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Cohon, Rachel. Hume’s Moral Philosophy
2010, E. N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy [electronic resource]
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Added by: Simon Fokt

Introduction: Hume’s position in ethics, which is based on his empiricist theory of the mind, is best known for asserting four theses: (1) Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions” (see Section 3) (2) Moral distinctions are not derived from reason (see Section 4). (3) Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action (see Section 7). (4) While some virtues and vices are natural (see Section 13), others, including justice, are artificial (see Section 9). There is heated debate about what Hume intends by each of these theses and how he argues for them. He articulates and defends them within the broader context of his metaethics and his ethic of virtue and vice.

Hume’s main ethical writings are Book 3 of his Treatise of Human Nature, “Of Morals” (which builds on Book 2, “Of the Passions”), his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, and some of his Essays. In part the moral Enquiry simply recasts central ideas from the moral part of the Treatise in a more accessible style; but there are important differences. The ethical positions and arguments of the Treatise are set out below, noting where the moral Enquiry agrees; differences between the Enquiry and the Treatise are discussed afterwards.

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Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness
2001, Oxford University Press.
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Added by: Anne-Marie McCallion

Publisher’s Note: Philippa Foot has for many years been one of the most distinctive and influential thinkers in moral philosophy. Long dissatisfied with the moral theories of her contemporaries, she has gradually evolved a theory of her own that is radically opposed not only to emotivism and prescriptivism but also to the whole subjectivist, anti-naturalist movement deriving from David Hume. Dissatisfied with both Kantian and utilitarian ethics, she claims to have isolated a special form of evaluation that predicates goodness and defect only to living things considered as such; she finds this form of evaluation in moral judgements. Her vivid discussion covers topics such as practical rationality, erring conscience, and the relation between virtue and happiness, ending with a critique of Nietzsche’s immoralism. This long-awaited book exposes a highly original approach to moral philosophy and represents a fundamental break from the assumptions of recent debates. Foot challenges many prominent philosophical arguments and attitudes; but hers is a work full of life and feeling, written for anyone intrigued by the deepest questions about goodness and human.

Comment: This is an intermediate text which outlines and argues for the primary methodological differences between Foot’s account of the relationship between reason and morality, and the standard (broadly Humean) approach against which she is arguing. Some understanding of this standard approach is required to get the most out of this text. The text is clear throughout and would make a good compliment to courses which deal with the Humean account of Action or 20th century discussions concerning meta-ethics.

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Foot, Philippa. The Philosopher’s Defence of Morality
1952, Philosophy 27(103): 311-328
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Added by: Anne-Marie McCallion

Introduction: Philosophers are often asked whether they can provide a defence against hostile theories which are said to be “undermining the foundations of morality,” and they often try to do so. But before anything of this kind is attempted we should surely ask whether morality could be threatened in this way. If what people have in mind is simply that the spread of certain doctrines leads to the growth of indifference about right and wrong there is no philosophical problem involved. So long as we treat the matter as a case of cause and effect it will belong rather to the psychologist than the philosopher, and we have no reason for questioning that correlations of this kind may exist. But this is not the assumption, or not the only one, for people undoubtedly do think that if certain doctrines could be proved then moral judgment would have been shown to be “nonsensical,” “meaningless,” or “invalid,” so that thereafter it would be not merely difficult but positively irrational to formulate and attempt to follow moral principles. It would be simple enough if the attack was supposed to be against some particular moral code, for there are recognized ways of arguing that a thing is not right but wrong. But when it is morality in general which is to be disproved or discredited it is difficult to see what this means or how it could be done. What would have to be shown is not that this or that is not right, but that nothing is—or not in the old sense so that attacking moral judgment is not like attacking a theory but more like attacking theorizing itself, which shows where the difficulty lies. If something is stated it can be denied or disproved, but a moral judgment does not contain statements except about what in particular is right or wrong. Yet many people, though they would probably reject a request for a justification of morality in the form of some argument as to why we should do our duty, feel that morality would be in a positive sense unjustifiable if certain supporting truths were knocked away from the structure. This may indeed be so, but we are unable to show that it is, or to explain the matter by appealing to “presuppositions” of morality, which besides being far too vague would too easily include much that was linked merely psychologically to the recognition of obligation. I propose, therefore, to look at some specific arguments which are supposed by those who resist them to constitute a threat to morality, and to ask whether this supposition is justified.

Comment: This text offers a persuasive and creative attack on the dominant meta-ethical views of the 20th century. Foot offers insightful reasons to reject the subjectivist, relativist and amoralist positions on ethics. As such this text would be suitable for intermediate level courses on moral philosophy, history of philosophy classes as well as – potentially – critical thinking courses, as Foot’s argumentational style in this paper would likely be illuminating to students when analysed.

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Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices
1978, Oxford University Press.
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Added by: Laura Jimenez, Contributed by: Nomy Arpaly

Publisher’s Note: This collection of essays, written between 1957 and 1977, contains discussions of the moral philosophy of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and some modern philosophers. It presents virtues and vices rather than rights and duties as the central concepts in moral philosophy. Throughout, the author rejects contemporary anti? naturalistic moral philosophies such as emotivism and prescriptivism, but defends the view that moral judgements may be hypothetical rather than (as Kant thought) categorical imperatives. The author also applies her moral philosophy to the current debates on euthanasia and abortion, the latter discussed in relation to the doctrine of the double effect. She argues against the suggestion, on the part of A. J. Ayer and others, that free will actually requires determinism. In a final essay, she asks whether the concept of moral approval can be understood except against a particular background of social practices.

Comment: Foot stands out among contemporary ethical theorists because of her conviction that virtues and vices are more central ethical notions than rights, duties, justice, or consequences. Since the author discusses multiple relevant topics (abortion, euthanasia, free will/determination, and the ethics of Hume and Nietzsche) this book is a really complete reading for Ethics courses. The book can be used in both, undergraduate and postgraduate courses, but the last eight essays are more suitable for postgraduates.

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