Sunday, March 14, 2010

Philippa Foot and the Hypothetical Imperatives of Natural Goodness

Philippa Foot is the author of one of my favorite essays in contemporary moral philosophy--"Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," reprinted in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978). She is a British philosopher best known as one of the leading proponents of Aristotelian virtue ethics. After teaching for many years at Somerville College, Oxford, she taught at many other schools until she retired from teaching at UCLA. In her essay, she argued that moral judgments are "hypothetical imperatives in the sense that they give reasons for acting only in conjunction with interests and desires." We do sometimes declare moral rules about what one ought to do or not do, as if these rules were binding as pure dictates of reason regardless of any one's interests or desires. But we do the same with rules of etiquette, when we want to insist that these rules of proper conduct can't be disregarded without incurring our scorn. In both cases, we expect people to obey the rules without asking why they should do so. But, of course, people can challenge the rules, and then we are forced to justify them as desirable. So moral rules have no better claim to be categorical imperatives than do rules of etiquette.

Foot's essay provoked intense opposition from other moral philosophers who accused her of "attacking morality," because so many philosophers had been persuaded by Immanuel Kant that moral judgments as categorical imperatives must be distinguished from hypothetical imperatives. In his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant explained this distinction: "All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former present the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else which one desires (or which one may possibly desire). The categorical imperative would be one which presented an action as of itself objectively necessary, without regard to any end" (trans. Lewis White Beck, p. 414). Hypothetical imperatives are judgments of prudence as to what conduces to happiness, which is the natural end of human life. But categorical imperatives are commands of pure reason that bind all rational beings without regard to happiness. One can see here Kant's radical break from Aristotle, and from ancient ethics generally, because while Aristotle regarded prudence as the supreme virtue, Kant dismissed prudence as outside of morality. Kant did this because he wanted morality to belong to a transcendent realm of "noumenal" experience beyond the natural realm of "phenomenal" experience. Through pure practical reason, he believed, human beings could grasp absolutely necessary principles of morality beyond the contingencies of human nature and natural experience. In this way, he insisted, human beings as rational agents could free themselves of their animal nature, including their animal desires for happiness.

For those philosophers who agree with Kant, it was shocking, therefore, to have Foot dismiss Kant's morality of categorical imperatives as an illusion or fiction based on the belief that declaring a categorical "ought" has some magical force that is so intrinsically binding that it must be obeyed without question. But when we declare that we simply must or have to or ought to do what morality demands, Foot observed, we are really just saying how strongly we feel about the importance of some moral norm. If someone challenges us to explain why this norm is so important, we must then explain how, given the character of human life, human desires, and our present circumstances, following this norm will generally be better for us because it will make our lives happier. We then move from the language of categorical imperatives to that of hypothetical imperatives: if you want to live a satisfying human life, then you need to embrace this norm as one means to that end.

In some hard cases, however, this persuasive appeal to hypothetical imperatives doesn't work because we're dealing with people whose beliefs or desires are so radically different from ours that there is no ground for persuasion. In some cases of tragic conflicts, there is no resolution except by force. I have often cited the American Civil War as an example of a tragic moral conflict that was settled by force of arms. I have also pointed to the problem of psychopaths as moral strangers who are beyond moral persuasion because they lack the moral emotions and desires necessary for a moral sense. Since we can't persuade them, we coerce them for our own protection.

From a biological point of view, we could say that morality consists of hypothetical imperatives constrained by our biological nature as social mammals. Considering the nature of the human species, human beings have certain universal natural desires--such as sexual mating, familial bonding, parental care, cooperation through reciprocity, and others--that set the generic ends of human life, and so we can judge moral norms by how well they promote those ends.

Foot moved in this direction in her book Natural Goodness (Oxford, 2001). She defended a naturalistic view of ethics by arguing that the moral evaluation of human actions has the same logical structure as the natural evaluation of other living beings. Unlike the non-living world, plants and animals show a teleological structure in the nature of each species. We can then judge an individual plant or animal as to how well it fulfills its natural end. So, for example, we can judge the roots of an oak tree as good if they effectively draw water and nutrients from the soil and support the weight of the tree. By contrast, we can't make a similar evaluation of the rustling of the tree's leaves in the wind, because we don't see this as contributing to any natural need of the tree. Similarly, we might judge social mammals by how well the mothers nurture and train their offspring to fulfill their needs as social animals. Thus, our evaluations of plants and animals can be grounded in natural facts about their species, which we learn by studying their natural history.

