Monday, January 07, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0009: Acting for the Right Reasons

Thomas Hurka reported in his book British Ethical Theorists that the British Ethical Theorists (BETs) believed that rightness is independent of motives.

There is a sense in which this is true. The rightness of an act is independent of the motives that an agent had at the moment of action. This is because the right act is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have performed in those circumstances. Whether this is true of an agent is independent of the motives the agent actually had. Any thesis that requires that a right action be done from a particular motive is mistaken.

However, the BETs made a mistake that is common even today. They make an unwarranted inference from “the rightness of an act is independent of the agent’s motive in performing that act” to “rightness is independent of motive.” This does not follow.

Desirism holds that the rightness of an act depends on the motives (reasons) that other people have for praising or condemning those who perform acts like that in circumstances like those. While this makes the rightness of an act dependent on motives, it also makes the rightness of the act It allows us to It is This is true in the way - rightness is independent of the agent’s motives.

Hurka reported that H.A. Prichard and W.D. Ross "gave two arguments why rightness is independent of motives." (p. 46)

Doing The Right Thing Because it is Right

The first argument was, "directed against the view that a right act must be done from a motive of duty or a desire to do it because it is right." (p. 46) On this, Pritchard and Ross were right. Let us assume that it is true that it is not only the case that Agent1 ought to do Act1, but that she ought to do Act1 because it is right.

So, Agent1 is standing there wanting to do the right thing. Because she is wanting to do the right thing, once she finds out what it is, she will perform that action. Her desire to do the right thing, plus her belief that Act1 is right, brings her to do Act1. However, if “Act1 does not become the right action until it is done from the right motive, then how does she determine that it is the right action. It will not become the right action until it is done for the right motive, and it cannot be done for the right motive until the agent knows that it is the right action.

Desirism, as already stated, allows Agent1 to determine whether the action is right or wrong independent of her own motives. She can then perform the action because (she believes) that it is right so long as she has a desire to do the right thing. But the action remains the right action no matter what her reason is for performing it.

Acting from the Right Motive

Hurka reported that Pritchard and Ross had a second argument for their position. However, I will show below that it did not support their position very well.

On this argument, “acting from the right move” requires making a conjunction true. This conjunction is “doing the right thing” and “having the right motive”. In order to make a conjunction true, the agent has to be able to make both conjuncts true. Of course, an agent has the power to make “do the right thing” true. However, the agent does not have the power to make “having the right motive” true. Because of the power of “ought implies can”, if the agent cannot make one of the conjuncts true, then it is not the case that the agent ought to make the conjunction true.

This objection fails because “can” is not limited to what is immediately under an agent’s direct control. You cannot disprove the claim that I ought to lose a few pounds by showing that I cannot will, at this very moment, to be a few pounds lights. Similarly, you cannot disprove the claim that I ought to learn French before heading to France on a long vacation by showing that I cannot command myself in a moment to speak French.

The “oughts” in this case refer to adopting a program that will eventually come to make it the case that I am a few pounds lighter or can speak French. Similarly, the “ought” of “having the right motive” would not violate “ought implies can” if it is within the agent’s power to adopt a program to adopt a particular motive. Another way of describing this is that the agent ought to cultivate a particular virtue (good motive) or ought to conquer a particular vice (bad motive).

There is a set of activities where it is extremely easy to make the conjunction mentioned above true. Assume that I ought to smoke cigarettes out of a craving for nicotine, or take opiods out of a strong desire to take the drug. Here, we have a simple course of action that would allow me to make both conjuncts true – that I am smoking a cigarette or taking opioids, and that I am doing so because of a particular motive. All I have to do is start taking the drug and its addictive nature will cause me to come to take the drug because of my addiction.

In the case of cultivating a virtue, the program I adopt may not be so straight forward. First, if I resolve to act like I have a virtue – to imitate the behavior of a virtuous person (for whatever reason I may do so), this may generate the habits that are associated with having that character. I can learn to be a speaker of French by imitating a French speaker – choosing the correct verb tense by a careful application of the rules I have memorized and translating what I hear into English – until it becomes habitual and I speak (and understand) French without effort. If I were to adopt these types of programs with respect to the virtues I can come to a case where I tell the truth because of my honesty or keep my promises because of my trustworthiness.


As I mentioned above, I do not believe that a person has any duties to peform any actions for a particular motive. There are cases where, if a person does not have the motive, then he should not perform the action. But this is philosophy, and we are supposed to aim at believing things for the right reasons. The problem of circularity when it comes to doing the right action because it is right provides a good reason to reject that principle. However, the argument that we cannot have an obligation to act from a particular motive must be rejected because we cannot will our motives is not such a good reason. We do have the power to will our motives – it just takes a bit of effort, like losing weight or learning a foreign language (which, themselves, may be things we ought to do).

No comments: