Hi all –


As promised, Nomy Arpaly joins us with a post below the fold.  Welcome Nomy!


Hi everyone! I am honored and flattered to be a featured philosopher on PeaSoup. Please feel free to ask questions about any part of my work, from my early work on identification, rationality, and autonomy through to the book I just published with Tim Schroeder, In Praise of Desire. In addition, however, I would like to explain something I’m working on right now and get your input on it. This is really work in progress and it’s at an early stage, so thank you very much for indulging me.


My idea starts from my old paper “Moral Worth”. According to my old view, if a person does the right thing, her action has moral worth iff it is performed for the reasons for which it’s right. In other words, the agent’s reason(s) for action should be the action’s right-making feature(s). Thus if, like Kant’s prudent grocer, you do the right thing for money then your action has no moral worth, as what makes the action right has nothing to do with the fact that it brings you money. So far, this is a rather Kantian view. The non-Kantian twist is that for the action to have moral worth it’s neither necessary nor sufficient that the agent does it because she believes it to be right. Thus if Huckleberry Finn helps Jim because he takes Jim to be a human being like him, his action has moral worth. On the other hand, if a person whose idea of the right is to promote the wellbeing of Germans over other nationals nonetheless rightly helps me, doing so because (suppose) I happen to be German, his action does not have moral worth: it is an accident that he did the right thing.


If a morally worthy action is done for its right-making features then there is what I take to be an interesting connection between moral worth and normative ethics, so that it might be possible to start from premises about moral worth and conclude things about normative ethics. In other words, if a morally worthy action is done for its right-making features, we can consider which actions have moral worth and reach conclusions about what the right making features of these actions are – and thus, about what the right normative theory is. Julia Markovits, who recently defended a view of moral worth similar to mine, applies this kind of reasoning to criticize utilitarianism. She says, essentially: if utilitarianism is true, all morally worthy actions are done for utilitarian reasons. Many acts of promise-keeping performed by philosophically unsophisticated agents are performed for decisively non-utilitarian reasons. If utilitarianism were true, all these actions would have no moral worth. Quod est absurdum.


I think various things, not just conclusions about utilitarianism, follow from my view of moral worth, especially when coupled with the view that philosophically unsophisticated agents often perform morally worthy actions. Here I’ll concentrate on one. In In Praise of Desire Tim and I gesture towards the view that intuitions about moral worth support a pluralistic view of the right-making features of actions. I would like to develop that idea. I don’t know how many fundamentally distinct right-making features there are but there are at least two.


Maybe the biggest disagreement between Kantians and non-philosophers concerns the moral worth of actions done simply to protect wellbeing, or at least to avoid or alleviate illbeing – acts of (call it) altruism. Suppose Jennifer helps John with his dissertation, even though he is not her student or close friend, simply because she is concerned that people not suffer illbeing. She does not have Kantian thoughts about what would happen to her if nobody helped – perhaps she is even a powerful alien that literally never needs help. Does her action have moral worth? People outside philosophy, asked if she deserves praise for her action, would say “yes.”. Jennifer is treated unlike someone who helps for money or in order to collect material for her novel. Kantians have various arguments against that but one is particularly bothersome to me, as it makes it seem like the Kantian conclusion follows from my view. This is the following argument: Jennifer’s motive for doing the right thing could also have led her, in some other circumstances, to do something wrong. Therefore, it is only an accident that she did the right thing. Thus she couldn’t have done her action for the reasons for which it’s right. Suppose we hear that, on a previous occasion, Jennifer told her roommate a lie in order to protect the roommate from illbeing (I imagine her in Thomas Hill’s case in which one lies to one’s roommate about whether her former boyfriend would be inclined to resume their relationship if she approaches him, a relationship that was painful and harmful to her).  Suppose the paternalistic lie, though perfectly effective in protecting the roommate, was the wrong thing to do. Doesn’t that imply that her help with John’s dissertation has no moral worth? Interestingly, again, my undergrads won’t agree. Sometimes people think that the help with the dissertation is evidence that Jennifer, even when she lied, was at least well-intentioned. I don’t know what that means but it’s not something you say about the prudent grocer. What’s going on here?


My view is that we perceive Jennifer as a person who is in some ways good (and people utterly indifferent to moral reasons are not good),  but who has a grave flaw in that she fails to be moved by some things:  there are moral reasons that she responds to – reasons that have to do with wellbeing – and moral reasons that she does not respond to – reasons that have to do with something else. Accordingly she responded to the reason she had to help John – wellbeing – but not to the reason(s) she had to tell her roommate the truth.  If that is the case , then there are at least two kinds of things that make actions right – one has to do with wellbeing and one with something else. So the true view of the right is not monistic. Much has to be clarified,  but I see I have written more than 1000 words… So what do you think?    

25 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Nomy Arpaly

  1. Hi Nomy,
    thanks for a very interesting post. (I am also a fan of your earlier work on this topic.) Anyway, suppose that somebody responded in the following way. First, we should be consequentialists about the right and pluralists about the good. I.e. there are various different goods, and the right thing to do is to protect and promote these various goods.
    One such good, our consequentialist might continue, is the good of well-being. Since the right, on this view, consists in promoting the goods, and well-being is one of those goods, Jennifer is responding to that right-making property in helping in order to promote John’s well-being. Another good is the good of honesty, and in telling that paternalistic lie in the other example, Jennifer failed to respond to a right-making feature, namely the it-would-have-been-the-honest-thing-to-do feature which, being among the goods, would have made the action right.
    Would, I am wondering, this not be a view on which, on an abstract level, there is only one property that makes actions right – namely, that they protect or promote goods – whereas it at the same time is also fine to say that in a different sense, there are more right-making properties. There are, in that different sense, more than one right-making property because there are many goods, and the right, on this view, is or consists in being protective and promotive of these goods.
    Would that be a way of keeping one’s cake and eating, too? (Letting the cake here be the cake of saying that there is, on the most abstract level, only one right-maker.) If not, is it because, as you see things, it matters greatly under which aspect (so to speak) one is responsive to something?

