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Reading Philippa Foot's Natural Goodness

Foot makes some interesting observations but ends in the naturalistic fallacy.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
October 11, 2023; ported here on January 12, 2024

I briefly discuss Philippa Foot's now-classic book on ethics, Natural Goodness (Oxford, 2001/3), in my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God. Here, I take the opportunity to comment on Foot's book in more detail, focusing on the text (in a subsequent post I might take a look at what some other people have said about the book). Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers of the 2003 Oxford paperback edition.

In her 2000 preface, Foot says she had "been writing this book for many years" and had discussed its ideas with numerous colleagues. (Foot passed in 2010.) She writes, "It will be obvious that I owe most to the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, and to early discussions with her."

Introduction—A Naturalistic Fallacy?

In her introduction, Foot asks us to find the difference "between evaluating, say, a house from a utilitarian point of view [as good], when questions such as 'for whom?' will have to be answered before an evaluation can be made or, by contrast, evaluating a house aesthetically, when this question would be out of place" (3).

She continues, "These are two different logical categories in which evaluations can be made, and the aim of this book is to find that other one to which the moral evaluation of human actions belong" (3).

Foot jumps to clear up a possible gross misunderstanding: "[B]y natural goodness I emphatically do not mean the goodness thought by many to belong, for instance, to some but not other sexual practices because some but not others are 'natural'" (3).

What Foot describes would indeed be a rather stupid form of the claim that some "natural" things such as straight sex and man-woman marriages are good, whereas allegedly "unnatural" things such as gay sex and gay marriages are bad. Nevertheless, many people in our world do routinely make such stupid claims! And some of those people, for whom "natural" often is euphemism for "ordained by God," impose brutal and authoritarian policies on the basis of such claims.

However, we might wonder here if what Foot does eventually endorse commits a more sophisticated (and bigotry-free) version of the same basic fallacy. I think people inclined to worry that Foot is about to commit a sort of "naturalistic fallacy" have just that concern.

Foot ends her introduction by teasing her thesis: "[M]oral judgement of human actions and dispositions is one example of a genre of evaluation itself actually characterized by the fact that its objects are living things" (4). Let's see how this goes, then.

Chapter 1—On Practical Rationality

Foot begins her first chapter by restating her thesis in more detail:

[E]valuations of human will and action share a conceptual structure with evaluations of characteristics and operations of other living things, and can only be understood in these terms. I want to show moral evil as 'a kind of natural defect.' Life will be at the centre of my discussion, and the fact that a human action or disposition is good of its kind will be taken to be simply a fact about a given feature of a certain kind of living thing. (5)

So we're going to get some sort of argument that it's good to live up to or according to human nature. You can see why the reference to "life" perks up the ears of Objectivists.

Foot then goes on for a while about why moral subjectivism is wrong (as I agree it is), before returning to her own ideas.

Foot says starkly: "[A]cting morally is part of practical rationality" (9). But then, in the very next paragraph, Foot emphasizes that she does not think "that reasons [have] to be based on an agent's desires" (10). To what does "practical" refer, then, if not the fulfillment of our desires in some sense?

Foot understandably worries that basing ethics somehow on desires leads straight back to moral subectivism.

To tease my own views here, I think that, if we separate out our basic, inborn desires from those that depend on our complex evaluations, then there is a way that we can base ethics on (some) desires (or inclinations or needs or interests) without speeding down the Highway to Subjectivism.

Foot clarifies: "I now believe that both the self-interest theory of rationality and the theory of rationality as desire fulfilment are mistaken" (10). Again I ask: To what, then, does "practical" refer?

Foot then says that, although she thinks that morality is part of practical rationality, it is not the case that "the whole of practical rationality can be brought under the umbrella of 'morality'" (11). Okay, practical rationality is the broader category, of which morality is an aspect. (That doesn't answer my question about what practical morality is, though, if not directed toward some fulfillment of desires.)

Foot says that "goodness of choice" is "primary" to "practical rationality," and "there is no criterion for practical rationality that is not derived from that of goodness of will" (11). We'll try to figure out what that means.

