Morality vs Motivation

So I’ve been doing some discussion about morality over the past few months, reading along and even commenting in a debate at Richard Carrier’s site and of course my long running debate with Coel over morality. And there’s a common tension that I see that I think drives their view and distinguishes their view from mine.

It seems to be a fundamental attribute of our concept of morality that it is, at a minimum, selfless. At a minimum, we aren’t supposed to make moral decisions with an eye on our own self-interest, but instead with an eye for what is good for others or for everyone. So any morality that asks us or allows us to act on our own self-interest is suspect. However, we also think that acting morally should be something that motivates us, and it’s often hard to come up with a distinct motivation for us to act morally, even if we don’t really want to. If someone asks us “What’s in it for me if I act morally?”, we think that there should be an answer to that question, but have a hard time thinking of what that could be.

That’s why I think so often people return to self-interest to motivate people to act morally, in stronger or weaker ways. At a minimum, some systems at least point out that you won’t be or don’t have to be miserable if you act morally. The Stoics do this by demanding that you redefine what you find important or what makes you happy until it aligns with what is moral, and I think the best interpretation of Kant’s comments that being moral will make you happy is as a defense against the claim that it would make you miserable rather than as a comment that being moral simply is the thing that will make us happy. Others move further into saying that you should act morally because ultimately it will give you the happiest life. The latter have the advantage that we can all see why it would make sense for us to act morally, but always devolve to morality being about personal self-interest which always brings up the question where if treating others badly would work out to be in our self-interest then wouldn’t that end up being the moral thing to do by definition? The former avoid that question but then, again, leave open the question of why we should act morally at all.

Complicating this further is the idea that it also seems to be the case that while we aren’t supposed to be self-interested when it comes to morality, we also reject the idea that we must be completely self-sacrificing. Utilitarianism suffers from this because it is always asking us to sacrifice our own interests for others. That we could end up always having to sacrifice our happiness so that others might be happy and thus end up with a miserable life is intuitively problematic for us. We also have problems being asked to sacrifice our loved ones for a stranger who happens to provide more utility. So while morality should not be self-interested, we do seem to think that our needs and desires have to be considered as well.

Ultimately, I think this is the key benefit of Kant’s view. Whether it’s the same thing as the categorical imperative or not — I tend to think that while it can be universalized it’s not necessarily the only principle that can be — the principle of “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” seems to resolve this conflict, at least. Utilitarianism falters because it demands that you treat yourself and others as means to the overall end of increased utility. Self-interested moralities fail — as well as any morality that uses your own personal self-interest as motivation to act morally — because they encourage treating others as the means to the end of your own personal satisfaction. While this may not be the whole of morality, it seems to me that the first thing a morality will have to satisfy is this: treating moral agents as moral agents, and not as means to satisfy your moral system.

And, in a way, this eliminates subjectivist and relativist moralities as well. If we only act on our own moral code that is personal to us or to any particular group, then aren’t we using others as a means to satisfying our own moral code? We aren’t respecting their morals or trying to find one that everyone accepts, but are insisting on acting on our own no matter what anyone else thinks of it. How can we respect them as moral agents if we hold a view that is different from ours? The only counter here is that we respect their moral system and allow them to live by it while we live by ours, but it’s always the case that when we interact with others we will still insist on acting our way no matter how offensive it is to them or how strongly they disagree. If we force them into a choice between their morals or the negative effects that our moral code might have on them, then it does seem like we’re using them as a means to support our end of being moral on our own terms.

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