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Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot has for decades been one of Oxford’s best-known and most original ethicists. Her groundbreaking papers won her worldwide recognition but at the dawn of the new century she has finally published her first full-length book. Editor Rick Lewis asked her about goodness, vice, plants and Nietzsche.

Your book Natural Goodness has recently been published. I wonder if you could tell us in a few sentences, what is the main idea that you want to get across in the book?

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. Which of course is different from the particular function that, say, the ears of a gull serve, because gulls have to be able to recognise the sound of their chick among thousands of others on a cliffface from some way out to sea, and our ears don’t have to be quite as good as that. Similarly, we don’t have to see well in the dark. 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.

But why say that owls should have good eyes, rather than just saying simply that an owl does have good eyes?

What’s very important, it’s really the centre of the whole thing, is the idea of a certain kind of proposition – unquantified propositions.

What do you mean by that?

Well, the quantifiers are all or some. I mean, you can say all rivers have water in them, or some rivers go down to the sea. But there are also some peculiar propositions, propositions which only apply to living things, which are neither all nor some. And this kind of proposition really is about the standard; it’s about how it should be. It takes one towards what I have called ‘natural goodness’. For example, we say “humans have thirty two teeth.” Not all humans do, in fact, but we have defective teeth if we don’t have thirty two. Either we’ve never had the full complement or we’ve lost some. Elizabeth Anscombe put out a very important article about this kind of proposition, called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ which was published in Mind I think in the 1950s. She didn’t make a great deal out of it but a lot of people refer to it now.

The thought is, that first of all there is a difference in the way we talk about living things and non-living things. Just leave aside artifacts – they’re a bit like one and a bit like the other. I’ll put that aside.

Rivers are interesting because they’re natural things and they have a pattern of development through the seasons as living things do, and yet you cannot talk about a river as being defective. Of course it can be defective from our point of view, from the point of view of irrigation or animals or something like that but not in its own right, not autonomously as I say.

Does that apply to non-living things like stars, as well? I’m thinking of an astronomer looking at a star and saying “this should have developed into a classic yellow class 2 star but it ran out of hydrogen and that prevented it from doing so.” So surely you can say ‘should’ in relation to them?

In the everyday use of language we do say “it should” meaning “it was about to” or “they usually do” or something like that. But that’s not the same ‘should’; that pattern doesn’t give you the kind of natural defect. This is what I’m identifying here – the difference between the two. That’s why, as I said, I think moral evaluation belongs within a whole set of concepts which apply to living things only. You see, rivers don’t flourish. Of course we can say the river is flourishing, but then it is a sort of jokey use. It doesn’t literally flourish, it doesn’t literally die. You could say the star died but you obviously would mean something different because they’re not members of a species of living things. I’m not in the least fighting the everyday language, but a star being born is very, very different to any member of a species being born. They haven’t got this pattern of one and then another of the same kind coming from it. Rivers don’t spawn rivers. They can’t literally be born or die, and there is in their case no species in which a function could be identified. Of course anything we make can have a function, but the parts of animals and their movements can have function quite apart from anything that we do or want. A spider’s web has a function. What’s the function of it? Is it to keep predators at bay? No, it’s to catch food. That’s a very straightforward, ordinary thing to say. That’s the function of it. Then the function of whatever part of the spider secretes sticky stuff is for making webs; and webs are for getting food. And food is for sustenance, to keep the spider going, and other things it will need in order to reproduce.

Is it only in the case of entities who have interests that you can have the idea of function from the point of view of the entity itself?

‘Interests’ I think is excellent. Rivers particularly, look so much like living things; they have seasonal progressions and so on. But they don’t have interests, as artifacts do not. I like that thought of yours!

This helps me to see how you look at human beings and say ‘well this is a good, well-functioning human being’, or ‘this is a human being who is defective in one way or another’. But if you’re actually talking to a human being who seems to you defective in some way, lacking courage in a situation where courage would be necessary, or lacking compassion, or some other virtue, then does your approach to moral philosophy allow you to cajole them or to give them reasons why they should behave differently? Or is it a purely descriptive kind of philosophy that allows you to say ‘You are a good person or a bad person,’ but then they might say, ‘well yes, such is life, I’m a bad person, there’s nothing to be done about it.’

