Thursday, October 07, 2010

Philippa Foot (1920-2010)

Philippa Foot, the notable moral philosopher, recently died; while well-known, she was, I think, always underappreciated. I was reading one of her essays earlier today, and came across a passage in a discussion of whether (e.g.) a habitual coldblooded murderer could be counted as having the virtue of courage given that his action (deliberately and coldbloodedly murdering someone) is not the sort of thing a coward could do. And she noted that defects can cancel out other defects, citing a passage in Aquinas (ST 1.58.4 ad 3) in which he talks about how a blind horse is better off if it's slow. The Aquinas passage is actually on a slightly different topic, but Foot is quite right that it contains the basic ideas for a Thomistic response to the problem: Aquinas notes that the natural inclination to the object of a virtue is a sort of beginning of virtue, but need not be complete virtue. And this makes sense of the murderer: a habitual, deliberate, and coldblooded murderer might be unable to be cowardly: to have the vices required for being such a person you have to have the inclinations that are the beginning of courage: the things that would be courage if they were properly developed.

In any case, suddenly linking the topic to Aquinas's example of the blind horse is very like Foot: she always approached things obliquely, and so often saw things others didn't.

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