  2. Thanks a lot for doing this, Nomy, and for the really interesting post.
    I think one possible way to go is to focus on people’s ambivalent reactions to Jennifer, that she seems praiseworthy in one sense but not another. Could it then be that they are responding to, very generally, her “quality of will,” but where “will” has (at least) two distinct senses? In one sense, it refers to her “quality of judgment,” which is about her judgments as to the worth of various reasons. In another sense, it refers to her “quality of regard,” which is about which facts appear to her to be reasons in the first place among the facts about people’s specific normative perspectives. People who have poor quality of regard are those who fail to consider that certain facts about people’s specific normative perspectives–like not wanting to be treated paternalistically–count as reasons (say, against paternalistic treatment). So given that Jennifer was inconsiderate with respect to a certain class of reasons stemming from John’s perspective (2nd-personal reasons?), she has insufficiently good quality of regard, but insofar as she judged pretty well with respect to the other (agent-neutral) moral reasons there were, she had good quality of judgment. So in the dissertation case, praise (taken to be the opposite of criticism or disapproval) may be fitting, whereas gratitude (the opposite of resentment/anger) is not.
    (The idea then would be that praise and blame are fine-grained, with one class of responses (regret, disappointment, disapproval) evaluating quality of judgment, and another class of responses (resentment, gratitude, indignation) evaluating quality of regard.)
    (Another parenthetical: it turns out that I was going to ask you about your “quality of will” account anyway, so this is as good an entree to that subject as any.)

  3. Thanks for this post.
    I have a thought about how a Kantian can accommodate this case by recognizing a distinction between Jennifer and the prudential grocer. My thought quite closely mirrors your account above in the final paragraph. Briefly, here’s the idea: benevolence (acting for another’s good) is an imperfect moral duty, while there is no such imperfect duty of self-interested prudence. While it is certainly instrumentally rational to be prudent, and it may also be morally permissible, there is no special moral requirement to take up this end in the way that there is to take up others’ goods as part of one’s complete system of ends.
    What the undergrads are recognizing is, then, in Kantian terms, that Jennifer is adopting a required end. What they are, on this account, perhaps insensitive to is that although the end is required by morality, the means by which we may permissibly help others and the ends that we might be permissibly adopt that constitute helping others are both also constrained by justice. It seems like Jennifer is responding to a morally required end, but, taking the full range of her behavior into account, without the appropriate concern for the means she is entitled to use. Thus, the moral worth even of her permissible assistance to her friend is tainted by a flaw in her character.

  4. Hi all –
    Nomy asks me to post this response.

    Hi Again,
    Thanks a lot for your questions, everyone!
    Sven: I think that if the right action is to promote goods then there are as many right-making features as there are goods. I reject the theory that the right thing to do is to promote goods under that description, for if that were true then any action done to promote something that the agent believes to be good would be praiseworthy, which is false. The right thing to do is to promote X, the good thing (utility, say). A consequentialist like Railton could say that there are various such good things – knowledge, art, wellbeing, etc. Suppose I that in a given occasion the right thing to do is to promote art. I do the right thing and I do it because I am concerned to promote art. If I do, my action has moral worth. Thus, I think, the fact that it promotes art is a right making feature of my action. The same sort of thing is true for a case in which the right thing to do is to protect well being or knowledge. Even if the goods are rank-ordered and promoting art is only a pro tanto moral reason, I think it’s still true that if, in a given occasion, the right thing to do is to promote art and you have done it for the reason to it promotes art your action has moral worth, and the fact that it promotes art is a right-making feature of your action
    David: I don’t think what the agent sees as reasons is important for any kind of moral praise: only the reasons for which she actually acts, which might not seem like reasons to her, count. That aside: I am not sure that something as complicated as second personal reasons is requires to explain why paternalism is wrong and why the paternalistic person is missing something. Here is just one possibility: the virtuous person has a third-person concern with things like autonomous choice, or consent. The fact that a person did not consent to something is under some circumstances a (third person) reason not to do it, a wrong-making feature. Secretly putting a drug in someone’s coffee for his own good is wrong not because the victim does not want to be treated paternalistically – maybe he secretly wants someone to make his decisions for him – but for reasons having to do with the fact that his consent was not given. If Kantians have it right that deceiving a person for her own good is similar to forcing her to do something for her own good – in my example, it is interfering with the roommate’s decision whether to resume a romantic relationship and essentially forcing her to not do so – then something like lack of consent can explain the wrongness of lying to the roommate. Of course, I am not trying to come up with a comprehensive view of what’s wrong with being paternalistic here, one needs a moral theory for that. I am just giving an idea of how coming up with 3rd persons stories is not hopeless here.
    Also, I don’t agree that John would feel something inappropriate if he feels gratitude towards Jennifer. I feel gratitude when people do something nice for me with no ulterior motive. Knowing that the person who helped me with my dissertation would have, under different circumstances, lied to me paternalistically, it would make me wary of that person, but I would still be grateful. My speech to them would begin with “I am grateful for your help with my dissertation, but….” Some people feel that way about their over-interfering parents when they help.
    Pete: I must ask you a question. What do you mean by saying that the moral worth of Jennifer’s helping John is “tainted”? Do you mean that her action has no moral worth, or that it has moral worth (unlike the Grocer’s fair pricing) but to a lesser degree than other agents? If you think Jennifer’s action has no moral worth, we have a rather basic disagreement, and I continue to side with the undergrads. If you think it does have moral worth, to some degree, and would like the Kantian to account for it, here is what I would say. There is a Kantian duty to help others, and Jennifer acts in accordance with that duty. She does not, however, ex hypothesi, act from (Kantian) duty. She is not moved by thoughts, conscious or otherwise, of what would happen if she were in trouble and no one helped her, nor is she acting in any other way from the universal law formula. She is not acting on the formula of humanity, either – because she is acting for a motive that previously led her to be paternalistic. For Kant, paternalism is incompatible with following the formula of humanity: the formula tells us to treat people as ends. Paternalism, as in benevolent lies, is a way of treating people as mere means (it sounds strange, but that’s what Kant says). Jennifer, we assume, acted from the same motive on both cases, so she couldn’t have been motivated by the formula of humanity. If Jennifer is not acting on a Kantian motive, it’s hard to see how, if Kantianism is true, her action could have any moral worth at all.
    It occurs to me that apart from the “contradiction in the will” stuff, Kant seems to think of our duty to promote people’s wellbeing as coming from a duty to make their ends our own. He assumes that people always aim at wellbeing. They don’t always aim at wellbeing, so accepting your ends as mine is not necessarily the same thing as accepting my well being as your end. If I care about wellbeing, I might beg someone who values, say, working hard above all to make her own wellbeing an end: I want it for her even thought it is not her end…
    Anyway, most people can agree that concern for well being ought to be constrained by concern for justice, but to be a Kantian you need to think that concern for well being and concern for justice come from the same source- the categorical imperative. That’s where I disagree, and have attempted to argue for my position through the moral worth of the action of a person who is not concerned with universalizability or with treating people as ends.

  5. Thanks, Nomy, for this post. Looking forward to reading more, and to reading the new book as soon as it’s out. I’m a big admirer of your work, and I’m sympathetic to the undergrads here. The idea that “philosophically unsophisticated agents often perform morally worthy actions” has just got to be right.
    Doesn’t David Shoemaker’s interesting suggestion just move the problem back a level? The idea behind the nice praise/gratitude distinction, as I read it, is that in the dissertation case we can praise Jennifer for promoting the good, but that John ought not feel gratitude/we ought not feel the 3rd personal analogue of gratitude. But the reason for this seems to be that, in the roommate case Jennifer shows herself to have insufficient sensitivity to 2nd personal or regard-generating reasons. Assume that’s right about the roommate case: why should we think it’s right about the dissertation case? That is, why should the fact the Jennifer gets regard wrong in one case lead us to conclude that she got regard wrong in another? (We might say the same thing about Pete’s suggestion that Jennifer’s dissertation altruism was ‘tainted’ by her paternalistic lies.)
    This strikes me as a general problem for both Kantian and broadly virtue-theoretic approaches: why should counterfactuals about how people would behave in different circumstances wholly determine how we evaluate their actions in this situation? Behaviour in other contexts can certainly be good evidence: perhaps the prudent grocer’s behaviour is be evidence that he really only cares about money. But it seems to me that it’s defeasible evidence.
    I do have a methodological question, which you may be planning to address in another post. Why take the view that our intuitions about moral worth are more basic than normative theory? That is, what is the response to the defender of a normative theory who insists that many intuitions about moral worth are mistaken, and that assessments of worth should track the right theory, not the other way around? After all, lots of my undergrads, anyway, will think that the paternalistic lie was permissible, and maybe even admirable.

  6. Many thanks for the reply, Nomy. And thanks to Dale for passing it on.
    Just a quick response. It sounds to me like what you’re saying boils down to the following. When it comes to making assessments of moral worth, we should think of there as being a plurality of right-making properties. But for other purposes, such as that of trying to formulate a unifying philosophical theory of ethics, it might very well be that we could be right in holding that there is some one abstract right-making property that explains why those other properties function as right-making properties within the assessment of agents’ moral worth. It could be, in other words, that what makes actions right in (so to speak) theory is that they promote goods. But in practice (at least or especially if the practice in question is to assess people’s moral worth) we can, and perhaps should, say that there are many right-making properties.
    Alternatively put: for an argument to the effect that there is a plurality of right-making properties independently of what sorts of questions we’re asking, there would seem to be a need for a further premise of the following sort. Crucial premise: whatever principle governs or regulates assessments of moral worth is necessarily identical with, and cannot be distinguished from, any and all other sorts of principles to do with what is right (and of why those things are right).

  7. Mathieu posted his comment as I was writing mine. His question (“Why take the view that our intuitions about moral worth are more basic than normative theory?”) is precisely the question I was trying to get at in my just-posted response, only he put it more elegantly than I did.

