Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Role of Rules in Motive-Based Morality

I have extensively argued that morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of motives - and of molding motives (desires and aversions) through the application of praise and condemnation.

I have shunned the idea of moral rules.

Yet, a morality of motives has a couple of significant weaknesses over a morality of rules.

(1) Motives cannot be as complex as rules. Indeed, rules can have nearly infinite complexity (e.g., no parking from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except on weekends).

(2) We can easily change the rules as situations change (e.g., Football 2017 Rule’s change: 4-2-2l Specifies that the ball is declared dead if a prosthetic limb comes completely off the runner.) Motives, on the other hand, once learned, are difficult to unlearn.

However, rules do not come with their own motivational force. We still need to answer the question, “Why follow the rules?” How do we get people to obey the rules?

We accomplish this by adding a motive that says, “Follow the rules.” This allows us to combine the complexity and ease of change we have with rules with the motivational force of the morality of motives.

There are three primary areas of morality where we combine these elements of rules and motives.

(1) We have the rules of a game, combined with a moral prohibition on cheating. This moral prohibition is an aversion - taught using praise and condemnation as moral rules are generally taught - against breaking the rules even when one can get away with it.

(2) We have the rule of law, combined with a moral aversion to breaking the law. We understand this moral aversion in terms of an obligation to obey the law - to be a law-abiding citizen.

(3) We have a system of duties and obligations, combined with a desire to do one’s duty. This distinguishes the person who has a desire that her neighbor be better off from the person who cares nothing about her neighbor’s well-being but helps “because it is the right thing to do”.

I am going to set aside the first example for now. Though cheating is immoral (in that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to cheating), it does not raise as many serious moral issues as the other two cases. The examples it does raise will be easier to present when we discuss the relevant and more important issues of the other two systems.

The Obligation to Obey the Law

When we turn to the second system - the system of law - this way of framing the issue gives us a way of addressing the question of whether, and to what existent, there is an obligation to obey the law.

The answer to this question is going to be the answer to the question, "Do people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, a desire to obey the law (or, correspondingly, an aversion to breaking the law). Unsurprisingly, this is going to depend greatly on whether the law is one that fulfills the desires (or prevents the thwarting of desires) generally, or whether it instead thwarts the fulfillment of many and strong desires in order to fulfill the desires of the few. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (or any law endorsing chattel slavery for that matter) is not a law that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal desire to obey. In fact, people generally (though not universally - there is a reason why I use the term 'generally' in this context) have many and strong reasons to oppose this law. The same can be said about the Jim Crow laws that followed slavery. The same can be said for laws against homosexual relationships.

The desire to obey (the aversion to breaking) the law can allow a limited form of complexity. We can argue for disregarding a set of bad laws (e.g., Jim Crow laws, the Fugitive Slave law) while still promoting "the rule of law" as a general virtue. So, the question of whether or not there is an obligation to obey the law does not come with a simple yes/no answer. The answer may well be, "'Yes' for the vast majority of laws, but 'no' to those laws over there." Yet, the fact that this list cannot be infinitely complex - that it must, in fact, being founded in a motive, be relatively simple - does not allow us to create a long and complicated assessment of laws to obey or disobey.

One possible position to take is to say that all of the laws worthy of obeying are also moral restrictions, so there is no obligation to obey the law that is distinct from the obligation to do that which is right. However this, as I stated above, ignores the advantages of law in being potentially complex and easily changed. We cannot expect people to adopt a separate desire or aversion respecting every one of the traffic laws - e.g., a desire to use one's headlights from one-half hour before sunset to one-half hour after sunrise or when visibility is less than 1000 feet or when using windshield wipers to clear rain, snow, or sleet. In fact, it is not even possible to create such a desire using the social tools of praise and condemnation. What is possible is to create a general desire to obey the law (aversion to breaking the law) combined with the belief that traffic law has these requirements.

Doing the Right Thing

We also have the capacity to take advantage of the complexity and the ability to make changes to rules by giving people a desire to do that which is right (aversion to doing that which is wrong) as well as a complex set of principles respecting what is right and wrong. This represents the difference between refraining from lying because it is lying, and refraining from lying because one has an aversion to doing that which is wrong and a belief that lying is wrong. In this system, if we wish to have people alter their behavior, we simply alter their beliefs about what is right and wrong. The desire to do that which (the agent believes) is right and aversion to doing that which (the agent believes) is wrong then takes care of the motivation to obey the updated rules.

This leaves open the question, "What does it take for the proposition 'this action is right' and 'that action is wrong'" to be true. If we can convince a person with an aversion to doing that which is wrong that writing with the left hand is wrong, we can motivate that person to refrain from writing with his left hand. But what does it take for the proposition, "it is wrong to write with the left hand" to be true?

However, we are still going to have to answer the question, "Why create a rule against writing with the left hand? What reason is there to make such a rule?" This is going to go back to the question of motives - and it will have to refer to motives other than the motive of obeying the rule (that is to say, the motive to do that which is right). We still have to ask whether those motives for making an action right or wrong in this sense are motives that people generally have reason to promote universally. So, "right action" in this sense is still "the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances."

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about acting from duty in this sense. It is merely a backup system - a reserve motivation for when the regular good motives are absent, or bad motives are present, that may still provide the motivational power to get the agent to do the right thing. An agent might not have the concern for the well-being of her child that she should have, but an aversion to doing what she ought not to do, and a belief that she ought not to neglect the health of her child, may motivate her to do what a properly motivated mother would do out of natural inclination.


In short, the idea that morality is primarily concerned with promoting good motives does not eliminate the possibility of a rules-based morality. We can harvest some of the advantages of rules - their complexity and the ease with which they may be changed - by combining them with a motive to follow the rules. These motives include an aversion to cheating (where cheating is defined by the rules of the game), an aversion to breaking the law (where the rules in question are the rules of law), and the desire to do one's duty (where one's duty is still that which a properly motivated person would have done from inclination).

Next, we can take this distinction between acting from duty and acting from inclination and apply it to the ongoing discussion of Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action. It supports the conclusion that "acting from duty" does not have the moral priority that Hursthouse, Kant, and Aristotle attribute to it, and that right action still follows the Humean model of that which a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances.

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