Saturday, April 03, 2004

Inclination vs Duty - which is better?

I came across the following problem on Jonathan Ichikawa's blog:
Here are three people, all of whom end up perfoming the same action. Which is, morally speaking, the best?

A: Shopkeeper A is motivated solely by making money. He reasons that if he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them, they'll become repeat customers, recommend friends, etc. So he treats them fairly and is nice to them.

B: Shopkeeper B just gets a kick out of making people happy. It makes him feel good to make other people feel good, so he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them.

C: Shopkeeper C hates people. Also, he likes money, and is constantly tempted to cheat his customers. And maybe to kick them, too, because he'd like it if they experienced pain. But he knows that this would be morally wrong. So he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them, because it's his duty.

I take it everyone will agree that A is less good than either B or C. But which of B and C is better?

The essence of the question is whether it is better to do good from inclination or from duty. Now, I don't know a huge amount about the history of ethics (so I'm probably grossly oversimplifying things, and I could be just plain wrong), but it seems to me that this is the essential divide between two distinct ethical traditions:

On the one hand, you have the Aristotlean notion of the "Good life", taken up by modern Virtue Ethicists, which focusses on moral character. By this conception (which I share), Shopkeeper B - who genuinely enjoys helping people - is the best of the three.

Alternatively, the Christian/Kantian tradition focusses on abstract obligations, and obedience to moral "rules" or "duties". This sort of view (which I detest) would imply that Shopkeeper C is the most moral, due to his selfless adherence to that which is morally required.

This scenario reminds me of one James Rachels described, which forcefully advocates inclination over duty. Imagine you are sick, and lying in hospital, when a friend comes by to visit. His visit cheers you up, and you thank him for coming, but he replies "oh, I'm just doing my duty" (perhaps he is a utilitarian and worked out that he could do nothing more productive with his time). At first you think he's just being modest, but further probing suggests that he really means it - he doesn't particularly want to see you, he just felt compelled to visit out of an abstract sense of obligation. Surely in this scenario, we feel that the visit of the "friend" has lost all its value?

Rather than being a perfectly virtuous moral agent, it seems to me that an uncaring, robot-like obeyer of duty is morally bankrupt. (I even have doubts as to whether Shopkeeper C is any better than A.) Having genuinely good desires strikes me as far better than merely acting morally out of duty. I'd choose Shopkeeper B any day.


  1. The Rachels example seems poorly suited to illustrate the general principle: the value of the visit is diminished because of the sick patient's particular preference for an inclination-based visit.

    With respect to case B, your description gives the shopkeeper a hedonistic motivation but doesn't say anything about meta-preferences. B might well take a pill that enabled him to get just as much joy out of cheating his customers to exactly the profit-maximizing extent.

  2. Right, B's preference here should be more robust (supported by appropriate meta-preferences). That's something I hinted at in my more recent post when I noted that mere 'whimsical' inclinations aren't sufficient.

  3. This wasn't exactly a poll question, but my view is:

    1) It may be better if more people were like the B shopkeeper than the C shopkeeper. Good character and genuine caring-ness are valuable, at least in this world.

    - and -

    2) The C shopkeeper is the superior moral person in the example. This is mainly because he is doing the more difficult moral task. (C's "difficulty" is conditioned, of course, by his own anti-moral preferences.) If you had to bet on somebody overcoming the felt temptation to commit an immoral act, the best bet would be C. So C certainly has a kind of moral value superior to B.

  4. On the other hand, if you had to bet on who is most likely to feel tempted to do immoral things in the first place, again the best bet would be C. So C certainly has a kind of moral disvalue or flaw rendering him inferior to B.

    I'm not sure there's anything so great about overcoming a self-imposed moral "difficulty". I mean, it would be bad to succumb to an immoral temptation, so at least C is a great improvement on someone who is positively bad. He is merely neutral. But that's still a ways from being virtuous or morally good.

  5. I did not mean to suggest that C is only better in comparison to an actually bad person; I really meant that C was morally better in comparison to B, and in fact I think that B could be a basically good person. The sense in which I meant "morally better," however, was the sense in which I think we have some reason to think that C is probably in himself morally better (because more likely to resist felt temptation), not the sense in which C is obviously the kind of person with whom we must hope to populate the world. Put slightly more concretely, we should hope the world is populated by people who are not often tempted to act immorally; but this is not inconsistent with thinking that a person better able to overcome temptation is a really a better person, however it may causally be that such temptation arises.

