Friday, October 08, 2010

Philippa Foot and the purpose of moral philosophy

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot died earlier this week on her 90th birthday.
Her work was at the heart of the recent revival in virtue ethics.

I recall one of my own Philosophy lecturers (now a professor) saying that when she was an undergraduate studying moral philosophy involved listening to endless papers on "the meaninglessness of moral statements'.

Or as the obituary of Foot in Prospect described this long-fashionable view:
the non-cognitivist holds that ethical statements aren’t statements of fact at all. Therefore the statement “Torture is wrong” is neither true nor false, but rather an expression of attitude (ie “Boo to torture!”) or something like a command (‘Do not torture!’)
Such an approach to moral philosophy offered no help to anyone in deciding how to live their lives. But Foot's work offered a way out of this sterility. As Jane O'Grady's Guardian obituary said:
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".
Today the problem is not non-cognivitism but the insistence in expressing all moral judgements in terms of "rights". As I complained last year, that sort of language offers us no guidance as to how to live our lives either.

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