Sunday, June 19, 2016

Philippa Foot's Morality as Hypothetical Imperatives - Part 3 - What Ought We to Desire

In "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316), Philippa Foot identified three relationships between doing the right thing and the motives of the agent.

Two of these relate to the traditional distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former involved performing the right act because it gained the agent some benefit or advantage - because it was, in a sense, "profitable" for the agent to do so. The latter involved performing the right act because it was the right act - because it was the right thing to do.

The third option that Foot introduced to this discussion was performing the right act for its own sake. It involved performing an act of charity because one actually cared about the person who would benefit and telling the truth because one simply wanted to deal honestly with others. These count as hypothetical imperatives because it is the concern for others or the desire to deal honestly with others that provide the motivation for the action. However, in some cases, we judge such a person as being more moral than the person who acts on duty.

However, there is a question still left unanswered. What OUGHT we to desire?

In spite of all that has been urged in favor of the hypothetical imperative in ethics, I am sure that many people will be unconvinced and will argue that one element essential to moral virtue is still missing. This missing feature is the recognition of a duty to adopt those ends which we have attributed to the moral man. We have said that he does care about others, and about causes such as liberty and justice; that it is on this account that he will accept a system of morality. But what if he never cared about such things, or what if he ceased to care ? Is it not the case that he ought to care?

We should not that it is clearly the case that not everything an agent DOES desire is something the agent SHOULD desire - something that gives the agent moral credit. An agent may desire to play computer games, or even value belittling and bullying others. That he values these things does not make them moral. There are only certain types of desires - concern for others, aversion to deceit, aversion to taking the property of others without their consent - that gives a person moral credit.

What distinguishes the desires an agent does have from those that provide moral credit?

After asking the question, Foot does not provide an answer. It is sufficient for her purposes to note that a person does not have these desires "because they ought to". A parent who cares for a child does not care "because he ought to" - he simply cares about the child. A person who values honest dealings with others does not value honest dealings with others because he ought. It is one thing to say that an agent ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he ought - quite another to say that he ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he values it for its own sake, which is because he ought.

This blog goes a bit further than Foot did in this article by providing an answer to the question, "What ought a person to desire?"

On the account defended in this blog, there are certain desires that people generally have reasons to promote. These are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. They promote these desires through a system of rewards and punishments, where praise works as a type of reward and condemnation as a type of punishment.

To the degree that agents act so as to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment, this is outside the realm of morality. This fits more in with law and economics. Morality enters into the picture when this system of rewards and punishments causes people to value things for their own sake. Culture - in praising some and condemning others - promotes in people an interest in the well-being of others for its own sake - as one of the agent's ends. The aversion to deceit or to taking the property of others without consent becomes internalized so that the aversion overrides any reasons that may emerge to engage in deceit or to take the property of others without consent.

Morality is, then, a system of hypothetical imperatives. It is that system of hypothetical imperatives (desires and aversions) that people generally have reason to promote using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation.

1 comment:

David Jacquemotte said...

Thank you for highlighting the article by Foot! I reviewed this as well as commentary related and I think it is spot on.