Well, it’s a description, if I say to this person, “look, you have reason to do this.” That’s a description of his state, an absolutely blunt description. And if he says, “why do you say that?” I reply, “well what do you think having reasons is? What do you think you have reason to do?” And if he says, “well, I think I’ve only got reason to get what I want,” I say, “well, why actually do you think you have reason to do that – how do you establish that reason? And what about something that you don’t care about at the moment – like your own health maybe, like not getting cancer later on? Haven’t you got reason to give up smoking, let’s say, even though it’s not related to your present desires? You’re young, the risks don’t make you tremble but the dangers are still there.”

Now, probably, he will say, this chap, “all right, you’ve shown me that I’ve got a reason to give up smoking, but you haven’t shown me that I should do it.” I’d say, “what on Earth do you think ‘should’ means?” You lose the sense of ‘should’ if you go on saying “why should I?” when you’ve finished the argument about what is rational to do, what you’ve got reason to do. You can’t say “why should I?” Of course, you may very well say, “I’m bloody well not going to,” but that’s another matter.

So to say that you should do something is just to say that you have a reason to do something?

That’s right, certainly. ‘Should’ simply speaks of reasons – it’s not a kind of pushing or a word with an oomph or something for expressing my attitude, is it? If someone’s asking about why he should do something, he’s asking to be shown that he has a reason to do it. And so we have to explore the notion of having a reason.

But what if I say “what is the reason to take good care of children?” and you say “If you don’t look after children they will die.” And I say, “but what do I care about that? I’m so selfish that I don’t care what happens to the next generation.”

It’s like the man who doesn’t care what happens to his later years. The fact that he doesn’t care doesn’t mean that he is rational after all. At least, one would need a very special view, very Humean, about reasons for actions to think he doesn’t have a reason unless he cares. That’s why my old paper ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ was so wrong, as I did think that then.

Taking again the case of not smoking I don’t know if it’s the influence of your earlier paper on me but I can see those reasons as being rootable in hypothetical imperatives. “If you want to avoid getting cancer, then give up smoking.”

Yes, that’s right. I mean, there are some hypothetical imperatives. “If you want some more tea, then come and get it!”

Is that an example or an actual invitation to get some more tea?

Both! But there are also other imperatives that are not hypothetical.

And you do explore what it is to have a reason to do something. You talk in your book about practical rationality, and it becomes apparent that you have a broader idea of practical rationality than most philosophers. I wonder if you could tell us what ‘practical rationality’ is for you?

Practical rationality is being as one should be, being a non-defective human being in respect of those things done for reasons, which is a whole enormous area of life of course. I’m saying that practical rationality is goodness in respect of reason for actions, just as speculative rationality, rationality of thinking, is goodness in respect of beliefs on conclusions drawn from premises and so on. That has to do with what one should believe, as practical rationality has to do with what one should do, what one has reason to do. But then, you have to remember animals acting on instinct – and if they haven’t got the right instincts, as a lioness who doesn’t look after her cubs hasn’t got the right instincts, then they are defective. Human beings work on instinct too, of course, but also they’re taught to think. Practical rationality is essential to the life of human beings. It’s the way that they survive. If you couldn’t bring up a child to recognise reasons (and no doubt this is how it is with some severely defective children) you might get him to obey orders but not actually ever to say “So, I’ll do such-and-such.” And that means he would lack practical rationality. Getting “So I’ll do such-and-such” right: saying it when there is a genuine “so”, is related in a particular way to human life.

The first thing you teach your child, after all, is to not hang out of the window, not hold things over the fire, not to go near the fire and so on… “It’ll hurt me so I’ll go away.” “It’s dangerous so I won’t do it.” “It’s alight, so I’ll be careful of it.” “It’s high up so I might fall.” ‘So I won’t go there’ is the first things that children have to learn. All these “so’s”. And this is simply learning part of practical rationality.

But people think that sometimes there is a difficulty reconciling morality with rationality.

They do, but I believe it is a mistake to think you’ve got an independent idea of rationality; that there is one idea of rationality and one idea of morality and somehow you have to reconcile them. They’re not separate. From the beginning, if you like, morality leads rationality and not the other way round.

This is very important, because it’s just there that people think there is a problem. They think that I will be acting irrationally if, say, I lose a great deal through not being willing to cheat or something like that. But I want to ask “What’s your idea of rationality, if you think that you have somehow to reconcile morality with it? You haven’t got a full idea of rationality until you’ve got morality within it, as prudence is within it, going for what you need, looking out for danger and so on. These are all just different parts of practical rationality. Prudence is one part, the part that has to do with getting what you just happen to want is another part, and morality belongs here too. One shouldn’t think so differently about morality and prudence. Prudence should be thought of as one of the virtues. And why should it be thought that while prudence is certainly rational morality isn’t?

So one has to attack the idea that people have of rationality, when they think that rationality is something selfstanding with which it may be difficult to reconcile morality. I don’t think it is like that.

In your book, you devote a whole chapter to discussing the nature of human happiness. Would you like to tell us how that fits in with your overall approach to morality?

Yes, it’s very important indeed. Look at what a plant or an animal needs to do for the sake of its flourishing, so that it will have a good life in the sense that things will go well for it. The owl needs to see in the dark; things don’t go well for it if it can’t see in the dark. It starves, presumably. Because of this, the notion of flourishing is central to the book. What is beneficial to the owl is what allows it to flourish, or makes it more possible for it to flourish. And in the case of human beings that is straightforwardly happiness. You can’t say that human beings flourish if they just survive to a ripe old age and reproduce themselves. In an animal or a plant that may be enough for flourishing, but if a human being just does that with no happiness they must live a wretched life. So what is for a person’s good certainly must have some relation to their happiness. That’s why I had to tackle the problem of happiness, and I found it extremely difficult. It’s an articulated concept, it’s very complex. I tried to describe it, to spread it out, but I was left with a really difficult problem which I couldn’t solve and I indicated in the book that I couldn’t solve it. There is a really deep problem about the relation between virtue and happiness.

Can one describe a wicked person as a happy person? Of course one can, look how the wicked flourish like the bay tree. But there are some examples that make me stick with the idea that someone could say, “I cannot get happiness through wickedness, through acting badly, through selling my friends down the river. That’s not something that I could count as happiness and it’s not just that I wouldn’t be happy afterwards because I would be so ashamed. It would be true even if I was going to be given some drug, or if a happy brick would drop on my head after I’d done this thing so that I’d never remember that I’d done it.” Someone might well say, “nothing that I could get by really wicked actions, by desperate corruption, by betraying my friends, is anything that I would count as happiness, and anything that made me do it I would not count as having benefited me. I think here of the example of those I called the ‘Letter- Writers’ in my book. [see box below]

Such an example really does let us see the problem very clearly. We cannot totally divorce the ideas of virtue and of happiness. There seems to be a necessary conceptual connection between them. And this is suggested by the fact that while one of the Letter Writers might have said, “I’m willing to sacrifice all my future happiness”; they might rather have said, “Happiness is just not possible for me if I can only avoid death by going along with the Nazis, by betraying my comrades in the Resistance, or by obeying orders to join the SS.”

So they were pursuing happiness by choosing not to co-operate with the Nazis even knowing the terrible consequences of that, through avoiding even greater unhappiness?

No, just that they had to say, it’s too bad. Happiness is not my lot.

I see, yes of course.

I don’t want to say, as some do, that no loss that could only be avoided by acting badly is a loss at all. That seems to be goody-goody in some way and I want to insist might be a terrible loss.

I understand the problem now. It’s crazy to say that they weren’t suffering a loss in that situation.

They were losing everything. They said things that showed how much they were giving up. There were letters to their sweethearts, their children, who they would never see grow up, and their beloved wives. One of them I remember said something like, “How wonderful it would be just to smell the cooking in the kitchen.” You’ve got a vivid sense of this family life which he could have returned to, if he’d simply been willing to do what the Nazis’ wanted. And that’s why the problem is so difficult. I suspect that the answer is somehow in a connection between the concept of my goodness and my good that I haven’t got out. But anyway I haven’t got it out, so I can only say “This is really difficult… I’ll tell you what I can about happiness because flourishing, the human good, is central to this book, but at the moment I have to say that the case of the Letter-Writers shows a real difficulty.”

What is the nature of the problem – is it a question of just getting our concepts straight so that we don’t trip over them in some way?

Well, it is in some way. But it must be that there is some deeper notion of one’s good. I simply can’t do it, that’s all. I’m stuck.

Given that you argue that there is an objective basis for morality, that morality can be rooted in nature and facts about being in nature, how do you deal with the great disagreements that exist over morality between individuals and between cultures? Can your approach to morality settle those disagreements?

