosophising under threat from the way that academic philosophy is going now, when people have to produce more and more quickly?
“Yes, I think so,” says Foot, “with these awful official reviews there’s much too much out. Philosophy is also going in a slightly technical direction, I think. I couldn’t have done that. I’m not clever at all. I have a certain insight into philosophy, I think. But I’m not clever, I don’t find complicated arguments easy to follow.”
Foot also shows a healthy disregard for the need to show a wide command of the current “literature” on any given subject. “I can’t remember all these books and all their details. I think I’ve done philosophy through discussion and reading just a few great things over and over again. I couldn’t tell you about some philosophers, such as Spinoza. I’m very uneducated really. But one learns from one’s pupils, graduate students and I learned from marvellous colleagues at UCLA.”
Foot talks fondly of her long conversations with colleagues such as Elizabeth Anscombe (”She must have been putting to me the questions that Wittgenstein put to her. Practically every day we talked for hours. I was incredibly lucky.”). If she feels fortunate then so must her interlocutors, since she is a generous and insightful discussant.
“It’s a very peculiar and rather painful way of doing philosophy,” she says, “because I really am terribly ignorant about much philosophy, I have a terrible memory and I don’t do it in quite the way clever people who have very good memories and are splendid scholars do it.”
For which we should say, thank goodness for that, since Foot’s particular approach has yielded one of the most distinctive and valuable contributions to contemporary moral philosophy.

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Categorie:philo, segnalazioni

6 replies »

  1. Jeżeli oczekujesz, iż powiem ci o strasznych wynikach zdrowotnych palenia, o
    tym, iż palacze wydają fortunę na przestrzeni całego życia na papierosy,
    iż jest owo obrzydliwy zaś obmierzły uzależnienie dodatkowo
    iż jesteś pacan oraz masz słabą wolę, to muszę cię rozwiać
    złudzenia. Ta taktyka wcale mi nie pomogła, i jeśli miała pomóc tobie, owo już
    aż do tej pory przestałbyś palić. Moja metoda, którą nazywam EASYWAY (ang.
    : banalny postępowanie – przyp. tłum.) nie działa przez
    to. Niektóre rzeczy, o których będę RzucaniE PaleniA powiedział, mogą sprzedać ci się odrobinę wiarygodne, jednakże,
    kiedy skończysz czytać tę publikację, nie ale wręcz w nie uwierzysz,
    jednakże będziesz się zdumiewać, kiedy mogłeś kiedy tylko mieć na myśli inaczej.

    Istnieje fałszywe przekonanie, że sami decydujemy o tym,
    że chcemy palić. Palacze w tym samym stopniu decydują, że
    chcą egzystować nałogowcami, w jakim pijanica decyduje się,
    że chce utrzymywać się alkoholikiem, bądź narkoman, iż chce się zdeterminować od heroiny.
    Prawdą jest, iż sami decydujemy, żeby porwać te zupa,
    eksperymentalne papierosy. Ja także czasem decyduję się,
    tak aby pójść do kina, mimo to nie postanowiłem zgonić całego życia w kinie.
    Zastanów się przez przelotnie nad swoim życiem. Czy
    kiedykolwiek stwierdziłeś, iż w niektórych momentach
    swego życia nie możesz nie posiadać się z radości posiłkiem bądź spotkaniem
    towarzyskim

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