Monday, February 18, 2019

Good Motives, Act-Features, and What Matters

Commenting on my 'Right Wrong-Makers' draft, Doug Portmore suggested to me that (i) virtuous agents should care about what ultimately matters, and (ii) this is not the same as any feature of actions, and so in particular isn't the same thing as an action's right- (or wrong-)making features.

That seems literally correct, but I think needn't really threaten the intended meaning of the suggestion that there's an intimate connection between virtuous motivation and right-making features. We perhaps just need to be a bit more careful in articulating the relevant connection.

That is, when Smith (1996, 182) writes that virtuous agents "are moved by the very features of their acts which make them right," it would perhaps be better to say that virtuous agents are moved by the very features of the situation (viz., the moral reasons) which make a certain action right.  And indeed many subsequent authors in this tradition (e.g., Arpaly, Markovits, Korsgaard, and Stratton-Lake, as cited in the first footnote of my paper) formulate their related theses in terms of reasons rather than "right-making features of actions", which I think may help to avoid Doug's worry.

There is surely a close connection still between what matters and certain features of actions.  For example, if a child is drowning, and you're in a position to save them, it might be most natural to say that you should be moved just by concern for the child.  Admittedly, this is not a feature of an action.  But the fact that your action has the feature of saving the child's life is obviously not irrelevant to your motivation: it is only because the act in question is appropriately related to what matters that you are (quite properly) motivated to perform this act in particular.  So I think it is not too philosophically distorting to say that the agent should be moved by this feature of their action (that it saves the child's life). We just need to clarify that we do not mean by this that the agent's fundamental concern is with act-features as such, as that would indeed be bizarre.

Perhaps it would be most accurate to say, not that (a) agents should be motivated by the right-making features of their action, but that (b) the right-making features of actions reveal [why the act is worth performing, and hence] what considerations should motivate the agent.  That's not so neat and precise though, so perhaps the relevant theses are better formulated in terms of moral reasons to avoid this worry entirely.  (Is there any related objection to the claim that agents should be motivated by the [ground-level] reasons that justify their act?  Justifying/normative reasons are surely the right category of thing to motivate agents, right?  Otherwise I think something has gone terribly wrong with our standard terminology...)

[Such details of formulation are such an "analytic philosopher" problem.  It's worth getting right, I suppose, but definitely not my strong suit, so my thanks to Doug and any others who help me work through this. :-)]


  1. I haven't had a chance to read your draft, and I'm in general not sure what to make of this line of thought, but: If the considerations that motivate you should be understood as the factors that played a role in your deliberation, it seems that the considerations that motivate you can go beyond your reasons (and right-makers) and might include other normatively relevant considerations such as enablers, intensifiers, and so on. If I am debating whether to cure world hunger, it's not inappropriate for me to take into consideration facts about what is achievable (i.e. relevant disablers) and, arguably, facts about personal relations I have (which, arguably, function as intensifiers of other reasons).

    1. Interesting! I'm inclined to think we should instead just allow that there are deliberative "roles" besides just being the consideration that motivates you. So, sure, take into consideration various enablers/disablers/intensifiers, but do not think of these as themselves sources of motivation; rather, their role is presumably to enable/disable/intensify the motivational "oomph" that the core reason itself provides.


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