    I hope that makes sense. What I really want to suggest is a separation of two questions here:

    1) Whether it is better that a person be dispositioned in a certain way (which has to do with the ultimate effects or outcomes)
    2) Whether a person is, in himself, a morally better person than another (which has to do with internal motivation)

    But perhaps the fact that I see these as distinct questions at all is just another expression of my generally more Kantian outlook. If I were trying to convince the virtue ethicist to come over to the Kantian side, I suppose the burden would be to show that these questions are sensibly separate...

  6. They're certainly distinct questions. The virtue ethicist also assesses people by their internal motivations, and not (just) the consequences thereof. So I was simply questioning your grounds for claiming that being "more likely to resist temptation" is what makes one a morally better person. I think that what makes one a good person is having a certain character, whereby one is naturally (and robustly) motivated to do the right thing without internal conflict or pull towards doing immoral things. I don't see that you've given any reason to prefer the alternative view.

  7. Fair enough. So, as a first stab at giving a positive reason to prefer the alternate view:

    On the assumption (hopefully plausible!) that it's fair for a person to understand a negative evaluation of his character as some kind of species of personal blame, then, I think the following argument works:

    B's being well-dispositioned (in your sense) could be a matter of pure dumb luck; similarly, C's being ill-dispositioned could be a matter of pure dumb (bad) luck. But the assessment of a person as in-himself morally better or worse should not be contingent on pure dumb luck, because it would be unfair to blame a person for something which they couldn't have helped.

  8. Trial argument number two:

    A person could have obligations towards his own character. (In the virtue-ethicist sense of the word 'character.') For example, he could have the obligation to aim to make his own character better. Moreover, a person could sensibly be blamed for failing to live up to such obligations towards his own character. Such blame could not be sensible as an assessment of his character. This implies that there is something other than character (in the virtue-ethicist sense) which can be assessed in evaluating a person morally.

    And then, although this point may be less important -- the best concept which we have to apply to this "something else" is the (Kantian) concept of the will.

  9. #2 - I'd think the failure to engage in self-improvement reflects poorly on one's character/person. But in any case, I don't doubt that we can assess things (e.g. willed choices) other than character. But that's just to ask a different question from how morally good a person one is. It's to ask how good their will is, and a person is more than just their will.

    #1 - Determinism implies there's some sense in which one "couldn't have helped" anything. But assuming we're not moral responsibility skeptics, we must be willing to hold people responsible for themselves (i.e. their character and decisions) even so. At least, I don't see any grounds for treating character and decisions differently here.

  10. On #1 - I will yield. I think you are correct to point out that I was assuming that determinism is generally a problem for ascribing moral responsibility. On the one hand, I am not at all convinced that I am wrong to assume this, or moreover that it is even an implausible assumption. On the other hand, I'm not prepared to argue about or defend this intuition, so I must cede the failure of the argument to you (from the point of view of my willingness to defend it, anyway).

    On my argument #2:

    I am puzzled by your seeming assertion that, in evaluating a person's will as a good or bad (or better or worse) will, we would not actually be morally evaluating the person himself. This seems false. If I tell someone that I think they are an ill-willed person, they are unlikely to take it entirely calmly and dispassionately -- and, in fact, I would think it weird if they did; the fact that (on your view) I merely blamed a part of them shouldn't make them feel any better at all. No one would say -- "well, it's just my will that is bad, but I needn't be concerned because that doesn't reflect on me as a person." Of course denigrating the quality of someone's will reflects on them as a person! Maybe I'm mixed up, but like I said- it just seems like such an obviously false premise to me. But maybe you can help me over this difficulty...

    I probably agree that a person is more than just their will. But, given the force of my second argument, I think you should agree that a person is morally more than just their character (in the virtue-ethicist sense) -- and it is plausible to think that there is something to the Kantian way of evaluating persons morally. Thus, although there may be something to the virtue-ethicist outlook, it doesn't capture everything.

