Philippa Foot, Virtue & Trolley Bus Thought Experiment

Philippa Foot was responsible for starting a new ethical movement: virtue which influenced Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre. She was reacting against A J Ayer and R M Hare (emotivism and prescriptivism respectively). Ayer and Hare both thought that morality was really about prescribing ways of acting that were approved in some way. For example for Ayer the moral prescriptions merely expressed feelings for, or against, a moral behaviour and therefore was subjective. She also opposed deontology, ethics focused on actions, and utilitarianism, ethics focused on calculating the best end. She was also critical of determinist thinking, but the focus here is on her virtue theory.

Foot thought no one would follow moral prescriptions unless it was thought they were in some way related to human well-being or human harm. She opposed subjectivist accounts of moral philosophy. She proposed a no-nonsense approach thinking that moral philosophy had lost touch with real life. She worked with Elisabeth Anscombe. Together they believed that morals were not a matter of etiquette or personal opinion.  Morality is about how to live virtuously, which for Foot meant in a well rounded and human way. Wisdom and temperance were important human virtues but often we follow those people who have neither. Ethics should not be focused on particular actions or particular rules but on the whole person and therefore being moral was not about instances but a lifelong process. Foot also took a modest approach to her ethics. She did not think an ethical theory could fully capture the whole moral picture and nor could deeply obscure penetrating theorization.

Philippa Foot is also well known for her trolley bus thought experiment, an example she used to express moral permissibility.

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing? (Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in VIRTUES and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978).)

In the example a breakless trolley-bus, the driver can swap some points over and change the course of the out of control vehicle. If he leaves it on the present course five people will be hit. By swapping the points only one person will be hit. This thought experiment was later developed with the introduction of a ‘fat person’. In the new version you switch the points onto a siding which runs back onto the main track and would hit the five people, however, a fat person is on the other line and because they are fat they will stop the train.

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