In a similar way, Foot suggests, we can evaluate human actions by how well they serve the natural ends of the human species as shaped by natural history. There are similar "patterns of natural normativity" that human beings share with other living beings. And yet, of course, human morality is also unique in so far as human beings have a capacity for moral judgment and deliberation that comes from being rational animals with language, which separates them from other living beings. But, still, there's an underlying structure of evaluation through the life form of the species that applies to all life. "To flourish is here to instantiate the life form of that species, and to know whether an individual is or is not as it should be, one must know the life form of the species" (91). Or, as Peter Geach once said, "human beings need virtues as bees need stings" (44). In this way, Foot employs the same kind of reasoning that I use in Darwinian Natural Right in considering natural teleology (chapter 9)and the normative structure of animal movement (chapter 2).

Foot's position in Natural Goodness becomes confusing, however, when she suggests that she wants to depart from some of what she said in "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives." In the essay, she indicated--and I agree--that the hypothetical imperatives of morality are dependent on human interests and desires. Human conduct requires a combination of reason and desire, with reason deliberating as to how best to satisfy our desires harmoniously over a whole life. This Aristotelian and Humean conception of the union of reason and desire in moral experience runs through much of my biological account of morality. And yet, in her book, Foot apparently denies this by saying that moral judgment does not require any appeal to human wants, desires, or feelings. A moral reason for acting moves people to act regardless of their wants, desires, or feelings.

Foot writes: "Recognition of a reason gives the rational person a goal; and this recognition is . . . based on facts and concepts, not on some prior attitude, feeling, or goal. The only fact about the individual's state of mind that is required for the explanatory force of the proposition about the requirement of rationality is that he does not (for some bizarre reason) deny its truth. He only needs to know, like most adults, that it is silly to disregard one's own future without special reason to do so. No special explanation is needed of why men take reasonable care of their own future; an explanation is needed when they do not. Nor does human cooperation need a special explanation. Most people know that it is, for instance, unreasonable to take benefits and give nothing in return" (23).

But notice that a reason for acting compels us only if we are "reasonable" in exercising "reasonable care" about the future and so are not so "silly" as to not care about future consequences of our actions. In another passage, she says that it is "a part of rationality for human beings to take special care each for his or her own future" (24). She then adds: "This in no way precludes recognition of the part played by 'sentiments' such as (negatively) shame and revulsion or (positively) sympathy, self-respect, and pride in motivating human virtue. I think David Wiggins is right often to have stressed this side of Hume's moral philosophy."

On the one hand, like Kant, she thinks a moral reason for acting compels us to act regardless of our desires. On the other hand, like Aristotle and Hume, she thinks moral rationality assumes that we are taking "special care" for our future. I think the latter is closer to the truth.

Moving in the direction suggested by Foot's essay, I would argue that ethics is informed desire. The good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires over a whole life, which often requires settling conflicts between desires by judging how one desire fits with others in some deliberate conception of a whole life well-lived.

This view of ethics as arising from reason and desire--ethics as rooted in natural human desires, as requiring habits of right desire, and as guided by prudential reasoning in judging the contingencies of action--was originally developed by Aristotle in his ethical and biological writings. Other philosophers in the tradition of ethical naturalism, such as Hume, have defended a similar understanding. Just as Aristotle declared that "thought by itself moves nothing," Hume declared that "reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will."

Kant turns away from this tradition, because in taking a Hobbesian view of human nature as crudely selfish and hedonistic, Kant cannot believe that morality can arise from the animal nature of human beings. So, instead, he looks for transcendental norms of pure practical reason through which human beings can escape their human nature and exercise a moral freedom beyond the laws of nature.

Foot was right in rejecting this Kantian illusion that pure reason by itself--without any grounding in natural human inclinations--could move us to moral conduct. She was right to see morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives dependent on our natural desires. And she was right to see the normative structure of those desires as rooted in the natural history of the human species.

Foot was right to reject the idea that morality is nothing more than an arbitrary expression of subjective emotivism--the kind of thinking proposed by philosophers like C. L. Stevenson. In her search for the objective, factual ground of morality, she ultimately found that ground in the biological nature of living beings, so that what is good varies according to the nature of the species. "Natural goodness" denotes not some eternal, cosmic necessity of Reason, Nature, or God, but the evolved nature of particular forms of life. Against Plato and Kant, Foot would seem to agree with Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin that there are no universally necessary principles of the good, because the good varies according to the desires and capacities of each species.

This last point has been elaborated in some other posts, which can be found here, here., here., here., here, here, and here.

[Foot died on her 90th birthday a few months after this post was written--October 3, 2010.]


Troy Camplin said...

An engineer who is good at building bridges is a good engineer. The steel he uses must be of high enough quality to do the job – it must be good steel. When building begins on the bridge, it can only be done in good weather. A good engineer is good at being an engineer. Good steel is steel that can be depended on to do the job at hand (being dependable to do the job at hand is also a feature of being a good engineer). Good weather is weather that provides favorable conditions for what work the person wants to do – in this definition, rain is good weather for a farmer, but bad for our engineer. A good person is thus a person who is good at being a person. We must work at being good – ethics is work. But ethics is not necessarily what works. One has to keep in mind the end at which one aims. We need an idea of proper ends, a proper target at which to aim. The proper end of our engineer is obvious: to build a bridge that will span the gulf at hand and remain intact. He must design and build a bridge that does the work of a bridge.

