Philippa Ruth Foot

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Philippa Ruth Foot (Bosanquet)

Birthdate: (90)
Birthplace: Owston Ferry, North Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
Death: Died in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Capt. William S. B. Bosanquet and Esther Bosanquet
Ex-wife of Michael Richard Daniell Foot, CBE, TD
Sister of Marion Frances Bosanquet

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Philippa Ruth Foot

Philippa Foot obituary

A 'grande dame of philosophy', she pioneered virtue ethics

   Jane O'Grady, Tuesday 5 October 2010 13.23 EDT	

Philippa Foot ‘Virtuous’, for Philippa Foot, meant well-rounded and human Photograph: Steve Pyke/Getty Images

The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare's prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.

From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that "the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life" and in what it is rational for humans to want.

Suppose, she famously demanded in Moral Beliefs, that morality really were (a la Ayer and Hare) just a matter of each person commending and prescribing ways of acting that they happened to approve of – then why not commend a man who clasps his hands three times a day, or prescribes that this be done? No one would, of course, unless the clasping somehow had some relation to human wellbeing or harm, which is what morality must surely be about – "unless you change the facts of human existence".

Foot was one of the impressive band of women, including Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Warnock and the future novelist Iris Murdoch, who studied at Oxford during the second world war. She went on to teach at her college, Somerville, in 1947, becoming its first philosophy tutorial fellow in 1949, and vice-principal in 1967, a post she abandoned for visiting professorships in America, at Berkeley, Cornell, Princeton and Stanford, among others.

She finally settled at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1976 for 15 years until her retirement, and earned its philosophy department international cachet. But she maintained her connection with Oxford (she had been made senior research fellow of Somerville in 1969), and once, when asked by US immigration where she lived, answered crossly, "England, of course," only escaping the resultant fracas when her lawyer proclaimed her "not only one of the world's greatest moral philosophers but the granddaughter of President Cleveland".

Her mother, Esther Cleveland, had been the first president's child to be born in the White House; William Bosanquet, her father, managed a steelworks in Yorkshire. Born in a small village near Durham, Philippa was educated at home by governesses and at St George's school, Ascot, and rode to hounds with the Zetland hunt. When, during their first riding lessons, her sister Marion held on to the saddle, she thought it not at all the thing, and was "very shocked". To the question of whether she had asked the name and address of a little boy at her dancing class who had asked for hers, she replied, "Of course not – you don't ask for names and addresses if you are a girl." Decades later, she was described as the "grande dame of philosophy".

Yet her comparison, in a well-known paper (Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives, 1972) between Immanuel Kant's view of moral law as "inescapable" in some special way, and the demands of etiquette, was intended to argue that people who follow either morality or etiquette without questioning them "are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral 'ought' a magic force". Later, she rejected this position, and was irritated to be still credited with it. Moral constraints, she came to believe, were indispensably a rational part of flourishing as a human being – in this, they did not resemble etiquette.

Her rebound from the drilling in good form was a brusque, no-nonsense capacity to cut to the heart of philosophical and everyday cant, and doggedly to uphold her principles and views in the teeth of convention and orthodoxy. A lifelong socialist and Labour supporter, she was one of only four academics to vote to prevent President Harry S Truman (architect of Hiroshima) from having an honorary Oxford degree.

Foot's friends were often wild and bohemian, like Murdoch, with whom she shared a flat during the war. She married the historian Michael (MRD) Foot, who had been one of Murdoch's lovers, in 1945, and the two women then saw little of one another until the marriage ended 15 years later, when they had a brief affair. Murdoch, who portrayed Foot as Paula in The Nice and the Good (1968), called her "my lifelong best friend".

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. "I do not know what could be meant by saying that it was someone's duty to do something," she said, "unless there was an attempt to show why it mattered if this sort of thing was not done."

Non-cognitivist theories (Hare's prescriptivism, Ayer's emotivism, more recently Allan Gibbard's expressivism), which variously deny that moral statements can be true or false, render moral judgment so subjective and capricious that, strictly speaking, it might just as well extend to "the wrongness of running round trees right-handed or looking at hedgehogs in the light of the moon".

But she opposed such theories not just because they were too wide, but because they were too narrow. In the 1950s she had begun, along with 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. And "virtuous", for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults "the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one's life but one's own", advocating "hope and a readiness to accept good things".

Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions' consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it. In a paper on abortion (The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, 1967), she used what became a much-cited example to pinpoint fine distinctions in moral permissibility where an action has both good and bad results – the dilemma facing the driver of a suddenly brakeless trolley-bus that would hit five people unless he steered it on to another track into only one person.

Unlike many philosophers, Foot never strained our basic intuitions in the interests of pursuing some wild theory to its (il)logical conclusion. She said that, in doing philosophy, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. But her resolute tapping hit many fault-lines and reduced several inflated edifices. "Very tender and adorable, yet morally tough and subtle, and with lots of will and self-control," was how Murdoch described her.

In Human Goodness (a paper included in the book Natural Goodness, 2001), Foot wrote that wisdom and temperance are important virtues, but that often we revere those who lack them and live chaotic lives, which, she added, is probably not "just romantic nonsense". "Of course what is best is to live boldly, yet without imprudence or intemperance, but the fact is that rather few can manage that." She, however, was one of those few.

Her sister Marion survives her.

