The year 2020 marks the centenary of the birth of one of modern Britain’s most brilliant philosophers, and also one of its least well-known. When Philippa Foot died ten years ago, on her ninetieth birthday, she left behind only one monograph, Natural Goodness, published when she already an octogenarian. A mere 115 pages long, it packs in more insight than almost every other of her contemporaries’ much more voluminous oeuvres.
Foot argued for a conception of morality that avoided both belief in some transcendental source of value, such as God, and the standard naturalist alternative which claimed moral judgements are at root nothing more than expressions of approval or disapproval, without any objective grounding.
For Foot, the needs which human beings objectively have as natural animals give us reasons for action which are independent of our desires. That a child needs looking after, for example, is a fact, one which generates reasons for a parent to provide that care. As she put it to me when I interviewed her in 2002, 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.’
It’s a deceptively simple argument that goes against much of what 20th century moral philosophy took for granted. Foot defended her position not with clever logic or fiendish thought experiments but by getting her reader to attend carefully to what human beings are and what we are doing when we reason practically.
There’s an irony in this since Foot is responsible for devising the ‘trolley problem’, a moral conundrum that has obsessed academe ever since. A runaway train is heading towards a tunnel where it will kill five people. Do you pull a lever and divert it into another where only one will be killed? The thought experiment has become something of a runaway train itself, generating endless debate and countless counter-examples. Sometimes it seems philosophers are hypnotised by the problem for its own sake whereas for Foot it was only interesting to the extent that it helped us to think about the importance of intention and action in morality.
Her brand of philosophy is sadly rare in an academic culture that rewards what Owen Flanagan has called ‘Rubik’s cube minds’. ‘I have a certain insight into philosophy, but I’m not clever at all,’ Foot told me. ‘I often don’t find arguments easy to follow.’ She kept her intellectual eye on the perennial issue at stake, not on what everyone else happens to be saying right now. ‘I don’t read a lot, and I can’t remember all these books and all their details,’ she said. ‘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.’
No one in today’s academic culture of performance metrics could have a career like Foot’s. ‘I didn’t ever have to publish. In fact in those days I think people asked those who published a lot why they did so.’
That is philosophy’s loss. As I said when I interviewed her, ‘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.’ Natural Goodness proves my point.
Image © Bill Foot