From the example above, we can now distinguish between bad and evil. A bad engineer is one who is not able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge. An evil engineer is one who is able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge but who chooses instead to design a bridge that will not do the proper work of a bridge. For the bad engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge is incidental to his inability to design a good bridge. The bad engineer is bad because he is ignorant. He would build a good bridge if he could. For the evil engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge comes about because he chose to make a bad bridge so that it would cause destruction. The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to.

That is my take on ethics. I also happen to agree with a former professor of mine (specifically, he was my dissertation chair), Alex Argyros, who said that it is unethical to reduce the complexity of the universe. That means you have to choose a human over any other form of life -- humans being more complex than any other form of life -- and self-defense is allowed, since you are killing one human to save another's (or others') life.

Unknown said...

I wonder how we would start to think ethically if we were ever to gain the ability to choose what species we are? So long as the species is fairly relatively fixed, it makes sense to use some sort of immanent, biologically determined teleology to understand right and wrong for that species. Yet how would we deal with the ability, say, to create humanoid babies with gills so that they could live underwater? I guess I am just curious as to what immanent teleology would have to teach a species that had a radical power to alter itself, and its desires. Perhaps we would have to fall back on some sort of Nietzschean ethics of life as some sort of more general version of immanent, biological teleology?

Larry Arnhart said...


I have tried to answer this question in Chapter 10 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM and in my article in THE NEW ATLANTIS. My most recent post on genetic engineering touches on this. But I am still not satisfied that I've answered the question properly.

First of all, I am skeptical about the feasibility of a radical genetic engineering that doesn't have undesirable side effects.

But even if it is feasible, wouldn't radical human genetic engineering have to be guided by the same natural desires that motivate us now? For example, if parents are genetically altering their offspring, won't they be expressing the same desires for the happiness of their children that parents have always had?

If we chose to employ such a power to abolish our human nature, we would in some sense be choosing to commit species-suicide. It's not clear to me why we would intentionally choose that, although it could happen unintentionally by mistake.

Unknown said...

I think that the engineering would be guided by our natural desires. The problem is that we as a species are quite poor at predicting what will make our future selves happy. Hence, if radical genetic engineering were possible, I think it would be likely that the children would be miserable in ways that were not foreseen, and that the path traveled once we started down that road would be rather unpredictable.

Also, think about communism and other ideologies; at base they really were actual attempts to abolish human nature. It is a well-established part of our nature to want to be something other than what we are. Perhaps you would disagree with this, but I do agree with Nietzsche that humanity itself has a very deep misanthropic streak that has been engendered by its powerlessness over the world, both social and natural. So far as I understand Nietzsche, he wasn't ever looking to some sort of post-human future, but rather just looking for a way to convince thinking misanthropists that they should love humanity. He didn't invent the idea of a "superman" but rather, in his own mind, took most of it from Greek tragedy and philosophy. Which is to say that he borrowed it from the past.

Perhaps this is a question that immanent teleology in and of itself can't answer; why should we love humanity instead of hating it? If one ever would hope to convince a misanthropist to change their mind, one must provide an argument that goes beyond species specific teleology. If we do ever gain the ability to radically engineer our genomes, our misanthropy could easily be the end of our species. This misanthropy might also explain why so many people are unwilling to accept immanent teleology as authoritative in human ethics; it is all too human, and they hate humanity so it really doesn't hold much weight for them.

Troy Camplin said...

Have you ever noticed that the same people who hate humanity also hate complexity?

Anonymous said...

Foot explains in Natural Goodness that she had since come to reject the Humean conception of reasons that she held in 'Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.' You insistently conflate Hume and Aristotle on this point, and seem reluctant to respond to the objections that people have pressed against you. Your ability to use the expression "Aristotelian and Humean conception of the union of reason and desire" without irony or humor suggests, to be quite frank, that you've either misread or not read at all what Hume, Aristotle, or any of the commentators on them have to say about it.

You've worked with both Fred Miller and James Murphy. Both of them have written on how Aristotle's theory of practical reason is neither Humean nor Kantian. If you have some reason to believe, against what is now an almost unanimous scholarly view, that Aristotle believed that the good is good because we desire it, that reason is incapable of discovering or evaluating ends that are not mere means or specifications of other ends for which we have brute desires, and that reason is therefore purely instrumental with relation to desire -- these are the Humean claims -- then you should try to show why Miller, Murphy, and most other reputable scholars writing about Aristotle in English for the last 30 years are guilty of misreading Aristotle.

Larry Arnhart said...

Comparing Aristotle and Hume comes up in chapters 2 and 4 of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT.