Doing the right thing can be difficult. Doing the morally worthy thing can be even harder.
Accounts of moral worth aim to determine the kinds of motivations that elevate merely right actions—actions that happen to conform to the correct normative theory—to morally worthy actions—actions that merit praise or credit.
Some argue that an agent performs a morally worthy action if and only if they do it because the action is morally right (Herman 1981; Jeske 1998; Sliwa 2016; Johnson King 2020). Others argue that a morally worthy action is that which an agent performs because of features that make the action right (Arpaly 2003; Arpaly & Schroeder 2014; Markovits 2010).
What sets these views apart is the kind of motivation each takes to be essential for an action’s moral worth.
When an agent is motivated to do the right thing because of the action’s moral rightness, she has a higher-order motivation to perform this action. When an agent is motivated to do the right thing because of a particular right-making feature of the action, she has a first-order motivation to perform this action. Higher-order theorists (Sliwa 2016; Johnson King 2020) argue that higher-order motivations are necessary and sufficient for moral worth, while first-order motivations are largely irrelevant. In contrast, first-order theorists (Arpaly 2003; Markovits 2010) argue that first-order motivations are necessary and sufficient for moral worth, while higher-order motivations are irrelevant.
In an important sense, higher-order and first-order views of moral worth are diametrically opposed. The motivations that one camp argues are necessary and sufficient for moral worth are the very motivations that the other camp argues are irrelevant.
Nevertheless, proponents of these opposing views share something important. With the exception of Arpaly (2003) and Arpaly & Schroeder (2014), they theorize about the nature of moral worth by focusing mainly on the moral worth of, and praiseworthiness or creditworthiness for, right actions.
Yet each of these properties has a negatively valenced counterpart that attaches to wrong actions. Just as agents can deserve praise or credit for doing the right thing, they can deserve blame or discredit for doing the wrong thing. While the former actions have moral worth, the latter actions have what we will call moral counterworth.
In our paper, we explore the moral counterworth of wrong actions in order to shed new light on the nature of moral worth. Contrary to theorists in both camps, we argue that more than one kind of motivation can affect the moral worth of actions.
Compare the following cases:
Selfish Gossip: Cecile learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. She knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and she does not wish to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity to be the centre of attention arises. Wanting to be popular, Cecile succumbs to temptation and reveals her friend’s secret.
Cruel Gossip: Sebastian learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. He knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and he does not wish to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity arises to humiliate his friend by revealing the secret. Wanting to embarrass his friend, Sebastian succumbs to temptation and reveals his friend’s secret.
Though both Cecile and Sebastian are blameworthy for revealing their friend’s secret, they are not equally blameworthy. Sebastian is (much) more blameworthy than Cecile and his action possesses more counterworth than Cecile’s action.
What could explain this difference? The only difference between Cecile and Sebastian lies in their first-order motivations. Cecile’s motivation to reveal her friend’s secret is selfish—she cares more about being popular than her friend’s privacy. But Sebastian’s motivation to tell the secret is cruel—he desires to harm his friend by embarrassing them.
Sebastian’s cruel first-order motivation renders him more blameworthy than Cecile. If this is right, then first-order motivations are not irrelevant to moral counterworth—they can directly contribute to the degree to which an agent is blameworthy.
Reflecting on cases of wrong actions indicates that higher-order motivations can impact moral counterworth as well.
Compare the case of Selfish Gossip, in which Cecile reveals a friend’s secret in order to be the centre of attention despite having the higher-order motivation not to perform wrong actions, to the following case:
Evil Gossip: Isabelle learns of a good friend’s embarrassing secret. She knows that it would be wrong to reveal it, and she wishes to do wrong. While at a party, an opportunity to be the centre of attention arises. Wanting to both be popular and do wrong, Isabelle reveals her friend’s secret.
While both Cecile and Isabelle are blameworthy for their actions, Isabelle is (much) more blameworthy. The relevant difference between Cecile and Isabelle lies in their higher-order motivations.
Cecile possesses a higher-order motivation not to reveal her friend’s secret—she knows that doing so is wrong and does not want to do the wrong thing. In contrast, Isabelle possesses a higher-order motivation to reveal the secret—she wants to reveal the secret because doing so is wrong.
We submit that Isabelle’s motivation to do wrong renders her more blameworthy than Cecile. And if we are right that Isabelle’s motivation to do wrong enhances the degree to which she is blameworthy for doing wrong, then higher-order motivations are not irrelevant to moral counterworth.
From here, we defend the following argument:
(1) First-order and higher-order motivations can each affect moral counterworth. (2) Moral counterworth and moral worth are relevantly similar, such that the kinds of motivations that affect the former can also affect the latter. (3) First-order motivations and higher-order motivations can each affect the moral worth of an agent’s action.
In our paper, we defend each premise from potential objections and conclude by explaining how reflection on moral counterworth serves to support recently developed accounts of moral worth that make room for the relevance of both higher-order and first-order motivations. (Isserow 2019, 2020; Portmore 2022; Singh 2020)
Read the full article at https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/ergo/article/id/2621/
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About the authors
Eyal Tal received his PhD in philosophy from University of Arizona. He is interested in epistemology, ethics, metaethics, metaphysics, philosophy of psychiatry, and philosophy of science.
Hannah Tierney is Assistant Professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Davis. She specializes in ethics and metaphysics, and she writes mainly on issues of free will, moral responsibility, and personal identity.