  8. Hi Nomy,
    You mention an argument you want to address that I have just a small comment about:
    Kantians have various arguments against that but one is particularly bothersome to me, as it makes it seem like the Kantian conclusion follows from my view. This is the following argument: Jennifer’s motive for doing the right thing could also have led her, in some other circumstances, to do something wrong. Therefore, it is only an accident that she did the right thing. Thus she couldn’t have done her action for the reasons for which it’s right.
    This reminds me of some discussions of Gettier cases in epistemology. One way of thinking of Gettier cases is as cases where someone’s belief which is based on good evidence still counts as an accident in some good sense, and therefore doesn’t count as knowledge. But, unless Gettier cases have the power to show that even non-Gettier cases are accidents, we can’t conclude that when we reason on the basis of good evidence to a true conclusion and where the Gettier-style defeating condition is not present, it is an merely an accident, even though it is true that in another case (the Gettier case) we would reason in the same way and reason incorrectly.
    Or to be more concrete, in fake barn country, when we see a barn and conclude there are barns about, it is an accident that we got things right. But that doesn’t show that when we’re not in fake barn country and we do the same thing it is still an accident. The mere fact that in some other situation (that being when we’re in fake barn country) we could have reasoned the same way and gotten it wrong doesn’t show that here our getting it right is an accident.
    This may or may not be a helpful comment. I’m not sure it is parallel to Jennifer’s case in your example. But it seems like it might undermine the ability of a possible but different situation to show that in the actual situation relying on the reasoning qualifies your coming to the right conclusion for action as an accident.

  9. Sven: I don’t think assigning moral worth is any more a “practice” than assigning rightness or wrongness is. That aside: if the right action is about promoting several different goods, the only property these goods have in common is “good”. But “the right action is an action the promotes good(s)” is not yet a complete consequentialist moral theory. The complete consequentialist moral theory would be “the right action is an action that promotes X, Y, or Z”, where X, Y and Z are all specified. You might think that the property “promotes goods” is identical to the property “promotes X, Y, or Z” (for the right X Y and Z). If they are the same property, I should be more precise than I have been in my books and say that the morally worthy actor would be motivated by what makes her action right as it would be conceived not just by the true normative theory but by the fully explanatory normative theory, (“the right is whatever is correctly called right” is a true but bad theory, and so it doesn’t seem to really capture the right-making feature(s) of actions for my purpose). Once you go from “promoting goods” to “promoting X, Y, or Z”, your theory is pluralistic enough for me.
    Sven and Mathieu: 1) My purpose has not been to build a moral theory but to see what happens if my view of moral worth, which I have defended in the past, is taken seriously. However, I think sometimes intuitions about moral worth are quite strong. While I don’t think all intuitions about moral worth are stronger than all intuitions about the right – not even close- I think some intuitions about moral worth are more powerful then some intuitions about the right, and it surely does happen that our confidence in intuitions about moral worth is higher than our confidence in a given view about the right. I am, for example, impressed by Markovits’s critique of utilitarianism, where she pits an intuition about moral worth (“philosophically unsophisticated people do morally worthy things for non-utilitarian reasons all the time”) against a controversial theory of the right (utilitarianism) using a theory of moral worth similar to mine. It is, of course, open to the utilitarian to say to Markovits “OK, if utilitarianism conflicts with the intuition that unsophisticated people perform morally worthy things all the time, then let’s get rid of that intuition, and hold that anyone who keeps a promise for non-utilitarian reasons acts without moral worth”. Heck, it is even open to the utilitarian to get rid of the intuition that it’s wrong to hang an innocent man. There is always a choice, and what Markovits does is make clear to the utilitarians what their alternative are, pointing out that there is a cost to being a utilitarian that no one thought of before.
    When it comes to the idea that sometimes we should start from moral worth and go to normative ethics from there, I am a Kantian. Kant starts the Groundwork (minus the introduction) not with the categorical imperative (his view of the right) but with the good will, later identified with the motive of duty (the thing that grants moral worth), which he regards as the only thing in the world that’s good without qualifications. When he begins to explore the moral law, what he is exploring is partially the answer to the question: what is the law that governs a good will?
    Mathieu: Sometimes the relevance of conditionals for assessing a person’s behavior is pretty stark. For example, sometimes a person talks to me in a way that sounds like it might be dismissive, disdainful, or condescending, and I ask myself, quite instinctively: would he have spoken to me the same way if I were a man instead of a woman? If someone assured me that he would not have spoken to me the same way if I were a man, I would judge the person’s behavior towards me in that incident quite harshly. If it turned out he would have acted the same way even if I were a gray-bearded gentleman, I would, under some conditions, excuse him completely.
    I fully agree that the truth of the conditional “if I were a man, he would treat me differently” is only evidence – defeasible evidence at that. What really matters is whether his action expresses a sexist attitude, and only an omniscient God could know for sure whether the man has such an attitude. The attitude itself cannot be defined by a series of counterfactuals, and even it’s depth is not defined by such counterfactuals. That’s why I don’t believe in the importance of character as character is commonly conceived – as defined in terms of doing the same action in many circumstances. I often translate intuitions about character to intuitions about what one cares about or what reasons one is moved by – questions that are not about behavioral counterfactuals, since behaviorism is false and mental states like caring about something exist in the brain and cause things rather then being mere dispositions to act. However, sometimes the fact that someone would have spoken to me differently if I were a man is pretty damn good evidence that he is currently being a pig, and the fact that someone would do the wrong thing if money required it is pretty good evidence that he cares about money more than he cares about morality. The fact that a person is sometimes paternalistic is a good reason to suspect that she is missing something – either second personal responsiveness like David says or third person concern for other people’s autonomy like I said, or something else – and the fact that we don’t take this (defeasible) evidence to also be (defeasible) evidence that her action has as no moral worth is a valuable datum. By the way, I never claimed to deduce the view “paternalism is wrong” from evidence about moral worth. I assumed it to be true. My undergrads, when confronted by Hill’s example, say that whether the lie was the right thing to do varies by whether the ex-boyfriend was abusive or, as one of them put it, “just a dick”. I assumed the latter.

