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Celebrating notable women in philosophy: Philippa Foot

This March, in honour of Women’s History Month, and in celebration of the achievements and contributions of women to the field of philosophy, the OUP philosophy team honours Philippa Foot (1920–2010) as its Philosopher of the Month. Philippa Foot is widely regarded as one of the most distinctive and influential moral philosophers of the twentieth-century.  She is best-known for contributing to the revival of the Aristotelian virtue ethics, the theory of ethics developed by Plato and Aristotle that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, of the person carrying out the action rather than the duties, rules, or the consequences of actions. In ancient time, virtue ethics was a dominant form of ethics

Despite having no formal education as a child, Foot succeeded in obtaining a place at Somerville College, a women’s college within the University of Oxford after taking a correspondence course in Latin. She was one of the remarkable group of women philosophers, including Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, and the future novelist Iris Murdoch who studied at Oxford University during the Second World War and developed a shared philosophical viewpoint on moral philosophy. Conscription had reduced the number of men at Oxford University since they were enlisted in war work. As a result, these women had the opportunity to attend the same philosophy classes and make their voices heard in a predominantly female university environment. They became life-long friends and would engage philosophically during their university years and in the years after. Foot would also spend many hours in philosophical discussions with Elizabeth Anscombe who was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and influenced her thinking about ethics. Anscombe excoriated consequentialism, which determines the morality of an action upon the consequences of the outcome, and advocated a return to virtue ethics.

Image credit: A photo of Philippa Foot, courtesy of Somerville College Archives. Used with permission.

Dissatisfied with the prevailing moral philosophy of her contemporaries, Foot defended the objectivity of morality against prescriptivism and emotivism of philosophers such as Charles Stevenson, A.J. Ayer and Richard Hare, and the whole moral subjectivism tradition that derived from David Hume. She also considered the important role virtues played in her conception of morality, inspired by the ethics of Aristotle and St. Aquinas. She believed that goodness should be seen as the natural flourishing of humans and that virtues are qualities beneficial to the community. They are essential characteristics that any human being needs to have, both for his own sake and for that of others. Moreover, her approach was influenced by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein; her criticism of subjectivism and emotivism can be seen as Wittgensteinian by bringing the attention back to the grammar of moral concepts. To the wider world, she is also associated with the Trolley problem, which raised the question of why it seems morally permissible  to steer a runaway trolley aimed at five people toward one person while it may not be acceptable for a surgeon to kill one healthy man to use organs to save five patients.

Foot’s published work mainly consists of essays, most of which are collected in two volumes, Virtues and Vices (1978) , Moral Dilemmas: and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy (2002), culminating in her acclaimed monograph, Natural Goodness (2001) which is considered one of the most important philosophical works on  moral philosophy. Her works address a broad range of subjects, including the connection between virtue and happiness, the nature of practical rationality, the limitations of consequentialism, the connection between justice and morality, euthanasia, and abortion. For more on Philippa life and works, view our interactive timeline here:

Featured image credit: Somerville College Oxford by Aivin Gast. Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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