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Thoughts on Thoughts on Motive

Oct 17, 2017

Tags: philosophy

About two years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Thoughts on Motive”. I wrote it before I was a philosophy student, and before (on reflection) I really understood what I was talking about1.

I recently re-read that post, and realized some interesting things about it. I’m going to write about them below.

Grasping at Deontology

Looking back, I realize that I was picking at deontological ethics.

I considered myself some sort of utilitarian at the time (even if I said that “consequentialism as a whole does not appeal to me”), but was vaguely uncomfortable with the idea that actions done from different motives had were equally good based on outcome.

That discomfort, I now realize, crystallized into my current and more deontological views.

Common Views on Moral Worth

Although I referred to actions and outcomes as “good” or “bad” without moral qualification in my 2015 post, I now realize that I was interested in moral worth.

More interestingly, upon reading Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in a collegiate setting, I realize that my post serves as a form of proof that Kantian conceptions of moral worth are derivable from ordinary moral thinking. This claim is expressed in the preface to the Groundwork as the goal of GMS I:

First section: Transition from common to philosophical rational moral cognition. (GMS 392)

…and in the account of moral worth in GMS I:

The second proposition is: an action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which it is resolved upon, and thus it does not depend on the actuality of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of willing according to which - regardless of any object of the desiderative faculty - the action is done. (GMS I 399-400)

I take this to be Kantese for something like the following: “An action’s moral worth stems from the motives that produced it, and not at all upon any outcome or any outcome’s magnitude.”

This is really fantastic, at least to me — it shows that concepts of duty and motive aren’t synthetic products of philosophical thinking, but basic components of everyday moral evaluation.

“Reason” and the Desiderative Faculty

I also said some funny stuff about “reason” in that post, particularly in contrast to “motive.” On reflection, most of it is nonsense.

However, one part stands out:

A fat man has good reason to lose weight - he knows that he will die at a young age if he does not. However, he does not act on this reason (for other reasons - he may like food, be apathetic, have a prohibitive disability, etc). Reason, therefore, can be said to be fairly weak.

The first two reasons (liking food and apathy) bear a great deal of resemblance to what Aristotle calls “incontinence” and Kant calls “inclination” (which, like Aristotle, he thinks stems from the desiderative faculty2).

That struck me as interesting, and further evidence for this sort of ethical thought being non-synthetic. After all, we recognize3 that we often fail to act on our moral conclusions due to the presence (and incorrect priority) of other desires.

  1. Not that I know for certain now, either. 

  2. Roughly, anyways. 

  3. In ordinary, everyday thought.