  10. I just realized that answering more than one person in one post is something that people here don’t seem to do. In case anything was missed: I have attempted to answer Sven, David, Pete and Mathieu so far (Still thinking about what Mark said).

  11. Many thanks for your replies, Nomy. Much appreciated. I agree with much, if not most, of what you say.

  12. Hi again Nomy, and thanks for the response. You ask whether I think that Jennifer’s action has no moral worth at all. If I do, you propose, we have a basic disagreement. I think that’s right. My answer is, it depends on the particulars of Jennifer’s story. Now, it might be seem obvious, but it strikes me as worth mentioning that Jennifer need not be acquainted with the idea of the Categorical Imperative (CI) or with Kantian philosophy in order to act with moral motivation. She need not even be particularly clear on the idea of duty. What matters is that she reasons in the manner prescribed by morality. Kant is quite optimistic about our normal ability to know the right thing (though less optimistic about our tendency to actually do it). So, moral reasoning isn’t in most cases something quite complex that requires a strict application of the procedure defined by the CI. It’s something we humans do all the time, by taking others into account in our choice of ends and our means to those ends – that is, by engaging in golden rule-type thinking which involves recognizing others as having a moral status like ours (in Kant’s more technical language this is developed into the universal law and humanity formulations of the CI).
    OK, back to Jennifer. I wonder, would she help John if John’s dissertation were a racist screed? Would she help John if doing so meant plagiarizing others’ work? These are the kinds of questions that address more general questions about what ends, and what means to those ends, Jennifer recognizes as permissible, and why. If, in an extreme case, Jennifer really acts every time she thinks she recognizes illbeing to redress that illbeing, without any thought at all to the means she uses to do it or any of the other features of the situation that ought to be of moral concern, then I think Jennifer is probably clinically narcissistic and I also think that her action lacks all moral worth. In this extreme case, she is simply acting on her desire, whatever it happens to be. Such a person is not concerned with the status of others, and helps them only because she happens to want to. I think this is the person Kant talks about in the Groundwork, who helps others simply because he happens to feel like it. But, if Jennifer’s reasoning is more complex, and she is attending to the kinds of concerns I mention just above, then I would say that her action does have at least some moral worth, for the full description of her motivation includes at least some appropriate constraints on her actions in virtue of her recognition of golden rule-type concerns and the moral status of others.

  13. Thanks, Nomy, for your discussion here, from which I’m learning a lot. In general, I think I agree with your take on the relation between intuitions on moral worth and theories of the right. I have something of an analogous take on the relation between certain emotional responses and theories of responsibility.
    Just a quick response to one of your responses to me, then. You say:

    I don’t agree that John would feel something inappropriate if he feels gratitude towards Jennifer. I feel gratitude when people do something nice for me with no ulterior motive. Knowing that the person who helped me with my dissertation would have, under different circumstances, lied to me paternalistically, it would make me wary of that person, but I would still be grateful. My speech to them would begin with “I am grateful for your help with my dissertation, but….” Some people feel that way about their over-interfering parents when they help.

    I agree that I feel gratitude for those who do something nice for me, but what of those who do something nice for the interest-locus you happen to occupy? While I too would “thank” someone who, let’s suppose, helped me “because it was his Christian duty,” I doubt I’d feel genuine gratitude, as I wasn’t being helped for the right reasons — ones flowing from my specific normative perspective — to make it fitting. So the fact that Jennifer would help anyone in my circumstances who happened to be writing a dissertation would make me less inclined to feel gratitude as well, as indiscriminate helping, while maybe virtuous, just isn’t personal. That’s what also makes the parents case different.

  14. Peter: Of course Jennifer is acting on a desire, a desire to promote well being. And incidentally people who act fairly act on a desire to treat others as they would like to be treated! In my opinion, your idea of acting on a desire is mistaken. I used to think it was Kant’s idea but reading Wood’s interpretation of Kant I have been led to doubt it. To act on a desire doesn’t mean to act for the reason “I desire it”. For example, suppose I hate myself thoroughly, but I like Nicola and desire Nicola’s wellbeing. Since I hate myself silly I don’t have a desire “that Nomy’s desires be fulfilled”, and I never act for the reason “so that Nomy’s desires be fulfilled”, and I certainly never act for the reason “so that Nomy gets pleasure”. I don’t even bother to choose a painless suicide method. However, I do have a desire for Nicola’s well being, and I can act on that desire in a way that is not inconsistent with my hatred of myself. When I help Nicola (maybe I leave her all my fortune after my painful suicide), my reason for action is not “because Nomy desires to help Nicola” but something like “because Nicola could use some help”. However, I –am- acting on a desire. If I didn’t desire to help Nicola, I wouldn’t have helped her. For more on that, see Petit and Smith in “Backgrounding Desire”.
    Jennifer in my example, by hypothesis, does not act on the categorical imperative even in a “folk” way. She does not tell herself “if nobody helped, I would be in trouble” nor does she ask herself “won’t you want to be helped if you had difficulties with your dissertation?” She just wants to help – not in order to satisfy some need of hers but in order to satisfy John’s needs. Would she help John if he wrote a racist tract? Well, that’s not in the example the way I described it, but the way I imagined her she wouldn’t, because she is kind. That means that in addition to the desire to help she has a strong aversion to causing harm, and that functions as some sort of soft side constraint. Would she plagiarize? Maybe, if she thinks it does not cause harm. She only has part of morality right. (in that case, her action won’t have moral worth for the simple reason that it would be wrong). Now, we can imagine, instead of Jennifer, a person who is not kind: he has the desire to promote well being but not the desire to avoid being the cause of harm. I call this person the Stark Raving Utilitarian. Imagine the SRU, who would do all the bad things that utilitarians are supposed to do – hang an innocent man, kill one to save five – in order to promote well being. He is honest in terms of his motives, and won’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the sake of utility if that’s how the numbers work. The Stark Raving Utilitarian is a monster – he is monstrously indifferent to some very important moral considerations. He also performs a lot of actions that are right but don’t have moral worth – for example, when he keeps a promise only because it increases utility (assume here that the right reason to keep promises is different). However, occasionally he does perform an action that is right but does have moral worth. When he gives almost all of his money to Oxfam or when he risks his life to help topple a dictator who tortures people he is praiseworthy for his action. He is not equivalent to the person who would do the same things for the sake of getting a reward. True, we never say, as Foot reminds us, that he is an evil person but “at least he is kind” (Jennifer is “at least kind” but he is not). First, like I said, kindness in English is more than the desire to protect and promote well being. Second, we never say “the Spanish civil war was bloody, but at least it was fascinating” – and the war was fascinating nonetheless, however true it is that it is no comfort for its victims. It is no comfort for the SRU’s victims that at least he has the desire to promote well being, but his desire still signifies responsiveness to one kind of moral reasons, however it may pale in comparison to the impressive lack of responsiveness to others.

