Moral motivation

A sudden insight as I read over some works on moral realism today. Some philosophers consider that ethics is based upon feelings and desires. On such a view, it’s easy to explain the link of ethical judgements with action – those judgements are expressing our preferences and aversions. But something is missing from such a view – we think our moral judgements have more solid basis than this in reasons and in reality. The moral realist considers that our moral judgements refer to facts about the world. But if we are just describing facts, the moral realist has the hard task of explaining how moral judgements can motivate us to act. The facts that the grass is green, or that the paint is peeling from the kitchen door, in themselves seem powerless to make us act in any way, without particular desires. So if morality is based upon facts, then why should the mere ‘fact’ that enslaving people is wrong, or that Berlusconi is an affront to democracy, lead us to act in any way? How does the moral realist explain moral motivation, that moral judgements are so closely connected to what we feel and do?

Then I suddenly saw something that had been staring me in the face for years, a growing realisation that greatly ameliorates this problem. It’s dawned on me more and more that although philosophers especially those working in applied ethics concentrate on trying to answer questions about what the right moral answer is to difficult dilemmas, a more pressing problem is that very often we know at least roughly what the right answer is, we just don’t do it. This is reinforced by seeing person after person who ‘should know better’ acting badly. Bankers and MPs are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many who make their living peddling ethics whose actions would not stand much scrutiny. Corruption and self-serving advancement seems to be the norm.

Then, the sudden thought – maybe the illusion is that our moral judgements are connected with action. Maybe it’s just a miracle that some people sometimes are, and a few people usually are, decent and humane. The world is chock full of yes-men and self-serving cads, because there is no simple or easy connection between moral beliefs and moral action. Problem of the mystery of moral motivation solved at a stroke. The lesser problem of those heroes and heroines who remain true and decent can now be tackled and may look like a rather different and perhaps more rewarding enterprise.

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