Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sidgwick on Motives

I have survived the first week of class.

I have nothing of substance to report in the Environmental Philosophy class yet, since we devoted our first day to introductions and paperwork rather than philosophical argument. I can report that as somebody who does not handle interpersonal interaction well, this class will be stressful.

Modal Logic is not going to lend itself to discussion. I listen to lectures. I do my homework, I pass the class. meet my logic requirement.

That leaves the ethics pro seminar.

It will provide me with an opportunity to present a paper in a seminar-like setting at the end of the year. This is one of the academic skills I am missing.

The first three weeks of the class is going to be on Sidgwick. However, I will not be using my paper on Sidgwick vs. Hume on reasons that I wrote for the class since the relevant chapter is not among the assigned readings. Instead, I will produce a paper on Sidgwick's objections to the idea that motives are the proper object of moral evaluation.

Sidgwick explicitly rejected the idea that morality primarily concerns the evaluation of motives, and that the evaluation of actions is derived from a prior evaluation of motives.

To make his point, he identified a number of cases where our moral judgment of an action deviates from our judgment of the motives behind that action. Specifically, he identifies cases where:

1. An agent with bad motives does what he ought to do.
2. An agent with good motives nonetheless performs a wrong or immoral action.
3. An agent is morally blamed for consequences that did not touch his motives at all.

All of these conclusions seem to raise significant problems for the thesis that we evaluate motives first and, from that, derive an evaluation of actions.

For the first type of case, Sidgwick calls up an example from Jeremy Bentham about a prosecutor who is motivated to convict an accused defendant out of malice towards the accused. We may say that the prosecutor has a prima facie obligation to recuse herself. However, assume that she is the sole person capable of taking the case. Sidgwick admits that the prosecutor could be blamed where malice motivated her to perform harmful actions that her duty as a prosecutor would not require. However, the existence of malicious acts done out of malice does not disprove the possibility of right actions also done from malice.

For the second type of case, Sidgwick uses an example of a man who "tells a lie to save a parent’s or a benefactor’s life." We can easily imagine a case when telling a lie to save a life is not wrong, such as the paradigm case of lying to the Nazi soldiers about the Jews hiding in the attic. However, these types of cases do not discredit Sidgwick's point. We can also imagine a case of a person who commits perjury to get his father acquitted of a crime. His good motive - the affection of a child for a parent - does not make his act a right act.

In the third type of case, Sidgwick pointed out, "[Y]ou’ll agree that we can’t evade responsibility for any foreseen bad consequences of our acts by the plea that we didn’t want them for themselves or as means to some further end (p. 94)." It seems that the paradigm case that fits this description is that of negligence. The drunk or texting driver had no motive to brutally slaughter the children in a young family and maim the parents can be considered an evil person. All she wanted to do was get home and go to bed. Wanting to go home and go to bed is not a bad motive. But if her drinking or texting causes a fatal accident, she will have done something wrong.

From these three types of cases - and we can probably come up with countless examples of each - it seems reasonable to conclude that our moral intuitions do not evaluate actions based on an evaluation of the motives behind those actions.

However, there are other ways to relate actions to motives.

The type of motive-based theory that Sidgwick was considering was one like that put forward by his contemporary, James Martineau. Martineau held that God gave us intuitive knowledge of the moral value of various springs of action. These springs of action have a ranking - some were better (or higher) than others. When two springs of action suggested different actions, the right thing to do (according to Martineau) would be that action motivated by the higher motive.

As we can see from the examples above, right action can sometimes spring from bad motives, and wrong action can sometimes spring from good motives or no motive at all.

However, there is a different relationship between right action and good motive that Sidgwick did not consider. This is a variation of the virtue theory that Rosalind Hursthouse presented. Hursthouse defined right action as "that action that a virtuous person would characteristically do." We only need to modify Hursthouse's account slightly to say that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would characteristically do, and we have a motive-based account that can handle Sidgwick's three cases.

In the first type of case, there is a way in which a properly motivated prosecutor would prosecute the accused, and that defines what the malicious prosecutor should do. In discussing the impossibility of a person acting on two motives – duty and malevolence – choosing the motive from which to act, Sidgwick says that we can tell when the prosecutor steps out of line by noting when he performs an action that malice might motivate but duty would not. We see this same distinction to be found in acts that a person with good motives would perform and those she would not perform.

In the second type of case, we see a situation where a person, despite family affections, is expected to have a stronger aversion to committing perjury. Note that perjury is a special case of lying. We assume that a person is put under oath when there is a special need to know the truth of a matter. The ritual of taking an oath or affirming may be understood as serving the task of triggering this aversion. We can understand that the witness may also have personal affections that give him a reason to lie, but this family affection – though a good motive – is not good enough.

The third type of case, exemplified by acts of negligence where a person did not intend to bring about an effect that was – or, at least, should have been – foreseen can be seen as examples of an agent lacking a good motive. The drunk driver ought to have been more concerned about others. In other words, the virtuous person would have had such an aversion to harming others that he would have taken precautions. Many cases of wrong action may be understood as lacking a virtue rather than having a vice.

In these cases, actions are not judged by their consequences. Nor are they judged by the motives of the person who performed them. They are judged on whether a person with good motives would have performed them. A person with bad motives may perform the same action and it still counts as a right action. An act (e.g., of perjury) may have produced better consequences but still counts as wrong but the aversion to dishonesty prevents the person from performing such an act.

Please note that a person with an aversion to committing perjury would refrain from an act of perjury “because I would be committing perjury” and potentially for no other reason. This would be true in the same way that a person would refrain from holding his hand over an open flame “because it hurts”l we would then look at the reason - the motive – and evaluate it as a good reason or a bad reason.

This then takes us to the question of what counts as a good reason/motive.

I will address that question later.

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