Consider the following case:
Immanuel concludes that he must never lie – not even to save a life. Then a would-be-murderer shows up, asking after Gotlieb’s whereabouts. Immanuel, though quite tormented, lies to save Gotlieb. Immanuel believes he did wrong, but feels guiltily relieved, as he cares about human lives at least as much as you and I do, weird views about morality not withstanding. That is why he lied in the first place.
In the past, I have argued that someone like Immanuel – the sort of agent I labeled an Inverse Akratic many years ago – is praiseworthy for her action in so far as it is true that she acted for good moral reasons, even if she doesn’t think they are good moral reasons. In other words, in so far as she is motivated by the right-making features of her action. I emphasized the following: a good person acts for praise-conferring motives, but a good person does not have to have a true ethical theory or even be a good ethicist. To be praiseworthy for an action you need to do it for the sake of the right or the good – de re. I thus defended, among others, Huckleberry Finn and some rather kind young people who espouse Ayn Rand’s views. Here is one question that I get a lot:
“Ok, it’s praiseworthy to follow morality de re. But doesn’t one also get at least some moral credit for caring about morality de dicto? Not even a little bit?”. Relatedly, I get “isn’t Immanuel’s conscience also a good thing about him?”
My answer to the second question is: yes, a modestly good thing (I’ll get there in a moment). However, my answer to the first question is: no. We can’t have it both ways. If caring about the right de re confers praiseworthiness then caring about the right de dicto doesn’t.
An analogy: suppose that to have good taste in novels you have to like good novels for their good-making features. Imagine someone who likes Redeeming Love. Why? Because it’s good, she says. What makes it good? It has a heartwarming Christian message and it expresses strong emotions.Isn't that what makes books good? This person has terrible taste (and if she likes Crime and Punishment for the same reasons, it doesn’t speak well of her taste either). Consider an Ayn Rand fan motivated to close a ruthless business deal. Why? Because it’s moral, he says. What makes it moral? It promotes the agent’s self interest.Isn't that what makes things moral? I think the moral case is analogous to the aesthetic case. This person is not well-motivated. If she saves a life for the same reason, it does not speak well of her.
Why does it often seem as if the very action of deliberating about the question “what is the right thing to do?” speaks well of the agent?
Immanuel deserves some kind of moral credit for what prompted his moral deliberation: roughly, caring about truthfulness, a consideration relevant to morality for real. Huck is more complicated: he is tormented by concern for Miss Watson’s imaginary rights over her slave. But this misguided torment is indicative of concern for real property rights. Unlike those whose motivation to return a slave was anger at the “uppity” slave, Huck is confused because he was told that helping a slave escape is stealing and he is averse to stealing – in itself a good thing. People who ask themselves “what is the right thing to do?” often start asking and deliberating because something morally relevant (for real) bothers them. They wonder, say, whether to tell someone his spouse is cheating – displaying concern for both truthfulness and another person’s wellbeing. They wonder whether they may have an abortion – because they treat killing seriously. All of these concerns are morally relevant and praiseworthiness-conferring. There is no value to moral fetishism (to use Michael Smith's term) – but a real live moral fetishist is hard to find.
The less a person’s act of deliberating on the question “what is the right thing to do?” comes from morally relevant concerns, the less praiseworthy it is. Consider again the case of Gwendolyn, tempted to secretly lose her virginity with the man she promised to marry in two months. She asks herself “would it be morally wrong?” and thus torments herself. Why? Because having such sex might be slutty. Concern with not being a slut does not speak particularly well of anyone. Gwendolyn is a borderline case of moral deliberation. A person who suspects he is vicious simply because he lacks wit, say, isn’t concerned with morality anymore (or, in the case of Aristotle, isn’t concerned with morality yet). Wit is just too far removed from the right-making features of actions and the good-making features of people. Some people have metaethical reasons to object to my view here.
Still working. Contemplating the relationship between this and infamous moral ignorance cases. Would love to hear from you.