Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 January 2009
Philosophers have often claimed that the requirements of morality have an absolute and categorical status. Other values may be relative to the agent's ends, other imperatives hypothetical on his desires: their requirements must be justified by relating the action enjoined to the attainment of those ends or desires, and can be avoided by being shown to be incompatible with them. But the requirements of morality bind us whatever our ends or desires might be: they are not to be justified by reference to anything beyond themselves; they cannot be avoided by being shown to be incompatatible with our existing purposes. Other values and imperatives may be determined—be given their status as values or imperatives—by our own prior purposes and desires: but those of morality themselves determine which purposes or desires we may or may not pursue. For convenient reference I label this the Absolutist view.
1 Foot, P. R., ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, Philosophical Review 81, (1972), 305–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Reasons for Actions and Desires’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 46 (1972), 203–210Google Scholar; ‘Is Morality a System of Hypothetical Imperatives? A Reply to Mr. Holmes’, Analysis 35 (1974–1975), 53–56Google Scholar. Williams, B., ‘Egoism and Altruism’, in Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 250–265CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Morality and the Emotions’, in Williams, , op. cit., 207–229Google Scholar; Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 17–27.Google Scholar
2 I leave aside here the question of the role Kant allowed to the feeling of ‘respect for the law’.
5 I realize that I have in this paragraph begged two large questions. Though I say a little more about them below, my main interest is in seeing whether the admission of these two claims forces us into Subjectivism.
6 Foot, , ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 310–312Google Scholar. Compare Freud, , Totem and Taboo, translated by Strachey, J. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), xGoogle Scholar: ‘… taboos still exist among us. Though expressed in a negative form and directed towards another subject-matter, they do not differ in their psychological nature from Kant's “categorical imperative”, which operates in a compulsive fashion and rejects any conscious motives.’
7 See Williams's careful distinction between ‘I-desires’ and ‘non-I desires’: Williams, , ‘Egoism and Altruism’, 260–265.Google Scholar
8 Mrs. Foot is not always clear about this: she talks sometimes as if the charitable man obeys an imperative to care for the well-being of others which is hypothetical on his desire for the results of such concern, or the honest man obeys an imperative to tell and care for the truth which is hypothetical on his desire for the results of this (‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 313–314Google Scholar). On this, see Phillips, D. Z., ‘In Search of the Moral “Must”: Mrs. Foot's Fugitive Thought’, Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1977), 155–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
11 A similar issue arises in philosophy of religion, between the view that the task of the philosopher is to prove or disprove God's existence and the view that it is rather to explicate the logic of belief in God. See D. Z. Phillips's works in this area.
12 Williams himself says that altruism ‘refers to a general disposition to regard the interests of others, merely as such, as making some claim on one, and, in particular, as implying the possibility of limiting one's own projects’ (‘Egoism and Altruism’, 250)Google Scholar. But to see their interests as making a claim on me is not just to want to help them.
17 Mrs. Foot talks of a ‘devotion’ to liberty or justice which will lead a man to fight hard for them (‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 314Google Scholar). But talk of devotion is hardly consistent with a perspective of desire: to be devoted to something is to see it as worthy of devotion, as demanding my care.
18 More generally I would want to argue that the Subjectivist cannot give an adequate account of many of our non-moral concerns, since they too involve the idea of something as worthy of our concern, as demanding our attention, not just the idea of something we want. See Duff, R. A., ‘Psychopathy and Moral Understanding’, American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977), 197.Google Scholar
22 See Foot, , ‘Is Morality a System of Hypothetical Imperatives? A Reply to Mr. Holmes’.Google Scholar
23 See Duff, op. cit.
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