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Foot: Moral Beliefs
Philippa Foot's Moral Beliefs
The concept of moral relativism is extremely troubling for many. Indeed, the human animal is desperately in need of a certain "moral order," or an intense longing to have life's issues, events and decisions neatly classified into realms of "good" and "bad," "right" and wrong. However, as most individuals blessed with a life that stretches into adulthood know all too well, other's conceptions of good and bad actions often differ greatly from one's own -- and, even more puzzling, those "others" seem to genuinely believe in their own conception of reality just as much an individual how holds the completly opposite view. In her work Moral Beliefs, Philippa Foot gives her take on this issue; namely in her response to the viability of systems of belief that allow moral eccentrism (the foundation on which moral relativism is built), and her belief in the untenability of the non-cognitivist position.
From the beginning of her work, Philippa Foot sets out to "look critically at the premises" on which many people reject naturalism -- that values of morality or goodness arise out of the human's inherent understanding of reality, quite apart from special circumstances. In short, it is a philosophy that is the opposite of moral relativism. It is a system on which any individual is equally bound by its moral principles, regardless of evidential facts She writes:
..the whole of moral philosophy, as it is now widely taught, rests on a contrast between statementst of fact and evaluations, which runs something like this: 'The truth or falsity of statements of fact is shown by means of evidence; and what counts as evidence is laid down in the meaning of the expressions occurring in the statement of fact. (83)
The difference, according to Foot, between these evidential principles of fact, and evaluations is significant. She notes that, "...no two people can make the same statement and count completely different things as evidence; in the end one at least of them could be convicted of linguistic ignorance."(83) Further, unlike in the relativist scheme of things, "..."if a man is given good evidence for a factual conclusion he cannot just refute to accept the conclusion on the ground that in his scheme of things this evidence is not evidence at all."(83) To allow oneself to delve into an evaluation of the evidence is to possibly fall into the realm of "moral eccentrism," the unacceptable spawn of non-cognitivism. Again, she writes:
An evaluation is not connected logically with the factual statements on which it is based. One may say that a thing is good because of some fact about I, and another may refuse to take that fact as any evidence at all, for nothing is laid down in the meaning of 'good' which connects it with one piece of 'evidence' rather than another. It follows that a moral eccentric could argue to moral conclusions from quite idiosyncratic premises... (84)
If, for example, one is allowed to accept a non-naturalist point-of-view, then, not only does one run the risk of sinking into abject relativism (the ultimate free-for-all of society). For, not only can an individual who accepts this kind of thinking base his or her moral beliefs on assumptions that only he or she recognize as valid. Further, he or she could also refuse to agree with someone else's evaluation because the assumptions or standards of evaluation are not ones that he or she accepts.
However, according to Foot, this kind of non-naturalism or non-cognitivism is in error, illustrated by the notion that the proper use of words demonstrates their ability to communicate clear evaluations of moral significance and meaning. In specific, Foot illustrates this point in her discussion of the words "proud" and "dangerous."
In specific, Foot explains, in the case of "pride":
Given any description of an object, action, personal characteristic, etc., it is not possible to rule it out as an object of pride. Before we can do so we need to know what would be said about it by the man who is to be proud of it, or feels proud of it; but if he does not hold the right beliefs about it then whatever his attitude is it is not pride.(86)
Hence, the moral, or value assigned to the "pride" in question is directly related to the facts, or "special background" associated with the object in relation to the use of the word. In other words, one could not be "proud" of simply standing up, unless, perhaps, a special circumstance (an injury, for example), made standing up an event worthy of pride.
Of course, Foot's greatest example against non-cognitivism and its descent into moral eccentrism (again the essence of moral relativism), is her discussion of "injury" and its nature as being "bad." Here, the question arises of whether the concept of an injury being "bad" makes sense evidentially.
Specifically, in response to this question, Foot explains that injuries are defined as causing damage and "malfunction" of a part of one's anatomy, that this damage and ensuing malfunction is harmful to the body (and, by extension, to the individual), and that, it is a truth that humans want to prevent harm to their bodies as much a possible.
Therefore, not only is it "right" to prevent injury, but that injury is necessarily "bad."
Further, one can go back to the two terms Foot uses in her explanation, "proud" and "dangerous," to illustrate that this "badness" is connected to the concept of moral virtues in the terms "good" or "harm." She writes, "It is surely clear that moral virtues must be connected with human good or harm, and that it is quite impossible to call anything you like good or harm."(91) Therefore, these kinds of terms illustrate that there is inherent and unrelative meaning in moral terms.
In addition to the established meaning derived from their commonly understood use, Foot also explains that all of these words have an internal judgment placed on them, or an assessment of their "value" good or bad, based on their internal relationship to an "object." Further, it is the connection between the value, the object, and the logical reason that allow one to make the correct (and not relative) judgment concerning that value. Foot specifically makes the leap from the more mundane life value judgments represented by fear, danger, pride, etc., to "those attitudes or beliefs which are the moral philosopher's study."(91) In specific, she writes, "Now we must consider whether those attitudes or beliefs...are similar, or whether such things as 'evaluation' and 'thinking something good' and 'commendation' could logically be found in combination with any object whatsoever."(92) Further, she introduces this consideration with the provision that no "special background" may be introduced. She writes:
We are bound by the terms of our question to refrain from adding any special background, and it should be stated once more that the badness of a man or an action, and not what could be, or be thought, good or bad with a special background. I believe that the view that I am attacking only seems plausible because the special background is surreptitiously introduced. (92)
Here, in the realm of the moral virtue, it is not enough to understand or accept the value of a moral belief simply based on the "use" of the words or terms. Instead, a sense of background must be introduced, allowing a cognitive approach. Take, for example, Foot's explanation of the understanding of the moral belief, "This is a good action." On this sentence, Foot notes that it is not enough to understand the sentence on its own, for example, as one would with the term "it is dangerous." Instead, one must know exactly "how" it is a good action. Is it a brave action,…[continue]
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