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Death of a grande dame: can we build morality on the foundation of natural goodness?

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) was one of the greatest moral philosophers of the 20th century, but she insisted that she was “not clever at all” and “very uneducated.” She was greatly influenced by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, whom she described in an interview as “more rigorously Catholic than the Pope,” but she herself was a card-carrying atheist. She was also one of the founders of Oxfam, a life-long socialist, and the grand-daughter of U.S. President Grover Cleveland. To the public, she is best known for her formulation of the trolley problem, a moral dilemma which she first raised in a now-famous essay. The recent death of such a great philosopher should make us pause and ask: what did she live for? Foot finally revealed what drove her in an interview in 2003: a life-long quest to show that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. Throughout her academic life, she was passionately opposed to subjectivism in ethics. The story of how she got into moral philosophy is a fascinating one:

“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… That is what has driven all my moral philosophy.”
(Excerpt from an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, originally given in 2003 and republished on October 6, 2010.)

Foot made several attempts to answer the question “Why be moral?” on rational grounds, and in this post, I’d like to discuss her last and most systematic attempt. In 2001, Foot wrote a book called Natural Goodness. She has given an account of the central thesis of her book in interviews. What I propose to do is quote a few choice excerpts and then throw the floor open to readers. Do you think Foot’s naturalistic ethics succeeds in establishing that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong?

Foot on natural goodness

“I’m explaining a notion that I have called ‘natural goodness’. An admired colleague of mine, Michael Thompson, has said of my work that I believe that vice is a form of natural defect. That’s exactly what I believe, and I want to say that we describe defects in human beings in the same way as we do defects in plants and animals. I once began a lecture by saying that in moral philosophy it’s very important to begin by talking about plants. This surprised some people!

“What I believe is that there are a whole set of concepts that apply to living things and only to living things, considered in their own right. These would include, for instance, function, welfare, flourishing, interests, the good of something. And I think that all these concepts are a cluster. They belong together.

“When we say something is good, say one’s ears or eyes are good, we mean they are as they should be, as human ears ought to be, that they fulfil the function that ears are needed for in human life… There’s nothing wrong with our eyes because we can’t see in the dark. But owls’ eyes are defective if they can’t see in the dark. So there’s this notion of a defect which is species-relevant. Things aren’t just good or bad, they’re good in a certain individual, in relation to the manner of life of his or hers or its species. That’s the basic idea. And I argue that moral defects are just one more example of this kind of defect.

“So let’s take plants. A plant needs strong roots, and in the same sort of way human beings need courage. When one is talking about what a human being should do, one says things like, “look, he should be able to face up to danger in certain circumstances, for his own sake and for the sake of others.” But this is like saying, “an owl should be able to see in the dark, should be able to fly” or “a gull should be able to recognize the sound of its chick among all the cacophony of the cliff.” And if you think of it in this way then you’re not going to think that there’s a gap between facts and evaluation – between description of facts, such as ‘owls hunt by night’, that’s a description of fact, and another description, such as ‘that owl’s got weak eyesight; it’s doesn’t seem to be able to manage in the dark’. These are the central notions. And that’s why I thought we should start moral philosophy by talking about plants.”
(Excerpt from an interview with Philosophy Now magazine, originally given in Autumn 2001 and published in August/September 2010.)

Foot on deriving an “ought” from an “is”

“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.”

“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….”

“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… It’s an objective fact that a fleeing hedgehog would be a defective hedgehog.”
(Excerpt from an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, originally given in 2003 and republished on October 6, 2010.)

Foot on how an “ought” can exist independently of our desires

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.”
(Excerpt from an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, originally given in 2003 and republished on October 6, 2010.)

Foot on Nietzsche

“In my book [Natural Goodness] I take Nietzsche on. I say, ‘Look, what you’re suggesting might be possible for some race of beings, but not for humans. I know you think that if only people will read you and believe you, human beings will become quite different, but I don’t believe a word of that. You want to judge actions not by their type, by what is done, but by their relation to the nature of the person who does them. And that is poisonous.” When we think of the things that have been done by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, what we have to be horrified at is what was done. We don’t need to inquire into the psychology of these people in order to know the moral quality of what they did….It’s wrong-headed to leave aside, as he does, the question of what human beings as such need, or what a society needs in the way of justice, fastening instead on the spontaneity, the energy, the passion of the individual agent…’”
(Excerpt from an interview with Philosophy Now magazine, originally given in Autumn 2001 and published in August/September 2010.)

