Welcome to our latest Ethics discussion forum, on James Grant’s “Moral Worth and Moral Belief”. You can find the paper open access here.
We kick off the discussion with a critical précis by Julia Markovits:
This is a little gem of a paper, and I urge all of you to read the real thing, if you haven’t already. It’s not very long, highly readable, jargon-free, and packs a lot into its short length without seeming to. My own view is among the targets of Grant’s argument, and he has given me plenty to think about.
I have defended a view Grant calls the “Coincidence Thesis”, which holds that “Doing the right thing has moral worth iff you do it for the reasons why it is right.” (p. 217) To say an act has moral worth, here, is to say the agent deserves moral credit or praise for it, or that the act reflects well on her character. (p.219) This thesis about moral worth stands in contrast to a rival view (often attributed to Kant), according to which right actions are worthy if and only if they’re performed because they are right (Grant calls this the “Rightness Thesis”). (p. 216)
Cases of seemingly worthy actions performed by well-motivated agents who are ignorant of the moral rightness of their actions seem to tell against the Rightness Thesis and in favor of the Coincidence Thesis. Consider, for example, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, who helps his runaway slave friend Jim escape from his “owner”, Miss Watson, (arguably) for the reasons why that is the right thing to do—because he is a person, because he is Huck’s friend—despite believing himself to be acting wrongly in doing so. If Huck’s act is morally worthy, and it seems to be, then the belief that you are acting rightly seems not to be required for morally worthy action. Indeed, Huck’s belief that he is acting wrongly does not, itself, defenders of the Coincidence Thesis maintain, detract from the moral worth of his action.
Many defenders of the Coincidence Thesis therefore also support the “Belief Thesis” (p. 217):
When you do the right thing, your moral beliefs make no difference to the moral worth of your act.
The moral worth of your actions is just a matter of what’s motivating you to act, not (at all), independently, a matter of what you believe about the moral status of your actions.
Grant argues that the Belief Thesis is false: our beliefs about the moral status of our actions can impact the moral credit we deserve for those actions, in the same way and for the same reasons that our doing the right thing with pleasure or displeasure can impact our action’s moral worth—by making it the case that we are doing the right thing in the right or wrong spirit.
Grant’s argument is primarily driven by examples, and here is one central one:
Father. Will takes good care of his children but, because he is a chauvinist and believes only mothers have a moral obligation to care for children, he believes his actions are supererogatory, not morally required. He even thinks that he would have no obligation to provide such care if his wife stopped doing so and no one else stepped in. But nonetheless, Grant tells us, Will cares for his children for the right (motivating) reasons—namely, because they are his children. And he even sees this as a morally good thing do to. But as he sees it, when he, on some particular occasion, feeds his kids breakfast and drives them to school, he is doing them, and their mother, a favor.
Though Will appears to do the right thing (care for his children) for the right—i.e. right-making—reasons (because they’re his children), he does so, Grant tells us, in the wrong spirit—in the spirit of doing a favor instead of fulfilling a moral obligation. This wrongness of spirit consists (partly) in his false belief about the moral status of his action. And it detracts, at least somewhat, from the moral worth of Will’s action, making it less worthy than it would be if Will did not take himself to be doing his wife a favor. (pp. 220-221) That seems very plausible indeed.
So the Belief Thesis is false: sometimes our moral beliefs do make a difference to the moral worth of our actions, even when we do the right thing for the right (motivating) reasons.
Moreover, Grant tells us, the role of belief in shaping the spirit in which we act, which can, in turn, shape the moral worth of our actions, is part of a broader phenomenon: not just our beliefs about what we do, but also our feelings about what we do, can shape the spirit of our actions and impact their moral worth. If a judge takes sadistic pleasure in imposing a morally justified punishment on a guilty offender, that can make her right act less worthy, even if her sentence is motivated by the right-making reasons, not by her pleasure.
Grant next defends his conclusions on the basis of such examples against three sorts of objections.
The first objection holds that our intuitions about Grant’s cases reveal, not the fact that these agents’ problematic moral beliefs diminish the moral worth of their actions, but rather that those problematic beliefs reflect badly on the agents themselves, directly. Will’s taking care of his children is just as worthy as it would be if he recognized it to be morally required, but Will is less praiseworthy, because his view that his actions are supererogatory reflects badly on him. Similarly, the judge’s sadistic pleasure reflects badly on her, but not via making the act it accompanies less worthy.