• Philippa Ruth Foot, philosopher, born 3 October 1920; died 3 October 2010

Philippa Foot, Renowned Philosopher, Dies at 90 The New York Times; Illustration by Frank O’Connell By WILLIAM GRIMES Published: October 9, 2010


Philippa Foot, a philosopher who argued that moral judgments have a rational basis, and who introduced the renowned ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem, died at her home in Oxford, England, on Oct. 3, her 90th birthday. Enlarge This Image University of California, Los Angeles

Philippa Foot, the writer of an ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem.

Her death was announced on the Web site of Somerville College, Oxford, where she earned her academic degrees and taught for many years.

In her early work, notably in the essays “Moral Beliefs” and “Moral Arguments,” published in the late 1950s, Ms. Foot took issue with philosophers like R. M. Hare and Charles L. Stevenson, who maintained that moral statements were ultimately expressions of attitude or emotion, because they could not be judged true or false in the same way factual statements could be.

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.

“She’s going to be remembered not for a particular view or position, but for changing the way people think about topics,” said Lawrence Solum, who teaches the philosophy of law at the University of Illinois and studied under Ms. Foot. “She made the moves that made people see things in a fundamentally new way. Very few people do that in philosophy.”

It was the Trolley Problem, however, that captured the imagination of scholars outside her discipline. In 1967, in the essay “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” she discussed, using a series of provocative examples, the moral distinctions between intended and unintended consequences, between doing and allowing, and between positive and negative duties — the duty not to inflict harm weighed against the duty to render aid.

The most arresting of her examples, offered in just a few sentences, was the ethical dilemma faced by the driver of a runaway trolley hurtling toward five track workers. By diverting the trolley to a spur where just one worker is on the track, the driver can save five lives.

Clearly, the driver should divert the trolley and kill one worker rather than five.

But what about a surgeon who could also save five lives — by killing a patient and distributing the patient’s organs to five other patients who would otherwise die? The math is the same, but here, instead of having to choose between two negative duties — the imperative not to inflict harm — as the driver does, the doctor weighs a negative duty against the positive duty of rendering aid.

By means of such problems, Ms. Foot hoped to clarify thinking about the moral issues surrounding abortion in particular, but she applied a similar approach to matters like euthanasia.

The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson added two complications to the Trolley Problem that are now inseparable from it.

Imagine, she wrote, a bystander who sees the trolley racing toward the track workers and can divert it by throwing a switch along the tracks. Unlike the driver, who must choose to kill one person or five, the bystander can refuse to intervene or, by throwing the switch, accept the unintended consequence of killing a human being, a choice endorsed by most people presented with the problem.

Or suppose, she suggested, that the bystander observes the impending trolley disaster from a footbridge over the tracks and realizes that by throwing a heavy weight in front of the trolley he can stop it.

As it happens, the only available weight is a fat man standing next to him. Most respondents presented with the problem saw a moral distinction between throwing the switch and throwing the man on the tracks, even though the end result, in lives saved, was identical.

The paradoxes suggested by the Trolley Problem and its variants have engaged not only moral philosophers but neuroscientists, economists and evolutionary psychologists. It also inspired a subdiscipline jokingly known as trolleyology, whose swelling body of commentary “makes the Talmud look like CliffsNotes,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his book “Experiments in Ethics” (2008).

Philippa Judith Bosanquet was born on Oct. 3, 1920, in Owston Ferry, Lincolnshire, and grew up in Kirkleatham, in North Yorkshire. Her mother, Esther, was a daughter of President Grover Cleveland. Her father, William, was a captain in the Coldstream Guards when he married her mother and later took over the running of a large Yorkshire steel works.

Ms. Foot studied philosophy, politics and economics at Somerville College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1942. During World War II, she worked as a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, sharing a London flat with the future novelist Iris Murdoch.

In 1945 she married the historian M. R. D. Foot, after Murdoch left him for the economist Thomas Balogh. The marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by a sister, Marion Daniel of London.

Ms. Foot began lecturing on philosophy at Somerville in 1947, a year after receiving her master’s degree, and rose to the positions of vice principal and senior research fellow before retiring in 1988. In 1974 she became a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, from which she retired in 1991.

In the 1970s Ms. Foot revisited some of her assertions about the objective nature of morality, allowing a measure of subjectivism to creep into her discussions of topics like abortion and euthanasia. The influence of Wittgenstein, and his linguistic spin on philosophical questions, became increasingly important in her writing, which dealt scrupulously with the various senses, and pitfalls, of terms like “should,” “would” and “good.”

In “Natural Goodness” (2001), she offered a new theory of practical reason, arguing that morals are rooted in objective human needs that can be compared to the physical needs of plants and animals and described using the same words.

In a 2001 interview with Philosophy Today, she addressed a colleague’s comment that, in her book, she seemed to regard vice as a natural defect.

“That’s exactly what I believe, and I want to say that we describe defects in human beings in the same way as we do defects in plants and animals,” she said. “I once began a lecture by saying that in moral philosophy, it’s very important to begin by talking about plants.”

Her most important essays were collected in “Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy” (1978) and “Moral Dilemmas: And Other Topics in Moral Philosophy” (2002).

Despite her influence, Ms. Foot remained disarmingly modest. “I’m not clever at all,” she told The Philosophers’ Magazine in 2003. “I have a certain insight into philosophy, I think. But I’m not clever, I don’t find complicated arguments easy to follow.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 12, 2010

An obituary on Sunday about the philosopher Philippa Foot misstated the given name of her mother. It was Esther, not Edith.

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Philippa Ruth Foot's Timeline

October 3, 1920
Owston Ferry, North Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
October 3, 2010
Age 90
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom