Hi all –
As promised, Nomy Arpaly joins us with a post below the fold. Welcome Nomy!
Hi everyone! I am honored and flattered to be a featured philosopher on PeaSoup. Please feel free to ask questions about any part of my work, from my early work on identification, rationality, and autonomy through to the book I just published with Tim Schroeder, In Praise of Desire. In addition, however, I would like to explain something I’m working on right now and get your input on it. This is really work in progress and it’s at an early stage, so thank you very much for indulging me.
My idea starts from my old paper “Moral Worth”. According to my old view, if a person does the right thing, her action has moral worth iff it is performed for the reasons for which it’s right. In other words, the agent’s reason(s) for action should be the action’s right-making feature(s). Thus if, like Kant’s prudent grocer, you do the right thing for money then your action has no moral worth, as what makes the action right has nothing to do with the fact that it brings you money. So far, this is a rather Kantian view. The non-Kantian twist is that for the action to have moral worth it’s neither necessary nor sufficient that the agent does it because she believes it to be right. Thus if Huckleberry Finn helps Jim because he takes Jim to be a human being like him, his action has moral worth. On the other hand, if a person whose idea of the right is to promote the wellbeing of Germans over other nationals nonetheless rightly helps me, doing so because (suppose) I happen to be German, his action does not have moral worth: it is an accident that he did the right thing.
If a morally worthy action is done for its right-making features then there is what I take to be an interesting connection between moral worth and normative ethics, so that it might be possible to start from premises about moral worth and conclude things about normative ethics. In other words, if a morally worthy action is done for its right-making features, we can consider which actions have moral worth and reach conclusions about what the right making features of these actions are – and thus, about what the right normative theory is. Julia Markovits, who recently defended a view of moral worth similar to mine, applies this kind of reasoning to criticize utilitarianism. She says, essentially: if utilitarianism is true, all morally worthy actions are done for utilitarian reasons. Many acts of promise-keeping performed by philosophically unsophisticated agents are performed for decisively non-utilitarian reasons. If utilitarianism were true, all these actions would have no moral worth. Quod est absurdum.
I think various things, not just conclusions about utilitarianism, follow from my view of moral worth, especially when coupled with the view that philosophically unsophisticated agents often perform morally worthy actions. Here I’ll concentrate on one. In In Praise of Desire Tim and I gesture towards the view that intuitions about moral worth support a pluralistic view of the right-making features of actions. I would like to develop that idea. I don’t know how many fundamentally distinct right-making features there are but there are at least two.
Maybe the biggest disagreement between Kantians and non-philosophers concerns the moral worth of actions done simply to protect wellbeing, or at least to avoid or alleviate illbeing – acts of (call it) altruism. Suppose Jennifer helps John with his dissertation, even though he is not her student or close friend, simply because she is concerned that people not suffer illbeing. She does not have Kantian thoughts about what would happen to her if nobody helped – perhaps she is even a powerful alien that literally never needs help. Does her action have moral worth? People outside philosophy, asked if she deserves praise for her action, would say “yes.”. Jennifer is treated unlike someone who helps for money or in order to collect material for her novel. Kantians have various arguments against that but one is particularly bothersome to me, as it makes it seem like the Kantian conclusion follows from my view. This is the following argument: Jennifer’s motive for doing the right thing could also have led her, in some other circumstances, to do something wrong. Therefore, it is only an accident that she did the right thing. Thus she couldn’t have done her action for the reasons for which it’s right. Suppose we hear that, on a previous occasion, Jennifer told her roommate a lie in order to protect the roommate from illbeing (I imagine her in Thomas Hill’s case in which one lies to one’s roommate about whether her former boyfriend would be inclined to resume their relationship if she approaches him, a relationship that was painful and harmful to her). Suppose the paternalistic lie, though perfectly effective in protecting the roommate, was the wrong thing to do. Doesn’t that imply that her help with John’s dissertation has no moral worth? Interestingly, again, my undergrads won’t agree. Sometimes people think that the help with the dissertation is evidence that Jennifer, even when she lied, was at least well-intentioned. I don’t know what that means but it’s not something you say about the prudent grocer. What’s going on here?
My view is that we perceive Jennifer as a person who is in some ways good (and people utterly indifferent to moral reasons are not good), but who has a grave flaw in that she fails to be moved by some things: there are moral reasons that she responds to – reasons that have to do with wellbeing – and moral reasons that she does not respond to – reasons that have to do with something else. Accordingly she responded to the reason she had to help John – wellbeing – but not to the reason(s) she had to tell her roommate the truth. If that is the case , then there are at least two kinds of things that make actions right – one has to do with wellbeing and one with something else. So the true view of the right is not monistic. Much has to be clarified, but I see I have written more than 1000 words… So what do you think?