Reading Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot was an Oxford-trained philosopher who argued for a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics as opposed to deontology, utilitarianism, or consequentialism in ethics.

Foot created the famous moral thought experiment known as the trolley problem.

In 1957 she wrote an article in The Philosophical Review entitled “Free Will As Involving Determinism.” Foot criticized arguments that free will requires determinism, and in particular the idea that one could not be held responsible for “chance” actions chosen for no particular reason.

Her article begins with the observation that determinism has become widely accepted as compatible with free will.

The idea that free will can be reconciled with the strictest determinism is now very widely accepted. To say that a man acted freely is, it is often suggested, to say that he was not constrained, or that he could have done otherwise if he had chosen, or something else of that kind; and since these things could be true even if his action was determined it seems that there could be room for free will even within a universe completely subject to causal laws. (The Philosophical Review, vol LXVI, (1957), p.439)

Foot’s estimate of the wide acceptance of determinism is correct, but hard to reconcile with quantum indeterminacy in modern physics, as Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out a few years later in her inaugural lecture at Cambridge.

It has taken the inventions of indeterministic physics to shake the rather common dogmatic conviction that determinism is a presupposition or perhaps a conclusion, of scientific knowledge. Not that that conviction has been very much shaken even so…I find deterministic assumptions more common now among people at large, and among philosophers, than when I was an undergraduate. (Causality and Determination, 1971, p.28)

Foot examines arguments by David Hume, R. E. Hobart (the pseudonym of Dickinson S. Miller, a student and later colleague of William James), P. H. Nowell-Smith, Gilbert Ryle, and A. J. Ayer.

Foot correctly doubted that the ordinary language meaning of saying our actions are “determined” by motives has the same meaning as strict physical determinism, which assumes a causal law that determines every event in the future of the universe. She cites Bertrand Russell’s view of causal determinism:

The law of universal causation . . . may be enunciated as follows:…given the state of the whole universe,…every previous and subsequent event can theoretically be determined.

Foot is also skeptical of the simple logical argument that everything happens either by chance or because it is causally determined. This is the standard argument against free will that makes indeterminism and determinism the two horns of a logical dilemma.

Foot notes that our normal use of “determined” does not imply universal determinism.

For instance, an action said to be determined by the desires of the man who does it is not necessarily an action for which there is supposed to be a sufficient condition. In saying that it is determined by his desires we may mean merely that he is doing something that he wants to do, or that he is doing it for the sake of something else that he wants. There is nothing in this to suggest determinism in Russell’s sense. (ibid, p.441)

And when we do something “by chance” it may not mean physically undetermined, and may not be used to deny responsibility.

It is not at all clear that when actions or choices are called “chance” or “accidental” this has anything to do with the absence of causes… Ayer says, “Either it is an accident that I choose to act as I do, or it is not.” The notion of choosing by accident to do something is on the face of it puzzling; for usually choosing to do something is opposed to doing it by accident. What does it mean to say that the choice itself was accidental? (p.449-50)

If I say that it was a matter of chance that I chose to do something,…I do not imply that there was no reason for my doing what I did, and I say nothing whatsoever about my choice being undetermined. If we use “chance” and “accident” as Ayer wants to use them, to signify the absence of causes, we shall have moved over to a totally different sense of the words, and “I chose it by chance” can no longer be used to disclaim responsibility. (p.450)

Foot does not see that the role of chance and indeterminism might simply be to provide “free” alternative possibilities for action, to be deliberated upon and used as causes or reasons behind motives of our “will” as we choose to act.

She also does not seem to know that Hobart’s 1934 article was entitled “Free Will As Involving Determination And Inconceivable Without It.” In her reference (note 5), she thinks Hobart’s article has the same title she is using – “Free Will As Involving Determinism”.

See Philippa Foot on I-Phi