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Consequentialism and Moral Worth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2018

The College of New


Sometimes, agents do the right thing for the right reason. What's the normative significance of this phenomenon? According to proponents of the special status view, when an agent acts for the right reason, her actions enjoy a special normative status, namely, worthiness. Proponents of this view claim that self-effacing forms of consequentialism cannot say this plausible thing, and, worse, are blocked from having a perspicuous view of matters by the self-effacing nature of their consequentialism. In this article, I argue that this claim is based on an illicit assumption. I show that whatever version of the special status view proponents of that view prefer, self-effacing consequentialists can adopt a version of it. Moreover, I show that proponents of extant versions of the special status view have reason to prefer the specific version of that view I articulate on behalf of self-effacing consequentialists.

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1 This way of characterizing motivating reasons is relatively uncontroversial. For a very incomplete list of those who characterize motivating reasons in roughly this way, compare: Dancy, J., Practical Reality (Oxford, 2003)Google Scholar; Scanlon, T., What We Owe To Each Other (Harvard, MA, 1998)Google Scholar; Raz, J., From Normativity to Responsibility (Oxford, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Parfit, D., On What Matters: Volumes I & II (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar; Scanlon, T., Being Realistic About Reasons: The John Locke Lectures (Oxford, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, M., The Moral Problem (Oxford, 1994)Google Scholar; Broome, J., ‘Reasons’, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. Wallace, J., et al. (Oxford 2004), pp. 2855Google Scholar; Whiting, D., ‘Against Second-Order Reasons’, Nous 49.4 (2016), pp. 398420Google Scholar, and the essays collected in both Reasons for Action, ed. D. Sobel and S. Wall (Cambridge, 2011) and Reasons for Belief, ed. A. Reisner and A. Steglich-Petersen (Cambridge, 2011). For more detailed accounts of the nature of motivating reasons in both the practical and epistemic contexts, see Schroeder, M., Slaves of the Passions (Oxford, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scanlon, Owe; Parfit, Matters; J. Turri, ‘The Ontology of Epistemic Reasons’, Nous 43.3 (2009), pp. 490–512; Kearns, S. and Star, D., ‘Reasons as Evidence’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics Volume 4, ed. Shafer-Landau, R. (Oxford, 2009), pp. 215–42Google Scholar; Hieronymi, P., ‘The Wrong Kind of Reason’, Journal of Philosophy 102.9 (2005), pp. 437–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dancy, J., Ethics without Principles (Oxford, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, M., ‘The Humean Theory of Motivation’, Mind 96.381 (1987), pp. 3661CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, M., ‘A Constitutivist Theory of Reasons: Its Promise and Parts’, Law, Ethics, and Philosophy 1 (2013), pp. 930Google Scholar; Dancy, Reality; Hyman, J., ‘How Knowledge Works’, Philosophical Quarterly 49 (1999), pp. 433–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Neta, R., ‘Treating Something as a Reason For Action’, Nous 43.4 (2009), pp. 684–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sharadin, N., ‘Reasons Wrong and Right’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 97.2 (2015), pp. 371–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sharadin, N.Nothing But the Evidential Considerations?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94.2 (2016), pp. 343–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and the essays collected in Motivational Internalism, ed. G. Bjornsson, et al. (Oxford, 2015).

2 Equivalently, we might rely on our intuitive grasp of the considerations on which the agent's action is based. This is the terminology epistemologists tend to prefer in the symmetrical case of belief. See, for instance, Harman, G., Thought (Princeton, 1973)Google Scholar; Pappas, G., ‘Basing Relations’, Justification and Knowledge (Dordrecht, 1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Swain, M., ‘Justification and the Basis of Belief’, Justification and Knowledge (Dordrecht, 1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tolliver, J., ‘Basing Beliefs on Reasons’, Grazer philosophische Studien 15 (1982), pp. 149–61Google Scholar; Kvanvig, J., ‘Swain on the Basing Relation’, Analysis 45.3 (1985), pp. 153–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lemke, L., ‘Kvanvig and Swain on the Basing Relation’, Analysis 46.3 (1986), pp. 138–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McCain, K., ‘The Interventionist Account of Causation and the Basing Relation’, Philosophical Studies 159 (2012), pp. 347–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Here I will stick to the locution of the reasons for which an agent acts.

