Big Thinker: Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) is one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics, reviving the dominant Aristotelian ethics in the 20th century. She introduced a genre of decision problems in philosophy as part of the analysis in debates around abortion and the doctrine of double effect.

Philippa Foot was born in England in 1920. While receiving no formal education throughout her childhood, she obtained a place at Somerville College, one of the two women’s colleges at Oxford. After receiving a degree in 1942 in politics, philosophy and economics, she briefly worked as an economist for the British Government. Besides this, she spent her life at Oxford as a lecturer, tutor, and fellow, interspersed with visiting professorships to various American colleges, including Cornell, MIT, City University of New York and University of California Los Angeles. 

Virtue ethics

In the philosophical world, Philippa Foot is best known for her work repopularising virtue ethics in the 20th century. Virtue ethics defines good actions as ones that embody virtuous character traits, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. This is distinct from deontological ethical theories which encourage us to think about the action itself and its consequences or purpose instead of the kind of person who is doing the action. 

“What I believe is that there are a whole set of concepts that apply to living things and only to living things, considered in their own right. These would include, for instance, function, welfare, flourishing, interests, the good of something. And I think that all these concepts are a cluster. They belong together.”

The doctrine of double effect

Imagine you are the driver of a runaway trolley that is barrelling down the tracks. You have the option to do nothing, and let five people die, or the option to switch the tracks and kill one person.

This is Philippa Foot’s famous trolley problem. This thought experiment encourages us to think about the moral differences between actively causing death (e.g. pulling a lever to get the trolley to change tracks) and passively or indirectly causing death (doing nothing, allowing the trolley to kill five people. Utilitarians might argue that five deaths is far less desirable than one death, but many people instinctively feel that actively causing a death has a different moral weight than doing nothing. 

Perhaps Foot’s most influential paper is The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, published in 1967. Here, she explains what is called the Doctrine of the Double Effect, which explains why some very bad actions (like killing) might be permissible because of their potentially positive outcomes. The trolley problem is one example of the doctrine of double effect, but she also uses various other cases. 

“The words “double effect” refer to the two effects that an action may produce: the one aimed at, and the one foreseen but in no way desired. By “the doctrine of the double effect” I mean the thesis that it is sometimes permissible to bring about by oblique intention what one may not directly intend.”

For example, what if one person needed a large dose of a rare medicine to save their life, but that same amount of medicine could save the lives of five others who each needed less? Would we think that the “oblique intention” of a nurse who administers the medicine to one person instead of the five people is justified?

Foot finds that it would be wise to save the five people by giving them each a one-fifth dose of the medicine. However, she encourages us to interrogate why this feels different from the organ donor case, where we save five people who need organ transplants by sacrificing one person. 

“My conclusion is that the distinction between direct and oblique intention plays only a quite subsidiary role in determining what we say in these cases, while the distinction between avoiding injury and bringing aid is very important indeed.” 

When the trolley problem is taken to its logical conclusion, these fallacies become even more obvious. As John Hacker-Wright writes, the trolley problem “raises the question of why it seems permissible to steer a trolley aimed at five people toward one person while it seems impermissible to do something such as killing one healthy man to use his organs to save five people who will otherwise die.” 

Foot has also contributed to moral philosophy with her writing on determinism and free will, reasons for action, goodness and choice, and discussions of moral beliefs and moral arguments. 

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Big Thinker: Audre Lorde

Professionally a poet, professor and philosopher, Audre Lorde (1934-1992) also proudly carried the titles of intersectional feminist, civil rights activist, mother, socialist, “Black, lesbian [and] warrior.” She is also the woman behind the popular manifesto “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in New York City, to Frederic and Linda Belmar Lorde, on the 18th of February 1934, Lorde fell in love with poetry as a form of expression at a young age.  

“I used to communicate through poetry,” she recalled in conversation with Claudia Tate for Black Women Writers at Work. “When I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry,” she said. Lorde was thirteen.  

Alongside her education at Hunter High School in New York, and working on the school’s literary magazine, she published her first piece of literature in the 1951 April issue of Seventeen Magazine. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1959, preceding a master’s degree in library science in 1961 from Columbia University. Following that, Lorde worked as a librarian for public schools in New York City from 1961 to 1968, working her way to head librarian of Manhattan’s Town School. In 1980, Lorde and her friend, a fellow writer and activist, created a publishing house, ‘Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.’ Throughout these years, Lorde was prolific and wrote some of her most recognised volumes of poetry. A full discography of her work can be found at the end of this article. 

Authorship and legacy

Expression of self and personal philosophy through literature became a cornerstone of Audre Lorde’s life and one of her greatest contributions to the discourse on discrimination and equality today.  

A proud feminist, Lorde’s authorship strived to offer an authentic depiction of the female experience; the good, the bad and the complex. She felt academic discourse on feminism was white and heterosexual centric, lacking consideration of the lived realities of Black and queer women. Thus, she put the stories of these women at the centre of her literature.  

Lorde’s philosophy focussed particularly on intersectional discrimination and academic discourse’s inability to accommodate it. She revered differences amongst humans, arguing true equality can only be achieved through celebrating rather than homogenising our different identities.  

