Saturday, August 01, 2009

Right Acts and Blameworthy Motives

Suppose Bob does the objectively right thing -- what he has most reason to do -- but he does it for the wrong reason. (Say he defends an innocent person from a violent attacker, but only because it gives him an excuse to be violent himself.) Bob is clearly blameworthy here: he acted maliciously, after all. But we might ask more specifically whether he is blameworthy for the action, or just for the malicious desire that motivated the action. Doug Portmore, in Commonsense Consequentialism (and at PEA Soup) opts for the latter. Even more strongly, he claims (2.11) S is blameworthy for freely performing X only if S does not have sufficient reason to perform X, all things considered. (Note that there's no requirement here that the agent be aware of the reasons in question. Their mere existence suffices to excuse his action.)

I have two objections to this view:

(1) If the agent is merely blameworthy for having the malicious desire, then it shouldn't matter (so far as their blameworthiness is concerned) whether they act on it or not. But this clearly does matter a great deal. Having malicious desires might make you a bad person, but questions of blameworthiness concern a subtly different kind of evaluation, more concerned with what you've done. Bob is blameworthy for acting on his malicious desire, not just for having it.

(2) Whether an agent's X-ing is blameworthy or not is surely an intrinsic matter, i.e. depending only on the internal states (including volitions) of the agent, not on purely external matters. Two intrinsic duplicates, who make all the same decisions (and enact all the same volitions) must thereby be ['originally'] blameworthy for all the same volitional exercises (actions).

[N.B. This is compatible with moral luck affecting what external consequences their blameworthy action renders them 'derivatively' liable for, and hence the degree to which they are blameworthy -- see my tripartite analysis of responsibility.]

Portmore seems committed to denying this platitude, since external differences could make it so that there was sufficient objective reason for Dupe1 to X but not for Dupe2 to do so. In that case, (2.11) implies that even if both agents were enacting exactly similar murderous volitions, only Dupe2 would be blameworthy for exercising his agency in this way, for Dupe1's action unwittingly aligned with "sufficient reasons" -- roughly, what God would advise, given the broader situation.

Why does Portmore make this claim? He points out that (i) the capacity to respond appropriately to reasons is a precondition for moral responsibility, and (ii) it makes no sense to blame someone for flawlessly executing a capacity that's a precondition for moral responsibility. So an agent can't be blameworthy when they flawlessly execute their capacity to respond appropriately to reasons. But I'm not sure how Portmore gets from here to the conclusion that an agent can't be blameworthy when they perform an act for which there happens to be sufficient reasons. After all, an agent might perform the advisable act from sheer luck, rather than as a result of competently exercising their rational capacities. If they act from malice, and it's just luck that their action conforms to the demands of reason, why couldn't it still make perfect sense to blame them for their flawed exercise of agency? Things may have turned out well, but damn, they did a poor job as an agent. (One may exercise incompetence in a job or role, even if this fortuitously causes the 'goals' of the role to be better achieved.)

P.S. I should note that while Portmore uses the premise 2.11 in a larger argument for moral rationalism -- the view that it can't be morally wrong to do what you have sufficient reason to do -- he might do just as well with an appropriately modified version of the premise, guaranteeing blamelessness for X-ing to agents who not only have sufficient normative reason to X, objectively speaking, but furthermore act from those very reasons, i.e. as their motivating reason. Anti-rationalists seem likely to fall afoul even of this weakened principle.


  1. Slightly tangentially, I haven't read the Portmore, but I'm not sure about this:
    "moral rationalism -- the view that it can't be morally wrong to do what you have sufficient reason to do"

    I always understood it to be the view that one always has somereason to do what one morally ought to do (see, e.g. Smith 1994:62). That's a much weaker claim. It's hard to say not having read the book, but it's much less clear how that might interact with 2.11. Of course, he might just say that he's using "moral rationalism" in a different way, but to the extent that the weaker claim is controversial, the stronger one will be all the more so.

  2. Richard,

    Do you think that Bob has sufficient reason to act on his malicious desire?

    Regarding (2), could you give a more specific example? I would like to know what 'X' stands for and why Dupe1, but not Dupe2, has sufficient reason to perform X.

    Regarding the worry about doing what one has sufficient reason due to sheer luck, I now formulate things as follow (you're working off an old version):

    "S would be blameworthy for freely and knowledgeably performing ~x only if S does not have sufficient reason to perform ~x, all things considered."

    "[T]o say that S knowledgeably performs x is just to say that S performs x knowing all the relevant facts—the relevant facts being the facts the ignorance of which could otherwise either inculpate or exculpate S for performing x."

    Would this address your worry?


    Yes, some formulate moral rationalism in the way that you're suggesting and others formulate it as I do. It's a term of art that gets defined in different ways by different philosophers.

  3. Hi Doug - yeah, it looks like your new formulation avoids my second objection. But I think there's still a related worry there, insofar as S might know all the relevant facts but just not care about them. Supposing Bob would have acted maliciously in any case, then despite his knowledge, there's an important sense in which it's still "just luck" rather than the competent exercise of his rational capacities that explains why his action happens to conform with what he has sufficient reason to do in this case.

    You ask: "Do you think that Bob has sufficient reason to act on his malicious desire?"