I should add that while Foot insisted that some moral norms were grounded in human nature, she also recognized that other norms were culture-relative. I would also urge readers to have a look at this interview she gave to The Harvard Review of Philosophy in 2003.

And now I’d like to ask readers: what do you think of Foot’s ethics? Can we build an ethic on the foundation of natural goodness?

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20 Responses to Death of a grande dame: can we build morality on the foundation of natural goodness?

  1. “I want to say that we describe defects in human beings in the same way as we do defects in plants and animals”

    OK just say one finds some moral failures to be defects from an agreed objective standpoint. Is one then able in some way to inforce a non defective morality on those who are morally defective?

    What if that idea of it being OK to enforce a morality on another is itself the expression of a moral defect in humans?

    Although her moral reasoning seems to offer objectivity, it lacks an expression of the essential nature of individual humans as beings with choice.

    It is the existence of actual conscious choice that creates morality in humans. To describe morality in terms like physical non normative defects misses this.

  2. 2

    How do Foote’s categories of “natural moral good” and “defect” really advance the ball for the atheist? Aren’t they nothing more than new labels for very old and well recognized categories?

    Consider Foote’s example of the helpless human child. In some societies in history unwanted children were left out to die. Foote says a natural moral good of “helpless children should be cared for” exists and this practice was therefore defective. But are these categories not different names for moral and immoral or good and evil? I could just as easily say that helping babies is good/moral and leaving them to die is evil/immoral. How do Foote’s terms “natural moral good” (instead of good/moral) and defective (instead of evil/immoral) advance the analysis? They do not. Giving the old categories new names as if that explains how the categories exist objectively is not helpful.

    The problem for Foote, as for any atheist, is that it is obvious that the categories exist objectively. Killing helpless babies is wrong. That is an objective fact, and Foote knows this. Her problem is that she cannot account for the existence of the fact on her premises. Either God exists and has established an objective moral order or he does not exist and no objective moral order exists. Who is Foote to say that those societies who left babies out to die were “defective.” She is faced with the Grand Sez Who. Maybe an ancient Spartan would say Foote is defective for wanting those babies to live. Who is to judge between them? God and only God can do that.

  3. Barry,

    How do Foote’s categories of “natural moral good” and “defect” really advance the ball for the atheist? Aren’t they nothing more than new labels for very old and well recognized categories?

    Yep, they’re nothing but foote notes to established categories. ;)

  4. VJT: Do you think Foot’s naturalistic ethics succeeds in establishing that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong?

    BA:Her problem is that she cannot account for the existence of the fact on her premises.

    There is a difference between establishing and grounding, is there not?

    —-
    Most denials of the objectivity of morality implicitly assume the very thing they deny. This implicit self-refutation has many aspects, but the one I want to focus the reader’s attention to is this one: What is one of the conclusions (generally not explicitly spoken, but there nonetheless) of most every argument denying moral objectivity? It is this: one ought not believe or claim that morality is objectively real.

  5. I hardly ever comment on these ‘moral’ threads. I suppose why I don’t is that having gone through what I went through with my drinking and using, it is totally inconceivable for me that one should presuppose that he, or she, would have the wherewithal within themselves to presuppose a moral foundation that arises solely from self, or even from within the society in which one resides. Perhaps I am fortunate to have lost all, material and ‘spiritual’ resources, in such drastic manner, so as to clearly see my absolute necessity for God and for the atoning sacrifice He has worked through Christ, so that not only may I live somewhat decently in this life but that I may also be redeemed and perfected to eternal life, as may all who humbly accept Christ into their lives.

  6. Survey Time!

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you all for your comments about naturalistic ethics, and thank you for your personal testimony, bornagain77.

    I think I can see where you are coming from, Barry. If there is an objective moral law, then it has to have teeth. Without a God, it has The “Sezoo?” objection to atheistic morality has real force.

    Anyway, I have some questions for you all. I’m curious to see what your responses are. Other readers are welcome to answer this mini-survey too.

