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Scepticism about Moral Motives

  • Anita M. Superson (a1)


Traditionally, the problem of defeating scepticism about the rationality of morality is that of showing that every morally required act is rationally required. Little or no direct attention has been paid to whether we must also show that it is rational for the agent to have and act from the morally appropriate motive, whatever that may be. This is not to say that philosophers have entirely ignored the issue of motives; a fair number—Kant and Aristotle come to mind—are concerned in part with the kind of motive agents ought to have and from which they ought to act. But the link to scepticism has not been clearly made. At issue is whether scepticism is fully defeated if we show that every morally required act is rationally required, even if we leave it possible that a fully rational person who performs the act just “goes through the motions” in doing so.



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1 This view is held by Plato, , Hobbes, , Kant, , Baier, Kurt, Nagel, Thomas and Gauthier, David, among others. In this paper I am working within the context of David Gauthier's position about morality and rationality. See his Morals by Agreement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). The issue is whether, in order to defeat scepticism, we need to show that morally required or morally acceptable acts are rationally required or rationally acceptable. I believe Gauthier's view is that all morally required acts are rationally required. He is concerned to show that duties are endorsed by the individual's reason (pp. 1 and 2). This suggests that the project of scepticism extends only to morally required acts. I think he also wants to show that these acts are rationally required, rather than merely acceptable, because of the general organization of his project. That is, he wants to ground morality in self-interest, and he starts with the view that rationally required action is action promoting one's own self-interest. In an important sense, he wants to retain this view. So he aims to show that it is in one's self-interest, and so that one is rationally required, to adopt the moral disposition of constrained maximization. Thus, I believe he wants to show that all morally required acts are rationally required.

2 In a recent article, Bernard Gert has challenged the account of rationality held by Gauthier and others, namely, that rational actions are those that maximize the satisfaction of one's desires. See Gert, Bernard, “Rationality, Human Nature, and Lists,” Ethics, 100, 2 (1991): 279300. Gert's view takes the notion of irrationality to be central. According to Gert, “an action is rationally required only if not acting in that way is irrational” (p. 280). So, “not all rational actions are rationally required, but some are merely rationally allowed” (p. 281). If he is right, then some moral actions, even morally required ones, are merely rationally allowed. I do not intend to resolve the debate between Gauthier and Gert. If Gert is right, and morally required actions are only rationally allowed, I might want to change my thesis to have it say that, in order to defeat scepticism, we must show that acting from the morally appropriate motive is rationally allowed. But I want to work within the context of Gauthier's theory, since it was his view that generated this topic and since his view has wide acceptance among philosophers writing about rationality.

3 Of course, there is no guarantee of moral behaviour even if one has moral motives. Indeed, Gregory Kavka and Derek Parfit have suggested that having certain motives might even lead the agent to act in ways that are contrary to the purpose of acquiring those motives in the first place. See Kavka, 's discussion of the toxin case in his “The Toxin Puzzle,” Analysis, 197 (January 1983): 3336; Kavka, 's discussion of nuclear deterrence in his “Some Paradoxes of Deterrence,” The Journal of Philosophy, 75, 6 (June 1978): 285302; and Parfit, 's discussion of the Kate case in Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 6.

4 Herman, Barbara, “Rules, Motives, and Helping Actions,” Philosophical Studies, 45, 3 (May 1984): 369–77.

5 Ibid., p. 371.

6 Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Ellington, James W. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), p. 3 (Akademische [AKA] 390), p. 2 (AKA 411).

7 Baron, Marcia, “On De-Kantianizing the Perfectly Moral Person,” Journal of Value Inquiry, 17 (1983): 281–93, esp. p. 285.

8 Ibid., p. 288.

9 See Baier, Annette, “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?,” Nous, 19, 1 (March 1985): 5363, esp. p. 57.

10 Noddings, Nel, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

11 Ibid., p. 86.

12 Ibid., p. 81.

13 Ibid.

14 Stocker, Michael, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Moral Theories,” The Journal of Philosophy, 73, 14 (August 12, 1976): 453–66, esp. pp. 456-57.

