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Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?


To: Kristine K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?
Date: 24 December 2002 11:17

Dear Kristine,

Thank you for your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, which I received on 12 December, in response to the question, 'Does "moral" imply "disinterested"?'

This is well argued, clear, and shows a fair understanding of Kant. However, when you suggest that 'there could be some kind of happier medium - a third character who relieves the distress of others both from duty and inclination, but who is not bound by his inclination', you seem unaware that Kant is fully prepared to allow that an action can be motivated by duty, even if the agent is inclined to do the action anyway. It is a common misunderstanding that Kant is saying that where there is an inclination to act, an action cannot be morally good. But that is not what he means. What he is saying is that it is much easier to *see* that an action is morally motivated when the agent has no inclination to do the action. However, even if the agent is so inclined it is still possible that the true motive is the sense of duty rather than inclination.

But how do you logically disentangle motives? One answer is to consider 'counterfactual' (or 'what if') situations. If your hospital visit is motivated by duty, then *even if* you had not been inclined to visit me, you would have still done so. That is what is meant by saying that the inclination, though present, is not what moves you to act. Of course, having established this, we are still left in the dark how to decide in a particular case. (Perhaps you can think of an experiment one could perform to 'test' an agent's motivation.)

It is true that Kant apparently sees no *extra* moral value from acting from inclination, on top of acting from duty. This is where you and I would both disagree with his position. But now we have to say more. What makes inclination moral? It is not sufficient to argue that good things sometimes, as a matter of fact, *result* from inclination. For that would leave one wide open to Kant's objections. We have to show that a person's inclinations are themselves a moral question. A person can be praised or blamed for their feelings, as something which the agent is - to a certain extent - responsible for. Feelings don't just 'happen' to us. They are cultivated, or pampered.

In composing the title, 'Does "moral" imply "disinterested"?' I didn't in fact have the duty vs. inclination issue in mind as the main issue. The idea was rather to take a situation in which we are talking about duty, and duty alone, and ask whether the very idea of 'duty' implies disinterested motivation.

My duty to my wife and children, for example, appears to conflict with my duty to take all other persons affected by my actions into consideration. Can duty be 'interested' in this way, or must there always be an alternative explanation? One alternative explanation to consider might be that my duty to my wife is in fact disinterested, because it involves a contract or commitment, and the explanation of why one ought to honour one's contracts and agreements is fully consistent with the disinterested view. An alternative explanation - perhaps the one that was uppermost in your mind - is that in addition to my disinterested duty towards my wife and children, I am also strongly inclined to consider their welfare, and this inclination deserves to be considered as 'moral', rather than as something in contrast with morality.

In order, therefore, to prove that 'moral' does not imply 'disinterested' it is necessary to show that neither of these two alternative accounts give a satisfactory explanation of morality. The question is made more difficult if, like me, you object to the contrast that Kant draws between duty and inclination.

You may be disappointed to hear that I am not sure now what to say about this. It is the merit of your essay to have provoked this question. To start with, instead of considering the stark contrast between duty and inclination, what we ought to be looking at is a whole range of motivating considerations (the kinds of things Bernard Williams talks about in his objections to utilitarianism, see 'Utilitarianism for and Against' J.C.C. Smart and B. Williams, Routledge). Our interests, commitments, projects, affiliations - all the things that add up to giving our life meaning. An individual who is prepared to deny all this and consider things only from a purely disinterested standpoint is not something you or I would wish to be. Kant would argue that that merely shows up our own limitations, rather than a fundamental fact about morals.

All the best,