    1. You’re at a zoo, looking at a chimpanzee which is seated on the ground. Next to you is an atheist biologist (think of someone like David Attenborough or Richard Dawkins). The biologist remarks, “A defective specimen, I’m afraid. She suffers from polio. She can’t move around in the way that a chimpanzee should be able to. Whenever she walks, she drags her leg.” Has the biologist used the words (a) “defective” and (b) “should” in an appropriate sense?

    2. The biologist continues, “She’s also a defective mother. She has never been shown how to take care of an infant, so she doesn’t know how to take care of one as a mother chimp should. She gave birth last year, but she didn’t want anything to do with her baby. We had to find another mother for it.” Has the biologist used the words (a) “defective” and (b) “should” in an appropriate sense?

    3. The biologist suddenly makes a candid remark about his/her personal life. “I have a daughter who’s on heroin. She’s a defective mother, too. She doesn’t take care of her baby in the way that a mother should.” Has the biologist used the words (a) “defective” and (b) “should” in an appropriate sense?

    4. Imagine a pagan (Greek or Roman) philosopher who believes in a God (or gods) who takes an interest in human affairs, rewards good and punishes wrongdoing – say, someone like Cicero. This philosopher has never heard of the Ten Commandments or any other moral revelation. Would this philosopher be justified in confidently declaring that human beings should not kill, commit adultery, lie or steal, and that they should honor their parents?

  7. Barry,

    Sorry. Minor typo. The words “it has” before “the ‘Sezoo?’ objection” are superfluous.

  8. 8
    William J. Murray

    To apply the term “defective” on anything, one must be aware of a teleological purpose that is inherent in the thing itself.

    According to atheistic materialists, nothing in itself has a teleological purpose, even that which humans create for a purpose. If a human creates a hammer, what lies in the human mind as the “purpose” of the hammer is just a happenstance, coincidental “feeling” generated by blindly bumping molecules.

    A description by physics of the hammer is that it is what it is, and every use is just an effect from prior physical causes. A human can no more impart “purpose” into a thing than gravity can impart purpose onto a rock tumbling down the mountainside.

    Is there a set of molecules in the hammer that describe the hammer’s “purpose”? If there is a set of objectively-existent molecules that describes the mother’s “purpose”, those molecules are exhibited by causing her to act however she happens to act. If it is the natural purpose of the mother to neglect her child, that is what she will do.

    Foot is making a categorical mistake; she thinks that she is getting an ought from an is, but she is stealing “purpose” from something other than what is in order to gain her “ought”. What is, is a mother that neglects her child; proper “ought from is” would mean that the mother should neglect her child, because that is what is.

  9. Let me see now. Cardinals are quite stunning to look at. This tells me that humans either should be quite stunning –if they possibly can—or at least have the common decency to do whatever they need to do to make themselves stunning. Of course it is not necessary to turn oneself bright red, although I don’t see how an occasional visit to the tanning booth can hurt.

    Trees have leaves that shake in the wind before a storm. What does this indicate but that humans should be nervous when a storm is brewing? If they are not nervous and forget to shake their leaves, they could get blown over, God forbid (or whoever). Similarly, the moon waxes and wanes. This strongly suggests to the fertile moral imagination that humans should get fat and then slenderize on a periodic basis. I certainly do. And this is why we see a man in the moon.

    An “is” can easily become an “ought.” A man—not THIS man, mind you—picks his nose, for there is something in it (his nose, that is) that bothers him, and he has fingers, and, well, he can. Let us propose, then—and may no one accuse us of being unreasonable, for this is no onerous “ought”—that men ought to pick their noses, at least in private. Women ought not to pick their noses, for that is not ladylike. But that’s another subject.

    Speaking of women, flirting is most certainly an “is.” Flirting can be shown to be good by the light of nature, since it is the product of an evolutionary need to be inculcated into the patriarchal clan. It’s a survival tactic; otherwise one would not see so many rich, balding old men with stunning young women dangling from their somewhat attenuated arms. As day follows night, therefore, flirting is an “is” that ought to be accounted an “ought.”

    And no one should think that these “oughts” are merely fashioned from desire. Women do not WANT to flirt, any more than men want to pick their noses. It is clear to them from a rational perspective that flirting is right, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the straightest line to a BMW and a house in the Hamptons is a wealthy man.