Third Wave Feminism

Lorde was a prominent member of the women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights movements during the second wave of feminism. As a woman with many of her own labels, Lorde used her lived experience and literary expertise to shine a light on the experience and voices of other women with multiple signifiers. She implored society to confront racist feminism, the nuances of the Black female experience and the cognitive dissonance between educating yourself on feminism whilst not bearing witness to the experiences of all women, particularly women of colour whose intellectual labour and contributions to such academia have been so routinely overlooked. Thus, helping kickstart the third wave of feminism, also spearheaded by another big thinker, Kimberle Crenshaw. 

Through her words, Lorde aimed to acknowledge and capture the pain as well as the joy she felt as an openly queer Black woman. This bare-all intent and celebration of individuality is particularly felt in her work, The Cancer Journals and her subsequent public encouragement of other breast cancer survivors to wear their mastectomies on their chest, rather than accept prosthesis purely for aesthetic motivations. “It is that very difference that I wish to affirm… I lived it, I survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women.”  

Philosophy on difference

Lorde was an advocate for difference amongst human beings. For her, difference was the key to eradicating discrimination and moving forward in unity. As we constantly reevaluate what it means to be human, what we hold dear and the ethical pillars we lean on to guide us, Lorde philosophised that it was vital we harness rather than fear that which separates us from our friends, peers and enemies. Rather than homogenising humanity, the future of equality relies on our ability to relate across differences. Finding community is not about conforming, it is about accepting. It must be an act of opening up, not of shutting down.  

Lorde examined difference particularly through an intersectional feminist lens. Identifying and subverting the conditioning of women to view their differences as causes for separation and self-judgement.  

What we need first, however, is courage. To have our beliefs and perspectives stretched and challenged as we begin the journey of embracing that which makes us different from those around us.  

Intersectionality

Lorde was acutely aware of and vocal about the pressure on marginalised people to divide their identities in order to fight for recognition of their discrimination. Academia was constructed to examine, debate and interrogate ways of being. At the time, it was established by white men, and thus contributions to this school of thought were limited to the lived realities and perspectives of these men. As a result, the notion of a human norm came about, and this norm was white, male, heterosexual and often, but not always, wealthy, educated and upper class. Every deviation from this ideal was considered a handicap and treated as such.  

In her speech at the New York University Institute for the Humanities, where she debuted her admonishment: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde cautioned people of colour and other marginalised demographics against the pressure to conform to the limited criteria ofacceptable’ laid out by discrimination discourse in white academia, in order to have their needs met. She argued fighting for equality within a system with the notion of a human ideal will only lead to disappointment. True and deeply entrenched equality can only happen through an entire paradigm shift; the unravelling of a human norm in the first place.  

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Moral injury

Each of us believes that, at our core, we are fundamentally ethical people. We always try to do the right thing. We have deeply held values and principles that we are not willing to compromise.  

But sometimes we are thrust into situations where there appears to be no ‘right answer’ – where the best we can hope for is to take the ‘least bad’ option or, worse still, where we are forced to act against what we believe is right.  

Moral injury is caused when we are compelled to act against what we believe is right in a high stakes situation.  

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Unconscious bias

Our brains are evolved to help us survive.

That means they take a lot of shortcuts to help us get through the day. These shortcuts, or heuristics, are vital. But they come at a cost. Learn what unconscious bias is and how you become aware of your own unconscious bias.


Moral intuition and ethical judgement

By checking in to our intuitions and using them to inform our judgements, we can come up with decisions that make sense, but also feel right.


What is the difference between ethics, morality and the law?

The world around us is a smorgasbord of beliefs, claims, rules and norms about how we should live and behave.

It’s important to tease this jumble of ethical pressures apart so we can put them in their proper place. Otherwise, it can be hard to know what to do when some of these requirements contradict others. Let’s talk about three different categories of demands on how we should live: ethics, morality and law.


Virtue ethics

What makes something right or wrong?

One of the oldest ways of answering this question comes from the Ancient Greeks. They defined good actions as ones that reveal us to be of excellent character.

What matters is whether our choices display virtues like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. Importantly, virtue ethics also holds that our actions shape our character. The more times we choose to be honest, the more likely we are to be honest in future situations – and when the stakes are high.


Deontology

What makes something right or wrong?

One answer comes from the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is considered the founder of an ethical theory called deontology. Deontology comes from the Greek word deon, meaning duty. It holds, quite simply, that actions are good or bad based on whether they fulfil universal moral duties.


Consequentialism

For lots of people, what makes a decision right or wrong depends on the outcome of that decision.

Does it increase or decrease the amount of happiness in the world? This kind of thinking is typical of consequentialism: an ethical school of thought that says what makes an action good or bad is, you guessed it, the consequences.


Purpose, values, principles: An ethics framework

An ethics framework is a statement of an organisation’s purpose, values and principles.

It makes clear what they believe in and what standards they’ll uphold. It’s a roadmap to good decision making and, if it’s lived throughout the organisation. It’s also a guide to making an organisation the best version of itself.

Trying to make a decision without knowing your purpose, values and principles, is like being at sea without a rudder. They’ll be pushed around by the winds of our desires, mood, unconscious mind, group dynamics and social norms. The choices they make won’t really be their own.