What, if anything, constitutes a reason for an agent to act morally?  

The essay's title question is open to some widely varying interpretations -- depending on how one chooses to understand the phrase "constitutes a reason", and the ethical theory from within which one elects to understand what it means for "an agent to act morally".

In order to limit the length of this essay, therefore, I am going to focus on just one possible interpretation of the question.  I will focus on the source of the motivation for an agent to act morally rather than otherwise.

Different philosophers have offered vastly different notions as to what it would mean for "an agent to act morally."  The spectrum of ethical theories runs from Emotivism at one end to Evolutionary Ethics at the other.  Each theory along the spectrum would provide its own particular solution to the source of motivation, if any, for an agent to act morally.  But on this question of motivation, the spectrum can be roughly divided into two large families of theories -- the Anti-Realist family and the Realist family.

Within the anti-realist family, moral theories maintain that statements about what it is to act morally are not descriptive of reality, but rather expressive of the attitudes of the agent (or rather, the person expressing the attitude).  In this group can be found the Emotivism of Stevenson(3) and Ayer(4), the Prescriptivism of Carnap(5) and Hare(6), and the Norm-Expressivism of Gibbard(7).  Also in this family can be found the more sophisticated contemporary versions of non-cognitivism, such as the Quasi-Realism of Blackburn(8), and the cognitive error theories, such as that of Mackie(9).

Within anti-realist theories, acting morally is motivated by the agent's attitudes towards the options she has available, or the prescriptions she accepts.  Positive attitudes are assumed to be motivating attitudes.  If the agent's attitude is positive, then by acting on this motivation, the agent is acting morally.  Which entails, of course, that what it means to act morally is a subjective affair.  There is no necessity that my attitudes are in any way similar to your attitudes.  So an agent can have what she feels is a positive / motivating attitude towards some action towards which you would have a negative / de-motivating attitude.

Acting morally is not the product of rational consideration of the objective facts of the matter -- there are no objective facts to be considered.  (What facts are admitted by these theories, if they admit any, are personal subjective facts.  The facts discerned by our "moral sense" cannot be objective in any sense.)  Motivation is, by definition, a positive attitude.  But if rational discussion of objective facts is not an acceptable avenue to truth, one cannot impart a motivating attitude in an agent that does not already have one.  The best that one can hope to do is offer other people's attitudes in the hope they that might potentially alter the agent's motivation towards some course of action.  But an agent's attitudes are fundamentally subjective.  It is always open to a recalcitrant agent to reply to your "reasons" with an "I don't care!"  And there is nothing further you can say.  There is no foundation from which to argue that a change in motivation is in any way "better", "rational", or "morally required" if the agent has not already bought into a shared suite of moral attitudes.  In the absence of any common ground of moral attitudes, further motivating efforts are futile.

But what is the source of these positive or negative attitudes?  One possibility is that the action or circumstances may exhibit properties that the agent can perceive, and that thereby cause the associated attitudes.  But that is just what these anti-realist theories deny.  Another possibility is the education, training, and habituation of the agent.  The agent is "brought up" to recognize certain situations or actions as falling within the accepted standards of moral behaviour, and to respond with the appropriate attitudes.  The link between a description of the situation or action and the resulting attitudes is by way of the learned reaction patterns, rather than any more direct causal chain.  If that is the case, then what would constitute a reason for an agent to act morally is anything that would aid the agent in recognizing that this particular action fits within the learned / habituated standards.  A third possibility is that the agent's attitudes are sui generis -- in the sense that there is no causal basis of the attitudes, they just are what they are.  And if that is the case, then there is nothing other than the sui generis attitudes that would constitute a reason for an agent to act morally.

Within the Realist family of ethical theories would fall all those moral theories that maintain that indeed there are objective moral facts (and moral properties) that exist in the world independently of how we think about them.  Among this family would be located the Intuitionism of G.E.Moore(10), Audi(11), Huemer(12) and perhaps McDowell(13).  (Intuitionists agree with other Realists that there do exist moral facts and moral properties, but maintain that they are "non-natural", and are perceived by a "moral sense".)  Among the more widely recognized realist theories, would be the Naturalistic Realism of Michael S. Moore(14), the Contractarian Constructivism of Rawls(15), the Utilitarianism of Mill(16) and Singer(17), and even the Categorical Imperatives of Kant(18) and the Conventionalism of Harman(19) and Searle(20).  Also somewhere within the Realist family of theories would be found the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle(21), and the Ethical Egoism of Stirner(22), Nietzsche(23), and Rachels(24).  

Most philosophers maintain that morality is essentially a social thing -- rules of conduct for an agent in her relations with others in society.  A few maintain that morality is essentially an individual thing -- rules for an agent to discern the "best" thing to do, period.  Amongst the "social" theories, the scope of "morality" is restricted to the actions or intentions of an agent as they relate to the other members of society.  Socially oriented philosophers divide the field of motivations into the moral and the prudential.  The prudential motivates actions the agent does, or intentions the agent has, in the pursuit of her own interests.  The moral motivates actions or intentions that focus primarily on the interests of others.  Amongst the "individual" theories, however, the scope of morality covers both of these -- the moral is just a part of the prudential. 