    Clearly it is reason that rules in the ethical choice to flirt, for what women actually desires a man who is old enough to be her grandfather? Before long, he will be shriveled up and noisily aspirating oxygen at night while she’s trying to sleep. But reason, not desire, tells her that he cannot live forever. Reason makes her willing to sacrifice short-term desires for the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

    Reason looks upon nature and sees that it is good. Reason knows not whence this goodness came from, frankly, for nature came from nothing, and nothing certainly cannot be said to be something. But it is not reasonable to say that nature is not good, since its goodness is plainly evident to the mind; and from this goodness reason can fashion an objective ethical existence.

    Several examples have been given. Care to join the chorus?

  10. William J. Murray,

    I agree with your comment:

    To apply the term “defective” on anything, one must be aware of a teleological purpose that is inherent in the thing itself.

    You then go on to assert that according to atheistic materialists, nothing in itself has a teleological purpose, as everything is the product of molecular interactions. I think it’s important to tread very carefully here, because not all atheists deny the reality of teleology. Even a diehard atheistic evolutionist can cheerfully admit that hearts are for pumping blood, and that they contribute to the good (or flourishing) of the organism.

    In elucidating her concept of natural good, Philippa Foot remarked:

    What I believe is that there are a whole set of concepts that apply to living things and only to living things, considered in their own right. These would include, for instance, function, welfare, flourishing, interests, the good of something. And I think that all these concepts are a cluster. They belong together.

    Foot’s point (and here I would agree with her) is that living things have a good of their own. While the actual pumping of the heart can be described in purely mechanical terms, the way in which it contributes to the flourishing of the organism-as-a-whole cannot.

    However, Foot is quite clear that an “ought” cannot be derived from any old “is” statement; a universal “ought” can only be derived from statements about the needs of different species of organisms. Nothing normative follows from the sociological fact that some mothers neglect their children; but Foot contends that the biological fact that a baby needs to be fed does have ethical implications: it implies that those who have the closest ties to the baby (the parents) ought to feed the baby, if they are able to do so. In a similar fashion, one can deduce a variety of “oughts” from the knowledge of the biological and psychological needs of various kinds of organisms.

    Does Foot’s derivation of “oughts” work? Well, if you were to attempt to derive “oughts” from anything, the needs of different species would certainly be a good place to start. Having identified these needs, you would then have to decide who (if anyone) is responsible for satisfying them: typically, those with the closest biological ties to the individual in question, who are also in a position to be able to satisfy those needs.

    Now, a selfish person might choose not to advert to these natural “oughts” – even those relating to members of his/her family. Foot would condemn such a person; but the great limitation of atheistic morality is that it is incapable of demonstrating that acting morally is in the best interests of all parties concerned, even in the long run. Theistic morality can guarantee this, since the Ultimate Reality (God) is by nature morally good, the universe must be designed in such a way that virtue is rewarded and vice punished, in the end.

    For my part, I think that the intellectual tussle between theists and atheists on the relationship between God and morality stems from the fact that they both make valid argumentative points. I believe that atheists have a valid point when they argue that: (i) we can know what is right and wrong (at least in broad outline) without having to explicitly assume the existence of God at the outset; and (ii) the moral rightness of an action does not derive from any arbitrary decree of a Deity.

    On the other hand, theists are right when they argue that: (iii) if (per impossibile) there were no God, right and wrong would no longer have any meaning, with the consequence that “all is permitted” (Dostoyevsky); (iv) God’s wanting us to perform an action does make it morally right.

    These apparently contradictory positions can be reconciled once we realize that God is someone who by nature loves perfectly – in other words, God is necessarily and essentially good. God’s moral commands spring not from God’s whims, but from God’s nature.

    Finally, I would also like to point out that there are really TWO moral arguments for God’s existence: one based on the existence of objective moral norms in the world; the other, based on the fact that our minds are able to discern these norms with a high degree of reliability – something which we would have no reason to expect if materialism were true.

