the right sort of intrinsic desire to avoid doing morally wrong things

One can do what is morally right without the action having moral worth, as with Kant’s (merely) prudent shopkeeper (not overcharging a naive customer when she easily could). The reason that the shopkeeper’s right action lacks moral worth is, roughly, that she does not have the right sort — the moral sort — of aim or motivation in doing the right (honest) thing.

In recent literature, folks distinguish two different sorts of motivational contents (motivating reasons) that might go into having the correct sort of motivation for a right action to have moral worth. First, there is content that concerns right-making features (RMF-type content), content like that overcharging this customer would fail to treat each customer equally. Second, there is content that concerns rightness (or wrongness) itself (RI-type content), content like that it would be wrong to charge this customer more than I charge the others. Some, like Nomy Arpaly and Julia Markovitz, have argued that only RMF-type motivational content is necessary. One intuitive point that works in favor of this approach is this: absent any knowledge of what makes a right action right, the insistence on doing the right thing can begin to look like a kind of empty fetish. Also, in the Huckleberry Finn case, Huck doesn’t turn Jim (the slave) in partly because he sees Jim as concretely human in various aspects (something that would make turning Jim in wrong, so an RMF-content) even though he thinks doing this is wrong (an RI-content that motivates toward turning Jim in).

More recently, others (e.g., Zoe Johnson King, Paulina Sliwa, Kashev Singh) have argued that RI-content is necessary as well (and sometimes that RI-content is primary, as Johnson King and Sliwa argue). Among other things, these authors (and others) produce reasonably convincing arguments against drawing the conclusions that Arpaly and Markovitz draw from cases of doing what is right simply because it is right (with no particular understanding of what makes right actions right operative, hence the charge of fetishism) and from the Huck Finn case (responding, by doing what is right, to the things that make the right action right, while holding explicit judgments that the right action is wrong).

I’m going to assume, without argument, that Johnson King, Sliwa and Singh are correct in thinking that RI-content — as well as RMF content — plays a necessary role in making a right action have moral worth. The intuitive idea here is something like this: in order for acting rightly to be the relevant sort of personal-level achievement or accomplishment (for moral worth to supervene) one must seek to do what is right (or avoid what is wrong) and exhibit adequate knowledge of what makes right (wrong) acts right (wrong). In the course of matters, it will be evident that (and why) I agree with Johnson King and Sliwa that RI-type motivational content is the more important or essential motivational content.

So consider this case: our functionally honest shopkeeper has a personal, idiosyncratic obsession (or fetish) with avoiding doing the wrong thing (and avoiding doing the more-wrong things when all options are wrong or presumptively wrong). Moreover, she has a definite idea of what is morally wrong (which happens to be the one that I favor): to do something morally wrong is to do something that it is normatively appropriate for affected others to resent or object to. And she has rich knowledge of what types of actions thus warrant resentment and why, including the type instantiated in this case (cheating). So she has the relevant RI and RMF content, but it does motivational work only because of her personal, idiosyncratic obsession or fetish with avoiding doing wrong. Call this sort of case the case of the fetishistically moral amoralist. I submit that this sort of functionally honest shopkeeper’s right action, in not cheating some given customer, does not have moral worth. Her motivation is not of the right sort. Yet it looks like it has the right sorts of motivational elements (motivationally efficacious contents that “push” in the right direction) for the going views to deem it morally worthy.

Plausibly, the problem here is that our avoiding-doing-wrong fetishist shopkeeper (super-reliably honest, better to do business with than the pretty moral shopkeeper down the street who slips up occasionally on his moral duties) does not have the right kind of intrinsic desire not to do wrong. But what does this even mean? Are there different kinds of intrinsic desires to avoid doing wrong? If so, what does the right sort of intrinsic desire (or aversion) look like? 

Here is my proposal. Intuitively, avoiding doing wrong for distinctively moral motivations (or reasons) involves one experiencing guilt or shame upon doing (or even considering doing) wrong. But, clearly, the idea is not that one instrumentally desires to avoid doing wrong because one intrinsically desires not to experience guilt or shame. However, the following kind of broadly rational relationship can hold between distinct intrinsic desires: one intrinsically desires (or is intrinsically averse to) condition P (where this might be one performing a certain action or type of action) only because one intrinsically desires (or is intrinsically averse to) having some experience E that is reliably associated with P. Applying this model: one is intrinsically averse to doing wrong because one is intrinsically averse to the guilt or shame reliably associated with one doing wrong. This approach rightly treats the case of the fetishistically moral amoralist (the relevant functionally honest shopkeeper) as a case of right action that is not the sort of personal-level accomplishment that has moral worth (whatever, precisely, moral worth comes to — that is a separate question). 

