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Moral Worth in Arpaly's Philanthropic Cases, from a Kantian Perspective

Mar 3, 2018     Tags: philosophy    


This was originally written on 2/17, and partially rewritten since. One thing that I’ve failed to do consistently throughout the post is distinguish between Kant’s views and those of (contemporary) Kantians. In general, while reading, you can assume that “Kant” refers to contemporary Kantianism, not the Sage of Königsberg himself.

In chapter 3 of Unprincipled Virtue (2002), Nomy Arpaly presents her (revised) account of moral worth1:

Praiseworthiness as Responsiveness to Moral Reasons (revised version): For an agent to be morally praiseworthy for doing the right thing is for her to have done the right thing for the relevant moral reasons — that is, for the reasons for which the action is right (the right reasons clause); and an agent is more praiseworthy, other things being equal, the deeper the moral concern that has led to her action (the concern clause). Moral concern is to be understood as concern for what is in fact morally relevant and not as concern for what the agent takes to be morally relevant. (UV, 84)

As support for the first feature (“diehard motivation”) of the concern clause, Arpaly develops three philanthropic cases. She provides them in order of decreasing praiseworthiness:

  1. The sorrowing case: A person who acts benevolently out of a (correct) sense of duty towards others, and who takes this duty so seriously as to not allow her depression to impede it.

  2. The fair-weather case: A person who acts benevolently in ‘fair weather,’ meaning so long as no “serious problems cloud her mind.”

  3. The capricious case: A person who acts benevolently on a whim, meaning that the situation has afforded them a convenient opportunity to be benevolent. Arpaly’s case: A woman who decides to give to a charity because her credit card happened to be nearby at the time of the call.

Arpaly contrasts these three cases with Kant’s “cold-hearted” philanthropist, who acts benevolently despite complete indifference towards others. From the the Groundwork:

… if (otherwise honest) he were by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because he himself is equipped with the peculiar gift of patience and ensuring strength towards his own, and presupposes, or even requires, the same in every other, if nature has not actually formed such a man (who would truly not be its worst product) to be a friend of humanity, would he not still find within himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than that of a good-natured temperament may be? (GMS, 4:398)

Contra Kant, Arpaly claims that the cold-hearted philanthropist is less praiseworthy than her sorrowing philanthropist:

The fact that one’s concern, whether for humanity or for one’s wife or one’s art, is enough to motivate one — albeit barely — even though one is grief-stricken is a testimony to the strength of one’s concern. The fact that one’s concern, in the best of times, is only enough to motivate one barely, shows a deficiency of concern or a half-heartedness. Thus, under many descriptions, the cold-hearted philanthropist is less praiseworthy than he would be if it were not for his cold-heartedness. (UV, 89)

I’m going to focus this post on rebutting the above, as well as on rebutting Arpaly’s contention that the fair-weather case is not praiseworthy from the Kantian perspective. I will do so from alternative interpretations of Kant’s cold-hearted philanthropist and account of moral worth, respectively.

The cold-hearted and sorrowing cases

In splitting praiseworthiness between acting for the right reasons and acting from concern, Arpaly does make it initially appear as if Kant’s cold-hearted case is less praiseworthy than the sorrowing case — the sorrowing philanthropist’s emotions serve to affirm her sense of duty, and thus give her a ‘fuller’ motive to act (in contrast with the cold-hearted agent, who seems to be dragged to action in spite of his emotions). Thus, the split between reasons and concern appears to reflect2 our considerations when determining the depth of our praise for agents.

Although Kant had no such split in mind, his account of moral worth provides the same effect — acting for the right reasons involves acting not just from a sense of duty, but also that such a sense stems from concern for the moral law itself:

Nothing other than the representation of the law in itself — which of course can only take place in a rational being — in so far as it, not the hoped-for effect, is the determining ground of the will, can therefore constitute the pre-eminent good that we call moral, which is already present in the person himself who acts according to it, and is not first to be expected from the effect. (GMS, 4:401)

In other words: it is not just that the cold-hearted man feels a sense of duty and that the duty he feels happens to be correct; it’s that his sense of duty stems from absolute concern for the universal law3, and that this concern drives him necessarily towards acting rightly (and therefore in a praiseworthy fashion).

Under this interpretation, there is no “dragging” as Arpaly envisions it — although the cold-hearted man does not feel any sort of emotional concern in the way that the sorrowing man does, he posses a form of rational concern that enables him to act resolutely and necessarily from his sense of duty4.

