Foot’s “Morality As A System of Hypothetical Imperatives” [1972][1]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


I. Foot’s Critique of Kant:


Philippa Foot argues that Kant wrongly views morality as a matter of categorical (rather than hypothetical) imperatives.  The issue here, as she identifies it, is over the question of the binding force of morality.  She believes that the imperatives of morality have a superior force to other imperatives because of the way they are taught.  She allows that it has generally been supposed that the one right thing that is in Kant's moral philosophy is his claim that moral imperatives must be distinguished from hypothetical ones.  Foot maintains, however, that moral judgments can (and should) be seen as hypothetical imperatives. 


348 Hypothetical imperatives are defined: good to some purpose. 


Our language does seem to distinguish categorical and hypothetical imperatives:


-Hypothetical ones are clearly instrumental or teleological:


the case of the traveler and train (if we believe she has a desire to go home, we will say that she should take the train). 




-“When we say that a man should do something, and intend a moral judgment we do not have to back up what we say by considerations about his interests or his desires; if no such connection can be found the ‘should’ need not be withdrawn.” 


In maintaining that the imperatives of morality are different from the hypothetical imperatives, Kant intended to assign them a special dignity and necessity.  The “problem,” however, is to find some proof (or ground) for these special attributions.  This becomes especially apparent when we note that there are a variety of non-hypothetical imperatives which do not seem to belong to the realm of morality:


-349 The ‘should’ of etiquette. 


--“...we find this non-hypothetical use of ‘should’ in sentences...[like] an invitation in the third person, should be answered in the third person, where the rule does not fail to apply to someone who has his own good reasons for ignoring this piece of nonsense, or who simply does not care about what, from the point of view of etiquette, he should do.” 


-Similarly for the ‘should’ of club rules. 


According to Foot, to claim that the ‘shoulds’ of etiquette and club rules are not categorical imperatives (that they are unlike those of morality) amounts to claiming that “...although people give as their reason for doing something the fact that it is required by etiquette, we do not take this consideration as in itself giving us reason to act.  Considerations of etiquette do not have any automatic reason-giving force, and a man might be right if he denied that he had reason to do `what's done'.” 


-That is, the “normative character” of moral rules does not guarantee their reason-giving force.  As Foot notes, non-hypothetical imperatives require a background of teaching—the behavior is required, not simply recommended. 


Our moral teachings are more stringent than our other teachings.  How does the ‘should’ of morality differ from these other non-hypothetical imperatives?  What is wrong with not caring about the imperatives of morality (as one might not care about the imperatives of etiquette)? 


-As Foot notes, “attempts have sometimes been made to show that some kind of irrationality is involved in ignoring the ‘should’ of morality....”  Is there nothing more here than, say, the stringency of our teaching these imperatives (as contrasted with the stringency of our teaching of the imperatives of etiquette)?  What does the binding force of morality amount to, however? 


--Mental compulsion? 


--350 A penalty for acting otherwise? 


--Unquestioned acceptance of a project or role? 


“No doubt it will be suggested that it is in some other sense of the words ‘have to’ or ‘must’ that one has to or must do what morality demands.  But why should one insist that there must be such a sense when it proves so difficult to say what it is?  Suppose that what we take for a puzzling thought were really no thought at all but only the reflection of our feelings about morality?  Perhaps it makes no sense to say that we ‘have to’ submit to the moral law, or that morality is ‘inescapable’ in some special way.  For just as one may feel as if one is falling without believing that one is moving downward, so one may feel as if one has to do what is morally required without believing oneself to be under physical or psychological compulsion, or about to incur a penalty if one does not comply.” 


“The conclusion we should draw is that moral judgments have no better claim to be categorical imperatives than do statements about matters of etiquette.  People may indeed follow either morality or etiquette without asking why they should do so, but equally well they may not.  They may ask for reasons and may reasonably refuse to follow either if reasons are not to be found.” 


351 According to Foot, Kant thought all our hypothetical imperatives were concerned simply with self-interest and this, he believed, made them unsuited for ethics.  Foot believes this point is where he goes wrong.  That is, she sees him as a psychological hedonist (in regard to all actions except those done for the sake of the moral law), and this made it impossible for him to see how moral virtue could be compatible with non-categorical imperatives:


-“...quite apart from the thoughts of duty a man may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help if he can....if this is what he does care about, then he will be attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of place.” 


-That is, charity (as a virtue) can exist without thoughts of duty and without a categorical imperative.  An individual can simply be “attached” to the end—she can simply be concerned for the good of others.  And, given this care, a hypothetical imperative can apply to her actions. 


--Of course, Kant would find such “attachment” without “worth!” 


