Moral Overdetermination?

So, one other point in Baron’s work on Kant is a concern about overdetermination. Basically, this is the case where someone takes an action both because it is the thing that they most want to do and because it’s the thing that they are morally obligated to do, leading to two sufficient causes for the action, one moral and one amoral. For most moral systems, this isn’t much of a problem and such cases themselves aren’t that interesting, as the more meaningful cases are the ones where what someone wants to do and what is morally obligated are in conflict. But it’s potentially a bigger problem for Kant because he seems to insist that the only time one can consider oneself moral is if one acts purely for moral motivations. So in a case where someone is motivated equally by pragmatics (what you want and/or what most benefits you) and by morality, it would seem that Kant would have to say that they aren’t acting morally. While that’s not necessarily problematic, there are a number of these cases and if someone tried to condition their wants and pragmatic wants to conform to morality they would ironically end up not being moral anymore, which seems rather strange. So there might be some issues here.

But what I want to attack about the concept is whether or not such events ever actually happen. Is it ever the case that we’re motivated equally by pragmatic concerns and by moral concerns? It’s clearly insufficient to argue that someone is equally motivated by pragmatics and by morality if we can determine that for that person the action is morally correct and that it would benefit them the most. Just because it would benefit them or would be morally correct doesn’t mean that they’d be motivated to do it. So the next step up is to argue that if the other motivation wasn’t present that they’d still be motivated by the other one to take that action. The easiest way to do that is to remove one of the motivations and see if the person would or would be expected to take the action anyway. One way to do that is to ask whether they’d still take the action if the action was itself immoral. Baron herself notes that if that was the case, there’d be no problem calling the person immoral, or at least not properly motivated by morality. The reason is that it becomes clear that there is a primary and overwhelming motivation, and that motivation is their own interests and wants, not morality. So we don’t really have a case where the two of them equally motivate the person to take the action, but instead a case where wants rule over morals. And such a person is clearly not a moral person.

The interesting case, though, is the case where all we do is make the action morally neutral, so not an issue for morality at all. If the action is morally neutral, would they still do it because they want to do it? And if they didn’t want to do it but still thought that it was morally obligatory, would they do it based entirely on the fact that it was morally obligatory? We can certainly see that this is precisely how an intelligent and rational person will act: if the choice is morally neutral, they will go with their own benefit or personal desire, but if the choice is morally obligated, they will go with what is moral. And so a moral person will definitely be able to be moral in such a situation. So if we can’t be moral in such a situation, then it looks like we would have eliminated the paradigmatic example of a moral person.

But we still need to answer the question of whether the person in question would actually be equally motivated by morality and pragmatics. Psychologically, this seems unlikely. In general, just by nature we would tend towards giving one or the other primacy. So we’d either figure out what what morally obligatory and then decide or see if we wanted to do it, or in most cases for most people determine what it is you want to do and then check to see if it’s morally acceptable. Either way, we’d have a primary motivation with the other one being a check or secondary selection process to see if or how it conforms to the other, where moral concerns as a secondary motivation is more of a check and pragmatic concerns are more of a way to decide between multiple equally moral actions. A perfectly moral person would determine what is morally obligated first and only once that’s determined look at what they want to do from those options, and a decently moral person will decide what they want to do and then determine if it’s morally acceptable, and change their action accordingly. So in most cases there will still be a primary motivation, and we won’t be equally motivated by what we want to do and what we believe it is moral to do.

Thus, in almost all cases, we won’t have a case of actual overdetermination. Each person will have a primary motivation that they are acting on and a secondary motivation that at best acts as a filter. In those cases, however, it will be hard for any external agent — and, at times, even for the agent themselves — to determine which of the two motivations is the primary one. This is why I find cases where someone brags about how they only want to act in moral ways to be less indicative of moral character than the cases where they clearly want to act immorally. In the former cases, they could easily be making what they want to do their primary motivation and might not even be letting morality be a check on it, but what they want to do happens to align with morality and so they can pretend — even to themselves — that morality is their motivation. But for someone who want to act immorally but choose not to is clearly a case where being moral trumps what they want to do, making for a moral person.

So I don’t think overdetermination is a real problem because I don’t think it actually happens. And when it does, as long as one will never choose to do what they want even if they think it immoral then we don’t have to worry about the purity of their motives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: