Posts Tagged ‘Peanuts’

‘What?!’

December 27, 2010

It’s the time of year  for retrospection.

I’m looking in the other direction, as always, resolving to be more resolute in 2011. But one entry in the Times Magazine‘s annual look back at the “The Lives They Lived” caught my eye as potentially useful in that regard.

The ethicist Philippa Foot died this year. Her great light-bulb moment came when she recognized the value of naive insouciance towards orthodoxy. Call it her Sally Brown moment.

Returning to Oxford as a graduate student in 1945, after working in London during the war (and living in an intermittently bombed-out apartment with Iris Murdoch), Foot became troubled by a central assumption of 20th-century moral philosophy: that facts and values are logically independent. According to this view, you can’t derive an “ought” conclusion from a series of “is” premises. Nature is composed of objective facts that we can verify through science; values are mere attitudes in our heads that we project onto the world as we like. When we engage in moral disagreement with, say, an unrepentant murderer, reasoned argument breaks down. We feel it is wrong to kill innocent people; he simply does not. There is no accounting for taste.

In the wake of the news of the concentration camps, Foot was haunted by the notion that there was no way to rationally overcome a moral standoff with a Nazi. She wanted to argue that moral evaluation (“It is wrong to kill innocent people”) is not fundamentally different from factual evaluation (“It is incorrect that the earth is flat”). A cynic should no more be able to deny the moral implications of a relevant body of evidence than a flat-earther can deny the factual implications of astronomical data. It was Anscombe, a devoted Catholic, who liberated Foot, a lifelong atheist, to dare to think in this outmoded fashion. Foot had been speaking of the conventional contrast of “ought” and “is,” and Anscombe feigned confusion. “She said: ‘Of what? What?’ ” Foot recalled. “And I thought, My God, so one doesn’t have to accept that distinction! One can say, ‘What?’!”

What, indeed. I think that’s going to be my new philosophy.

P.S. On this date a very good man was born, in 1928. Happy birthday JCO.