Article Summary: “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” by Philippa Foot


Foot argues that, contrary to commonly-held belief, moral judgments are not categorical imperatives, but rather are hypothetical imperatives like other judgments. Foot thinks this because she can see no basis for the claim that we always have a reason to obey moral rules. But if we do not always have a reason to obey, then it can be rational to ignore moral rules, and thus moral judgments cannot be categorical.

Foot discusses efforts to delimit the moral categorical imperative from other sorts, but believes that they all fail. The most basic theory about moral judgments is one about use: certainly, moral judgments are used categorically, as opposed to other sorts of judgments which tend to be hypothetical. But Foot points out that Kant (the originator of the claim that moral judgments are categorical) meant much more than this: he seems to think it is a metaphysical fact about moral rules that they are rationally binding, not merely that they are used as if they are rationally binding. Further, in certain circumstances, rules of etiquette are used categorically: when a man wants to disobey the rules of a club because he will never come back, nonetheless it is said he ought not to violate the club’s rules, despite his desires. So a theory of use cannot differentiate moral judgments from any other.

For Foot, the heart of the matter is whether moral rules are reason-giving: are we rationally compelled to obey, regardless of our desires? Foot proceeds to disputes the most significant attempts at justifying the reason-giving powers of moral rules. In the first place, such rules do not to Foot appear to be intrinsically reason-giving. That is to say, an action can be right and we can still have no reason to do it. An amoralist can rationally withdraw from the moral community and we will not be able to convict him of irrationality; we can say that he is vindictive, or evil, or something of the sort, but not irrational.

With the most common support for moral categorical imperatives removed, Foot proceeds to secondary reasons why we might always have a reason to obey moral rules. The first is the normativity of moral rules. But Foot rightly points out that many other sorts of judgments entail normativity; we do not, however, list them as categorical. Further, the notion that we simply ‘must’ adhere to rational precepts is, to Foot, likely an outcome of stringent teaching. So, we feel we must obey, but such feelings cannot serve as a support for a theory of categorical imperatives; regardless of how we feel, we might still be able to rationally disobey, after all. Finally, Foot dispenses with the idea that coercion (physical or psychological) might undergird the necessary obedience to moral rules. It is clear that Kant’s (and almost everyone else’s) conception of the categorical imperative is not one which people are coerced into; it should provide a reason to obey absent coercion.

So, Foot concludes that if moral judgments are not categorical, then they must be hypothetical. She then disputes the notion that, if this were so, and if everybody believed it, it would have a corrosive impact upon morality. Foot thinks that Kant himself believed this because he was a psychological hedonist with regard to all actions except those which adhered to moral rules: when we are not obeying moral rules, we are always promoting our own self-interest. Foot thinks that the fact that Kant believed this blinded Kant to the possibility of non-binding reasons for being moral.

People can, and do, have reasons for being moral despite moral rules not being binding. People love justice, liberty, charity, and other virtues. And since they desire these things, they will continue to promote them. So, people will still desire to promote the well-being of others, for example, despite the fact that they are not required to. Foot thinks that, in fact, dedication to a moral rule’s being voluntary might promote adherence: people will be more motivated to promote justice, say, if they feel they are volunteers banded together to promote the cause.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Moral judgments are hypothetical imperatives

1. Either moral judgments are categorical imperatives or otherwise they
are hypothetical imperatives.
2. Moral judgments are not categorical imperatives.

S1. In order for moral judgments to be categorical, there must
always be a reason to adhere to them.
S2. The use of moral judgments as categorical cannot be a reason
for adhering to them.
S3. Moral rules are not intrinsically reason-giving.
S4. The normative aspect of moral judgments cannot be a reason
for adhering to them.
S5. Coercion cannot be a reason for adhering to moral judgments.
S6. Our feelings cannot be reasons for adhering to moral judgments.
S7. Therefore, there are no necessary reasons for adhering to moral judgments. [S2-26]
S8. Therefore, moral judgments are not categorical. [S7,S1]

3. Therefore, moral judgments are hypothetical imperatives. [2,1]

Sub-argument: Morality would be preserved, even if hypothetical

1. If people would still desire to be just, charitable, etc. even if moral
judgments were hypothetical imperatives, then morality would continue
on as usual.
2. People would in fact continue to desire to be just, charitable, etc. even
if moral judgments were hypothetical imperatives.
3. Therefore, morality would continue on as usual, even if moral judg-
ments were mere hypothetical imperatives. [2,1]

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument
1. (C ∨ H) ∧ ¬(C ∧ H)
2. ¬C…Therefore,H
3. C ∨ H (1, SIMP)
4. H (2, 3,DS)

Where C=Moral judgments are categorical imperatives and H=Moral
judgments are hypothetical imperatives.

1. D → M
2. D…Therefore,M
3. M (2, 1,MP)

Where D=People will continue to desire to be moral, even without
categorical imperatives, and M=Morality will continue on as usual.

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