  15. David: I think what you say about gratitude feeds into my suspicion that gratitude is not always a moral emotion (in the sense of an emotion that tracks something morally significant). Though I would feel gratitude to someone who helped me in an impartial sort of way, I would feel most gratitude to someone who did something nice for me because of a specific attachment to me in particular. I doubt this is the most morally virtuous motive possible. It might be morally superior to help me because of the locus of interest I happen to occupy. It’s just inferior in terms of being conducive to meaningful personal relationships. I greatly suspect that I might sometimes be grateful for some morally less than ideal action as long as it was done for my sake.

  16. Hi Nomy. You seem to attribute to me a view that holds that we can act without any desire, but I want to be clear that my view, and I think Kant’s view, is that whenever we act (intentionally – not cases like an eye twitch), we act on the basis of some desire or other. So, I completely agree with you on this point, and I certainly didn’t intend to suggest otherwise. My comment above was not about whether or not Jennifer was acting on the basis of some desire, but rather about the larger moral psychological and practical structure within which she has the desire to help John.
    You get to the heart of my question when you say that you picture Jennifer as kind, such that she wouldn’t help John produce a racist dissertation. Now, it depends what you mean by kind, but I think this reveals something about Jennifer’s character – it reveals that she does not have as her principle of action a maxim of acting on desires she just happens to have, whatever they may be. Even if she is not actually running through anything that resembles the CI procedure in the moment, her actions are structured in part by the values reflected in being willing to subject one’s principles for acting to this kind of procedure. It may well be that Jennifer has internalized some elements of the CI procedure, and almost never consciously asks questions that would resemble the CI. Still, insofar as she is consistently kind – and this means she does not unreflectively act in ways that she perceives as in the wellbeing of others, on the basis of her desire to improve their wellbeing, even in cases where this would contribute to an evil end or require an illicit means – this shows that her faculty of desire is at least partly structured by the values reflected in the CI procedure.
    Now, I know that I was asking about things that were not in the case as you described, but that is because I think the case as you describe is indeterminate, and my thought is that the kind of tension you’re interested in arises from that indeterminacy. Whether we think that Jennifer’s action has moral worth depends on a fuller understanding of her motivational structure, and I suspect that your undergraduates are intuitively importing some elements of this more complex structure to arrive at their conclusion. I hope this clarifies my view somewhat, and thanks for the continued discussion!

  17. About what I said to Pete: there are two different ways to think of Jennifer. One is as a person who got a most of morality right but is deficient when it comes to paternalism and autonomy, and one is as a person who cares a lot about well being and not being the cause of harm but gets the rest of morality wrong (the one who would perhaps plagiarize in order to help someone). For some purposes it doesn’t matter which of them we are talking about, because for someone like Barbara Herman your action has no moral worth if your motive has lead you to a wrong action even once, as this would be enough to show that there is no necessary connection between your action and morality.

  18. You seem to assume that when we help, either we act flat out compulsively or we follow the Categorical Imperative…. That’s pretty heavy. Other possibilities abound. One can simply have more than one desire (the balance can be rather complex) or one can be a reflective utilitarian or rule utilitarian or virtue ethicist or a devout buddhist or even an ethicist of care.
    Simply put, we know that Jennifer has not internalized the Categorical Imperative because if she did, she would not have lied to her roommate. Period.
    One could suggest that she acted out two different motives when she helped John and when she lied to the roommate, but that would be very ad hock. Jennifer (and the person she is modeled after) would swear that she acted out of the same motive: concern for wellbeing.
    If you scroll back, I think that even the SRU, who is not kind, occasionally acts with moral worth. He surely hasn’t internalized the Categorical Imperative.
    We seem to be talking past each other on motivation. I think, controversially enough, we all more or less act on whatever desire motivates us, including the person who follows the Imperative, who does roughly it because he desires to follow it (or is averse to not following it) more than he desires other things. I really don’t want to get into Kantian/Humean debate – it’s not essential to my view of moral worth – but as a matter of full disclosure, that’s how much we disagree.

