255 days until the start of classes.
I am continuing to work on Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.
A while back, I was told that Sidgwick had a definitive objection to the idea that morality could be concerned with the evaluation of motives. I read the book and provided a response. This entry is a shortened version of that argument.
In Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick asserted that our moral intuitions evaluated actions – objecting to the alternative to that our moral intuitions were primarily concerned with motives. However, his objections apply to a certain type of motive-centered moral theory; a theory that says that the morality of an act depends on the motive from which it sprang.
[T]he Intuitionist properly speaking---in contrast with the Utilitarian---does not judge actions by an external standard at all---that true morality, in his view, is not concerned with outward actions as such, but with the state of mind in which acts are done---in short with ``intentions'' and ``motives''.
Sidgwick provides good objections against the idea that an action can be evaluated according to the motives from which it springs. However, there is another type of motive-based moral theory – one that evaluates actions according to what a good person would do – that can stand up to his objections.
Sidgwick was responding most directly to a theory put forth by a contemporary philosopher James Martineau. Martineau, in his Types of Ethical Theory. Martineau argued that actions were nothing more than the motions of physical matter – mere "physical happenings" - and as such were inherently amoral.
We can add to this the fact that, in many cases at least, we can only find the wrongness of an action in the mental states of an agent. Whether an act of shooting another person is self-defense or murder depends on the beliefs and desires of the shootist. We can imagine a person walking into a public place with the intention to shoot an innocent person, another person pulling a gun, and then shooting to kill the would-be attacker. In one case, the agent believes that the person he shot was about to shoot an innocent person and killed him to prevent this. In another, he killed the person out of jealousy without knowing the other person’s intention. The two cases are identical in terms of actions and consequences, but involve different motives. Yet, the difference in motives makes all the difference.
Similarly, if somebody walks away with another person’s suitcase, the difference between theft and mere accident is not in the actions themselves. Imagine that the individual has a heart attack and dies before he gets too far with the suitcase. Again, the actions and consequences are the same. The difference between theft and accident is found only in the agent’s thoughts.
In moral matters, proof of wrongdoing requires proof of mens rea – of having the wrong mental states.
Martineau argues that, to get at morality, we have to get at the "springs of actions", the motives that brought the action in existence. He argued that there is a hierarchy of motives. The right action is the action that comes from the highest motive.
Sidgwick brought up a number of counter-examples that would be applicable to Martineau's theory. In one case, he considers a case in which "a man commits perjury to save a parent's or benefactor's life." In another, he presents a case he drew from Jeremy Bentham - the case of "a man who prosecutes from malice a person whom he believes is guilty." In the first case, a wrong action springs from a good motive. In the latter, a right action comes from a bad motive.
Sidgwick also argued that such a theory cannot handle what we classify as knowing, reckless, and negligent wrongdoing. An energy company executive promotes the use of a fossil fuels, knowing that this will contribute to global warming that will eventually kill an unknown number of people and destroy whole cities and whole countries. He does not intend the harm in the sense that he would be perfectly happy if these bad effects did not happen. The motives he is acting on are the profit motives that govern every other business executive. However, he is guilty of a wrongdoing. The same would be true if the harm he causes can be attributed to recklessness or negligence.
These discredit the idea that the moral value of an action depends on the moral value of the motive from which it springs.
However, these examples do not work against an alternative motive-based theory that looks at whether a person with good motives (and lacking bad motives) would have performed the action. On this alternative account, the moral judgment looks first at which motives are good and bad. It then imagines a person with good motives and lacking bad motives in the situation in which the act took place. It looks at how such a person would have acted in that situation and compares the actions of the agent to this ideal.
This account judges an act to be obligatory if it is the act that the person with good motives would have done; prohibited if the person with good desires would not have done it; and a non-obligatory permissible action if a person with good desires might or might not have done the action – depending on other interests.
This account handles knowing, reckless, and negligent wrongdoing by noting that a person with good motives would have sought to avoid the harms that were known, or concerned enough about the possibility of harm to have taken steps to discover them and prevent them. In other words, the morally guilty agent shows a callous disregard for the well-being of others.
