In “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Philippa Foot’s main argument is that morals are not categorical imperatives. Essentially, Ms. Foot makes the claim that morals are not reason-giving, meaning that an action can be morally right, but we are not required to do it. This also means that a person can make a rational decision to withdraw from the moral community. Her conclusion is that morals are hypothetical imperatives, meaning they are the “practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else which one desires…” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology 138). She sees this alternative to a rigid realist structure a better means of ensuring moral behavior. “…perhaps we should even have less to fear it [defection from the moral cause] if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology 143)
Her reasons that lead to the conclusion are based on the problems with a categorically imperative based system of morals. Since these moral principles can be ignored or violated by rational people, they are not categorical at all! She also mentions that our feelings towards morals are not enough to compel us to follow moral rule. Nor are the normative aspects of moral conclusions. Most people would assume that this point of view negates the idea of morals. Morality being no more than hypothetical imperatives reduces it to the level of etiquette and social behaviors.
At first, I was troubled by this. Morals have always been portrayed as this unyielding measure of good behavior. We’ve always been taught to follow these behaviors and ridicule those who don’t. For example, honesty is the best policy is a moral truth. People, communities, and cultures look at liars, thieves, and other dishonest people with disdain. At a very young age, we were taught in pre-school to not steal or tell lies. Our teaching is this matter was reinforced at home when we got grounded for lying about flushing marbles down the toilet. Is this a moral truth because is truly is a universal moral fact, or merely because were taught that the world is this way? More pertinently, do I behave the way I do because I ought to be honest or because I was taught to be honest?
Let’s say I do not steal or lie and avoid dishonest actions because I was taught to avoid those actions. Does this in anyway diminish my standing as an honest person? Or maybe I don’t steal because I know I’ll get caught by my mom and I desire to stay in good standing with her. This type of behavior still commits the moral action, it just has different intentions underneath it.
When I got my tonsils out as child, my mom bought me a stuffed grey cat with a pink ribbon around its neck. My little sister loved it and wanted it super badly. Suppose she didn’t steal from me while I was in my drug-induced slumber because she knew stealing was wrong and one should strive to be moral. A second scenario: suppose she wanted to steal it, but knew I’d smear mustard all over her Pringles if she did. Since she desired that her Pringles stay mustard-free, she decided against stealing my cat. The outcome in both scenarios is the same, but one was a categorical imperative while the other was a hypothetical one. If she didn’t steal my cat solely because it was the right thing to do, is her action more moral than the second scenario? (She actually did steal it and my mom had to buy me a new stuffed cat. I did mustard her Pringles and we still fight about it.) Philippa Foot’s piece brings rise to an even greater question that requires the input of multiple people in the comments: are morals still considered morals without their categorical nature? Or would morals be reduced to behaviors or actions that are good or bad depending on how they impact other people?