  11. allanius

    I take it that the point of your highly amusing post was that an “is” can become an “ought” rather too easily, on Foot’s logic. I’m not so sure. Flirting (to use an example of yours) might satisfy the material needs of some women on some occasions, but the kinds of statements Foot uses to generate universal norms are those describing the needs of a species (in our case, Homo sapiens). And all we can say here is that women with children need a man who is willing to make a life-long commitment to taking care of them. This fact may make flirting rational (as you rightly remark), but we can only talk about moral obligations in those situations where a couple have already made a life-long commitment. For instance, we can say that a man should stand by the woman whose charms induced him to make a commitment, “in sickness and in health” and until death do them part. For if honoring your vows is not ethical, then nothing is.

  12. Isn’t there a problem with using analogies from the plant kingdom? After all, eugenicists pointed to plants and how proper breeding could produce better plants, and defective varieties could be eliminated. From this, many Darwinists made a vulgar analogy with human breeding, i.e., the removal of defective races and creation of better races.

    Is there a class of good is-ought morals separable from bad is-ought morals? How would we know which ones are good or bad without a pre-existing moral code that provides objective right and wrong?

    What about abortion, homosexuality, polygamy, pederasty, bestiality, voting Democrat? How does Foot’s naturalistic ethics deal with these species of immorality?

  13. I am a regular “onlooker” at UD as kairosfocus would say.I am greatly thankful to you all posting and commenting here. I have learned so much from you.
    In this thread you are writing about ethics very abstractly.
    Look at the following links. They show concretly what amoral atheistic totalitarism means:
    http://www.rferl.org/content/R.....05847.html

    http://picasaweb.google.com/ci.....jeSentjur#

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lojze_Grozde

    http://tvslo.si/predvajaj/grof......51084587/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloysius_Ambrozic

    Who is “defective” here and who is not?

  14. I like this version of the trolley problem better:

    “Your gruppenfuehrer has ordered you to drive a truckload of Jewish people to a place from which no Jewish inmate has returned alive. If you disobey, then you will be shot. What do you do?”

    It’s all well and fine to concoct moral dilemmas on the basis of invented situations, but the results are philosophical self-abuse. we live in the real world, and our moral thinking should be tested against events drawn from that real world.

  15. Vern Crisler,

    You make a very interesting point when you write:

    Isn’t there a problem with using analogies from the plant kingdom? After all, eugenicists pointed to plants and how proper breeding could produce better plants, and defective varieties could be eliminated. From this, many Darwinists made a vulgar analogy with human breeding, i.e., the removal of defective races and creation of better races.

    Very briefly: calling a malformed plant defective does not entail that human eugenics, or even plant breeding, is morally justifiable. All that follows is that a plant of that kind should not be deformed like that. In order to justify artificial selection, we have to assume that we are entitled to breed plants in the first place – in other words, that interfering with Nature is morally justifiable.

    A eugenicist might argue that be eliminating “defective” humans, he/she is bettering the human race. But in order to justify this conclusion, he/she first needs to show that “the human race” is a morally significant entity, with rights of its own which take precedence over those of its members. I would argue that this is a nonsensical way of thinking, which is based on a false reification of the human species.

    I’ll say more anon regarding Foot’s views on the subjects you raise.

  16. Cita:

    Thank you.

    Your documentation will be helpful in addressing a current crime (though it is much less awful than those of the grandfathers).

    GEM of TKI

  17. Vern Crisler,

    You ask:

    What about abortion, homosexuality, polygamy, pederasty, bestiality, voting Democrat? How does Foot’s naturalistic ethics deal with these species of immorality?

    Abortion

    You might like to have a look at Foot’s famous essay, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect (originally published in The Oxford
    Review
    , Number 5, 1967). It is a carefully argued piece, which is well worth reading. Foot does not spell out her own views, but she certainly takes the moral status of the unborn child very seriously.

    Foot addressed the question of abortion again in her essay, Killing and Letting Die. For a summary of her position, please click here, and for an outline of how she refuted Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “Unplugging the Violinist” argument, please see here.