If one starts with one of the "social" theories, to act morally is to act in a way that (actually, or by intention) benefits the interests of persons other than the agent.  There are only two ways that such theories can argue that benefiting others can be motivating for the agent.  One way is to argue that humans, as a species, possess some innate tendency to behave in an altruistic fashion.  Unfortunately, this approach runs into the evidence from evolutionary biology that, aside from behaviour covered under the banner of "inclusive fitness", humans are not endowed with a tendency to altruistic motivations. 

Philosophers throughout history, from Plato to Kant to Rawls, have sought a suitable ground for morality in reason.  Reason is assumed to be a more reliable and stable basis for morality.  Examples of this tradition include: the universalizable maxims and Categorical Imperatives of Immanuel Kant; the greatest happiness for the greatest number utilitarian principle of Bentham(25), Mill, and contemporary Utilitarians(26); the prima facie duties of W.D. Ross(27); the principle of justice as fairness and the "original position" of John Rawls(28) and contemporary Contractualists(29).  Their argument is that morality is a product of reason and how we reason about the best (or perhaps the rationally necessary) behaviours in a social environment.  But all of these philosophers base their arguments on the underlying premise that acting rationally, acting according to the dictates of reason, is ultimately in the agents own best interests.  Kant's deontological ethics of Categorical Imperatives, and Mill's collectivist Utilitarian principle - which each argues is derived from the dictates of reason - are based on the premise that it is ultimately in the agent's own best interests to be rational.  Otherwise, their equivalence between the immoral and the irrational would carry no motivating weight. 

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the moral alternative is never intrinsically motivating -- in and of itself.  The agent must either have been "brought up" (trained / habituated) to find the moral alternative motivating, or the moral alternative must appeal to the agent's own best interests.  Mill, as one example, recognized this --

"If the view adopted by the utilitarian philosophy of the nature of the moral sense be correct, this difficulty will always present itself, until the influences which form moral character have taken the same hold of the principle which they have taken of some of the consequences - until, by the improvement of education, the feeling of unity with our fellow-creatures shall be (what it cannot be denied that Christ intended it to be) as deeply rooted in our character, and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature, as the horror of crime is in an ordinarily well brought up young person" (Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 3).

Which leaves the alternative of showing the agent that acting for the benefit of others is in fact, all things considered, in the agent's personal, individual best interest - because it is universally accepted that humans do have an instinctive tendency to pursue one's individual welfare.  If an agent were to agree that some act "A" is presently in her own best interests (all things considered), and yet claimed to feel no motivation to do "A", we would not question her morality, we would question her sanity (or her use of language).  And, to the extent that they concern themselves with the question of motivations, most of the realist moral theories recognize this.  Those who are theologically inclined, for another example, are threatened with eternal hellfire and damnation unless they obey the commands of God. 

So, from either the perspective of a "social" Realist moral theory, or the perspective of an "individual" Realist moral theory, the source of motivation for an agent to act morally would be the agent's self-interests.  And what would constitute a reason for an agent to act morally would be an explanation of just how it is that such action is (all things are considered) in fact in the agent's best interests.

What all this discussion comes down to is that for those who hold any of the anti-realist moral theories, reasons and rationality do not form a part of acting morally.  Motivations to act morally come from "the passions" -- one's attitudes and feelings.  So no reasons can be offered for an agent to act morally, if that agent is not already predisposed (attitudinally) to so act.  But for those who hold any of the realist moral theories, reasons and rationality do form a part of acting rationally.  Motivations to act morally come from the natural human instinct to pursue one's own best interest.  Reasons can therefore be offered to an agent to act morally -- reasons that appeal to that agent's self-interests.

 

Notes & References

(1)  (intentionally omitted)

(2)  (intentionally omitted)

(3)  Wilks, Colin.; Emotion, Truth and Meaning: In Defense of Ayer and Stevenson (Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2002. ISBN 1-4020-0916-x.

(4)  Ayer, A.J.;  Language Truth and Logic, Dover Publications, London, 1952.

(5)  Carnap, R.;  Philosophy and Logical Syntax, Thoemmes Press, (1937), 1966.

(6)  Hare, R.M.;  The Language of Morals (Oxford Paperbacks), Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, (1952), 1991. ISBN 978-0-198-81077-3.

(7)  Gibbard, Allan;  Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Harvard University Press, 1990. ISBN: 0-674-95378-9.

(8)  Blackburn, S.;  Essays in Quasi-Realism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1993. ISBN: 0-19-508224-9.

(9)  Mackie, J.L.;  Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Pelican Books, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-14-013558-8.