Foot talks about virtues for a bit, and says she talks of "virtues in terms of (a) the recognition of particular considerations as reasons for acting, and (b) the relevant action." And that is "at the same time . . . talking about practical rationality" (13). So I guess what Foot means by "practical rationality" is simply the rationality by which one does (practices) things.

Foot immediately (again) rejects the view "that rationality is the following of perceived self-interest" (13). The term "perceived" is interesting there—what does it mean to "perceive" one's self-interest? She likewise (again) rejects the view that rationality pertains to "the maximum satisfaction of present desires" (13). But what about the satisfaction of something like "all-things-considered desires" or reflective desires?

Again Foot emphasizes that practical rationality is multi-faceted:

An action can be contrary to practical rationality in that it is dishonest or disrespectful of others' rights, or that it is foolishly imprudent, or, again, that the agent is, for example, careless, timid, or half-hearted in going for what he wants. (13)

To summarize Foot's views: aspects of practical rationality indeed guide us in pursuing our desires, but other aspects of it give us reasons for acting morally, even in ways that may subvert our desires.

To me, here is the obvious question: What is the "natural" basis of our reasons for moral action, if not desires or self-interest? Calling something reasonable doesn't make it so; saying something is "natural" doesn't make it reasonable.

Foot begins to bring in nature when she notes that goodness of will "depends also on essential features of specifically human life," not just on "an abstract idea of practical reason applicable to rational beings as such" (14).

Foot then invokes Anscombe's idea of "an 'Aristotelian necessity,'" related to claims such as "it is necessary for plants to have water" (15). Humans need things like language and facial recognition.

Further, "we are social animals" who "depend on each other" (16). This disproves psychological egoism, Foot notes.

Here Foot offers an example that helps illuminate her theory:

[T]here is something wrong with a free-riding wolf that feeds but does not take part in the hunt, as with a member of the species of dancing bees who finds a source of nectar but whose behaviour does not let other bees know of its location. These free-riding individuals of a species whose members work together are just as defective as those who have defective hearing, sight, or powers of locomotion. (16)

Is Foot here offering a model for people? We, too, "naturally" cooperate, so the free-riding person too is "defective"?

Here is a problem for Foot: Humans also "naturally" favor the in-group and disfavor the out-group. So is a person defective who attempts to expand the moral circle? Undoubtedly Foot would say no, but then it becomes entirely unclear which parts of "nature" she expects us to follow and which parts she expects us to ignore. Maybe some parts of nature are "more natural" than others? Ultimately, I doubt she can persuasively answer such questions.

In considering humans, we must consider the importance of "human communication and reasoning" in recognizing the "goods that hang on human cooperation," as well as those that hang on "such things as respect for truth, art, and scholarship" (16).

Objectivists will grit their teeth when Foot concedes only "a reasonable modicum of self-interest," as "we can look out for ourselves much better than anyone else can do it for us" (17).

Foot also brings back in desires: "Good hangs, too, on the careful and cognizant pursuit of many more particular ends, and in general in satisfying appetites and following desires" (17).

After going on for a while longer against the subjectivists, Foot offers the interesting example of a smoker. Maybe someone wants to give up smoking "because he wants a healthy old age" (reasonable enough) (22). Must the chain of reasoning "not end with something that the agent 'just wants'; in other words, with some 'conative' element in his individual psychological state?" Foot says no: "Suppose instead that it is the recognition that there is a reason for him, as for anyone else, to look after his future so far as circumstances allow?" (22) But from where, then, is this reason coming, if not ultimately from something the person wants? Is it just "natural" to not smoke? (Millennia of human practice would suggest otherwise.)

Foot then tries to say it's just obvious that we shouldn't smoke: "[I]t is silly to disregard one's own future without special reason to do so" (23). Ah, the tried-and-true argument from silliness.

Just as smoking is obviously silly, Foot argues (using that term loosely here), so too is free-riding: "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). So to the argument from silliness we can add the argument from what most people know. So far we don't seem to be getting off on the right foot.

In the final paragraph of the first chapter, Foot summarizes:

[T]he grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life—facts . . . of the kind that I spoke of in saying why it was a part of rationality for human beings to take special care each for his or her own future. . . . [T]he evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species[.] (24)

The problem is that, so far as I can see, Foot has not actually said why such ends are "a part of rationality for human beings." I agree that they are, but Foot has not explained why.

