Moral and Non-moral Reasons

Let’s start off with a rough characterization of what a normative reason (hereafter, simply “reason”) is. The fact that p will be the case if S Xs is a reason for S to X if and only if that p will be the case if S Xs is a consideration that counts in favor of S’s X-ing. Now some such facts are capable of giving rise to S’s being morally required to X, while other such facts are incapable of giving rise to S’s being morally required to X. This distinction between reasons that are capable of giving rise to moral requirements and reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements is, I think, the best way to characterize the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons. But even if I’m wrong about this, it is, nevertheless, an important distinction to make.

Before exploring whether I’m right about this, let me propose the following formal test for determining whether or not a given reason is a moral reason: A reason for S to X — namely, that p will be the case if S Xs — is a moral reason if and only if it would give rise to S’s being morally required to X in some possible world where (1) S has no reason (of any kind) not to X and (2) S has no reason (of any kind) to perform some other available act that would in any way impede or preclude S from X-ing. (The reason I say “in some possible world” rather than “in all possible worlds” is that it may be that a given reason can only give rise to a moral requirement when taken in conjunction with another reason. In such cases, the two reasons (both moral reasons on this account), taken together, give rise to a moral requirement in any possible world where conditions (1) and (2) are met.)

Now, this criterion gets the intuitively correct results in a number of cases. For instance, intuitively, the fact that X-ing will benefit me counts as a non-moral reason for me to X, whereas the fact that X-ing will benefit someone else counts as a moral reason for me to X. And my test gets the right results here. In no possible world where conditions (1) and (2) are met does the fact that X-ing will benefit me give rise to my being morally required to X. The fact that X-ing will benefit me may give rise to a prudential requirement to X, but not a moral requirement to X. Failing to benefit myself may always be foolish and imprudent, and it may even sometimes be wrong (as where others will benefit from my being benefitted), but it is never wrong merely because I will lose out if I fail to benefit myself. By contrast, in the possible world where conditions (1) and (2) are met, the fact that X-ing will benefit someone else does give rise to a moral requirement to X. If there is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t benefit someone else (not even a reason associated with opportunity costs), then surely it would be wrong for me not to do so. At the very least, the fact that X-ing will benefit someone else does give rise to a moral requirement to X when taken together with other such reasons so that a substantial benefit to others is at stake.

Of course, a number of questions arise: (i) Is this distinction between reasons that are capable and reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements the one that that best maps onto our intuitive understanding of the moral reason/non-moral reason distinction? (ii) Even if the answer is no, is this distinction still an important distinction? And (iii) is the test that I’ve given for determining whether or not a given reason is a moral reason a sufficiently practical one?

In answering (i), we must consider alternative proposals. I’ll consider one such proposal and then leave it to readers to suggest others that they think can do a better job of capturing our intuitive understanding of the moral reason/non-moral reason distinction. The possibility that I’ll consider is to characterize a moral reason as one that is relevant to arriving at a moral judgment about the act in question (that is, a judgment about whether or not it is morally permissible to perform the action). A non-moral reason is, then, a reason that is not relevant to arriving at a moral judgment about the act in question. One problem with this way of characterizing the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons is that reasons that intuitively seem to be non-moral reasons (e.g., the fact that X-ing will benefit me) could on this account turn out to be moral reasons. Another problem with this account of moral reasons is that whereas the question “Is S always morally required to do what S has most moral reason to do?” seems to be an open question, it is, on this account, a closed question. To make the same point a bit differently, whether moral considerations (i.e., moral reasons) always override other types of considerations in determining what we are morally required to do seems to be a substantive and an important issue that this account renders a non-issue. We might wonder, for instance, whether or not prudential considerations can override moral considerations and thereby cause it to be morally permissible to act contrary to what the balance of moral considerations supports doing. More specifically, we might wonder whether it is permissible to break a rather trivial promise (say, a promise to wash the dishes) if one has a significant prudential reason to do so (say, for the sake of going on a date requested at the last minute by someone who one has long fancied). (I borrow this example from Sarah Stroud’s “Moral Overridingness and Moral Theory.”) Here, it seems that the issue is whether the prudential consideration in favour of going out on the date overrides the moral consideration in favour of keeping one’s promise.

In answer to (ii), I claim the answer is a resounding yes. The distinction between reasons that are capable of giving rise to moral requirements and reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements is an important distinction whether or not it is best characterized as the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons, for it is important to ask whether the one type of reason always overrides the other.