That’s a very important question. I wish I’d said more about it in the book. First of all there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be some indisputable moral facts. I’d take for instance one about looking after children. Someone who was cruel to children for fun, for his own pleasure, I think we could say that there was something wrong with that person, that he had a vice. It seems to me that that must be true in any civilisation, at any time that there were human beings. Torture, also, is never morally defensible; it’s something which in no circumstances could be justified. But let’s stick with this one judgement, about someone who is cruel to children, who torments them: that such a one has a defect, has a vice. Vice is a defect of the will, of the human will. And that judgement about those who abuse children seems to me to apply in any circumstances, in any age, in any culture. But, of course, virtues will take very different forms at different times, in different civilisations, different cultures. There’s no question about that. Courage for instance will take different forms, as different things will be needed. There’s so much difference in lifestyles in human beings, much more than there is, I imagine, among owls or any species of animals. And therefore, the moral judgements will not be exactly the same everywhere. What will be good in one culture will be bad in another just because the circumstances are so different. Different things are needed in these circumstances: by nomads, for instance, as opposed to city-dwellers, or people who live in great scarcity, or people surrounded by cruel enemies. What is right and wrong for different societies will often be different. Things will be justifiable in one situation and not in another. And, of course, one of the determining factors will be religion, what people believe the gods will do; will offend them or bring their wrath down on the community. After all, it would be totally wrong to bring the wrath of the gods on your community – so religion comes in too. Likewise what in a certain community is seen as pollution, or as a demeaning task, obviously determines what is for instance cruel or disrespectful. In that sense, a lot of what’s right and wrong will be relative to different cultures, of course. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the same underlying basis for right and wrong.

So you’re both an objectivist and a cultural relativist about morality?

That’s right, to a certain extent a cultural relativist. How much there is in the way of grey areas, I don’t know. I think it is an advantage of a position like mine, that it could allow for universality where we really find it, as with the case of what we do to children, but that where we really find diversity because of different lifestyles, cultures, religions, or just grey areas where it seems you could say one thing or say the other, that’s what we should be ready to say. In this way we wouldn’t try to tighten everything up or claim to be able to look ahead and see where each conflict of opinions would end. It is one of my objections to the old kind of subjectivism that philosophers thought they could describe the breakdown point ahead of the particular argument, because one person would have one ultimate principle and another person the opposite ultimate principle. I don’t believe in these ultimate principles that must simply be affirmed or denied, but rather in an appeal to the necessities of human life. Arguing on this basis we shall look at the particular conflicts of moral opinion and take what comes in the way of universal truths, cultural relativism or grey areas.

So, given this rather relaxed version of moral objectivity, what would you say to ‘immoralists’ such as Nietzsche?

In my book 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. Nietzsche thought that a quite different taxonomy of human action was the only one that really got down to things. Goodness or badness was in the nature of the person who did them: it was this that determined whether the the act was good or bad. But I think it is possible to explain the basis on which you can judge that the oppressive things that Nietzsche would have countenanced – or at least spoke of without disapproval as merely pranksome – cannot be done by a good human being. 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. Those things are important in their place, but to fasten on them is like fastening on the scent of some flower when it isn’t part of its life. I’m inventing this example on the spur of the moment, maybe the scent of a plant always serves to attract pollinating insects and so is part of its life. But there are other things that are not, so you get the idea.

Nietzsche had, in a way, an aesthetic view of human life. But his isn’t a suitable way of life for human beings as they are, and if Nietzsche is reckoning on being able to change them into something different, he’d better think again.

Thank you for this interview!

This conversation took place at Philippa Foot’s Oxford home in the Autumn of 2001. Due to the extreme decrepitude of the Philosophy Now cassette recorder, the resulting tape was crackly beyond belief, which is why this interview hasn’t appeared sooner. Grateful thanks go to Karen Adler for somehow managing to transcribe it anyway. R.L.

The Letter-Writers

Philippa Foot’s interest in the complicated connection between virtue and the pursuit of happiness was partly inspired by a 1950s book, now unobtainable, called Dying We Live. The book is a collection of prison letters from Germans who defied the Nazis and were executed as a result. The writers were people from a wide variety of social backgrounds, including aristocratic anti-Nazi plotters; a pastor who refused to stop preaching against the persecution of the Jews; farm labourers and many others Their farewell letters to their loved ones sometimes explain why they had chosen a path which would lead to their own destruction. The example below is from a farm boy from the Sudetenland:

February 3, 1944
Dear Parents: I must give you bad news – I have been condemned to death, I and Gustave G. We did not sign up for the SS, and so they condemned us to death… Both of us would rather die than stain our consciences with such deeds of horror. I know what the SS has to do…

from Dying We Live: The Final Messages and Records of Some Germans Who Defied Hitler ed. by H. Gollwitzer, K. Kuhn & R. Schneider.


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