Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness.

[Intended for those with a philosophical background. The untrained reader may find this too technical].

I just finished this short and beautifully-written little book, and the first thing that struck me was how far Foot travelled intellectually during her career. For anyone that has read her first collection, Virtues and Vices, it will be clear that she spent many decades hostile to Kantian ideas in ethics. The persistent theme in her work seemed to be an approach to moral philosophy that championed Aristotle whilst remaining alert to the later meta-insights of Hume.

So she had ended up endorsing a theory according to which, following Anscombe, we would do well to ditch talk of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘obligation’, instead replacing those terms with ‘just’, ‘benevolent’ and so on. However, we ought also to realise that cultivating such virtues was not an imperative we could use to rationally bludgeon gangsters over the head. There is nothing irrational about evil lifestyles. Rather, fostering virtue depended in large part upon just happening to have virtue as your end. Only once we take this as given can moral commands have any force for an individual agent.

How the tables turned! In a nutshell, Foot 2.0 of Natural Goodness enthusiastically embraces a form of realism according to which ethical judgements are true because they are grounded in natural facts about life. From this, she argues for the claim that ethical behaviour is rational, and she suggests there is a strong sense in which evil people cannot be happy because they are defective. She emphatically rejects her Humean, skeptical past.

The argument is by mainly by implication: she has a better, more convincing picture of ethical life, and you’ll be persuaded by it once she’s finished mapping her competitor out. But she does make some explicit preliminary points against subjectivism in which she argues the entire school is based upon a mistake: they take the (valid and important) insight that internalism is true – moral judgements motivate – and too quickly jump to the conclusion that moral judgements are therefore non-cognitive, grounded in desires. Foot wants internalism too, but of a less forceful kind. She wants to accommodate someone acting contrary to their own moral judgements, and she thinks the best path is to locate moral judgements within the realm of rationality: this gives us reason, and thereby a motive, to act ethically. But insofar as we fail to live up to our logical standards, the motive might not be enough (this is following, as Foot acknowledges, Korsgaard in ‘Skepticism about Practical Reason’).

But what about this notion of ‘natural’ goodness? That argument proceeds by analogy, but there’s a whiff of Aristotle about it immediately when she starts invoking the notorious idea of a thing’s ‘function’. But when she begins to talk about plants and animals, you realise how very natural indeed such an approach is. Contra subjectivism, do we really feel (pun definitely intended) the need to absurdly invoke the sentiments to explain the sense in which a tree whose roots do not soak up water is ‘bad’, and not how it ‘ought’ to be? This is the type of example Anscombe – Foot’s fellow Somervillian – had in mind when she tried to rescue the word ‘ought’ from the magical force granted to it by divine command theorists and Kantians. Instead of seeing ‘ought’ as meaning ‘this absolutely must be done’, ‘ought’ in such examples simply means ‘this isn’t good; the thing in question could be better‘. To say a car should be filled with fuel rather than cereal isn’t to impart upon anyone a grandiose metaphysical obligation.

The analogy picks up pace with some more examples: a bird doesn’t function well if it does not eat; a polar bear is defective if its fur fails to blend in with the snow. So far, all these cases have involved self-regarding qualities, which may lead to worries that we’re heading in the direction of a deeply selfish analysis of how humans should be. But note how some creatures are inherently social: honey bees are simply malfunctioning if they don’t follow the trend and communicate for the benefit of the others in their group.

Which in turn hints at a way to derive from basic facts about human nature what our elusive ‘function’ might be, common to us all even in the face of cultural relativism. What general standards might pertain to us?

Foot’s answer is that it is a fact about human life that we cannot get things done without common collective compliance with an array of conventional virtues. Take honesty, central to the institution of promise-keeping. Without this, the only way expectations about the behaviour of others could be assured would be through coercive threats backed up by physical force. That’s an infeasible method for us all to constantly practice. So if you act as a systematic liar, you behave like a non-communicative honeybee: you are a defective instance of your species. You don’t act in a way that it is natural for your type to act.

This is the basis of her naturalism, and also her argument for the rationality of following ethical judgements: who could possibly have reason to act in a way contrary to the nature of his species? I trust the gist of the position is clear, albeit inevitably in insufficient depth. But at a mere 120 pages, Natural Goodness is definitely worth reading in full. Foot’s style is as light and enjoyable as always, and she even makes time at the end for a rebuttal of Nietzsche (she thinks the critical motive behind his project and his psychological observations were important. But, like Humeans, he tended to go too far when extracting their implications).

What most interested me, though, was the way she ended up sitting in that overlapping area where Kant and Aristotle seem to meet: ethical action is deemed rational, whilst a virtue-driven approach is retained. And I know that Kantian naturalists like Korsgaard exist, and she has done a lot of work on Aristotle’s function argument and the comparisons to be drawn between acting for the ‘Fine’ (Aristotle) and for the sake of ‘Duty’ (Kant). Some of her essays should probably be my next stop accordingly.

Honeybee photo by Stephen Buchman.

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