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Four women who reformed ethics

Before World War II, Oxford University was a male-dominated community. Unlike in Cambridge there were lectures for women, but with a quota: of the 4,000 students, only 820 were allowed to be women. The war changed that. All young men had to be employed, suddenly there was room for women to develop. Such as the gifted Philippa Foot, the razor-sharp rebel Elizabeth Anscombe, the sensitive Iris Murdoch, and the all-round intellectual Mary Midgley. Together they unleashed a revolution in ethics.

In philosophy at the time there was a fundamental distinction between the hard facts of science and subjective values. Ethics was a matter of emotions, with no factual foundation. That too changed with the war, which proved that evil really existed. Murdoch saw that Sartre’s existentialism, an appeal to individuals to give meaning to their lives, was inadequate as an answer. That too was based on a contradiction between facts and meaning. Anscombe protested that a university granting an honorary doctorate to Harry Truman, the president who dropped two atomic bombs, is corrupting the youth. Foot argued that judgments as “crude” both describe and express a moral value.

What about ethics then? According to the women, it could no longer do without roots in concrete reality. They campaigned for the restoration of Aristotle’s ethics, with its emphasis on character building and virtues. The rebirth of that ethics is the common thread of this book, which offers much more. It paints beautiful portraits of the women and their friendship. Anscombe, coarse-mouthed, mother of seven, chain smoker, adept of Wittgenstein. Foot, the careful upper class lady with a razor-sharp intellect. Murdoch, the insecure philosopher and novelist. Midgley, who continued to struggle against the scientific worldview. It is a moving story about four impressive philosophers.

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