Arpaly does consider a rebuttal along these lines,

[…] many different things can cause a person to appear cold or to experience himself as indifferent, and these things differ in morally significant ways (recall that what one cares about is not always that about which one which one feels most strongly and warmly). Thus, a cold-looking or even cold-feeling person philanthropist may in fact care about morality much more deeply than a philanthropist know for a “Mediterranean temper” or a “sweet temper.” (UV, 89)

…but considers it insufficient per a sense of “essential conflict”: the cold-hearted philanthropist (unlike his sorrowing counterpart) possesses inherently adversarial concerns5, and therefore is only as praiseworthy as if in possession of partial concern:

There is no essential conflict between sadness and philanthropic concern, so the fact that the philanthropist helps in spite of depression only serves to underscore the depth of her philanthropy. On the other hand, if the philanthropist helps despite a contempt for her fellow human beings or an indifference to their suffering […], the presence of this contempt or indifferences reduces the wholeheartedness of her philanthropic acts to a level that would be expressed by someone who was not conflicted but less concerned. (UV, 90)

I agree with Arpaly that this is the impression given by the cold-hearted man: it certainly seems wrong for me, when visiting my hospitalized friend, to tell them that I am visiting them out of a strong sense of duty, i.e. “because I am compelled to”6; we seem to expect that right actions come with a sort of right-feeling, and are disappointed or annoyed when they don’t.

However, I maintain that this is not a problem for Kant (or at least Kantians), and my reasons for thinking so will become clear below.

The fair-weather case

Arpaly presents her fair-weather case as a challenge to the Kantian account of praiseworthiness as well:

[Kant] would say that the first agent is more praiseworthy than the second agent because she acts out of one motive, duty, while the second one acts out of a motive called ‘inclination’, a basically hedonistic motive that is as different from duty as water is from oil. (UV, 88)

However, it’s not clear that this sort of situation is the kind that Kant had in mind when describing inclination — his inclination-guided7 agents (the prudential shopkeeper, and the anxious suicide-considerer) are each capable of acting in three sorts of ways:

  1. In conformity with duty but not from it.
  2. In conformity with duty and from duty (the morally worthy case).
  3. Contrary to duty.

But the fair-weather case is bivalent — she acts benevolently from a sense of duty8 in normal circumstances, but fails to when “serious problems cloud her mind.” Thus, I’ve interpreted her case in two ways9:

  1. As partially praiseworthy and partially blameworthy, as the serious problems arise.
  2. As neither, on the basis of being in an ought-blocking condition.

Intermittent worth

Although Kant provides no room in his view for partial moral worth in individual cases, he says nothing10 about changes in worth alongside the scenario (if not from it, as that would mean ultimately appealing to effect).

For example, consider two distinct days in the life of Kant’s suicide-considerer. On the first day he may reject suicide on the basis of fear, and therefore (on Kant’s view) is not morally praiseworthy. But on the second day (while still wishing for death) he preserves his life out of a sense of duty — now he is morally praiseworthy11.

Thus, an agent can have intermittent worth in the context of multiple cases, separated by time: praise-and-blameworthiness do not follow the agent around like a disease, but rather attach to them as they perform (or fail to perform) actions in accordance with duty.12

Ought-blocking conditions

The intermittent-worth interpretation above is worth consideration, but is not the only avenue of relief for Kantians. As described, the fair-weather case involves serious concerns, the kind that involve crises in the things we value highly (marriages, jobs) and result in the agent’s mind becoming “clouded.”

Kant’s “ought implies can” formulation13 becomes salient under such a characterization — a “clouded” state would bear resemblance to one of diminished rationality or autonomy14, and just the common view dictates that we place fewer demands on those who we know15 can’t fulfill normal obligations or praiseworthy acts. In short: cases like that of the fair-weather philanthropist, on some interpretations, run up against the line of “can’t” that delineates the sensibility of prescribed “oughts”. Under those interpretations (and during her depressive episodes), it simply doesn’t make sense to talk about the fair-weather philanthropist’s oughts.

Of course, Arpaly probably didn’t have such an extreme fair-weather agent in mind. But Kant(ians) have an answer for these less extreme agents as well, in the form of the “intermittent worth” expressed above.

Why aren’t emotions a problem for Kant(ians)?

I said above that I didn’t think that the “coldness” normally associated with Kant’s accounts of action-from-duty and moral worth are problems, and that deserves substantiation.

In particular, Kant is often interpreted as claiming that only the “coldest,” most emotionally deficient agents have true moral worth — they are, after all, the only ones who have no contravening inclinations, and who we can be certain are acting from duty.

But, in context, Kant is more subtle: he claims only that cold-hearted cases are the clearest cases of moral worth, and leaves it open as to whether agents may act from duty while possessing (non-contravening) inclinations16. Thus, the mere presence of emotions like happiness are not necessarily a worth-or-praise diminishing factor for Kantians; they only become so if shown to contravene.