Grant argues that pushing this line of response will be an “uphill struggle.” As he notes, the concept of moral worth was meant to capture how an action reflects on our character, and the spirit in which we do the right thing can reflect (well or badly) on our character just as the motives from which we act can. (p. 225) What’s more, Grant proposes, the claim that “It is to Will’s discredit that he took care of his children as a favor” does not seem true in virtue of reporting a creditworthy act and a discredit-worthy belief in the way that “It is to his discredit that he did the childcare and believes in apartheid” seems true (if it is true) in virtue of reporting a creditworthy act and a discredit-worthy belief. (p. 223) (Grant suggests the latter claim seems “either false or hard to assess”. I’m not sure it strikes me as false or hard to assess, but it does it does strike me as weird, which the former claim doesn’t.)
The second objection holds that it cannot be Will’s false moral beliefs that make his act less creditworthy, since we can imagine alternate versions of the story—e.g. Patriarchy, in which it is the exceptionally patriarchal society in which Will lives that is responsible for his sexist beliefs—in which his belief that his caring for his children is supererogatory does not seem to detract from his act’s moral worth. (pp. 226-227)
This objection, it turns out, is grist to Grant’s mill: Will’s action in Patriarchy is not made less worthy by his false moral belief that it is supererogatory because the fact that Will acts with this belief does not reflect badly on him in Patriarchy—it is excused. There is no similar reason to think the original Will’s beliefs don’t reflect badly on him, or lead him to act in the wrong spirit.
This reply provides the resources to respond to a third worry—that Grant’s rejection of the Belief Thesis is problematically in tension with our intuitive verdict about the case of Huckleberry Finn. If Grant is right, does Huck, too, protect Jim in the wrong spirit, and does that make his action (counterintuitively) less worthy?
No, Grant tells us. First, unlike Will, Huck does recognize that Jim’s personhood, and their friendship, generate a pro tanto obligation for him to act in Jim’s defense—he just takes this pro tanto obligation, like many obligations of friendship and beneficence, to be outweighed by another obligation—that of respecting property rights.
Second, Huck, like the Will in Patriarchy, has excuses for his false moral beliefs: for one, he is a child, and for another, he is, like Will, surrounded by others who repeatedly reinforce those beliefs. So his false moral beliefs, like Patriarchy-Will’s, may not be to his discredit.
And finally, relatedly, the difficult circumstances in which he acts—the fact that his good motivations had to overcome the bad influences of his contemporaries and elders—make it more difficult for him to be motivated well. And difficulty can enhance the moral worth of actions, just as false beliefs can diminish it.
Each of Grant’s arguments is plausible, and his verdicts about his central examples are particularly plausible. But I want to suggest that the intuitive plausibility of these verdicts may reflect what these examples suggest to us about their agents’ motivating reasons, rather than revealing the impact the agents’ moral beliefs, themselves, have on the moral worth of their actions. I’ll try to bring this out by building on the three objections Grant considers.
To begin with the first objection: Grant points out the naturalness of saying “It’s to Will’s discredit that he took care of his children as a favor” (in contrast to the oddness of saying “It’s to his discredit that he did the childcare and believes in apartheid”) as evidence for the claim that it’s the complete package—the action-as-colored-by-the-belief—that earns Will the discredit, rather than the bad belief on its own. But this contrast seems easily explained.
First, note that the mention of Will’s action—his caring for his children—does significant work in allowing us to efficiently identify the content of Will’s problematic belief in the case of the first, natural judgment (the belief that caring for his children has the moral status of a favor), but feels like an unhelpful irrelevance in the second, odd judgment. Compare: it seems to me that I can judge that “Huck’s belief that his decision to protect Jim was morally wrong is to his discredit” without thereby judging that Huck’s decision to protect Jim (as colored by that belief) is to his discredit. The mention of the action is necessary just to identify the (independently) discreditable belief.
Second, as the comparison with the judgment about Huck brings out, there’s another reason why “It’s to Will’s discredit that he took care of his children as a favor” seems most naturally read as expressing the view that it’s the complete package—action+belief—that discredits Will. The judgment about Will (unlike the corresponding judgment about Huck) can easily be read as attributing to Will as certain discreditable motive: namely, the motive of doing his wife or his children a favor. By contrast, we don’t interpret the claim about Huck’s action and belief as implying any undesirable motive in Huck (such as the motivation to do the wrong thing). And of course, if “It’s to Will’s discredit that he took care of his children as a favor” implies he was motivated to take care of them by the fact that he thought this would count as a favor to his wife, say, (which is not a right-making reason,) then the Coincidence Thesis on its own would seem to allow us to explain the discredit, with no need to deny the Belief Thesis to do so. Granted, the example stipulates that Will is not motivated by such a reason—he is motivated simply by the fact that these are his children. (I’ll come back to this stipulation in a moment.) But this possible—indeed, likely—reading of the statement that Will’s action+belief are to his discredit suggests that we perhaps can’t learn too much about the locus of the discredit by means of linguistic tests like the one Grant proposes.