  19. Hi again Nomy. I’m not sure why you’re attributing to me this view that either people act entirely compulsively or entirely from the CI. In Jennifer’s case as you describe it, it seems to me that Jennifer’s complex motivational structure does include some of what Kantians would identify as moral elements (that are contained in what you describe as kindness), but she as you point out she does always act entirely in accordance with the CI (and surely not with a recognition of or desire to follow the CI as such as her motive). But look. one can internalize to some extent a principle or value without that principle or value always being regulative of their actions.
    So, that Jennifer lies once doesn’t show that she is completely unaffected by golden rule style thinking or concerns about others as moral beings with a status like hers. And, again, even if she’s never heard of Kant or the CI, she can still act from what Kantian moral theory recognizes as the kinds of motives that make one’s action have moral worth. The question for a Kantian is to what extent her complex of desires – her overall motivational structure – does incorporate the relevant values. I was arguing that your undergrads recognition of Jennifer’s act of helping John with his dissertation as having some moral worth is defensible, on Kantian grounds, at least if Jennifer’s motives aren’t as simple as acting to help John simply because she feels like it, but instead her set of desires are more complex than that: she desires to help John, but she also desires not to contribute to evil ends, and she desires not to steal others property, intellectual or otherwise, and so on, and these other desires are in fact regulative over her actions in the appropriate way (i.e. she wouldn’t help John if it meant stealing, or helping him do something nasty, and so on).
    For a Kantian (at least for one species of Kantian), that these other intrinsically moral desires are in fact regulative (if and when they are) over Jennifer’s other desires means that she is acting in accordance with the CI, to some extent though not always and not completely, and from the appropriate kinds of motivations to give one’s actions moral worth. She’d be a better person, from a Kantian perspective, if she also didn’t lie in cases where she thought lying would contribute to well-being. To the extent that she does things like this, she clearly hasn’t completely internalized all of the relevant bits of moral motivation. But my point is really that there is a large middle ground, even in Kantian ethical theory: our actions can sometimes have moral worth, and sometimes not, and it depends on the invariably complex set of reasons we actually act from. You say that we disagree pretty fundamentally, but I think that the picture I’m employing is not so radically inconsistent with the one you are using. One big disagreement might be that I hold that reason can itself be a source of desires, like a desire to follow the CI, but that’s getting into the whole Humean/Kantian thing which you want to avoid, and I think that’s sensible in a comment thread.

  20. Pete: first of all, I still think we disagree about the very essence acting from a desire. Wanting to help someone “whenever one feels like” isn’t a case of caring about well being – it’s a case of wanting to do what one feels like. Jennifer wants to promote well being so, ex hypothesi, her motivation is not wanting to do what pleases her. Thus even if that’s the only relevant desire she has (i.e if she is a serious utilitarian for whom increasing world utility is the only imperative). Narcissism is simply not an issue here.
    The only evidence you submit to the effect that there is anything remotely Kantian about Jennifer, who denies any “golden-rule type reasoning” with John, is that she does some good things in a seemingly praiseworthy way and refrains from doing some bad things. Your argument assumes that good actions and good motives are always grounded in such reasoning, and therefore Jennifer’s very kindness is proof that her actions are regulated by such reasoning. This is pretty theory-laden. If we suppose that people I have asked imagine Jennifer as someone with a variety of desires that together come down to her being moral in many respects (and I admit I didn’t survey half as many people about the SRU, whom you keep ignoring), that by itself does not mean that they imagined her as having Kantian motives. They could easily have imagined her as a partially virtuous person in a pluralistic way – a person with some of the myriad desires that a good person should have. I think you have started to characterize her in just this way: as a person who has a variety of desires or concerns that represent different “relevant bits of moral motivation” and missing other “bits”.
    That’s not Kantianism, unless in a very revisionistic sense. For a classical Kantian, there is only one “bit” of moral motivation and it’s called the motive of duty (which I am willing to interpret as “golden-rule type reasoning”). If I act out of anything else I act out of “mere inclination”, which, if constrained by duty as a limiting condition, is OK, but still does not grant any moral worth. If we get assured that the prudent grocer would not do immoral things because he is basically a decent , dutiful fellow, the particular act of fair pricing would not become any more morally worthy, because this particular act was not done out of duty. Neither was Jennifer’s act of helping John.

  21. I don’t think that the moral worth of actions has as much to do with rightness as Nomy (and some of the posters) do. It can be good of Jennifer to help Jonathan without that’s being “the right thing to do.” If Jennifer is motivated by sympathy for Jonathan’s plight that act can have moral worth in that fact alone. It may not have moral worth all things considered if it turns out to be overall a wrong act; but it may have (some) moral worth in virtue of being done from sympathy. (I will just register without defending my sense that if Jennifer were to act from the same motive in another situation where it is wrong to do so, this would not count against the moral worth of her original action, but will affect a more overall view of her character.)
    I think this is easier to see in supererogatory cases, for example of the character of Oskar Schindler as portrayed in the film Schindler’s List. He helps save the lives of many Jews, largely because he becomes attached to them and is pushed to do so by his accountant, Stern. He is not a Kantian or a principle-driven person who thinks it is right to save Jews in general, and then saves the particular ones because doing so instantiates that principle. (This is part of why Schindler is an interesting character. The filmmakers included a scene at the end that suggests that ultimately Schindler comes close to taking on a more universalist, principle-based motivation, and it is interesting that this is the one scene in the film that is absent from the book on which the film is based, and seems out of line with the character presented previously in the film, and in the book.)
    I think we are sure that Schindler’s actions have moral worth, but that it is not clear that it would be correct to say that what he did was “the right thing to do.” They seem unquestionably morally good but beyond what he would be obliged to do, which is one clear meaning for “the right thing to do.” Or if right means “the best thing to do,” it is not clear that Schindler did that, since he probably could have saved more Jews if he had put his mind to it.
    I think I am largely in sympathy with Nomy’s views, but I do think that “moral worth” is a broader category than “right” and not only because it refers to motive while “right” may not.
    In the interests of full disclosure, I made an argument to this effect in my 1980 book, Friendship, Altruism, and Morality.