In the case of the malicious prosecutor, this account does not care if a prosecutor has an attitude of malice towards the accused. It looks only at whether a prosecutor who lacked malice would have performed the same actions. Those actions that a prosecutor without malice would have performed are those that the agent is free to perform. However, if the agent performs any action out of malice that a properly motivated prosecutor would not have performed, then the agent has done something wrong. As Sidgwick himself writs, "a malevolent prosecutor may be prompted to take unfair advantage of his enemy, or cause him needless pain by studied insults." These are things that a prosecutor ought not to do. To the motive-based theorist, this is because a properly motivated prosecutor would not have been motivated to do them.
In the case of the person who commits perjury to save a parent or a benefactor, such a theory would say that a person with good motives would have a particularly strong aversion to committing perjury. Here, we must be careful to distinguish the person who refrains from committing perjury because it is a wrong thing to do and the person who refrains from committing perjury because it is perjury. These represent two different motives. The first agent is motivated by an aversion to doing what is wrong – accompanied by the belief that perjury is wrong. The second agent is motivated by an aversion to committing perjury, accompanied by the belief that the act would be an act of perjury. The second agent, in other words, shuns perjury for its own sake alone.
Here, we are looking at the aversion to committing perjury itself, not the aversion to committing perjury because it is wrong. This second motive requires that we make an independent judgment that perjury is wrong. This would put us in a very tight circle.
This problem does not exist if motives are, instead, evaluated according to a standard independent of the wrongness of the actions. The question here is whether there is moral value to be found in avoiding perjury for its own sake – because it is perjury.
There are two primary ways in which a motive, such as an aversion to perjury, can have value. (1) The aversion to committing perjury can be good in virtue of its intrinsic moral worth, or (2) the aversion can be good in terms of its tendency to produce good consequences and avoid bad consequences.
Martineau held that we can intuitive know the ranking of each motive compared to each other motive, knowing which is better and which is worse. Sidgwick devoted a chapter to criticizing Martineau’s specific account of the ranking of motives. However, Martineau’s claims about the value of motives represent only one option.
In contrast, earlier utilitarian philosophers such as David Hume and John Stuart Mill held that motives or "passions" (as Hume called them) had value in terms of their utility.
Hume evaluated character traits in terms of their being useful or pleasing to self or others. That which is useful or pleasing to others is what others have reason to encourage or promote; while that which is unpleasing or harmful to others they have reason to discourage. An aversion to perjury, on this account, would be useful for its contribution to helping make it the case that state actions –particularly the actions of the court and legislature – are made on the best information. It definitely fits into the category “useful to others” and “useful to self”.
In Utilitarianism, Mill claimed that virtue, originally valued as a means to an end (for the principles of virtue promoted utility), came to be valued for its own sake independent of its effect on utility. Acquiring a love of virtue made it much more likely that an agent will act according to the principles of virtue – and thus that society would harvest the utility of virtue – than simply treating virtue as a means to happiness. The virtuous agent, in this case, did not sacrifice his own happiness when performing a right action but obtained happiness when – and precisely because – he performed a right action.
We may apply Mill’s claims about the love of virtue to the aversion to committing perjury. With such an aversion, people will be less likely to commit perjury even when other interests tempt them to do so – which will provide a general benefit to society.
We can find additional support for this option from the fact that, if the stakes are high enough, even a person with good motives may commit perjury. If, for example, lying to put a terrorist behind bars could prevent the destruction of a city, a person with good desires may lie. If we were looking purely at the quality of the action, this would be a “good act” with no call for remorse or regret. However, if we are looking an aversion to committing perjury, we are looking at a motive that remains in force even when it is outweighed – encouraging the agent to find an alternative that both allows him to avoid perjury and commit whatever good for the sake of which perjury seems required. Even after he commits perjury for the sake of the alternative good, he would be expected to regret it and wish it was not the case – effects that a strictly action-focused theory cannot adequately account for.