20th century, Contemporary, Humanities

Morality and Art: the fiction of inescapability

By Clare Barnard

Philippa Foot’s academic career has spanned arguably the most changeable time of the twentieth century. She has now returned to Oxford, after being made Griffin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1991. Foot began her studies in a very different world as a PPE student at Somerville college in 1939. Over a period which has brought the world so many manmade catastrophes, Philippa Foot has crucially re-introduced the classification of right and wrong actions into ethical debate. However, Foot has not limited her beliefs to theoretical discussion; as one of the founders of Oxfam she has applied her views on ethics in a practical fight against immorality.

‘Morality and Art’ was originally the title of a lecture given by Philippa Foot in 1970, yet it appears in her book Moral Dilemmas published in 2002. Although Foot admits hesitancy in including it in the publication, it is, for readers tentatively stepping into the potentially bewildering world of meta-ethics, a friendly and astute guide. Judgements of morality can be juxtaposed with comparatively ordinary decisions we make in what Foot describes as ‘relatively calm waters’. By examining the differences in these judgements we are able to understand the problems of morality and our view of its inescapability.

Thus, Foot suggests that aesthetic judgement provides a cornerstone from which moral judgements can be explored. By asking whether the sceptic of morality is sceptical about judging works of art, she compares our openness in analysing aesthetics and our approach to moral choices. While we would accept that our artistic appreciations are dominated by subjectivity, we often attempt to maintain that we are objective when considering moral dilemmas. With morality ‘we maintain a fiction of inescapability, while with art we do not’.

But is such a distinction really so arbitrary? Foot argues that while moral choices are not objective, as we may often try to portray, the notion that they are simply subjective is also false. She maintains that moral declarations are not just verbal exclamations of emotion and that moral judgements can be derived rather than asserted.

The formalist argument entails that individuals are free to choose their morality as long as general principles and consistency are adhered to. To Foot, this position is indefensible, believing that there are ‘starting points fixed by the concept of morality’. Crucial to this is her view that ‘good and evil belong to the definition of morality and not to man’s definition’. The idea of good and evil belonging to a native definition of morality would produce an objectively true or false value to a moral judgement.

However, Foot’s pragmatism forces her to recognise the impotence of a system of definitional criteria. It is clear that murder is objectionable but what counts as murder? Foot therefore provides an alternative explanation via the existence of contingent principles. These will always be subjective, even when described in an objective form, for when we state ‘it just is right’ as a reason there can never be any objective substance. This is a gap in appearance and reality, something the appraisal of art could also be accused of.

This leads to a fundamental question of philosophy, first raised by Aristotle over 2000 years ago: why should one be moral? Foot is a believer in Aristotelian ethical theory and her discussions of the word ‘should’ provide a thorough discussion of the motivations of morality. The considerations of the good for the community, what the agent may want in the future, as well as in the present, provide Foot with the conclusion that ‘should’ is to be used differently when backed by moral deliberation.

But is there anything to ground our assertion that ‘wickedness is necessarily foolishness’? As an atheist, Foot does not accept the will of God as such an authority. She comments that ‘our thoughts about artistic merit are not haunted by a historical connection with religion’. Foot candidly asks, ‘Would it not be more honest…to recognise that the “should” of moral judgement is sometimes merely an instrument by which we (for our own good reason) try to impose a rule of conduct even on the uncaring man?’

Such a problem of persuasion does not arise with aesthetics, which conclusively provides an irreconcilable difference between ‘the judgement of art and of conduct’. However, taking both types of dilemma from the viewpoint of the agent brings fresh insight into ethical inquiry. The person that chooses the book, the music or the image gains the pleasures of art, and so there is a reason for opting for the good and rejecting the bad. It is with this observation that Foot wishes ‘to open a debate which might consider changes in the way we talk about what is morally good or bad’ and recognise that the form of language we have already developed may not be the one we actually want to use in expressing our views on morality.

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