  22. Hi Nomy. The narcissistic person I have in mind is one who truly acts from mere inclination. Think about this person: they do whatever they feel like doing. If this person happens to desire to improve another’s well-being, they would do so. But, if they happened to desire to kick a puppy, they would do that, because they act from mere inclination. Normal people are not so simple. Anyone who would consistently act from mere inclination is following a general maxim of desire, but what this maxim dictates as far as specific actions are concerned depends on what the desire is that one happens to have in some particular context.
    You say that my interpretation of Jennifer’s actions are theory laden. Absolutely: I’m bringing Kantian theory, or at least one version of it, to bear on understanding the case of Jennifer, in response to your concerns about the Kantian argument that you interpret as entailing that Jennifer’s action could not have any moral worth, on a Kantian view. I disagree, and think that from within Kantian moral theory Jennifer’s action of helping John might be understood as having moral worth – might because it really depends on what Jennifer’s actual set of motivations are, and what matters is not only the desire she has in the moment, which is her proximal cause for action, but also the more complex set of constraints and ends that forms the framework within which she actually chooses to act on the basis of this particular desire (but might not act on the basis of other desires, if she happened to have them instead, and might not act if acting on this particular desire would cause harm, or be disrespectful, or be unkind…). Again, what matters for the question of whether her action has moral worth is really the complex set of motivations that she actually has: if they are at least in part the “right” kinds of motivations, as described in Kantian theory, then for a Kantian, her action should be taken to have at least some moral worth. Note that Kant doesn’t think the matter of motivation is black and white. He says that we cannot even be certain about what our own motivation is in any particular case, and the best we can do is to aim at having the right sort of motivation – to act for the right sort of reasons. The motive of duty, in short, is not so simple, at least on my reading of Kant. One doesn’t have to have the concept of duty consciously in mind in order to act from the motive of duty. One needs simply to act from the right kinds of reasons, and sometimes all this means is adopting an end of benevolence because it is benevolent, like Jennifer does, while also moderating the adoption of this end with appropriate concerns of right (which strikes me as exactly what is going on when you refer to Jennifer as kind, but again I make this claim on the basis of a Kantian interpretation).
    Oh, the Stark Raving Utilitarian (which is a wonderful name – mind if I use it in classes?): I’m sorry for ignoring the case – it just doesn’t strike me as central to the point I’m trying to make, though perhaps I’m misunderstanding your reasons for using this example. I think the SRU is a person with a malformed moral theory – so impoverished as to be monstrous, really. Perhaps this person could act from the right sort of motivation in some conditions – I suppose it depends on their complete set of motivations – but as you describe them, they are completely committed to an inappropriate moral principle that leads them to do evil things.
    Sorry to be so slow in my response this time: I’m bogged down in grading. Thanks again for the conversation!

  23. Lawrence: I think the fact that an action expresses a certain motive can in itself make it an expression of virtue or vice, but not morally worthy. To be morally worthy it also needs to be right (ok, or supererogatory: let’s just say it has to be a *morally desirable* action). It cannot be wrong and morally worthy at the same time. You can see the same thing with the opposite of moral worth – blameworthiness (at least in the attributability and answerability sense of the word). If I write a 100 times on my own computer “I want to kill Peter” and don’t show it to anyone, my action is not blameworthy, because it is not wrong. It might even be right, if it prevents me from bothering Peter. But my action expresses vice. It says something bad about my character: I am someone who wants to kill people, if not enough to do it then enough to be compelled to write it a 100 times. On the other hand, if I knock on wood when someone says about some innocent person that she is going to be ok (out of sheer superstition) that’s not necessarily a morally desirable action, but it expresses virtue on my part – I want people to be ok. Schindler’s actions are more than just expressions of virtue. There is more to what makes them good than the agent’s motives: they are morally desirable, because after all they save lives. Thus they are morally praiseworthy. While it’s true that Schindler does not consciously apply a principle when he saves people, he does do his actions for the reasons that make them morally desirable.

  24. Pete: Allow me to start this post with a quote from Kant. Just a random translation I found on the web, but indulge me. Here goes:
    “Duty! Sublime and mighty name that embraces nothing charming or insinuating but requires submission, and yet does not seek to move the will by threatening anything that would arouse natural aversion or terror in the mind but only holds forth a law that of itself finds entry into the mind and yet gains reluctant reverence (though not always obedience), a law before which all inclinations are dumb, even though they secretly work against it; what origin is there worthy of you, and where is to be found the root of your noble descent which proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations, descent from which is the indispensable condition of that worth which human beings alone can give themselves?”
    Moral motivation for Kant IS “black and white”. The motive of duty proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations. Acting from duty is in a different class from any other sort of acting. True, we never know if we are acting on duty or not, and Kant discourages us from thinking too much about the moral worth of our own actions, as Hill explains in “Kant’s Antimoralsitic Streak”. However, it’s one thing to say that you can’t tell whether something is X or Y and a completely different thing that Xness or Yness come in the degrees! I might not know whether or not I am pregnant, but notoriously either I am or I am not!

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