Foot concedes that "sentiments" such as shame and sympathy play a role "in motivating human virtue" (24), but that for her is not the basis for practical moral rationality.

Chapter 2—On Natural Norms

The second chapter is called "Natural Norms," so maybe we'll make some better progress here.

Foot goes on at some length about how living things differ from nonliving things. I agree this is an important distinction. She then reminds us of differences between species.

Then Foot notes that what is normal for a species may not describe a particular member of that species. Examples: "Cats are four-legged but [some particular cat] may have only three [legs]." Humans have 32 teeth, "though most human beings have lost quite a few and some never had the full compliment" (this example she attributes to Anscombe) (28).

Then Foot considers the "normative judgements" at stake when, for example, "a plant in our garden is diseased, or not growing properly, or . . . a certain lioness is a neglectful parent, or a particular rabbit [is] not as reproductive as a rabbit should be" (29–30).

Then Foot introduces teleology, and notes that certain features are essential to a member of a species in that it serves a function, and certain features are accidental. But of course a plant doesn't recognize its end (31).

Foot writes:

[E]valuation of an individual living thing in its own right, with no reference to our interests or desires, is possible where there is intersection of two types of propositions: on the one hand, Aristotelian categoricals (life-form descriptions relating to the species), and on the other, propositions about particular individuals that are the subject of evaluation. (33)

This is just to restate her point that we should look for goodness in nature, not desires.

I wish to focus for a moment on Foot's remark that "the life cycle" of animals pertains to "self-maintenance and reproduction" (33). Given her premises, how does she think she can avoid saying that such is the proper end of human action?

Another summary point:

[N]atural goodness and defect in the domain of plants and animals depends essentially on the form of life of the species to which an individual belongs. Pliability is good in a reed though a defect in an oak. (35)

Foot closes this chapter by admitting that it's a problem to explain how "a natural form of life characteristic of humankind could determine what you or I ought to do" (37).

Chapter 3—Humans

After some prologue, Foot, sensing the incredulity of her critics, writes, "Are we really going to suggest that human strengths and weaknesses, and even virtues and vices, are to be identified by reference to . . . 'biological' cycles?" (41)

Well, it's not as simple as that, she suggests. Humans are as different from other animals as animals are from plants.

Foot offers this interesting example: "[T]he properly acting bee that stings a gardener may well bring about the destruction of the nest" (42).

This bee may be considered "properly acting" only because we know there's no way it could know that stinging the gardener might provoke the person to destroy the beehive. (Few actual gardeners would destroy pollinators, but let's leave that aside.) If the bee were capable of rational thought, then it might be able to fight against its "natural" inclination to sting. But is not this just the state that we humans are pretty much always in?

Foot realizes this:

Lack of capacity to reproduce is a defect in a human being. [Normally?] But choice of childlessness and even celibacy is not therefore shown to be defective choice, because human good is not the same as animal good. (42)

Just at the biological level, Foot notes, humans need a lot of things that other animals do not need: a larynx and mouth capable of articulating the sounds of language, the capacity to distinguish such sounds, "the mental capacity for learning language," and so on (43).

Here's an interesting line (that I quite like):

Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. (44)

Foot continues, to meet our particularly human needs, we need "virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience" (45).

After some additional discussion, Foot gets around to explicitly rejecting (as fundamental) utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism (48–49). But her initial argument for this, at least, appears faulty. She asks, "In evaluating the hunting skills of a tiger do I start from the proposition that it is a better state of affairs if the tiger survives than if it does not?" (49) Clearly, what is better for the tiger need not be what is better for me (especially if I'm the one on the menu). But this does not defeat consequentialism; indeed, hunting skills seem a paradigmatic example of something needed for its consequences.

