Philippa Foot is professor emeritus of the University of California at Los Angeles and a fellow at Sommerville College, Oxford University. She has written important articles in moral theory, including this selection. Here she argues that Kant is wrong in viewing morality as categorical rather than hypothetical. Kant has been credited by the vast majority of ethicists, even those who disagree with him on other issues, with establishing the necessity of grounding moral judgments in categorical imperatives, rather than in hypothetical ones. Moral judgments are objectively necessary—not a mere means to achieve something one desires, as prudential judgments are. Foot argues that Kant seems to be wrong here, and that the categorical aspect of morality may stem more from the way it is taught than the way it really is. Nonetheless, while taking a certain transcendence away from morality, a morality based on hypothetical considerations may still be adequate and important and true.
Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices (Basil Blackwell, 1978).
Foot, Philippa., ed. Theories of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1967).
Louden, Robert. Morality and Moral Theory (Oxford University Press, 1991).
Pincoffs, Edmund. Quandries and Virtues (University of Kansas Press, 1986).
Pojman, Louis, ed. Ethical Theory (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 2002).
There are many difficulties and obscurities in Kant's moral philosophy, and few contemporary moralists will try to defend it all. Many, for instance, agree in rejecting Kant's derivation of duties from the mere form of the law expressed in terms of a universally legislative will. Nevertheless, it is generally supposed, even by those who would not dream of calling themselves his followers, that Kant established one thing beyond doubt—namely, the necessity of distinguishing moral judgments from hypothetical imperatives. That moral judgments cannot be hypothetical imperatives has come to seem an unquestionable truth. It will be argued here that it is not.
In discussing so thoroughly Kantian a notion as that of the hypothetical imperative, one naturally begins by asking what Kant himself meant by a hypo
Reprinted with permission from Philosophical Review 84(1972): 305–316. Philippa Foot added the following footnote in 1987:
“I now think that this paper shows a mistaken bias in favor of a Humean theory of reasons for action. But its question, 'Why
is it rational to follow moral rules but not those of etiquette?' still seems to need an answer.”