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Under What Net?

  • William K. Frankena (a1)


In Morality and Art Mrs Foot characterizes the formalist position about morality as holding ‘that a man can choose for himself, so long as he meets the formal requirements of generality and consistency, what his ultimate moral principles are to be’, and says, quite rightly in my opinion, that it is indefensible, ‘implying as it does that we might recognize as a moral system some entirely pointless set of prohibitions or taboos, or activities such as clapping one's hands, not even thought as harmful, aggressive, treacherous, cowardly by the community in which the prohibitions exist’. Then she adds:

A moral system seems necessarily to be one aimed at removing particular dangers and securing certain benefits, and it would follow that some things do and some do not count as objections to a line of conduct from a moral point of view.



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1 Annual Philosophical Lecture, British Academy. London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 4. I might also have taken as my text the following statement: ‘But we have moral rules and principles and indeed the institution of morality itself, primarily or at least importantly, to adjudicate in a fair manner conflicts of interest.’ Nielsen, Kai, ‘Alienation and Self-Realization’, Philosophy 48, No. 183 (01 1973), p. 30.

2 See ‘Moral Arguments’, Mind 67 (1958), as reprinted in Thomson, J. J. and Dworkin, G., Ethics, New York: Harper and Row, 1968, p. 19. My italics.

3 Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives', Philosophical Review 81 (1972), pp. 305316.

4 It is interesting to notice that both she and S. N. Hampshire, a formalist, seem to build a prohibition of killing human beings into the definition of morality. See Hampshire, , ‘Morality and Pessimism’, New York Review of Books, 01 25, 1973, pp. 2633.

5 See Normative Discourse, Englewood Cliffs, N.H.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1961, pp. 107f, 279286.

6 I assume that Mrs Foot still holds that only certain sorts of things count as dangers or benefits. See ‘Moral Beliefs’, in Thomson, and Dworkin, , Ethics, especially pp. 245253.

7 See Findlay, J. N., ‘Morality as Convention’, Mind 53 (1944), pp. 142169; and Warnock, G. J., The Object of Morality, London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1971, pp. 1016.

8 For Aristotle, see Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 45.

9 p. 4.

10 Op. cit., p. 21. Strictly, one should also distinguish between moral action and moral evaluation. They might have different objects, if they have objects.

11 Actually, if one reads that paper by itself, it is not entirely clear that she is proposing this. See pp. 307–309, 310f, 315. She even says that the amoral man who does not care about suffering and injustice ‘will recognize in the statement that one ought to care about these things a correct application of the non-hypothetical moral “ought” by which society is apt to voice its demands’ (p. 315).

Under What Net?

  • William K. Frankena (a1)


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