In answering (iii), we must consider the following problem, which Jamie Dreier has pointed out to me in a previous comment — see here. The problem is that my test is difficult to apply in certain instances. Take, for instance, the fact that X-ing will produce greater equality. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a world where conditions (1) and (2) are met. The closest I can come to imagining such a world is the following. Imagine the possible world where I must choose between performing Y or Z. If I perform Y, four people (A-D) will exist on two far apart planets (p1 and p2). On p1, A and B will both have 99 hedons, and, on p2, C and D will both have 101 hedons. If I perform Z, four people (again, A-D) will exist on two far apart planets (again, p1 and p2). On p1, A and B will both have 100 hedons, and, on p2, C and D will both have 100 hedons. Unfortunately for my test, it would seem that there’s a reason against my performing Z, specifically, that the people who will exist on p2 if I do Z will not be as happy as the people who will exist on p2 if I do Y. Thus there seems to be no way to meet conditions (1) and (2). Perhaps, though, the solution is to add the word “net” in front of the word “reason” throughout conditions (1) and (2), where a net reason is a reason that is not offset by some countervailing reason. I’m not sure whether this works. I’m certainly open to other suggestions.

Postscript:

I’m now thinking that the following might be a better version of my test (call it test – version 2, or “TV2” for short):

A set of facts (f1, f2, f3,…fn) constitutes a moral reason for S’s X-ing if and only if S is morally required to X whenever the following holds: (1) this set of facts obtains, (2) there are no further considerations that count in favor of S’s X-ing, (3) there is no consideration that counts against S’s X-ing, and (4) S wouldn’t be morally required to X if merely some proper subset of this set of facts obtained. A non-moral reason for S’s X-ing is, then, a set of facts that constitutes a reason, but not a moral reason, for S’s X-ing.

I would be interested in which version (TV1 or TV2) people think is better.

7 Replies to “Moral and Non-moral Reasons

  1. “In answer to (ii) [whether the distinction is important], I claim the answer is a resounding yes. The distinction between reasons that are capable of giving rise to moral requirements and reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements is an important distinction whether or not it is best characterized as the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons, for it is important to ask whether the one type of reason always overrides the other.”
    I don’t quite see the line of reasoning here. If you deny that the distinction exists, for instance, then there aren’t two types of reasons, so the question of whether one overrides the other does not arise.
    I am thinking of ancient virtue ethics, which could give a sense to the question of what the best kind of life to live was, but did not draw the prudential/moral distinction or anything similar. At best, they would have said there was an apparent distinction along these lines if you had a wrong value system.
    Of course, for anyone who is more Kantian than Aristotelian, the question you are asking is a perfectly intelligible and worthwhile one.

  2. Heath,
    Where did I deny that the distinction exists? The issue is not whether there is such a distinction; rather, the issue is whether the distinction is correctly called the moral reason/non-moral reason distinction. And the distinction between reasons that are capable of giving rise to moral requirements and reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements could be an important distinction even if it’s not correct to label it “the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons.” So we might have to call this distinction the distinction between schmoral and non-schmoral reasons. But it’s still an interesting question whether those reasons that are capable of giving rise to moral requirements (whether these reasons are called moral reasons or schmoral reasons) always overrides those reasons that are incapable of giving rise to moral requirements (whether these reasons are called non-moral or non-schmoral reasons).

  3. Doug,
    Since I find your suggestion fascinating, but fear that I don’t genuinely understand it, would you mind some Q and A?
    1. Clause (2) of your definition of moral reasons :”(2) S has no reason (of any kind) to perform some other available act that would in any way impede or preclude S from X-ing.” What particular contribution does (2) make to your characterization of moral reasons, i.e., what does it rule in or rule out as a moral reason? Perhaps an example might help me get an intuitive grip on what you have in mind. I think I might be thrown by ‘impede or preclude’: These sound like verbs out of the causal catalog, but I’m not sure. If these are not intended in some causal sense, I worry that (2) ends up saying that S has a reason to X only if there isn’t a better reason to not-X. But doubtless I’ve misunderstood something.
    2. I’m not sure how to understand a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons as kinds. That sounds as if certain sorts of reasons for action (or the fact upon which these reasons logically depend) have intrinsic properties that make those reasons moral or non-moral. But there’s a position, perhaps best associated with Scanlon I suppose, that treats ‘moral reasons’ not as a kind of reason but as a reason that is decisive with respect to a formal requirement (i.e., reasonable non-rejecctability). In other words, on this view, there is no property of reasons that renders them moral. There simply are reasons, and in a particular instance, what we are morally required to do depends not on some class of pre-defined moral reasons, but on which reasons are implicated in determining whether a proposed course of action could be endorsed by all reasonable agents, etc. Where would you situate yourself with respect to that kind of view?
    3. I think Josh Gert has written a good deal on the notion of reasons giving rise to normative requirments, so you should look into his stuff if you’ve not.