    I'm not sure what to make of this. In particular, I'm doubtful that there are reasons for acting-on-certain-motives as opposed to just reasons for action. So in that sense the question seems ill-formed. I do think that there's sufficient reason to act as Bob does, and this isn't altered by the fact that Bob has bad motivations. (Unlike, say, the angry squash player case.) But I guess that isn't what you meant to ask.

  4. Hi Richard,

    Now, I'm unclear what the objection is. I thought the objection was that, when we plug 'acting on his malicious desire' in for X, the claim that 'S is blameworthy for freely and knowledgeably X-ing only if S does not have sufficient reason to X, all things considered' comes out false. After all, you said that Bob's blameworthy for for acting on his malicious desire; you didn't say that Bob is blameworthy for defending an innocent person from a violent attacker, the thing that he has sufficient reason to do.

    I think that Bob can be blameworthy for all sorts of things: wanting to hurt someone, being motivated out of malice, acting from a malicious motive, intending to inflict pain on the violent attacker, failing to care about the welfare of the innocent person, etc. I just don't think that Bob can be blameworthy for X-ing if Bob has sufficient reason to X.

  5. Hi Doug, I'm taking 'X' as an arbitrary name for the token action that Bob performed. This can be described in any number of ways, depending on which aspect of the action you want to emphasize. But descriptions aside, there's a single action there, and my claim is that Bob is blameworthy for it -- for what he did.

  6. Hi Richard,

    Fair enough. I'm afraid that I don't have much of anything helpful to say at this point. I don't find it plausible to blame him for what he did, although I find it plausible to blame him for the motive with which he did it. Do you think that he should regret doing what he did? Do you think that he should feel guilty about having performed that act (or acts) that he did (assuming, of course, that he used no more force or violence than was necessary to protect the innocent person)? I can see him rightly feeling guilty for taking pleasure in hurting the assailant, but I can't see him rightly feeling guilty for having done what he did, which was, we're supposing, absolutely necessary to protect the innocent person.

  7. Yeah, it's a little tricky to pin down exactly what he's blameworthy for. Here are a few thoughts:

    It can't just be the desire/motive, since he would not be blameworthy in the same way had he experienced the same motivation but refrained from acting upon it. Rather, his exercise of agency appears to be the occasion of blameworthiness.

    But this leaves open the question of what aspect of the occasion is regrettable, or a fitting target of guilt, etc. I would certainly agree that it makes no sense for the agent to feel guilty about having protected the innocent person, for example. And they needn't even feel guilty about having performed an act of the type that they did (violently rebuffing the assailant), since that was clearly desirable given that it was necessary to protect the innocent person. But I think they can - and should - still feel guilty about their token action, as it was performed from malice.

    It is this aspect -- the fact that it was performed from malice -- which makes the token act an occasion of blameworthiness. It was, after all, an occasion of distinctively agential incompetence. As luck would have it, it turned out to be the right (type of) act, but it was done for the wrong reasons, and this fact renders the agent fitting for the distinctive kind of criticism found in blame, guilt, etc.

    Do you disagree with any of this? (It's possible we've been talking past each other, if you were simply stressing that the bad motive is the aspect of the token action that renders it blameworthy, whereas I've been insisting that it's not the mere possession of a bad desire, but rather its incorporation into a malicious action, that occasions blame.)

  8. Hi Richard,

    Let's suppose that Bob hit the attacker over the head with a club, rendering him unconscious. And let's assume that doing anything less injurious to the attacker would have left the innocent person at risk. Finally, let's call this act 'H'. I agree that Bob is blameworthy for acting on his malicious desire and for performing H out of malice. I agree that it's not the mere possession of a bad desire, but rather its incorporation into a malicious action, that occasions this particular blame response to what he did. (I would add, though, that he is also to blame for having the malicious desire if this was something that he could have prevented by saying doing what was necessary to develop a good character.) I don't, however, think that Bob is blameworthy for having performed H. And whereas I agree that Bob had sufficient reason to perform H, I don't think that Bob had sufficient reason to have performed H out of malice. So I don't see any clear counterexample to my claim.

  9. My question is whether we can separate an action from its intentions. What makes an action "saving an innocent person" is either (a) the accidental result of performing an action that has only the unforeseen or incidental effect of saving the person or (b) intending to save the innocent person and taking the requisite steps to effect this result.

    An overall action can be described, therefore, in terms of the causal connections between intermediary actions and an ultimate result or in terms of a deliberate overall action plan.

    When Bob performs the actions that have the result of temporary saving the innocent's life you are calling that the "action of saving the innocent's life" but since it happens as part of a larger action of "stealing a victim for himself" the sub-action of temporarily saving the intended victim's life is no more morally praiseworthy or blameworthy than the other component actions of the overall action.

    Take this illustration: Punching and kicking are morally neutral actions unless given a context. If I do these things to save an innocent they are good, if I do them to an innocent they are bad. They only get their meaning as moral actions in conjunction with the overall actions to which they contribute.

    Since Bob's overall action is stealing a victim for himself, his punching and kicking and his temporary saving are all themselves corrupted by the presence of the desire that defines the overall action as an action of stealing a victim for himself. The fact that we can describe sub-actions like the punching, kicking, and saving in terms of actions with effects that are distinctly desirable or undesirable is irrelevant to assessing Bob's ultimate action. That requires uniting his desire with his deeds.


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