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Philippa Foot (1920-2010)

Lawrence Solum on one of the greats of moral philosophy.

Philippa Foot, for many years associated with Somerville College, Oxford and also with the University of California Los Angeles, passed away on October 3, 2010. She was born exactly ninety years earlier, on October 3, 1920. Her mother, Esther Cleveland, was the daughter of the American President, Grover Cleveland; her father was William Sidney Bence Bosanquet. Her marriage to the historian M.R.D. Foot ended in divorce. She is survived by her sister Marion.

Foot was a giant of moral philosophy. Her books include Natural Goodness and two collections of essays, Virtues and Vices: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy and Moral Dilemmas: And Other Topics in Moral Philosophy. These three relatively slender volumes represent decades of work at the very highest levels of philosophical sophistication.

Foot was educated at Oxford and her development as a philosopher was influenced by her friendship with another great of twentieth-century philosophy, Elizabeth Anscombe, and, through Anscombe, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In addition to her long association with Oxford, Foot taught at Berkeley, Cornell, Princeton and Stanford. She eventually joined the philosophy faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles, where she was appointed the Griffin Professor of Philosophy.

Foot will be remembered for many things, including the famous Trolley Problem – introduced in her essay, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’. This was a thought experiment in which she asked us to consider the choice facing “the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed.” The Trolley Problem took on a life of its own, inspiring a host of variations including ‘the fat man’, ‘looping trolleys’, and many others. Her essay ‘Virtues and Vices’ (in the anthology of the same name) was among the most important steps in the development of contemporary virtue ethics – a movement that Foot explicitly disavowed.

The investigation of the question, “Why be moral?,” occupied Foot for most of her long career, and her work on this topic is widely acknowledged as of fundamental importance. It began with her earliest essays, including ‘Moral Argument’ and ‘Moral Beliefs’ and extended through a middle period reflected in ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’. In that paper Foot, unconvinced by Kant’s categorical imperative, argued that ethics could be based instead on hypothetical imperatives: statements such as “If you want your coffee hot, then you should warm the jug,” or perhaps “If you want to live in a safe society, then you should refrain from violent behaviour.” She later repudiated this approach and developed a different tack in her later work, cumulating in the book Natural Goodness. There she argued that what is conducive to the flourishing of different creatures depends on the particular characteristics of their species and that this is true of humans too. Foot’s interests ranged widely, from Nietzsche to Aristotle and from euthanasia to capital punishment.

Philippa Foot was my teacher at UCLA in the late 1970s and early 1980s; after law school, I returned to Los Angeles and sat in on her graduate seminars on several occasions. She was a deep thinker, capable of sustained and critical self-examination that is rare in any discipline. Her seminars were famous for their intensity: I remember attending one in which the first week’s reading was Thomas Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism. A deep discussion of a single paragraph stretched from session to session – this was Foot at her best, refusing to move on until the philosophical problem was wrestled to the ground. Her work was frequently characterized by a style of argumentation that emphasized small and careful steps based on arguments from particular examples and avoided reliance on grand theories and airy abstractions.

Foot was as critical of her students as she was of her own work. She was willing to engage at length in philosophical discourse with undergraduates, but would dismiss an ill-conceived remark with barely concealed disdain. She influenced generations of moral philosophers throughout the world. There were many fine moral and political philosophers at UCLA, but it was Rogers Albritton and Philippa Foot who were my role models – who defined the kind of thinker I wanted to be.

Foot lived to the age of 90 – a full and flourishing human life by any measure. She was professionally active until well into her eighties, presenting at the Moral Philosophy Seminar at Oxford as late as April of 2004. On that occasion, many of her former students and colleagues were in attendance. Foot was her formidable self – an intellectual powerhouse engaged in new philosophical work at the highest level. In an essay on Foot’s work, her colleague Gavin Lawrence remarked that Foot’s “achievement consists not so much of truths presented as of her distinctive voice in philosophy. In this way, she is like Moore or Rawls, or most pertinently Wittgenstein. To read her is immediately to struggle with the real stuff of the subject, to the highest standards; the subject is not the same for one again.”

© Prof. Lawrence Solum 2010

Lawrence Solum is the John E. Cribbet Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois. His work includes Virtue Jurisprudence, an anthology including essays that develop the implications of Foot’s views about naturalism in ethics for the study of law.

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