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« The Value of Persons | Main | The Curiosity of Moral Claims »

Motives Matter

The term “moral” finds its meaning in a variety of uses which is just what we would expect since Wittgenstein first suggested that the meanings of our words lie in the uses we make of them and noted that a family resemblance relationship tends to characterize the way the different uses of a term connect with one another. There is not, generally, one particular use that best reflects or explains the meaning of our terms but a range of them which we learn in the course of doing the business of language. The moral idea is no different.

As a sub-class of the broader notion of valuing, it requires further analysis though if we want to understand its particular role in language and in our lives.

We value all sorts of things in the course of our lives, from objects to situations to people to goals. Not all valuing, however, is about what seems good or bad to us, better or best. There are also truth values (the positions we assign to claims on a scale justifying their acceptance or rejection as expressions of knowledge) for to value anything is just to set it on a scale or range which relates it to other things placed on the scale. Measuring is to engage in valuing, too, as is the assignment of content to markings or sounds which we take as signifiers (symbols representing something else). The kind of valuing we are doing, in every case, is dependent on what’s being valued and for what purpose.

The truth value of a statement reflects and determines its believability. The value of a bit of food will reflect its desirability in terms of its capacity to satisfy the individual who is hungry or to sustain his or her life (depending on the particular goal in question). The value of a goal will depend on circumstances and on larger goals which the individual may have. In the case of moral valuing, however, the issue seems to be to assess the action itself and not the objective which it is aimed at attaining. That is, we are less concerned with the objective(s) of the actions in the moral case than we are with the action itself. What is there about actions that stands apart then from the effects they are intended to bring about?

In every other case of valuing on scales defined by the opposing polarities of goodness and badness (excluding, for now, the valuing we do in terms of truth and falsehood or the use we make of “value” to denote symbol content), we find that we are engaged in considering the relative preferability of things which our actions can obtain for us (i.e., things that are either prospective possessions, sensations or states of affairs). In such cases, our interests matter, for what we call “good” will be what we want, need, desire, etc., and the good act will then be seen to be just whatever it takes to obtain the good object.

But moral valuing seems to be the lone case in the matter of assessing relative goodness which diverges from this model, for here our interests cannot be included as part of the equation. To value an act (which we or someone else may perform) in terms of the performer’s interests (what does the agent get out of it for him or herself?) fundamentally undermines its moral aspect. This suggests that it’s the act, not its objective, that’s of interest in making moral assessments, i.e., it’s that part of the act that lies not in outcomes (though these cannot be disregarded since what is brought about is incorporated into the conception of the act itself) but in intent. And now we have to ask what do we mean by an act?

On a certain level, an act is just a physical event of course, something that happens in the world when physical phenomena change. But not every physical event will be thought of as an act for an act requires an agent, someone with the capacity to do or not do it. The agent must be capable of choice and have the capacity to think about the physical events to be brought about as well as the ability to do them or not. A forced act can no more be an appropriate object of moral assessment than a reflex.

And so, to look at an act in this sense is not merely to look at the physical events its performance involves. It must also be to consider its circumstances, its context, and thus the reason(s) it is performed – for reasons are formulated in contexts. While we do value acts for their efficacy in obtaining this or that good – and assign them the values of the good things they are performed to achieve – we may also consider them in terms of what prompts them, their intent. And this now begins to look like the difference between moral and other kinds of valuing. Moral valuing places value on actions by assessing their quality as expressions of the agent performing them and not based on what they happen to bring about by their performance. It’s not illegitimate to think about and evaluate actions in this latter way, too, but it’s not the sort of thing we do when we think of valuing as moral judgment. How then do we differentiate between what we deem morally good and what isn’t? What are the features we look for when we think an action good in a moral sense?

Here we seem to have come to the heart of the matter: To be considered morally good, an action must be viewed as an expression of the agent who performs it – its goodness being found in the role the action plays as an expression of its performer and not in the things it happens to bring about in the world.

Actions are not discrete phenomena, and this is especially so in the case of the acts of thinking agents with the power to choose what they will do. Such actions may be understood as expressions of an agent’s overall dispositions (what he, she or it will do under particular circumstances) and, as such, the assignment of value to the act can be understood as an assignment of value overall to the acting agent. Agential action occurs on a continuum, part of a whole array of actions, both in the past and the future, a continuum that serves to define the agent who acts.

In this sense an action may be viewed as a snapshot of its agent’s overall condition – and in this sense moral value ascribed to the act is neither more nor less than an ascription of value applied to the person acting. Assessing actions along the moral vector thus serves to put a value on agents, not outcomes, and this is the key difference between ascriptions of value to our actions in terms of the objects they are undertaken to achieve and ascriptions of value to the actions for moral reasons. The latter considers persons, not things, and persons must be evaluated in entirely different terms than the things they desire to obtain.

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