-In the case of justice or honesty, there is no obvious end which one can note as was the case in concern for the good of others and charity.  To be willing to fight hard for moral ends means that these ends arouse a good deal of devotion.  To sacrifice a good deal for the sake of etiquette would require that these ends similarly arouse a good deal of devotion:


--“A cause such as justice makes strenuous demands, but this is not peculiar to morality, and men are prepared to toil to achieve many ends not endorsed by morality.  That they are prepared to fight so hard for moral ends—for example, for liberty and justice—depends on the fact that these are the kinds of ends that arouse devotion.  To sacrifice a great deal for the sake of etiquette one would need to be under the spell of the emphatic `ought'.  One could hardly be devoted to behaving comme il faut.”[2] 


352 If one rejects the talk of “binding force” one “...will recognize in the statement that one ought to care about these things a correct application of the non-hypothetical moral ‘ought’ by which society is apt to voice its demands.  He will not, however, take the fact that he ought to have certain ends as in itself reason to adopt them.  If he himself is a moral man then he cares about such things, but not ‘because he ought’.  If he is an amoral man he may deny that he has any reason to trouble his head over this or any other moral demand.” 


-According to Foot, we are relying upon an illusion, however, if we try to give the moral ‘ought’ a magic force.  She maintains, however, that this line of thought need not be subversive to morality!  “But it is interesting to note that the people of Leningrad were not struck by the thought that only the contingent fact that other citizens shared their loyalty and devotion to the city stood between them and the Germans during the terrible years of the siege.” 




II. Two Related Points:


In his Moral Knowledge, Alan Goldman maintains that:


if my spouse or children thought that I am moved to provide first for them primarily because I perceive this as the rational thing to do, they would be repelled by my peculiar psychology.  We would dismiss any conception of rationality that did not hold these things reasonable to do; we are not guided by an independent conception of rationality or of a rational agent as such in wanting to do them.  It is true that I am motivated to avoid doing what I consider irrational, but that is because clearly irrational behavior is normally counterproductive in my attempts to satisfy my first- and second-order desires, not because my deepest desire is to be a rational agent.  (Indeed, I remain unsure that I have a concept of a rational agent apart from that of someone who tries efficiently to satisfy desires that humans ordinarily have.)[3] 


     In his The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality, Kurt Baier maintains that:


the problem with a theory of reason such as the roughly Kantian one we are now considering is that it rejects any connection between reason and such other commonly recognized “ultimate ends.”  It has therefore cut reason off from those undeniable sources of motivation which, if conceived of as internal to reason, are not embarrassed by the question, “But why go for that?”  It seems plausible to regard happiness or flourishing or fulfillment as such ultimate ends.  But our roughly Kantian conception of reason rejects the idea that reason tells us the best means to happiness or any other such ordinary ultimate end.  It replaces it with the idea that the ultimate end is to become deserving of happiness by acting in accordance with principles of reason, that is, roughly, universalizable maxims.  But it is much less plausible to think of this as an ultimate aim, in the sense that it is incapable of being embarrassed by the question, “Why go for that?” [4] 


III. On Foot's Own Moral Theory:


In his “Some Vices of Virtue Ethics,” Robert Louden notes that virtue ethics is not as clearly delimited as are deontological and teleological normative theories.  He discusses Philippa Foot as an exemplar of this orientation as he tries to more clearly characterize it (preparatory to offering his critiques).  According to Louden, Foot maintains that normative ethical theory should be concerned with virtues and vices:


...Foot envisions a moral community composed of an “army of volunteers,” composed, that is, of agents who voluntarily commit themselves to such moral ideals as truth, justice, generosity, and kindness.  In a moral community of this sort, all moral imperatives become hypothetical rather than categorical: there are things an agent morally ought to do if he wants truth, justice, generosity, or kindness, but no things an agent morally ought to do if he or she isn't first committed to these (or other) moral ideals.  On the Foot model...what distinguishes an ethics of virtue from its competitors is that it construes the ideal moral agent as acting from a direct desire, without first believing that he or she morally ought to perform that action or have that desire. [5] 


Louden points out that virtue ethics holds that the primary object of moral evaluation is the agent rather than the act or the consequences—it is an agent-centered normative theory.  This raises several distinguishing features (compared to the act-centered normative theories):


first of all, the two camps are likely to employ different models of practical reasoning.  Act theorists, because they focus on discrete acts and moral quandaries, are naturally very interested in formulating decision procedures for making practical choices....Agent-centered ethics, on the other hand, focuses on long-term characteristic patterns of action, intentionally downplaying atomic acts and particular choice situations in the process.  They are not as concerned with portraying practical reason as a rule-governed enterprise which can be applied on a case-by-case basis.[6] 


Secondly, their views on moral motivation differ.  For the deontological act theorist, the preferred motive for moral action is the concept of duty itself; for the utilitarian act theorists, it is the disposition to seek the happiness of all sentient creatures.  But for the virtue theorist, the preferred motivation factor is the virtues themselves (here understood non-reductionistically).  The agent who correctly acts from the disposition of charity does so (according to the virtue theorist) not because it maximizes utility or because it is one's duty to do so, but rather out of a commitment to the value of charity for its own sake.[7] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Philippa Foot, “Morality As A System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 347-335.  The essay originally appeared in Philosophical Review v. 84 (1972), pp. 305-316. 

[2] That is, “as one must.” 

[3] Alan Goldman, Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 107. 

[4] Kurt Baier, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality (LaSalle: Open Court, 1995), p. 15. 

[5] Robert Louden, American Philosophical Quarterly, v. 21 (1984), pp. 227-236, p. 229. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid. 

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File revised on: 10/22/2013