For humans, promise-making seems obviously to arise from its practical results. We would not make promises if we didn't expect them to do anything for us. The reason we make promises is that it's useful to be able to rely on each other. Yet Foot wants to look beyond the consequences: "In giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that (although not absolute) contains in its nature an obligation that harmlessness does not annul" (51). The example she has in mind of a "harmless" breaking of a promise, via Kropotkin (47), is of an anthropologist who was tempted to take a photo of his sleeping native assistant, whom he had promised not to photograph. I simply deny that such breaking of promises is harmless. What if the camera click woke up the assistant, who then became outraged? What if someone took a copy of the photo to the assistant later? That sort of thing could seriously derail future research efforts. To me, it is a little humorous observing Foot try to deny the consequentialist grounds of human modes of behavior (such as promise-making) that we obviously adopt because of their overall good consequences.

Foot ends the chapter by again hinting at a comparison between the "naturalness" of, say, birds building nests and "[h]umans establish[ing] rules of conduct and recogniz[ing] rights" (51).

Chapter 4—'Practical Rationality'

"Human beings as rational creatures can ask why [natural normativity] should have any effect on their conduct," Foot notes (52).

People are "able to act on reasons," Foot adds (53); what's more, they are able to act on what they think are "reasons" but that are not, in fact, reasonable. I think Foot has that wider category in mind.

Foot then reviews Aquinas's ideas about choice (53–55), leading up to her (obvious) conclusion that people can "choose on a rational ground" (55, emphasis omitted). But how is this helping her? It seems like Foot is about to ask us to assume her conclusion: Humans can do what is rational, this is rational, do it!

I do quite like Foot's "all things considered" approach (59). But then Foot (again) rejects what had been her view earlier in life, "that only interests or desires could give practical rationality to moral action" (60). But then how can there be "a practical rationality that was independent of desire or interest" (61)? (I still don't think there can be, in some ultimate sense, once we strip out judgment-dependent desires.)

Foot quotes Warren Quinn's "Rationality and the Human Good," and the view that Quinn attacks pretty aptly summarizes my view: "the goal of practical reason [is] the maximal satisfaction of an agent's desires and preferences, suitably corrected for the effects of misinformation, wishful thinking, and the like" (62 in Foot). Only, for me, this "suitable correction" is the entire project of ethics, and one that gives presumption to no current (high-order) desire or preference. To me, the goal is not to take our desires and preferences basically as the given, and sand them around the edges; but to fundamentally rethink everything about our lives, recognizing that many desires and preferences need to be rejected outright. That's why my view is rationalist (in the good sense) and not based on Humean sentiment (although I think various sentiments are important).

I utterly reject Quinn's view, as summarized by Foot, that an interest-based account of ethics has "concern only [for] the relation of means to ends, [and] would therefore be indifferent to nastiness or even disgracefulness in an agent's purposes" (62). No. As I have explained in my last two books, an interest-based rational integration of our values leads us to reason about our moral end, which is a life of rationally integrated values. This is how I escape moral subjectivism without rejecting the fundamentality of interest.

Foot tries a different path out of moral subjectivism. She wishes "to show the rationality of acting, even against desire and self-interest, on a demand of morality." She sees "goodness as setting a necessary condition of practical rationality and therefore as at least a part-determinant of the thing itself" (63).

I think she's trying to find rationality outside of reason, goodness outside of the good, and the natural outside of nature.

The way I see it, Foot still has two fundamental problems: demonstrating that some virtue or mode of behavior is "natural" (or more natural) for humans in the way she means, and demonstrating that people should do what is "natural." Her thesis continues to feel like a gigantic naturalistic fallacy. Perhaps we will make more progress in the next chapter.

Chapter 5—'Human Goodness'

Foot discusses whether "morality" is limited to public interactions (no), then talks about moral culpability.

Interestingly (and I think clearly correctly), Foot agrees with Aquinas that if an action "is no way bad then it is good" (76, emphasis omitted). But it is bad, say, to waste time, although often good to spend time relaxing, daydreaming, etc. So I think a good action is good because it does something for us, not just because it lacks badness. An action that does nothing for us (again, things like relaxation are good!) is for that reason (a little) bad, because we could instead do something good.

I finish this enjoyable chapter having found Foot no closer to answering the problems raised earlier.

Chapter 6—Happiness

"Is not happiness humanity's good?" Foot wonders. Foot immediately rejects the idea that "no one ever does (can) pursue anything except his or her own happiness" (81). Of course, how one defines "happiness" may affect one's conclusion here.

