Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Morality as Means

A while back, I argued that value is relational but objective, and that specifically moral value takes the interests of all humanity as its relational standard. This is consistent with the instrumental conception of rationality, as being concerned only with the means to any presupposed (arational) ends. If we take the interests of all to be an end in itself, then morality is the means by which to achieve it.

But one might wonder why we should care about this particular end. If it's completely arbitrary, then moral obligations would seem to lose much of their force. One might as well choose to make evil-doing their ultimate end, and from that perspective one can just as well criticize the altruist. So the big question is: do we have any reason to prefer the ends of morality to those of its opposite?

I think we do, and I hope this isn't just wishful thinking on my part. Though in my case, at least, it doesn't much matter. Fact is, I do value this end, and I think many other people do too, and that in itself is enough for us to care about morality. But on to the larger question...

There is an obvious sense in which morality is in everyone's interests, since the achievement of those interests (i.e. of everyone) is precisely what morality aims at! If everyone behaves morally, then we're all better off than we would be if no-one was moral. The moral perspective is one of social rationality (rather than mere individual rationality), and we need to appeal to this view in order to best resolve the prisoners dilemmas and other collective action problems that otherwise arise. Put another way: we're all better off if we live in a more moral society, so there's a shared 'common interest' we can appeal to here. Just as individual rationality leads us to care about our self-interest, so does social rationality lend reason to care about morality.

To see how this works in more practical terms, note that I've previously argued that morality plays a complementary role to law. Our actions are caused by the interplay of our beliefs and desires. Laws change our beliefs so that we realise that harming other citizens won't help fulfill our desires (because you might get caught and sent to jail). Morality tries to pre-empt the need for this by changing people's desires, so that they prefer to do no harm to begin with. So, insofar as we have reason to care about law, we have similar reason to care about morality. Both are recommended by social rationality, as means to the achievement of our common ends.

This parallel makes it particularly clear why we should care that others behave morally. It's not so clear that individuals must necessarily care about their own morality, however. I don't see that as a major problem though. I can concede that a scoundrel may have no (individually rational) reason to behave morally, without that diminishing the importance of morality more generally. Even the scoundrel should agree that it's best for all involved (including himself) if others are moral; and he should even agree to civil/political measures that would help promote the formation of moral character generally - even in himself. If the measures caused him to acquire a more moral character, this 'cost' (in individually rational terms) would be more than offset by the benefits of having more moral neighbours.

Further, to quote Railton in 'Moral Realism' (from Facts, Values, and Norms, p.31):
[G]ood, general grounds are available for following moral 'oughts', namely, that moral conduct is rational from an impartial point of view. Since in public discourse and private reflection we are often concerned with whether our conduct is justifiable from a general rather than merely personal standpoint, it therefore is far from arbitrary that we attach so much importance to morality as a standard of criticism and self-criticism.

The existence of such phenomena as religion and ideology is evidence for the pervasiveness and seriousness of our concern for impartial justification. Throughout history individuals have sacrificed their interests, even their lives, to meet the demands of religions or ideologies that were compelling to them - in part because they purported to express a universal - the universal - justificatory standpoint. La Rochefoucauld wrote that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, but 'hypocrisy' suggests cynicism. We might better say that ideology is the respect partisans show to impartiality. Morality, then, is not ideology made sincere and general - ideology is intrinsically given to heartfelt generalization. Morality is ideology that has faced the facts.

So, I've argued that we have reason to care about morality because it is a means, recommended by social rationality, to our common ends. Another issue I'd like to consider is whether morality is merely a means. In other words, is moral behaviour intrinsically good (does it 'add more goodness' simply in virtue of being moral?), or is it merely good insofar as it brings about non-morally good effects (such as fulfilling some person's desires)?

I think it is merely a means. Suppose we have a moral obligation to keep our promises. I might then increase the quantity of moral behaviour in the world by promising to do things that I intended to do anyway. ("I promise to breathe in... I promise to breathe out...") Clearly there is nothing particularly good about such behaviour.

Whether evildoing is intrinsically bad might be more controversial. Derek Parfit (in Reasons and Persons, p.47) asks us to consider a case where you have a chance to prevent either a murder or an accidental death (in a forest fire, say). Suppose that you are slightly more likely to succeed at preventing the accidental death. Also, suppose the murderer is about to die soon afterwards anyway, so concerns about any consequences for him are irrelevant to the case. Who would you try to save? Most of us would probably choose the accidental victim. But if evil-doing was intrinsically wrong, then the importance of this would surely outweigh the slightly improved chance of success in the forest-fire-rescue. So, if your intuitions here agree with mine and Parfit's, you would seem to be committed to also agreeing that the mere 'evilness' of an act does not itself make for a worse state of affairs (though it may be that the bad consequences of an act are precisely what led us to call it 'evil' to begin with!).

