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Philippa Foot on Utilitarianism and the Virtues

Utilitarianism states that welfare is the highest principle of a human activity. Everything, what is useful for people or promotes their welfare, is good for people. The labor is useful for the formation of the human mind. The moderate way of life or unpleasant medicines are useful for the preservation of life. Based on the requirements of the reasonable nature, the preference of the useful thing to the pleasant one also makes the basis of the doctrine about the welfare as the main principle of morality. The main goal of the paper is to present the views of Philippa Foot on utilitarianism in her book “Utilitarianism and the Virtues”. The thesis of Foot is that the human happiness is in a human life because each life worth living irrespective of the difficulties or extreme situations. The paper will start from the Foot’s argument for this thesis, followed by the objection to this argument and resulting in the respond of the philosopher to this objection.  

The utilitarian philosophers do not recognize the need for the special moral principles, such as not to lie, respect justice or keep promises. The utilitarian philosophers share the opinion that the action leading to the greatest possible happiness of the greatest number of people is always correct. Happiness and pleasures compose the only absolutely and internally valuable things in the Universe. The other valuable things are valuable only because they bring happiness. Philippa Foot is one of the few philosophers who, discussing the question about the value of life per se, contrary to the utilitarian philosophers defend the full intelligence of the belief that the unhappy life is worth being lived (Hursthouse 180). Only in extreme situations, a death is better than life but nobody has the right to recommend this choice to anybody.

The name of the Philippa Foot’s book, who can be considered a direct outlook opponent of Michael Slote, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues” corresponds to its contents. The human goodness is natural - neither less nor more than the goodness of the other living beings as it is defined by the requirements of the outlook setting the norms. The variety of the human virtues does not interfere with the idea that the concept of a good human life can be in the same meaning the criterion of the characteristics and actions of people in what the flourishing can be the definition of the goodness of animals and plants (Hursthouse 181). Foot develops the thought close to the ideas of “the philosopher of action” Warren Quinn stating that the concept of the practical rationality should be expressed through the concept of the benefit, namely just because it is good to act, it brings some benefit, and people have the grounds for its commission (Foot 197). A good action is caused by the absence of anything bad. In this question, Foot’s ideas are equal to the ones of Thomas Aquinas.

Foot’s fundamental thesis states that life is worth living, which means that life is worth living for the people who live their lives (Hursthouse 180). Whatever someone thinks of the value of a human life, this opinion should not dissuade from the value of life. The value of each individual life consists only in its usefulness for someone else, leads to the infinite regress and, therefore, is extremely absurd (Foot 198). In her book, Philippa Foot (1985) speaks about the welfarism and the search for the pleasures:

Welfarism has its own peculiar attraction, which has to do with the fact that pleasure, happiness, and the satisfaction of desire are things seen as in some way good. But this attraction becomes less powerful as distribution principles are added, and pleasures discounted on an ad hoc basis to destroy the case for such things as public executions (p. 198).

Philippa asks herself what makes a human life worth living. Foot fairly believes that people usually want to live, even when there are more powerful unhappy events than the happy ones. She explains her point of view on the example of the definite situations. Life in the imprisonment is good if compared to the premature death. A human life, having a serious illness is better than a premature death (Hursthouse 181). The life in a constant deprivation of food, housing, medical care is better than the premature death. Foot asks herself whether the life for seriously ill patients is good. She speculates that the life can be good even for the people living due to the medical lungs ventilator. Thus, Philippa Foot comes to the conclusion that life is good per se (Foot 201). Nevertheless, the life of some people is so awful that it would be more reasonable to die. Therefore, though it is possible to tell that life per se is good, it is necessary to add that it should be originally human life. She understands the usual human life assuming that a person has a minimum of the main human virtues. The usual human life means that people are not forced to work more than they can, they enjoy the family or society support or they can satisfy their hunger and hope for the future as well as they can restore their strength at night.

Although the utilitarian philosophers also speak of the good and bad acts, they draw the line between the human virtues and actions but utilitarianism does not recognize the virtue. They believe that the human virtues are the negative directions in ethics. Considering all human acts from the point of view of their usefulness, the utilitarian direction absolutely denies the morality and virtues but finds the human happiness in different pleasures.

However, Foot proves that the idea of the usual human life assumes the communication between the concept of life and the concept of virtue. The usual human life is good in itself, and its value does not depend on happiness. However, it should be noted that this understanding of the word “usual” is a little extraordinary (Foot 202). Such a concept of the usual life extends to the human lives which are not usual from different perspectives. For example, the Beethoven’s life in many respects was extraordinary, however, according to Foot, it fits into the concept of the usual human life (Hursthouse 182). The same can be said about the human life, entirely depending on the medical ventilator (Hursthouse 183). Thus, the conclusion of Philippa Foot about the virtues of life are close to the perception of life by majority of people. Explaining the conceptual communication between life and virtues, the Foot’s point of view corresponds to the common sense, which cannot be considered as a shortcoming for the philosopher.

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