Trying to put a value on virtue

Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy - Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy
April 11, 2003

Human kind," wrote T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets , "cannot bear very much reality." The illusions with which we sustain ourselves are many and various, but three basic self-deceptions are paramount: the pretence that we are not going to die; a belief in free will (whatever that means); and the assumption that human values and virtues can be fitted together coherently.

This last illusion is fostered by many moral philosophers, among them Philippa Foot, now 81, whose earlier essays were collected in 1978 as Virtues and Vices , now reissued with a brief new preface, but internally unaltered. Her later pieces comprise a new companion volume, Moral Dilemmas . Add her recent book Natural Goodness and we have a trilogy making her main oeuvre compendiously available. Although the whole is not enormously greater than the sum of its somewhat miscellaneous parts, this is a useful service to philosophers, despite a good deal of repetition (one gets rather tired of the burglar who is caught because he watches TV in the house he has just robbed).

Foot's self-effacing independence of mind leaps off the page: "I do not understand the idea of a reason for acting, and I wonder whether anyone else does either." Again: "Do we know what we mean by saying that anything has value, or even that we value it, as opposed to wanting it or being prepared to go to trouble to get it? I do not know of any philosopher, living or dead, who has been able to explain this idea."

Nevertheless, she is under the spell of the presumed coherence of values.

As Wittgenstein says (Foot quotes this remark in another context): "The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent." It is poignant to see her searching in vain for moral harmony. Much of her work is overshadowed by her worry that enlightened self-interest may not coincide with justice or charity. She apparently takes it as axiomatic that it should, so that any appearance to the contrary must be due to imperfections in her vision. But, of course, it does not, always, and if she could accept that she would be released from torment.

She does acknowledge that conflict and contradiction is possible in morality. There may be "different and irreconcilable points of view about certain things". And she asks: "Is it not possible that some alien moral systems cannot be faulted by us on any objective principles, while our moral beliefs can also not be faulted by theirs?"

At the same time, she recognises that there is bedrock beneath the flux:

"There is a most surprising, and rather moving, agreement between peoples whose civilisations are completely different, and who may even be culturally isolated from each other"; and "there is a great deal that all men have in common. All need affection, the cooperation of others, a place in a community and help in trouble."

But most important is her rebuttal of all efforts to decouple morality from human welfare: "moral considerations (are) necessarily related to human good and harm". That is to say, she is a naturalist in ethics, and rejects the absolute division between fact and value, "is" and "ought". Quite right too.

One does wish that she had taken us more into her confidence about her view of philosophy, beyond saying that she belongs to "the plain-speaking school of analytic philosophers". The publishers' press releases say formulaically, and shamefully, that the books will appeal to general readers, but a lengthy process of initiation is required before a newcomer can understand much of what philosophers say, plainly spoken or otherwise.

Foot's somewhat eccentric and archaic style is permeated by methodological opacity. She evinces a sort of literary hauteur that licenses not only delightful informality, but also, at times, archness of idiom, needless allusiveness, telescoping or feebleness in argument and perversely unrevealing conclusions.

She subscribes to the article of faith of linguistic philosophy that states that light can be shed on problematic issues by seeing what we should intuitively say about the circumstances in which they arise. So we find her saying: "It would, of course, be ridiculous to query the sense of the ordinary things that we say." On the contrary, querying the sense of the ordinary things we say is one of philosophy's most important tasks. For instance, elements in our moral intuitions may be unwanted residues or side-effects of their own evolution, such as the appendix in our bodies.

(This is why we shall always find more moral truth in literature, which reflects the messiness of real life, than in a moral philosophy that tries too hard to superimpose order on it.) As Foot herself says elsewhere: "Why, after all, should we take it for granted that the form of language already developed is the one we want?" In any case, we want to know how things are, not just how we talk about them. She asks: "Where do propositions about good states of affairs belong in the language?" But the question that matters is: "What are good states of affairs?"

Another trademark of analytic philosophy is the ludicrous "thought experiment". Is one entitled to drive fatally over one person while speeding to help five others? The possibility that one might briefly stop and move that person aside to make way for the journey is not considered.

Of course, this is not the point, and the objection is to that extent captious: but is there any non-silly example that would make the same point? If not, perhaps the point is badly made.

Whatever their philosophical credentials, these books have a secure role in quite another context - as "How not to do it" case studies for a publishing course. Oxford University Press should be ashamed of its breathtakingly sloppy copy-editing and proof-reading, especially in books whose constituent text was ready-made. The most glorious example is a book cited in a footnote as Needs, Values, Wiggins, Truth . What are wiggins?

Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy

Author - Philippa Foot
ISBN - 0 19 925283 1 and 925284 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00 and £14.99
Pages - 218

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