So I tentatively conclude that morality is means to a worthwhile end, and only a means. But if anyone can think of a counterexample which shows morality can add value independently of non-moral value, I'd be curious to hear it.


  1. I'm unconvinced by the Parfit argument. That murder is intrinsically evil and an accidental death is not doesn't entail that stopping a murder is intrinsically better than stopping an accidental death (one might hold that they are incommensurable, for instance, or that the only salient feature for determining the intrinsic goodness of the act in either case is whether the action stops an unnecessary death). And surely what should guide our actions, assuming that they can be intrinsically good or not, is whether our actions are intrinsically good. So the Parfit argument seems to be missing something.

  2. If you're going to do this sort of utilitarian calculus, I think you need to add in the less direct effects of the acts. Virtues and vices are built into character by practice. Promising to breathe is an overly trivial example, but someone who practices promise-keeping (even if they start with easier stuff) becomes better at it and more likely to do it again in the future. Moreover, their good example may have a good effect on others. Conversely, a second murder may well be easier than the first, and a "successful" murder may provide a bad example for others.

    Even if you're a pure consequentialist (i.e., holding no intrinsic good/evil in acts qua "means"), you need to consider indirect as well as direct consequences. There's more than just the stone at the bottom of the pond; there are the ripples on the surface.

  3. Tom, I entirely agree (see here, for instance). But just imagine for the sake of argument that there would be no further bad consequences from allowing the murder rather than the accidental death. Does the mere fact that the murder is 'evil' provide you with more reason to prevent it than the accident? That's the only real issue here, since the question is whether the moral status of an action can 'add value' above and beyond the non-moral value that accompanies it.

    Brandon, are you using 'intrinsic evil' to mean the same thing as what I describe above? It might just be that the terminology is misleading, and there's no substantial disagreement here at all - I'm not sure.

  4. Richard,

    I don't quite see how the argument is supposed to work at all; it is possible, of course, that the reason for that is just that I'm not quite catching your meaning (always a potential problem in these sorts of arguments).

    If by 'intrinsically evil' you mean that simply by considering it in itself we have a reason to prevent it, then I'm not sure on what basis we are drawing the comparative conclusion. Simply that we have a reason to prevent murder doesn't entail anything about whether this reason is greater or less than our reasons for doing some other thing. (Although there might be 'intuitive contamination' here from another issue; one could argue that on this gloss of 'intrinsically evil' it makes sense to consider any human death intrinsically evil, since of any human death in itself we could say we have reason to prevent it. This evens the playing field between the murder and the accidental death; and even if the murder is more intrinsically evil, it isn't clear how this would weigh against the accidental death's being easier to prevent, if the accidental death is also intrinsically evil.)

    If, on the other hand, we meant by 'intrinsically evil' that simply in virtue of itself it makes any state of affairs of which it is a part worse than it would be if it were not a part -- then I don't see that the Parfit argument goes through here either. For on this gloss, it seems to me that it would make more sense to consider the goodness of the act of prevention rather than the badness of what is being prevented; there might be a relation between the two, but there's no reason to think it would necessarily be straightforward.

    But it's entirely possible that I'm just not quite getting a point somewhere.

  5. Your latter interpretation sounds more like what I was thinking of. I guess we are assuming that the best action is that which maximises value, which non-consequentialists might not accept. Fair criticism.

  6. If a person is going to die in either the murder or the forest fire, then it seems to me the judgment of greater intrinsic evil has to do with the motives of the person doing the killing. Otherwise it's just a death, and no different.

    That being the case, my prevention of the murder or the forest fire has no moral distinction, because even if I prevent the murder, I still have not prevented the motive, which is the real evil. Not the death of itself, but the intention of the murderer. So I could prevent the murder, and the evil which was present is still just as present.

    I think this is why most of us would choose the accidental victim. We would maximize the chance of us doing good, recognizing that the evil is not truly susceptible to elimination by my actions.

  7. Hi Matt,
    Parfit actually pre-empts that objection. He presents an analogous case where Othello, an otherwise good man, will kill someone whom he falsely believes to have betrayed him. You can either prevent Othello from acquiring this false belief (and therefore prevent him from ever forming the evil intentions), or save the forest fire victim. As before, the latter mission is slightly more likely to succeed, and Othello is about to die anyway, so considerations for his later welfare do not cloud the picture. Again, most of us would choose the fire victim. Preventing an evil intention from forming does not in itself add value to the world.


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