Note: because the focus here is on (the right kind of) intrinsic aversion to doing wrong, RI content (e.g., that this action is wrong) plays the leading content-driven motivational role. The role for RMF-type content is to provide adequate understanding about what makes right/wrong actions right/wrong. (Imagine someone who takes wrong action to be resentment-warranting action — but has no idea, not even implicitly, why various resentment-warranting types of action are resentment-warranting. Or, worse, in addition to this, she gets the types radically wrong, taking watching the sun rise to warrant resentment from her first-born son (and likewise for all mothers and sons) or some such lunacy.) So my analysis fits well with the priority that Johnson King and Sliwa give to RI-type content. But it also identifies the motivational element that explains this — a motivational element ignored if one addresses only the motivating elements of RMF-type and RI-type motivating contents or reasons. And that — and how — we intrinsically desire to avoid doing wrong seems to be what matters most or what does the most explanatory work.

(Further note. As I’m using ‘wrong’ in a “thin” sense that does not include wrong things being normatively impermissible for the agent (or generally), the sort of RI-type content that I’m speaking to here does not include the first-personally normative content that corresponds to using ‘wrong’ in a thick sense that references both wrongness (either under this generic description or under another, as with resentment-warrant) and first-personally normative features of action (like it being normatively impermissible to perform the action). And similarly for ‘right’. So there is potentially a distinct sort of RI-content-centered view of the required motivational elements that I am not addressing. I think we need to distinguish contents like that this action would warrant resentment (or the de dicto right/wrong content that this action is wrong) from contents like that this action is impermissible for me because it is resentment-warranting (and their potential motivating roles) — that is why I use ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ in the “thin” semi-descriptive or not-first-personally-normative sense. I have my doubts that, in order for a right action to have moral worth, the agent must represent her action as permissible for her, as the only option that is not impermissible for her, as what she has sufficient moral reason to do, or anything like that (most explicitly contra Singh’s approach). Perhaps such first-personally normative belief is necessary to carry off sophisticated sorts of deliberation.)

12 thoughts on “the right sort of intrinsic desire to avoid doing morally wrong things

  1. Michael, would you and the various authors you mention regard someone for which doing the right thing has become a habit and though the habit Socratizes in Nozick’s sense, that is, reasons could be mustered by the actor were she to think on the rightness of the habit as having moral worth?

    Have you considered expanding what you have written here into a paper for Reason Papers? Thanks for composing this and showing the names in the current literature.

    Do you think that doing things from a sense of Honorableness, as in Cicero, suffices to give an act full moral worth?

    Have you by chance read Barbara Herman’s THE PRACTICE OF MORAL JUDGMENT? The blurb for this book says “She finds the central idea of Kantian ethics not in duty but in practical rationality as a norm of unconditioned goodness.” It has been on my shelf for many years. Would love to get to it, but a year of study flies by like month at my age in the seventh decade.

    (By the way, should you have a relaxed time for it, you might enjoy an interview of me made last spring that is now on YouTube. Its content could be given under “Philosophy, Engineering – a life, a mind”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWyN8QXRRbQ)

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      • He is a regular participant at the online posting forum I use, which is named Objectivism Online. He keeps his name secret, but his user name is Louie spelled backwards, and he lets us know this birth date, which puts him at about 32 years old. That was very fun to talk to this young intellectual person. Since the time of that interview, he has posted at that forum continuous book-by-book notes from his current project of reading the works of Aristotle by himself. The technical problems in the video were I think entirely from my end. We have moved the big computer from the guest room to my library part of living room (which I like very much), and it wasn’t until after that interview that we were able to solve those glitches when using Zoom, by relocating the modem in the basement closer to the stairway and to this machine. Glad you are enjoying the interview.

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        • Ahh, that explains some things. I never saw a YouTube channel before that didn’t have at least some info about the host, the channel, what they hope to accomplish, etc. (“Subscribe! And don’t forget to click the bell thingy!”)

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    • Stephen,

      I actually started reading Herman’s book a few weeks ago, but got interrupted by having to move from one town to another. I was prompted to pick Herman’s book off of my shelf (after years of having it on my to-read list) immediately after reading Sher’s Desert, precisely to answer the question you’ve posed. I’m going to write one more post on desert and merit, but after that, I’m planning to write a post on desert and virtue, and am hoping to integrate Herman’s comments on Kant into that post. So once again, I have to give you an IOU, but within, say, two or three weeks, I should be posting explicitly on the issue you’ve brought up.

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  2. Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments. As you describe the habit here, I think the answer would be ‘yes’ — because the right sorts of motivational structure likely would be present, but implicit. Indeed, this would seem to be a typical sort of case of right action with moral worth (fully explicit forms of rationality are overrated and rarer than one might think). However, sometimes habits are truly more like reflexes. If one does the morally right thing in a reflex-like habitual way, I think it is pretty standard to say that it does not have moral worth.

    I might try to revise/expand what I have here, after getting to know the literature better and after having the idea dragged over the coals by some smart folks (including of the folks very much in the literature). Not sure where I would want to publish it, if the core idea passes muster and the prose gets into acceptable shape for a paper. Have not read Barbara Herman’s book.