  4. Doug,
    First, a suggestion on avoiding Dreier’s problem with TV1. Why not drop the possible words talk altogether, and instead say something like this:
    (TV3) A reason for S to X – namely, that p will be the case if S Xs – is a moral reason if and only if it would, so long as it were unopposed by any other sort of reason, give rise to S’s being morally required to X.
    This seems to me to capture the intuition in the equality case: if there were no reason opposing our distributing things in a more equitable manner, the fact that doing so would increase equality would establish a moral requirement to do so. Of course, someone who thinks that possible worlds talk gives us the correct analysis of would-statements may object that such an action cannot possibly be “unopposed by any other sort of reason.” But the fact that we do seem to understand such claims—we might also articulate our understanding by referring to, for instance, to the notion of a reason or consideration ‘in itself’— suggests that the possible worlds analysis is just wrong. (A much too large issue to do justice to here.)
    Having said that, I now want to raise an objection – I guess it’s an objection to the idea that the distinction between reasons that do and do not ground moral requirements is “the one that that best maps onto our intuitive understanding of the moral reason/non-moral reason distinction.” Actually, it’s not quite an objection to that – let’s suppose that the mapping is perfect. It is still questionable whether this analysis gives us an account of moral vs. nonmoral reasons that is in any way enlightening. ‘Moral’ reasons are defined as the reasons that give rise to moral requirements; but what makes a requirement a moral requirement, as opposed to some other form of requirement? That seems to be where the heart of the analysis really lies. I wonder if it’s fair to say that what you are really doing isn’t so much giving us an analysis or understanding of what makes a reason a moral reason, as defending a claim about the relation between moral reasons and moral requirements—that the former must, where unopposed, give rise to the latter. This is an interesting claim, but does not seem to address the deep questions about what makes moral reasons/requirements different from other sorts of reasons/requirements.
    Troy

  5. Michael,
    Now that I think about it, (2) isn’t doing any work, except to, possibly, clarify what I mean by (1). For it seems to me that the fact that there is a reason to Y and X-ing precludes Y-ing is itself a reason not to X. So I could have just said, “A reason for S to X is a moral reason if and only if it would give rise to S’s being morally required to X in some possible world where S has no reason (of any kind) not to X.” The idea is quite simple: a moral reason is the sort of reason that can give rise to a moral requirement, and if a reason can give rise to a moral requirement at all, it would have to give rise to a moral requirement in the some possible world where it is completely unopposed by any countervailing reasons. If it can’t give rise to a moral requirement when it’s completely unopposed, then surely it can’t give rise to a moral requirement at all. The problem is that I’m not articulating this idea very clearly.
    Note that (2) doesn’t, as you worry, end up saying that S has a reason to X only if there isn’t a better reason to not-X. The account, not (2), says, “S has a *moral* reason to X if and only if *it gives rise to a moral requirement to X* in some possible world where there isn’t *any* reason to not-X.”
    You also say, “I’m not sure how to understand a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons as kinds. That sounds as if certain sorts of reasons for action (or the fact upon which these reasons logically depend) have intrinsic properties that make those reasons moral or non-moral.” On my view, what distinguishes moral and non-moral reasons is not some difference in their intrinsic properties, but a difference in their relational properties: namely, a difference in whether they have the relational property of being capable of generating a moral requirement.
    I don’t know what to say about the Scanlon stuff; it’s been too long since I’ve read it. I’ll need to think about it. And thanks for the suggestion about my reading some of Josh Gert’s stuff. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading his forthcoming book.

  6. Troy,
    Thanks for the suggestion about dropping the possible worlds stuff. I’m not sure whether dropping it will help, as I didn’t add the possible world stuff until after Jamie raised this objection to something much like your TV3. On your TV3, we should ask whether the following conditional is true: “if there were no reason opposing our distributing things in a more equitable manner, the fact that doing so would increase equality would establish a moral requirement to do so.” The problem, I gather, is that it’s hard to imagine a case where the antecedent is true. So it’s hard to say whether in that case the fact that doing so would increase equality would establish a moral requirement to do so.
    Regarding your objection, I think that you’re right. What I’m doing is more accurately described as defending a claim about the relation between moral reasons and moral requirements. Nevertheless, I think that I’m still giving an analysis of the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons; it’s just a non-reductive analysis. But your point is well taken: we still need an analysis of what distinguishes the moral requirements from other sorts of normative requirements.

  7. Doug,
    “Where did I deny that the distinction exists? The issue is not whether there is such a distinction; rather, the issue is whether the distinction is correctly called the moral reason/non-moral reason distinction.”
    Sorry if I wasn’t clear; obviously you don’t deny the distinction exists. *I* deny the distinction exists. I think that, for any case of choice, there is just “what you ought to do” and that it is a misleading picture of the ethical enterprise to distinguish between moral and other requirements (or permissions, etc.).
    However, I can understand why you believe in this distinction, and I don’t think it is worth quibbling over terminology: moral/non-moral reasons is a fine label.

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