On the Passing of Philippa Foot

I’m just a babe when it comes to the formal study of morality, so it was with joy and sadness that I learned today of the work of Philippa Foot. The British philosopher helped establish virtue ethics, of which I’ve recently become intrigued. She also introduced the Trolley Problem, which is a cornerstone of moral psychology and philosophy these days and was much discussed in the Edge Foundation summit on moral psychology.

My joy comes from learning of her work and her existence. (I had no idea!) My sadness comes from the fact that I only learned of her through her obituary. She died on Oct. 3 on her 90th birthday. The New York Times writes that she took on the conventional wisdom of her time that moral statements “could not be judged true or false in the same way factual statements could be.” (Sounds very Sam Harris doesn’t it? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Harris sounds very Philippa Foot.) The Times continues:

Ms. Foot countered this “private-enterprise theory,” as she called it, by arguing the interconnectedness of facts and moral interpretations. Further, she insisted that virtues like courage, wisdom and temperance are indispensable to human life and the foundation stones of morality. Her writing on the subject helped establish virtue ethics as a leading approach to the study of moral problems.

Other articles on her and her work can be found at the Telegraph, The Guardian and Wikipedia. The Guardian noted about her:

Foot pooh-poohed what she called the “rigoristic, prissy, moralistic tone” so frequent in moral philosophy, and the way it had lost touch with real life…. In the 1950s she had begun, along with (Elizabeth) Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things.

She sounds fascinating. I’m sorry I never got the chance to talk morality with her.

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One Response to On the Passing of Philippa Foot

  1. I can’t tell you how many wonderful thinkers I’ve discovered in the NY Times obits, including Americo Paredes, who was actually teaching at the University of Texas when I was an undergraduate. I wish I’d discovered him then — he must have been a great teacher (he was a folklorist) — but at least I got to read his books.

    Philippa Foot does sound fascinating. More things to read!

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