Foot suggests that "virtue sometimes requires the sacrifice of happiness" (82). I don't think that's possible, if we correctly understand happiness. But then the sort of deep happiness I'm talking about conflicts with what many people consider to be their happiness. Let us concede that doing the right thing sometimes might require us to give up things that we normally would consider important parts of a happy life.

Foot is rightly skeptical that "deep happiness" refers to "something 'in the mind' in principle detachable from a person's resources of experience and belief" (86). She thinks "possible objects of deep happiness seem to be things that are basic in human life, such as home, and family, and work, and friendship" (88). I think there's something to that, but I'd say deep happiness pertains to our complex, reflective values and comes from (again) rationally integrating our values.

Foot writes, "It seems certain . . . that we must go beyond the description of a life of pleasure and contentment in looking into the concept of human happiness." But Foot remains worried (as I do not) about "combining wickedness and happiness" (90). Foot thinks maybe a sociopath can be deeply happy; I do not. Foot thinks we need "natural goodness" to ride to our rescue (91); I do not. To be sure, I think we have to "live up to our natures" in some sense to be truly and deeply happy; but I do not think this naturalness is distinct from our happiness.

I find it worrisome that on page 92 of her text called Natural Goodness Foot still feels compelled to ask, "What . . . are we even talking about if we speak of human good?" What indeed!

Foot sees the conundrum: happiness is "conceptually inseparable from virtue" (94), and yet, thinking of some men who died fighting the Nazis, "there was a sense in which [these men] did, but also a sense in which they did not, sacrifice their happiness" (95).

Foot concludes "that humanity's good can be thought of as happiness, and yet in such a way that combining it with wickedness is a priori ruled out." Aristotle saw "eudaimonia in terms of activity in accordance with virtue" (96).

What Foot has established is what most of us thought before: That virtue is necessary for a complete happiness. What Foot has not established is that virtue requires some "natural goodness" detached from interest or desire.

Chapter 7—'Immoralism'

Here Foot wishes to seriously consider immoralism to rebuke it.

Foot reminds us that Socrates said that happiness "lay in harmony in the soul" (101).

Foot observes that we value friendship and parenting (if we have kids) not only or mainly for the tangible benefits we may gain from those things, but in some sense in themselves (101–3). "[A] loving parent does not really separate his or her good from the good of the children," she writes (102). Can we not in a comparable way become "lovers of justice" (103)?

As Foot acknowledges, Nietzsche's portrayal of the traditionally "moral" person as "dog-like," as opposed to spontaneous and daring, threatens to undermine Foot's project (106). For if what Nietzsche praises as "natural" is more genuinely or authentically so than what Foot proposes, then Foot's virtue ethics is doomed.

Here we find a familiar retort: "[O]ne must surely find Nietzsche's dismissive views on compassion rather silly" (107). Sigh. Thankfully she does go on for a few more pages with some more-helpful observations on the topic to the effect that Nietzsche mostly was wrong about human psychology (as he was, but not entirely). Foot gravely warns of the dangers of Nietzsche's view that "the tree . . . had to grow with its roots in the mud" as a rationalization for human "muddy" perversions of all kinds (112). At the social level, a number of twentieth-century "trees" grew in the "mud" of murder and oppression.

Contra Nietzsche, Foot offers this anemic line: "[T]here is nothing human beings need more than protection from those who would harm and oppress them" (113). Nothing? I of course agree that we rationally seek to create a society in which we are safe from predation—safe to creatively and joyously live our lives.

In the end, Foot merely suggests her thesis and never makes more than half-hearted attempts to shore it up. She practically admits defeat near the end: "[W]e have to take actual human life into account, and so to think about what men and women would be tempted to do in the absence of moral teachings" (114). Such weak tea brings to my mind Ted Lasso's reaction to tea in general.


Ah, but there is a Postscript! I find I must agree with Foot at the very end:

[A] certain Englishman . . . , owning an aviary, was so struck one day by the beautiful appearance of a dead bird that he straight away had the rest killed and stuffed. Hardly a crime! And yet there was something wrong with that man.

A lesson there too for the moral philosopher with respect to the subject under study?

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