    Thanks for passing along the YouTube video — maybe I’ll get to playing it in the coming days!

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  3. Here are some quick comments on (roughly) the first half of your post. They’re just meant as “pointillistic thoughts I had while working through the post,” rather than comments that reflect a full grasp of the point you’re making.

    (1) I think Stephen’s mentioning Barbara Herman’s work on Kant is relevant here, not as a matter of scholarly pedantry, but as a substantively-relevant issue: I think it’s too vague to say that, for Kant, the reason why the shopkeeper’s right action lacks moral worth is that it lacks the right motivation. What it lacks, for Kant, is counterfactual stability. The shopkeeper refuses to cheat the naive customer because doing so would be bad for business. That’s the right action but the wrong motive because it entails that if doing so would be good for business, the same action would be permissible.

    Kant regards that sort of contingency as incompatible with moral motivation. Properly specified, every action type is either permissible or not. Hence cheating is either permissible or not. Since it’s not, the shopkeeper’s refusal to cheat out of narrow prudence involves action on a maxim that couldn’t be universalized, as opposed to partly or defeasibly or inconsistently so (“Cheating is bad…except here.”) It’s not clear that the rest of your discussion tracks the issue of counterfactual motivational stability. So your Kant example is potentially misleading.

    (2) The distinction between RMF- and RI-content is not clear to me. So it’s hard to judge from your description alone which thing is more essential to moral motivation, and/or how to adjudicate the dispute between Arpaly-Markowitz on the one hand, and King-Sliwa-Singh on the other. (Hence my earlier request for a citation.)

    (3) I don’t understand why your shopkeeper’s action (as opposed to Kant’s) lacks moral worth. You say that she has a “personal, idiosyncratic obsession or (fetish)” about avoiding the wrong thing, but what’s not clear is what you’re packing into that phrase that nullifies the action’s moral worth. Morally assiduous people always come across as obsessive or fetishistic to people who aren’t. Kant’s ethics looks obsessive to many people. But I think the relevant assumptions have to be unpacked more than you have to be made plausible.

    It might help your example to specify that the agent’s motivation is literally driven by a personality disorder, e.g., obsessive compulsive disorder. Imagine someone with a diagnosable (or rather, a competently diagnosed) case of obsessive-compulsive disorder where the OCD takes a specifically moralistic form. Instead of fussing obsessively over how the soup spoons should be arranged in a drawer, or the order in which dishes in the sink should be washed, the moralistic person-with-OCD obsesses over “avoiding wrong action.” The problem is, once you describe the case this way, you can no longer say that “it looks like [the agent] has the right sorts of motivational elements…for the going views to deem it morally worthy.” I think most people would say that this person is mentally ill, but happens to have a mental illness that appears to mimic moral motivation without doing so. The illness undermines agency in ways that make it a simulacrum of moral motivation, not the real thing. Moral motivation can’t be a literal, pathological obsession.

    In any case, I think you need to make explicit why you think your version of the shopkeeper fails to exhibit proper moral motivation. If your claim is that the shopkeeper would fail to experience guilt or shame on doing or considering morally wrong action, it’s unclear to me why either interpretation of the shopkeeper (your interpretation as stated in the post or my psychiatric one just above) is incompatible with that.

    I guess I would also say that it’s not clear to me why guilt or shame are as essential to moral motivation as you make them out to be. Why can’t someone react to their own wrongdoing in a more business-like way, simply noting it, and immediately resolving to do better next time, suppressing the urge to feel guilt or shame until not feeling them becomes second nature? (The person might, for instance, regard guilt and shame as irrational emotional indulgences that should be avoided.) I’m not recommending that attitude; I’m just asking, what’s wrong with it? On your view, something is, but I’m not sure what or why.

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    • That is all quite helpful. Very brief responses.
      (1) Yes, this is Kant* not Kant. “Doing the right thing, but with the right sort of motivation” is a pretty generic formula for specifying a right action that has moral worth. (2) RMF: this action being the keeping of a promise; RI: this action being morally right. (3) The key thing is just that the intrinsic desire to avoid performing morally wrong action (or to perform right action) needs to be of the right type; yes, an OCD-type of obsession would count and make the point vividly; I’d then challenge folks to specify, in a non-ad-hoc way, why their theory rules out such a motivation as being moral-worth-conferring. (4) I tend to agree that a trained-not-to-experience-guilt guy could have the right sort of motivation in doing the morally right thing. Maybe if he were like this: he intrinsically desires to avoid doing what is morally wrong (perhaps under some specific guise, like not doing things that others would appropriately resent, object to, etc.) but only because he believes that it is appropriate to feel guilt or shame upon performing wrong actions. Maybe there are several different sorts of things that could make the intrinsic desire not to do wrong of the right moral or morally-salient sort.

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