    Foot insists that there is a disanalogy between terminating a pregnancy and Thomson’s case of unplugging a violinist with a life-threatening disease who has been hooked up to your body while you were asleep. A few relevant quotes:

    There are rights to noninterference, which form one class of rights; and there are also rights to goods or services, which are different. And corresponding to these two types of rights are, on the one hand, the duty not to interfere, called a ‘negative duty’, and on the other the duty to provide the goods or services, called a ‘positive duty’…

    Typically, it takes more to justify an interference than to justify the withholding of goods or services…

    According to my thesis, the two cases [terminating a pregnancy vs, unplugging Thomson's violinist - VJT] must be treated quite differently because one involves the initiation of a fatal sequence and the other the refusal to save a life…

    [In Thomson's case] what matters is that the fatal sequence resulting in death is not initiated but is rather allowed to take its course…

    The case of abortion is of course completely different. The fetus is not in jeopardy because it is in its mother’s womb; it is merely dependent on her in the way children are dependent on their parents for food. An abortion, therefore, originates the sequence which ends in the death of the fetus, and the destruction comes about “through the agency” of the mother who seeks the abortion.

    However, I can’t find anything in Foot’s writings where she explicitly espouses the proposition that the fetus is an unborn child with human rights. She appears to have been uncertain on this issue.

    Anyway, for the most part, Foot seems to have been “on the side of the angels” regarding the issue of abortion.

    Homosexuality

    I happened to come across a book review by Susan Eilenberg which mentioned that Foot had an affair with Iris Murdoch in the late 1960s. By itself that proves nothing, though; the question is whether she subsequently regretted it.

    However, in her book Natural Goodness (page 109), Foot refers in passing to homosexuality as a sexual practice concerning which we have “revised former evaluations” because our old moral beliefs about its baneful influence “have come to many of us to seem mistaken.” I think it is fair to conclude that Foot’s views on this moral issue were permissive.

    Other moral issues

    As far as I know, Foot never wrote about “polygamy, pederasty, bestiality.”

  18. Cita

    Thank you very much for the links you provided.

    Here is Foot on Stalin’s concentration camps in her essay on “Euthanasia” in Virtues and vices and other essays in moral philosophy (1978, Blackwell; reprinted by OUP, 2002):

    Comparing Hitler’s concentration camps with those of Stalin, Dimitri Panin writes that in the latter the method of extermination was made worse by agonies that could stretch out over a period of months.

    Death from a bullet would have been bliss compared with what many millions had to endure while dying of hunger. The kind of death to which they were condemned has nothing to equal it in treachery and sadism.

    Foot, it seems, was under no illusions about the atrocities spawned by Communism.

  19. Ilion,

    You wrote, “Most denials of the objectivity of morality implicitly assume the very thing they deny.” You noted that all such denials imply that “one ought not believe or claim that morality is objectively real.” True, but this is not a contradiction because there are two different kinds of oughts in view here: moral oughts, rational oughts. The implied statement is a rational ought, so it cannot be cited as an implicit self-contradiction because the person is saying one has a rational obligation to affirm moral subjectivity. Only if they were saying, “Because there are no moral absolutes, one ought not force their morality on other people,” would they be committing a self-contradiction.

  20. My opinion on the use of “defective” is it really reduces any living being to a very strict opinion. Almost like analyzing a perfectly drawn line on paper. One deviation and it’s “defective”.

    If a monkey walks with a limp because of a problem, it might have a defective aspect by definition, but other parts may be in perfect working order.

    So to me using the term broadly is more of a social expression that would only confuse anyone trying to understand you.

    Morals are really just things that consider the fate of others by your own actions. Maybe studying natural laws – the same laws that lead to the US constitution might be the reason why Philippa uses the words “natural moral good”. It sounds smart. If you talk that way as a friend to me instead of being frank, I’d look at you funny. You mean right and wrong….right?

    But “defect” is a very shallow term that doesn’t specifically explain one particular issue. It just paints everything in a very rigid light based on her opinion.

    She won’t consider for example an owls hearing possibly becoming amplified if its eyes were injured. So as long as the owls brain adjusts, it could still survive because of the built-in redundancy.

    Then there’s her ideas on people having or not having courage. If everyone had super courage and had no fear of anything. Without fear of something, such as retribution or pain – why not do whatever you feel courageous about? Like climbing in a volcano with lava spewing out? You could say that without a variety of personality traits, society wouldn’t function well at all. And I don’t think she’s considering others in her philosophy…something you need to really understand true morals.

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