The experiment of modern philosophy began with Kant and the Utilitarians. As such things often do, modern philosophy again returns to Kant with Philippa Foot. Although she does not accept Kant's conclusions, she uses the methods of Kant in order to offer a refutation. To begin to understand what Foot is alluding to, we must first understand Kant.
Immanuel Kant's morality was focused around the notion of the categorical imperative. An imperative is a statement of ought. “If one wants to leave the continent, one ought to take an air plane” is an example of an imperative statement. The key word which makes a statement an imperative is the word 'ought' or 'should'. These rules are not necessarily binding, as in the example of the air plane. These rules are contingent on certain things, for example the desire to leave the continent is the contingent factor to taking an air plane. If you do not, in fact, wish to leave, then the 'ought' statement is unnecessary. These forms of ought statement are known in the language of Kantian morality as hypothetical imperatives. There is another form of imperative which is not a function of cause and effect, and these are known as categorical imperatives. Categorical imperatives are, for Kant, the imperatives of morality. A moral categorical imperative is a rule which must be followed universally without exception. This is to say, the ideas of cultural relativism and situational relativism do not modify the rules of action of a categorical imperative. Furthermore, Kantianism is not a pure consequentialist position, as its traditional alternative, which is to say utilitarianism, is. A Kantian does not examine the possible outcome of a situation when he or she is determining an action. A rule such as “do not lie” holds true all of the time. If a murderer is at a Kantian's door, asking for a particular person to kill, the Kantian, properly understood, must follow the categorical imperative, and surrender the information as to the whereabouts of the future victim.
Where, then, do these rules come from? As Kantian metaphysics explains, there is no space, nor time. What we understand as spatial and temporal difference are not features of the world, but features of ourself. We bring rational aspects such as geometry, from which arises our notions of space and time in to the world. Another rational aspect we bring to the world is that of morality. We discover the moral imperatives through use of our rational faculties in as far as we must will that our action become a universally applied rule, and examine the potential consequences if it were applied at all times by every person in a situation to apply it. For example, the keeping of promises. If one chooses not to keep a promise, according to the doctrine of the categorical imperative, that person must examine the potential consequences if every person who made a promise did not keep it, not contingent on situation or time. This would clearly lead to chaos and destroy the any vestige of meaning a promise or contract may have. This is quite obviously a negative consequence. As a result, the rule of keeping promises must be applied universally.
These categorical imperatives are again, not based on a simple cost-benefit analysis. The imperatives of morality are to be followed simply to fulfil the concept of morality itself. In other words, we do not perform moral actions to gain some sort of benefit, but we do them for the simple fact that they are the rules of morality.
Philippa Foot disagrees with the Kantian notion of morality as a categorical imperative. Foot illuminates the contradiction by Kant in regards to what constitutes a categorical imperative. Strictly following Kant's definition of the categorical imperative, we must also include certain prohibitions and rules which we would not normally think of as moral. For example, rules of etiquette. We do not normally think of etiquette as moral rules, however they are phrased in much the same way situationally and linguistically as we would phrase moral rules. “I ought not eat with my elbows on the table” is not a statement of morality, normally understood, but is at the same time a rule to follow for no other reason than it's own existence. Another example of such a rule are rules of club membership. Although the ulterior motive of wishing to stay in the club may be given as a possible source of dissent among Kantians wishing to place such rules in to the category of a hypothetical imperative, if one is resigning from a club, one does not from that point on disregard all rules of club membership.
Furthermore, if we are to look at the motivation behind following club rules as that of wanting to be a a member of a club, we must also concider the possibility that the motivation for following Kantian categorical imperatives is the motivation to be a good person.
Foot disagrees with the magical notions of the categorical imperative. This is to say, she cannot find any reason in Kantian thinking of why moral imperatives are held to any higher esteem than the otherwise categorical imperatives of etiquette and club membership rules. Foot seems to be suggesting that all categorical imperatives are the same, leaving us with a morality which is no more moral than rules of etiquette. This is an uncomfortable notion of morality, as we would not normally think of our morality as simply a list of polite rules to follow. We do, in fact, hold rules such as “do not steal” in higher esteem than rules such as “do not put your elbows on the table while you eat”. A possibility is that these rules of etiquette are not, in fact, universal. When we think of morality, with several exceptions, we normally apply them regardless of any other factors. Not necessarily as strictly as Kant would consent to, as Kant would have us tell the truth to murderers while we are harbouring potential victims, however we still apply rules such as “do not kill” across any cultural barriers. If a person in a tribe in Africa murders another human being, North Americans can easily recognise this as an immoral act. Rules of etiquette, however, are not as strict. If a North American, who is culturally inclined to speak to someone with quite a bit of distance, speaks to an Italian, who is culturally inclined to speak to someone with much less distance between them, the North American may feel uncomfortable with the closeness due simply to what he is used to, but does not hold the Italian up to the same criteria of moral wrongness as if he were doing something which is recognised as categorically wrong, such as stealing. Foot does point out some problems with Kant's language of the categorical imperative, however the reduction of moral language to the language of etiquette does not appear to clarify in any way what in fact does constitute a moral ought. What Foot leaves us with is not a moral theory, but rather the opposite of a moral theory, that is to say, nihilism. Hers is not the vicious psychological nihilism of Neitzsche, and also unlike Neitzche, she does not address other moral theories, such as utilitarianism, leaving her nihilism incomplete.