Foot Without Achilles’ Heel


It is often assumed that neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics postulates an obligation to be a good human being and that it derives further obligations from this idea. The paper argues that this assumption is false, at least for Philippa Foot’s view. Our argument blocks a widespread objection to Foot’s view, and it shows how virtue ethics in general can neutralize such worries.

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  1. 1.

    There are complicated problems here arising from the defeasible (non-monotonic) character of practical reasoning, but these are problems for every meta-ethical theory and there is no reason to think that Foot’s account is worse off here than other theories.

  2. 2.

    If L is indeed a reason for A to φ, then we might, of course, still ask why it is true that L is a reason for A to φ. If, however, we think that L itself must be among the reasons for A to φ whenever L is the reason why p is a reason for A to φ, then we embark on an infinite regress of the same broad type as Achilles in Lewis Carroll’s famous paper (Carroll 1895).

  3. 3.

    Understood in this way thesis (b) follows immediately from “We are humans.”

  4. 4.

    This hyper-intensionality comes out clearly in the theoretical case. “That H2O is water is a conclusive reason to believe that the water in my glass is H2O” is true, but “That water is water is a conclusive reason to believe that the water in my glass is H2O” is false, even though water is necessarily H2O.

  5. 5.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing us on this point.

  6. 6.

    Hence, our response is different from some previous neo-Aristotelian, e.g., by Micah Lott (2014) and Jennifer Frey (2018).

  7. 7.

    A standard view here is that natural facts (which can be about human nature or about other natural things) are not the kind of thing that can justify or ground genuine norms. One version of this complaint says that natural facts and normative facts are “just too different” for the latter to be explicable by, analyzable in terms of or grounded in the former. Discussing this general worry here would lead us too far afield. Hille Paakunainen (2017) gives a helpful overview of that debate and convincing reasons to think that normative naturalism has ample room to maneuver in that debate.

  8. 8.

    This is a version of the regress Lewis Carroll describes in (Carroll 1895).

  9. 9.

    The combination of the two displayed claims is congenial to the so-called inferential account of permissibility, which says that an action is ethically permissible iff it could be the result of a good practical inference (see Hanser 2005). In fact, we think that this is, at bottom, the same view because if there is no reason for you not to φ, then we think that this counts as a reason for you to φ. In other words, sometimes “I did it for no particular reason” suffices as a justification for an action; and if it doesn’t, then this is because there was some reason for you not to perform the action.

  10. 10.

    We do not need to come down on one of these disjuncts for our current purposes. So we stay non-committal.

  11. 11.

    Here the neo-Aristotelian can adopt the so-called reasoning view of normative reasons (Setiya 2014; Way 2017).

  12. 12.

    An opponent might, of course, disagree with the neo-Aristotelian explanation of full-blooded normativity in terms of natural normativity because she sees general problems with naturalistic accounts of normativity, but this would not be criticism that is specific to neo-Aristotelianism (see Footnote 7).


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Correspondence to Ulf Hlobil.

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Hlobil, U., Nieswandt, K. Foot Without Achilles’ Heel. Philosophia 47, 1501–1515 (2019).

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  • Virtue ethics
  • Flourishing
  • Rationality
  • Moral skepticism
  • Human nature