3 Despite what the slogan might suggest, the thought that agents’ motivating reasons should match the right reasons does not involve the thought that agents should act for the right kind of reasons. So, the question of how the so-called ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ kind of reasons interact is orthogonal to the issue I'm interested in here, which is the match between the right reasons (of any kind) and motivating reasons. See Sharadin, ‘Wrong’; Hieronymi, ‘Wrong Kind’; D'Arms, J. and Jacobson, D., ‘Wrong Kinds of Reasons and the Opacity of Normative Force’, in Oxford Studies in Metaethics Volume 9, ed. Shafer-Landau, R. (Oxford, 2014), pp. 215–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Olson, J., ‘The Wrong Kind of Solution to the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem’, Utilitas 21.2 (2009), pp. 225–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schroeder, Slaves; Reisner, A., ‘The Possibility of Pragmatic Reasons for Belief and the Wrong Kind of Reasons Problem’, Philosophical Studies 145 (2009), pp. 257–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar; D'Arms, J. and Jacobson, D., ‘The Moralistic Fallacy: On the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61.1 (2000), pp. 6590CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for discussions of the distinction between the right and the wrong kind of reasons.

4 In the Groundwork Kant famously seems to have held that only actions done for the sake of duty possess moral worth. See especially Kant, I., Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge, 1785), pp. 397–8Google Scholar. Neo-Kantian ethicists, though they are careful to refine or hedge Kant's claim, often endorse something similar. See Henson, R. G., ‘What Kant Might Have Said: Moral Worth and the Overdetermination of Dutiful Action’, The Philosophical Review 88.1 (1979), pp. 3954CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stratton-Lake, P., Kant, Duty, and Moral Worth (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; Korsgaard, C., ‘From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble: Kant and Aristotle on Morally Good Action’, Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty, ed. Engstrom, S. and Whiting, J. (Cambridge, 1996)Google Scholar; Hernandez, J., ‘Impermissibility and Kantian Moral Worth’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13.4 (2010), pp. 403–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Simmons, K., ‘Kant on Moral Worth’, History of Philosophy Quarterly 6.1 (1989), pp. 85100Google Scholar; Hill, T. E., Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives (Oxford, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Non-Kantians also recognize the import of match. See, for instance, Markovits, J., ‘Acting for the Right Reasons’, Philosophical Review 119.2 (2010), pp. 201–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arpaly, N., Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency (Oxford, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arpaly, N., ‘Moral Worth’, Journal of Philosophy 99.5 (2002), pp. 223–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sliwa, P., ‘Moral Worth and Moral Knowledge’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 92.2 (2015), pp. 393418Google Scholar; Sorensen, K., ‘Effort and Moral Worth’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13.1 (2010), pp. 89109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gert, J., ‘Moral Worth, Supererogation, and the Justifying/Requiring Distinction’, Philosophical Review 121.4 (2012), pp. 611–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schroeder, M., ‘Knowledge is Belief for Sufficient (Objective and Subjective) Reason’, Oxford Studies in Epistemology (Oxford, 2013)Google Scholar, pp. 226–52. I'll discuss Markovits's and Arpaly's views in more detail, below. The difference shows up in unexpected places too: it's in Rawls's preference for what he calls an ‘overlapping consensus’, in which agents’ political behaviour is based on the right (political) reasons, over a mere ‘modus vivendi’, in which, although agents’ political behaviour is the same, it is based on their idiosyncratic interests. See Rawls, J., ‘The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7.1 (1987), pp. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the epistemic side, things are perhaps even more stark. This is because match between the right reasons and motivating reasons is usually assumed to be a necessary condition for epistemic justification, which in turn is thought to be a necessary condition for knowledge. For an especially clear statement of this idea, see Bondy, P., ‘Counterfactuals and Epistemic Basing Relations’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 96.4 (2015), pp. 542–69Google Scholar. For scepticism on this point, see Silva, P., ‘Does Doxastic Justification Have a Basing Requirement?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2 (2014), pp. 117Google Scholar.

