Thursday, June 16, 2016

Philippa Foot's Morality as Hypothetical Imperatives - Part 2 - Reasons to Act Morally

Typically, in discussions regarding the relationship between right action and motives, we encounter a contrast between two types of reasons.

There are those who do the right thing because they find it useful, like the person who makes a charitable contribution because others will praise him and speak well of him.

And there are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do - the person who makes a charitable contribution because he ought to make a charitable contribution.

Philippa Foot, in "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316), adds a third type to this list.

Foot is responding to Kant's claim that morality is a system of categorical imperatives. Kant's distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives matches the first two of these three types of reasons. Hypothetical imperatives depend on having a desire for something - doing something because it is pleasurable (and having no reason to do it if it is not pleasurable). Categorical imperatives are to be done regardless of what the individual desires. They are to be done because they are right, not because they bring the agent pleasure.

Foot's third type of relationship is one in which an agent tells the truth, for example, not because it is useful, and not because it is the right thing to do, but because the agent wants to tell the truth. The agent values honesty for its own sake, or has an aversion to dealing with others dishonestly.

In my own writings, I rely heavily on this third type of reason - arguing that morality is primarily concerned with using rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) to promote such things as a desire to interact honestly with others and an aversion to deceiving others.

If we bring in the fact that desires are propositional attitudes, we can distinguish these three types of reasons by the propositions that are the object of each desire.

First, there are selfish desires - a decision to make a charitable contribution as a way of obtaining the praise of others, or a decision to turn in a wanted criminal merely to collect a reward or bounty. Such a person is acting on a desire like a desire, "that I acquire wealth" or "that others speak well of me." This type of agent loses the reason to do the right thing when it does not bring him wealth or improve his reputation.

Second, an agent may do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. This agent has a desire "that I do the right thing" and a belief that charitable acts and honest dealings with others are among the right things to do. These types of actions make the proposition, "I am doing the right thing" true.

What Foot introduces is a third option whereby an agent makes a charitable contribution, for example, because he wants to help others.

But what reason could there be for refusing to call a man a just man if he acted justly because he loved truth and liberty, and wanted every man to be treated with a certain minimum respect? And why should the truly honest man not follow honesty for the sake of the good that honest dealing brings to men? Of course, the usual difficulties can be raised about the rare case in which no good is foreseen from an individual act of honesty. But it is not evident that a man's desires could not give him reason to act honestly even here. He wants to live openly and in good faith with his neighbors; it is not all the same to him to lie and conceal.

This third type of person is acting on a desire "that others not suffer," and performs the charitable act because it will make the statement that another is suffering false. Similarly, a person can tell the truth because he wants to be honest with his dealings with others and has an aversion to deceiving others. This requires no belief that telling the truth is the right thing to do or that lying is something one ought not to do - any more than choosing butterscotch ice cream over chocolate requires a belief that eating butterscotch is the right thing to do and eating chocolate is wrong. Charitable actions, honest dealings with others, and eating butterscotch ice cream are simply among the things the agent likes.

We are disposed to say that the person who performs an action for selfish reasons is not a good person. On the other hand, a person who performs an action because it is the right thing to do is a good person. What about the person who is charitable because he is adverse to the suffering of others or honest because he values honesty?

In some cases, we are disposed to think that this type of person is more moral than the person acting "because it is the right thing to do."

Assume that you are in the hospital. Somebody you judge to be a friend comes to see you. You ask him why he came. Now, compare these three answers.

(1) "Because people will think more highly of me when they know that I have come to visit you. They will speak well of me and they will smile and treat me well as a result."

(2) "Because it is the right thing to do. People have a duty to visit their friends in these types of situations, so, I came here because it is my duty to do so."

(3) "Because I care about you. I was worried. Besides, I thought of you laying here with nothing to do so I thought I would stop by and maybe we can play some chess or something. It's a lot better than laying in bed watching soap operas."

I think a lot of us would think more highly of the person who visits because he wants to over one who visits for selfish reasons or out of a sense of duty. In fact, if our visitor gave either of the first two answers, we may just tell them to go away and not bother visiting in the future.

However, this third type of reason is a hypothetical imperative. One tells the truth because one wants to tell the truth. One deals honestly with others because one wants to deal honestly with others. It is the desire that provides the reason to act.

Yet, there is still a distinction to be addressed between what we want to do and what we ought to want. We do not say that a person may lie if he has no desire to tell the truth, and may deal honestly with others if he is inclined to do so.

I will address that third question in Part 3.

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