Saturday, November 24, 2012

Philippa Foot and Virtue Ethics

One of my increasing long term interests on this blog is virtue ethics, and at some point I will have to get around to reading Philippa Foot's essays on the issue.

It always seems the more you know about something, the more you realize how little you know. Just to thoroughly read up on contemporary ethical philosophy would be a work of years. So there are dozens of books in ethics I still have to read.

In the meantime, I read a nice obituary of her in the Guardian from two years ago:

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.

Suppose, she famously demanded in Moral Beliefs, that morality really were (a la Ayer and Hare) just a matter of each person commending and prescribing ways of acting that they happened to approve of – then why not commend a man who clasps his hands three times a day, or prescribes that this be done? No one would, of course, unless the clasping somehow had some relation to human wellbeing or harm, which is what morality must surely be about – "unless you change the facts of human existence".


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