5 This phenomenon isn't limited to action. Similar remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to attitudes for which there can be reasons, e.g. belief, resentment, admiration, envy, etc. If we think there can be reasons for these attitudes, then we should be able to distinguish between the right reasons for having these attitudes and the reasons for which an agent has them. And it is possible for these two sets of reasons either to match or to fail to match. To ease exposition in this article, I'll focus my attention on the phenomenon as it occurs in the case of action, though I will, in these notes, sometimes highlight a parallel with the case of belief.

6 Going forward, to ease exposition, I'll just focus on cases of match and ignore failures to match, with the understanding that cases of failure should be understood in a symmetrical manner.

7 As above, this is not meant as an analysis of what normative reasons for action are. That issue is fraught, and, again, beyond the scope of this article. See Schroeder, Slaves; Scanlon, Owe; Parfit, Matters; Turri, ‘Ontology’; Kearns and Star, ‘Reasons’; Dancy, Principles; Smith, ‘Constitutivist’; and Dancy, Reality for some attempts to analyse normative reasons.

8 Markovits, ‘Acting’ and Arpaly, ‘Worth’ and Unprincipled are perhaps clearest in their acceptance of this idea.

9 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 204.

10 It's worth noting here that Markovits also comes close to endorsing the epistemic corollary of the Coincident Reasons Thesis, saying that ‘Something like the Coincident Reasons Thesis plausibly describes the conditions under which our beliefs are epistemically worthy or justified. Our beliefs have epistemic worth – are epistemically justified (not just justifiable) – when we believe them for the epistemic reasons why we ought to believe them – when, that is, we believe them in response to our evidence’ (‘Acting’, p. 214). Mark Schroeder, ‘Knowledge is Belief’, also appears to endorse something like CRT and the special status view when it comes to the epistemic worth of belief. Here, as I've said, my focus is on the case of action.

11 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 203, emphasis in original.

12 Arpaly, N., ‘Moral Worth and Normative Ethics’, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, ed. M. Timmons (Oxford, 2015)Google Scholar, pp. 86–105; Arpaly ‘Worth’.

13 As recommended in, for instance, Sidgwick, H., The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907)Google Scholar. It is a delicate matter whether we think such self-effacing, or, in Williams's phrase, ‘Government House’ consequentialist views are acceptable. Here, I won't be addressing this fraught issue directly. Instead, I'm going to argue that a particular charge against such views, viz. that they make a mess out of our judgements concerning the moral worth of actions, doesn't stick. For an excellent overview of the topic, including a defence of self-effacing views quite generally, see Eggleston, B., ‘Rejecting the Publicity Condition: The Inevitability of Esoteric Morality’, The Philosophical Quarterly 63 (2013), pp. 2957CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Of course, the particular version of this pressure will depend on the theory's choice of axiology. Here I'm assuming a version of hedonism, just to have something with which to work.

15 Markovits, ‘Acting’, pp. 231–2.

16 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 233–5, emphasis added.

17 Arpaly, ‘Normative Ethics’, pp. 4–5.

18 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 236.

19 Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this way of putting things.

20 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 235.

21 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 235.

22 Stratton-Lake, Kant, p. 18.

23 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 235.

24 Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 235.

25 Most famously, perhaps, Mill, J. S., Utilitarianism, 2nd edn. (Indianapolis, 2002), ch. 2Google Scholar.

26 Google searches on the phrases ‘for the [right/wrong] reason’ turn up almost a million results in sum.

27 Compare Markovits, ‘Acting’, p. 236.

28 Thanks to Ben Bradley, Patrick Connolly, Luke Elson, John Lawless, Daniel Layman, Hille Paakkunainen and Dave Sobel for helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Thanks also to two anonymous referees for their thoughtful comments.

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