(10)  Moore, G.E.M.;  Principia Ethica, 1903. URL=<http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica>.]

(11)  Audi, Robert;  The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 2004. ISBN 0-691-11434-x.

(12)  Huemer, Michael;  Ethical Intuitionism, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, New York, 2008. ISBN 978-0-230-57374-1.

(13)  McDowell, John;  Mind and World, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1996. ISBN 978-0-674-57610-0.

(14)  Moore, Michael S.;  "Moral Reality Revisited" in Michigan Law Review, Vol 90, No 8 (Aug 1992), pp 2424-2533. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/1289577>.

(15)  Rawls, John;  A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, ISBN 978-0674017726.

(16)  Mill, John Stuart; The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, Random House, New York, New York, 2002. ISBN 0-375-75918-2.

(17)  Singer, Peter;  Practical Ethics (3rd Edition), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-70768-8.

(18)  Kant, Immanuel;  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans H.J.Paton, New York, Harper & Row, 1964.

(19)  Harman, Gilbert;  The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-19-502143-6.

(20)  Searle, John;  The Construction of Social Reality, The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-684-83179-1.

(21)  Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x

(22)  Stirner: The Ego and its Own (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), Max Stirner (Author), David Leopold (Editor), Cambridge University Press (May 26, 1995) ISBN 978-0521456470.

(23)  Nietzsche, Friedrich;  "On the Genealogy of Morality" in Ethics: The Essential Writings, Gordon Marino (ed.), Random House, New York, New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8129-7778-3.

(24)  Rachels, James;  The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Stuart Rachels (ed), McGraw-Hill, New York, New York, 2010.  ISBN 978-0073386713.

(25)  Bentham, Jeremy & Mill, John Stuart;  Utilitarianism and Other Essays, Alan Ryan (ed.), Penguin Books, London, England, 1987. ISBN 0-140-43272-8.

(26)  See for Example:
            Singer, Peter;  Practical Ethics (3rd Edition), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-70768-8
            Hare, R.M.;  The Language of Morals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1952. ISBN 0-19-881077-7.

(27)  Ross, W.D.;  The Right and the Good, Hackett Publishing Co., New York, New York, 1988, ISBN 978-0-872-20058-6.

(28)  Rawls, John;  A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2005.

(29)  See for example:
            Scanlon, T.M.:  What We Owe to Each Other, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2000. ISBN 978-0-674-00423-8.

 

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Bentham, Jeremy & Mill, John Stuart;  Utilitarianism and Other Essays, Alan Ryan (ed.), Penguin Books, London, England, 1987. ISBN 0-140-43272-8.

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Falk, W.D.;  "Morality and Convention" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 57, No 20/21 (Oct 1960), pp 675-685, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2023460>.

Findlay, J.N.;  "Morality by Convention" in Mind, New Series, Vol 53, No 210 (Apr 1944), pp 142-169, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2250746>.

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Firth, Raymond;  Elements of Social Organization, Watts & Co., London, England. 1951.

Harman, G.;  "Is There a Single True Morality" in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, M.Krausz (ed.), University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989, pp 383-386.

Hobbes, Thomas, The Leviathan, 1660, pt. 1, ch. 14 (p. 64)
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Hume, David;  A Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge (ed.), Oxford, England. 1967.

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Locke, John;  An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Pringle-Pattison, ed., Oxford 1969

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Milo, Ronald;  "Contractarian Constructivism" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 92, No 4 (Apr 1995), pp 181-204, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2940922>.

Nielsen, Kai;  "Appraising Doing the Thing Done" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 57, No 24 (Nov 1960), pp 749-759, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2022964>.

Nielsen, Kai;  "Conventionalism in Morals and the Appeal to Human Nature" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 23, No 2 (Dec 1962), pp 217-231
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Nielsen, Kai;  "On Morality and Convention" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 24, No 2 (Dec 1963), pp 252-259, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2104467>.

Oddie, Graham;  "Moral Realism, Moral Relativism and Moral Rules (A Compatibility Argument)" in Synthese, Vol 117, No 2 Rules in Practical Reasoning (1998/1999), pp 251-274. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20118108>.

Platts, Mark;  "Moral Reality" in Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Cornell University Press, Ithica, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-8014-9541-5.

Rescorla, Michael;  "Convention" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/convention/>.

Richards, Robert J.:  "A Defense of Evolutionary Ethics" in Biology and Philosophy, Vol 1 (1986), pp 265-293. URL=<biophilosophy.ca/Teaching/6740papers/richards.pdf>.

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Russell, Bertrand;  "Notes on Philosophy" in Philosophy, Vol 75 (Jan 1960), Pg 146-147.

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Scanlon, T.M.:  What We Owe to Each Other, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2000. ISBN 978-0-674-00423-8.

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Tannsjo, Torbjorn; "Moral Relativism" in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 35, No 2 (Sep 2007), pp 123-143, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/40208744>.

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Wong, David;  Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-538329-4.

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