Turning now to the second objection: Grant suggests that the denier of the Belief Thesis need not (problematically) conclude that false moral beliefs always earn the right actions they may accompany discredit, since they may not always reflect badly on the agents who believe them. For example, they won’t do so if the agent’s false belief is excused due to unfavorable belief-forming circumstances (such as those faced by Patriarchy-Will). I’m not sure I feel the force of this defense, or of this account of the difference in our intuitions about Father and Patriarchy . False beliefs, on Grant’s view, discredit the right actions they accompany when they make it the case that those actions are performed in the wrong spirit. Why should we think that false moral beliefs that are excused in this way can’t taint the spirit in which the corresponding action is performed? Isn’t it still the case that Patriarchy-Will performs in the spirit of a volunteer an act that should have been performed in the spirit of a conscript, as Grant evocatively puts it (p. 221)? Compare again the sadistic Judge: if we can supply her with a backstory that makes her sadistic instincts towards law-breakers seem excusable (perhaps she was herself the victim of a violent crime), that doesn’t really seem to change the spirit in which she issues her punishments—it seems rather to excuse her from responsibility for that spirit. But that may not be the verdict we were looking for in the case of Patriarchy-Will, and it’s not the verdict we wanted in the case of Huck, whose case Grant gives a similar treatment: we don’t judge Will and Huck, in these cases, to be morally-off-the-hook, because not responsible, for their poor-spirited acts—we judge them to be on-the-hook, but judge their acts praiseworthy despite their false beliefs.
What, then, explains the difference in our intuitions about the original Father case, on the one hand, and the Patriarchy and Huck Finn cases on the other? This brings me to the main question I wanted to raise for Grant’s central example: should we believe, as the example stipulates, that Will really is motivated to do the right thing—care for his children—by the right-making reasons, despite his false moral beliefs?
Well, what are the right-making reasons in this case? Grant proposes that Will should take care of his children “because they are his children,” and that this fact is what does motivate Will to do so. But this reasoning feels incomplete. There are a whole host of more fleshed-out reasons for Will to help with his children’s care, including: that doing so is in his wife’s best interests, because it will allow her some time to pursue her other interests and goals—time Will himself expects to have too; that doing so is in his children’s best interests, because they benefit from having both their parents more deeply involved in their lives; that doing so is expressive of love for his kids and will afford him the opportunity to get to know his children better…
The more such reasons we list, the harder it becomes to believe that Will really is motivated by them, and, crucially, to the right degree, despite believing, as Grant puts it, that he would have no obligation to feed his kids even if no one else would do it (p. 220). For one thing, Will’s belief that his care for his children is supererogatory likely means that, were his childcare obligations to come into conflict with his work obligations (obligations that he recognizes as such, because they fit into his chauvinist world view), he would sacrifice the former (mere “favors”, in his view) to fulfill the latter. And that, in turn, suggests that he probably is not sufficiently motivated by the right-making reasons—that is, motivated in accord with the normative force of those reasons, relative to the motivating and normative force of other considerations—in the case at hand after all. And that, again, is a deficiency that is well-captured by the Coincidence Thesis on its own, with no need to reject the Belief Thesis.
Where does that leave our more positive verdicts about Patriarchy-Will and Huck Finn? Shouldn’t we also suspect them of being insufficiently motivated by some right-making reasons, and perhaps motivated by other considerations—e.g. the demands of Will’s job, or Miss Watson’s property claims on Jim—well in excess of any moral significance they may have? And if so, does that entail that these agents’ actions, too, are at best imperfectly morally worthy? And can that be squared with our intuitions about these cases?
Though I don’t have space here to fully explain this here, I think the answer to all three of these questions must be ‘yes.’ Surely Huck Finn’s decision to protect Jim has at best imperfect moral worth, not because he thought it wrong, but because he felt motivationally torn. He was motivated, as Grant says, by some right-making reasons, but also by some considerations that had no moral weight at all, such as Miss Watson’s felt loss of her personal property. This lack of coincidence between the reasons motivating Huck (pulling him in two directions) and the reasons justifying his act (which all pull in the same direction) surely detracts from its moral worth, even if his good motivations end up tipping the balance. (Similar criticisms apply to Patriarchy-Will.)
Still, it seems we have the resources to explain why we nonetheless rightly admire Huck (and Patriarchy-Will) for their good deeds, given the difficult circumstances in which they act, and why we may not blame them for their reprehensible moral beliefs. These difficult circumstances, and the rareness of the concern for what actually matters morally that these agents develop despite their circumstances, justify our belief that it is unlikely we would have acted as well had we been in Huck’s (or Will’s) shoes. And this means we lack standing to blame Will and Huck for their (discreditable) beliefs and motivations, and have good standing to admire them for what they do, despite the imperfections.