Philippa Foot (1920-2010) is one of the most important moral philosophers of the twentieth century. Many of her works are in essay form, but late in life she published a book, Natural Goodness, that has sparked considerable controversy for its argument that moral norms are grounded in human nature; much of the controversy turns on understanding precisely what role facts about human beings should play in moral philosophy.
Perhaps everyone would agree that human nature is somehow relevant to morality. After all, if we were not capable of making moral choices, then there would simply be no moral issues. But then there is the question of whether there is something more specific about human beings that is significant for morality and moral philosophy. On this issue, contemporary moral philosophy divides into two main camps: Humeans and Aristotelians. Humeans ask us to examine facts about how humans think and feel, and to integrate this information to the extent that we can into our strategies for living. The contemporary Humean Valerie Tiberius in her recent book The Reflective Life looks to the field of positive psychology, which studies human happiness, for insights that we can incorporate into living well. For example, she argues for a virtue of perspective, which we recommend when we say, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” People, whatever their aims, tend to benefit from the ability to step back from strong, immediate emotional responses. Such responses lead us to act impulsively and to do things we later regret. Note that this view prescinds from weighing in on what aims we should have. Human beings, on this view, are not essentially any certain way; we have various desires and capacities, which might well change. Reason, on this view, is firmly subordinate to whatever ends we happen to have, and this is part of what makes the view Humean, since it embodies David Hume’s famous dictum: “Reason is and only ought to be the slave of the passions.”
Aristotelians, including Foot, hold by contrast that there is an essential human nature. Most importantly, humans are animals that make choices and have rational desires. As Aristotle puts it in his Eudemian Ethics, “a human is, alone among animals, a starting point of certain actions.” In acting on choices, human beings act on the basis of rational foresight; that is we can form a conception of what we would like to do: an outcome we want to pursue or an action that is worth doing for its own sake. Contemporary Aristotelians, including Foot, follow Aristotle here. Foot writes, “while animals go for the good (thing) that they see, human beings go for what they see as good.” We are capable of responding to reasons inasmuch as we act on some understanding of which things are good. In fact, it is precisely the application of reasoning to our actions which interests us in ethical evaluation. Foot claims that moral vices are defects in our responsiveness to reasons for action, which constitutes a sort of natural defect in humans; individuals with vices have defective wills. Inasmuch as we have the capacity to reason about how to act, we are subject to a distinctive sort of evaluation; unlike other natural defects, which may simply be the result of bad luck, we are responsible for our conception of how to act and can answer to rational criticism of that conception.
Foot thereby anchors morality in human nature. Her claim might be put: there is no complete understanding of human beings that does not involve moral norms, because understanding human actions includes a background understanding of reasons. In judging that someone is acting, I have some idea of whether or not they are acting well, even if I do not make that idea explicit. If you are responsive to reasons, you can be evaluated on whether you are doing that well or poorly, and this is moral evaluation. This does not imply, of course, that we can have no moral disagreements – we may have many disagreements that are very important to us – yet, still, I must view you as generally responsive to moral reasons if I have such a disagreement with you. Further, your character may be defective in various ways through not responding to reasons to which you should be responsive. To say that morality is anchored in human nature, in the way that Foot means, is not to say that we are inherently good. Finally, it is evident that there are human beings who are altogether irresponsive to moral reasons. Severely cognitively disabled individuals, for example, may have impairments that make their actions of a different character than the intentional actions of humans with an intact rational will. In judging that someone is impaired, we are placing the individual against the background of a shared human nature and affirming that there is something that they lack. Yet we are not making a moral judgment because the judgment does not pertain to the will of the impaired individual; the judgment in that case pertains to their physical state.
So Foot is arguing for the view that rational agency is essential to human beings in the sense that we are defective if we lack it and if we have it, its operation in us is subject to a special kind of evaluation, moral evaluation. How does this pit Foot and other Aristotelians against the Humeans? Foot and other Aristotelians contend that there is a conceptual connection between morality and what preserves and promotes our capacity for rational agency. That connection is lacking on the Humean account, for it starts from whatever a human being happens to desire and deems rational whatever one might do effectively to get that. As Tiberius admits, someone could embody wisdom on her account and yet still find it more upsetting that there is a hole in her dress than that children nearby are starving. Perhaps most people with such responses lack perspective, but someone just might have an enduring commitment to fashion that overrides his concern for what we typically consider more basic needs. Foot and other Aristotelian virtue ethicists deny such claims.
For Foot, practical wisdom has an objective component, albeit a highly general one. To count as practically rational, one must acknowledge the relatively greater importance of what protects and sustains human life over whatever is merely pleasant. The fact that something satisfies a desire or produces pleasure does not by itself make something good. Only desires that advance a good human life should be acted upon, otherwise, one is not acting well. As Foot puts it: “In human life it is an Aristotelian necessity (something on which our way of life depends) that if, for instance, a stranger should come on us when we are sleeping he will not think it all right to kill us or appropriate the tools that we need for the next day’s work.” One might hope that this is obvious, but Foot is attempting to show that this claim sets limits on what we can accept as practically rational for humans to do. Achieving practical rationality is for the Aristotelian identical with practical wisdom, and it requires a set of dispositions which enable us to act well. On Foot’s view, no action, however many of our desires it may satisfy, is rational that expresses a disposition undermining our ability to live together well as rational agents. Foot thereby gives us reason to withhold attributing wisdom to someone who believes that a hole in her dress is more important that the fact that there are starving children nearby.