15 I thank Duncan Macintosh for suggesting this way of formulating the issue.

16 Gauthier, Morals by Agreement, pp. 184, 186, 336, 337 and 355. We might suspect that Gauthier thinks we will not have defeated scepticism fully unless we show that one must have and act from the motives the liberal individual possesses. But his view seems to be that demonstrating that every morally required action is rationally required is sufficient for defeating scepticism fully. See especially pp. 184 and 186. I mention Gauthier because it was his book that generated my interest in the topic of this paper.

17 This is not really the motive operating in Jack's case, but I will use this expression for short. I owe this point to David Copp.

18 Harman, Gilbert, “Moral Relativism Defended,” The Philosophical Review, 84, 1 (January 1975): 322.

19 To be accurate, there will be exceptions to this. We may not have to worry about showing this for people in extreme circumstances such as nuclear war and so forth. I mean to exclude these cases whenever I say we need to show all morally required acts are rationally required.

20 For example, Kant, Mill, Bentham, Gauthier and Kurt Baier, among others, would say this.

21 Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended,” pp. 8-12. See especially p. 8: “Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.”

22 I believe Philippa Foot shares this view. See Foot, Philippa, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” in Virtues and Vices, edited by Foot, Philippa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 157–73.

23 I owe this point to Ann Cudd.

24 Assuming it is justified to act morally, of course. The capacity to be motivated by itself will not give a reason to act.

25 I believe Hume shares this view. See Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by Schneewind, J. B. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983), pp. 15, 45, 74 and 75.

26 They are externalists in the sense that they believe that one can have a reason to act morally, independently of whether one has a desire to do so. They are internalists in the sense that they believe that having a moral obligation to act entails having a reason to act (or acting rationally requires acting morally).

27 Stocker, “Schizophrenia,” p. 454.

28 Ibid., p. 455.

29 I think Stocker would do well not to ignore the Kantian motive of respect for morality itself. A person with this motive does not just go through the motions —she at least exhibits some connection between her reasons to act and her desires, as the recognition that something is her duty prompts her to act. Granted, something seems lacking in the person who does not care for others but acts only for the sake of morality itself. And it is true that the Kantian cannot account for the motive of caring. But the Kantian at least avoids one kind of schizophrenia exhibited by the life of the person who merely goes through the motions.

30 Stocker, “Schizophrenia,” p. 459.

31 Ibid., p. 453.

32 Laziness might fit under this explanation. Jack might not acquire moral motives because he is lazy and believes that having moral motives and acting from them takes too much energy—for example, it is too hard to care for others. If this is the reason, Jack probably expends more energy trying to fight off acquiring moral motives than he would were he to acquire them and act from them. So he is irrational, as the discussion in the next few paragraphs of the text concerning Elster's conditions will, I hope, show.

33 Elster, Jon, Ulysses and the Sirens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 3647.

34 Ibid., p. 39.

35 Ibid., p. 42.

36 Ibid., p. 44.

37 I thank Duncan MacIntosh for this formulation.

38 Ibid., p. 48.

39 Ibid., p. 157. According to Amelie Rorty, X is self-deceived if X believes p and not- p, or denies that he believes p. See Rorty, Amelie, “Self-Deception, Akrasia and Irrationality,” in The Multiple Self: Studies in Rationality and Social Change, edited by Elster, Jon (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 115–31, esp. p. 125.

40 Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens, p. 174.

41 Ibid., p. 174.

42 Ibid., p. 176.

43 I thank Duncan MacIntosh for pointing this out to me.

44 I thank David Copp, Ann Cudd and Barbara Herman for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I thank Debra DeBruin, whose seminar at the University of Illinois at Chicago generated my thinking about this topic. I especially thank Duncan MacIntosh for numerous detailed, insightful comments on several drafts of this paper, resulting in extensive revision.

Scepticism about Moral Motives

  • Anita M. Superson (a1)


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