Philippa Foot, George Eliot and Ethics

The philosopher Philippa Foot wrote an essay in the early seventies called “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” It’s a philosophical exploration of the kind of ideas I’ve been fumbling towards in previous posts: the unsatisfactory nature of ethical theory and the importance of how we feel about ethics. In this post I’m going to just summarize the essay in brief.

What’s a hypothetical imperative anyway? The term originated with Kant, who argued that you could express all morality as a set of ‘imperatives’: statements about what we ought to do. “Do not murder” is an imperative. “Never have sugar in your coffee” is also an imperative.  Kant thought there were two kinds of imperatives. “Never have sugar in your coffee” is a hypothetical imperative, which means it depends upon some goal that you may or may not have. You could flesh it out as “never have sugar in your coffee if you don’t like sweet coffee.” If you don’t agree with the second half – maybe you like mochas – then the imperative doesn’t apply to you. “Do not murder,” on the other hand, is a categorical imperative: it applies to you regardless of your personal goals. Whatever your preferences are, whatever your situation is, Kant thought that “do not murder” was a solid rule. In Foot’s words, a categorical imperative is something with “a reason-giving force”.

With that philosophical background under our belts, what does Foot have to say about imperatives? She thought that categorical imperatives simply don’t exist. According to her, it simply doesn’t make sense to talk about any proposition that gives us reasons to act that are independent of our personal desires. In other words, morality is composed only of hypothetical imperatives: we perform kind and compassionate acts because we really care about the people around us, not because we accept the force of some external moral argument.

Despite her co-opting of Kant’s terms, this view is as far from Kant as it’s possible to get. In fact, Kant thought that somebody who acted morally because they cared about other people was less moral than somebody who hated other people but forced himself to act morally anyway! In the absence of a categorical imperative, Kant thought that all our motives were necessarily selfish motives and as such suspect. He would judge somebody who acted morally out of love to be simply gratifying their selfish desires. This kind of view Foot categorized as “psychological hedonism.”

The fundamental difference between Foot and Kant is psychological. Kant saw people as basically selfish; Foot believes that people do have genuinely altruistic motives. Foot calls Kant’s view a “faulty theory of human nature,” arguing that most of us act morally because we care about others. If we didn’t, she says, no Kantian argument could convince us otherwise.

Foot’s theory is pretty scary if you’re an ethicist with a theoretical mind. If our ethics is based on how we feel, what if we stop feeling one way and start feeling another? Feelings are famously ephemeral, after all. Foot has two responses to this. The first is tough shit, that’s how it is anyway. Categorical imperatives are an illusion, and pretending otherwise won’t help. The second response is a little more optimistic: most of us, she says, have these moral sentiments thoroughly ingrained in us. Here she sounds a bit like George Eliot when Eliot argues for the general benevolence of human nature.

What are the consequences of Foot’s view? Do we have to discard the rest of our ethics? What does it say about the recent attempts of scientists to encroach on the domain of ethics?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s