Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philippa Foot: Hypothetical Imperatives System

**This is from guest blogger, Chelsea, R.**

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?


Anonymous said...

Here's a random thought.

Suppose I'm playing a game of chess with my son. Now, suppose that I am in a position to play queen takes pawn, CHECKMATE. Given the rules ond goals of the game, I should make this move "categorically." I would suggest that this kind of "ought" is not "hypothetical" in any sense.

Now, suppose that I don't want to discourage him from learning the game and I make some other move so as not to end the game too quickly. Is it only hypothetically true that I should make the move only if I want to win the game?

Is there an analogy here with what we ought to do in daily life?

Nathan said...

I feel like you had an interesting childhood, Chelsea :)

Your comment made me think whether the same questions about hypothetical and categorical are true in consequentialist theories or theories dealing with intentions (whatever they’re called). What would a categorical imperitive look like on both of these theories?

If an action is right because of its consequences, it seems that there are no true categorical imperitives because the same action in different contexts or circumstances will have different outcomes and therefore moral statuses. If an action is right because of the intention for which it is done, would there be room for categorical imperitives? There might be good reasons and intentions to do an action (like not annoying your sister), but are categorical imperitives actions that are to be done for any reason other than the fact that it is good? It seems strange to say that you could do something for the same reason that makes the action good (let’s say a respect for human life) and yet not do it for the right reason (namely, for the sake of doing good). It seems that only on a deontological or Kantian perspective categorical imperitives make sense.

Or I could just be really tired and delusional. That’s an option too.

Eric Bumbaca said...

Very interesting post.

It seems to me that these categorical imperatives are closely linked to objective moral values. By this I mean that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of the desires that one has. I believe a subjectivist who denies such objective moral facts may still maintain: "Yes, morals are still morals without being categorical because we (as a society?) have agreed to such."

Perhaps this statement by the subjectivist reduces categorical imperatives to hypothetical imperatives. Perhaps we abide by a moral code because we desire not to be ostracized by our community. Please feel free to chime in and critique this analysis.

Claire Stein said...

I really like your question about whether the reason you now you should be honest is whether you ought to honest or you were taught to be honest. I think that if you were taught to be honest then you would feel as though you ought to be honest; your upbringing that taught you certain moral values )or etiquette) are what inform what you feel you ought to do. If what I have just said is true, then it seems like morality would be totally relativistic based on one's upbringing.

Heirron said...

Great post!
To add to the discussion about consequences and motivation, I think there are times, perhaps many times, when it is useful to view moral principles as categorical if we want to get the right actions out of people. It has been noted that, sometimes, wanting to, say, avoid bad consequences is a better motivator than the idea that a particular action is good. But on the other had, if one is only motivated by wanting to avoid bad consequences, the moment one thinks one can get away with something, one's motivation to behave morally will disappear. This is just my speculation, but I would propose that we could get away with quite a lot of lying and stealing for instance, so long as the lies and thefts were kept inconspicuous enough. If this is right, and if it's preferable that people act morally, it will be useful to be motivated by (or as if by) categorical imperatives. Of course, this says nothing about whether or not they actually exist. I am sympathetic to the idea that moral principles are categorical, and thought I would highlight the usefulness of regarding them in this way rather than as hypothetical. Of course, hypothetical considerations need not be abandoned, but it would be great if moral principles were categorical so that we could keep the motivation provided by both kinds of imperatives.

Chelsea R. said...

Nathan, I am so with you! I think that if a moral principle is not categorical, then it holds no ethical water.

It just doesn't make sense that communities can pick and chose which morals to have.