    In fact, I think that my argument #2 is squarely focused on the possible moral evaluation of persons as persons (and not as mere person parts). My premise was that "a person could sensibly be blamed for failing to live up to such obligations towards his own character." Perhaps I should have made clearer that I meant person qua person -- that is what I meant. The question then is-- how is such blame of the person-qua-person to be understood? Any answer to this question tells us something about a way, at least, in which persons-qua-persons are really morally evaluable. So, answering the question is potentially important if our project is to explain how people-qua-people are morally evaluable. And assume, just for the moment and for the sake of argument, that it was false that the blame in question could be understood as blame of the person's character- then we would be left with a situation in which:

    a) a person is sensibly blameable (and as a person)
    b) and we cannot understand this blame-worthiness as a character evaluation

    Such a situation would, I think, be an embarrassment to a dogmatic virtue ethicist, at least.

    P.S. -- I'm half-sorry for "qua"-ing! I'm not really a pretentious prick.

  11. Okay, your premise (b) seems false to me, but perhaps that's inessential anyway. I do agree with you that "Of course denigrating the quality of someone's will reflects on them as a person!" (Any moral evaluation does.) I just meant to point out that it doesn't settle the question.

    But perhaps I can offer a more direct challenge. You're assuming that shopkeeper C, who acts from a sense of duty, has the best will. But is this necessarily so? We can compare two variations on shopkeeper B:

    (B1) is at heart a hedonistic egoist, and it just so happens that he makes himself happiest by helping other people, so he does so -- for his own sake.

    (B2) has genuinely benevolent character, and so chooses to help others for their sakes. He acts directly on the moral reasons that there are, rather than mediating them through concepts of duty.

    (C), by contrast, acts not for the sake of the people, but for the sake of duty.

    Who has the best will here? Not B1, I'd agree. But I think B2 has a better will than C. His decisions and actions are based more directly on the moral reasons. He really acts for the sake of other people. C has what Bernard Williams would call "a thought too many".

    C is motivated by the recognition that something falls under the concept of "duty" as such. We might call him a 'de dicto' moral agent. But B2 is motivated by the underlying moral reasons, i.e. the reason why the act qualified as right in the first place (namely, that it helped others). We might thus call him a 'de re' moral agent, reliably willing the things that are morally required, rather than willing the surface appearance of morality like C does.

  12. To be fair to Kant, it is important to realize that he never considers an example where a person like C comes out as being morally better than a person like B, and it's very improbable that he would agree that C is in fact better than B; this conclusion results from a simplistic application of the third formulation of the categorical imperative. Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative, on the other hand, says that people should always be treated as ends, not as means (your ultimate duty is towards other people), and this squares badly with shopkeeper C's motivations, who is not fair to people because they deserve to be treated fairly (after all, he hates them), but is nice to them just in order to abide by some abstract moral principle -- in other words, shopkeeper C does not view people as the ultimate ends of his moral actions, in direct conflict with the second formulation of the categorical imperative.

    Phillipa Foote argues that struggling against temptation can increase the moral worth of an action, but it has to be temptation of the right sort. Consider the following scenario: two people are each given a perfect opportunity to steal something without risking ever being caught. The first person is well-off and virtuous, and the thought of stealing never even enters his head. The second person is also virtuous, but lives in desperate poverty; he has to struggle against the temptation to steal. Foote argues that the act of refraining from stealing has more moral worth for the second person than for the first one. The second person has to struggle, but he's struggling against the right sort of temptations -- contrast that with your shopkeeper C who has to struggle against his intense hatred of humanity; this is certainly not the right sort of temptation.

    Foote draws on the above distinction to vindicate Kant. The example that Kant has been so roundly chastised for concerns two philanthropists, one of whom helps people because he enjoys it, and another one who doesn't enjoy it, but does it anyway because helping people is the right thing to do. But notice that the reason Kant gives for the second philanthropist not getting any enjoyment out of helping people is not that he's a misanthropist, but rather because he is "weighed down by some heavy sorrow of his own". The second philanthropist is in a deep depression, which makes it impossible for his to get enjoyment out of philanthropy, but he resolves to help people anyway. This struggle against the temptation not to help people is of the right sort, therefore Foote agrees with Kant that the moral worth of the acts second philanthropist is higher (though she disagrees that the acts of the first philanthropist has no moral value).


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