In sum: Kant has serious doubts about whether we can ever truly know the moral worth of someone’s actions, but, as a practical matter, we don’t need to share his doubt. Accepting the overarching Kantian view of morality (that there is a Supreme Principle of Morality, and that it is the Categorical Imperative, &c) does not commit us to his skepticism regarding motives and intents.

Aside: concerns about exhaustiveness

This section is only tangentially related to the others, so I’ve placed it at the very bottom.

After reading and re-reading Arpaly’s revised PRMR a few times, the very first phrase stands out:

For an agent to be morally praiseworthy for doing the right thing […] (UV, 84)

This, to me, suggests a gap what is otherwise a total account of praiseworthiness: what of agents who have done the wrong thing, but for the right reasons?17

Consider Arpaly’s Solomon, who concludes (not unreasonably given his circumstances and not without initial skepticism) that all women lack the capacity for abstract thinking (UV, 103f.). We can imagine Solomon standing between two dire situations: one involving a man (who will lose his arms if Solomon does not help), and the other involving a woman (who will die under the same condition). Solomon must decide who (if anybody) to help, and chooses the man — he knows that men possess the capacity for abstract thinking, and thus has some kind of additional Kantian “worth”.18 Solomon possesses, from one angle, the “right reasons”: he has acted from duty to aid a rational being. But from another angle, Solomon has done something completely wrong: women do possess the capacity for abstract thought19, and Solomon has inadvertently compared and decided between two fundamentally incomparable things (much less chosen the wrong one, from a purely consequential perspective). Is Solomon morally praiseworthy, morally blameworthy, or simply a pawn in an unfortunate scenario? Can he be blamed for not knowing that women are persons, even though his entire life up to that point has given him good reason to believe that?

  1. Arpaly’s unrevised version is on page 74 of Unprincipled Virtue, and does not include the concern clause (which is required for sparking her philanthropic cases). 

  2. And rightfully reflect. 

  3. Or his private interpretation (“representation,” in Kantese) of it, anyways. 

  4. GMS 4:400: “[…] duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law.” 

  5. i.e., the conflict between the cold-hearted philanthropist’s contempt for (or indifference towards) individuals and his strong (action-demanding) concern for the laws that dictate his behavior towards those same individuals. 

  6. As Greenspan noted in discussion, this might just be a function of the linguistic baggage of the word “duty” in English — it evokes a sense of pained obligation, like eating your Brussels sprout at dinner, when what we mean by “duty” as a term of art is more nuanced. 

  7. But not always immediate inclination, although I don’t think the distinction matters here. 

  8. UV 88: “[…] she is just an ordinary person who does good for moral reasons but whose moral concerns are not deep enough to override some other concerns when they appear.” 

  9. After writing this, I realized I didn’t give treatment to Kant’s account of beneficence as an imperfect duty, i.e. one admitting of exceptions (GMS 4:421 and 4:422ff. sub). On this interpretation, the opposite of praiseworthiness is simply morally neutral. This absolves both the fair-weather and capricious philanthropists in their particular cases, but leaves open questions surrounding the the development of duties and beneficence being categorically imperfect. Put simply: is it really the case that all beneficence comes in the form of imperfect duty, and can I really say nothing to people who have failed to cultivate such feelings of duty in themselves? 

  10. To my lowly knowledge. 

  11. GMS 4:398: “[…] if the unfortunate man […] wishes for death, and yet preserves his life, without loving it, not from inclination, or fear, but from duty; then his maxim has a moral content.” 

  12. This does, however, produce problems in terms of characterizing the “good” i.e. virtuous person: are they the one who always acts from duty? Mostly from duty, and sometimes either not from it or against it, as seems to happen to most people? 

  13. CPR A548/B576: “The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.” 

  14. Compare to Arpaly’s “ego-dystonic” cases — is someone suffering a severe but temporary depressive episode really “themselves”? 

  15. Or possibly just strongly doubt. 

  16. These can be expressed neatly as “would have anyways,” e.g. “I would have stopped the thief even knowing I wouldn’t be rewarded (or even praised) for it.” It’s that “even” that Kant seems to doubt we can ever verify. 

  17. This is a step away from Kant, who draws a consequence relation between “acting from duty” and “acting in accordance with duty”. As such, the premise itself is ridiculous to Kant: having the “right reasons” means “doing the right thing,” even if you fail. 

  18. Of course, Kant thinks that this worth is uncountable and incomparable, meaning that the entire idea of a choice between two persons presents a problem. But Solomon doesn’t know any of this, and can’t be reasonably be expected to. 

  19. At least, outside of Solomon’s village.