Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

Suppose that there is some theory of ethics that, though not the correct theory, nonetheless results in the people who follow it sincerely performing actions that, as it happens, are the ones that the correct moral theory prescribe.

To give an example. Suoppose that Kant is right that an action performed for any reason beside the conscious recognition of ones’ duty is not a morally praiseworthy action. Now suppose that there is this other theory (Mill thought it was utilitarianism, but it may be any other theory that you like besides Kant’s…say a virtue theory, or a Divine Command theory, or a Rawlsian theory….doesn’t matter…) that in each case makes the same prediction as the Categorical Imperative.  Suppose further that someone who follows this theory, though acting for some reason other than duty, nonetheless in each case does the action that is perfectly consistent with duty (in Kant’s terms).

Is it the case that this person performs no morally praiseworthy actions? I am inclined to say that these actions are morally good and so, in some cases, Kant can’t be right that the only critereon for an actions rightness is whether it is motivated by duty.

Now, an interesting question (to me) is whether or not I can consitently will this kind of world; that is whether or not the maxim that explicitly mention that the actor is not acting from duty pass the test of teh Categorical Imperative. It seems to me, prima facie, that I can consistently will the kind of world I described above…but I can see where there might be objections.

First, one might object that given Kan’ts view about rationality and acting freely that the people in the world I described would not be acting freely and so can’t be acting morally. But in the most general sense these people do seem to be acting in a Kantian kind of way. Their will’s are determined by a law of their own choosing. But even if one can’y stand this way of putting it, their are other notions of freedom of the will underwhich these people are acting free, and, lest we forget, there are those inspired by Frankfurnt (I am not one of them) who think that being free doesn’t have very much to do with being morally blameworthy/praiseworthy.

Second, one might object that these poeple don’t know the correct moral theory and so don’t know that they are acting morally. Since they don’t know that they are acting morally it isn’t possible that they are. If this is right then perhaps the world I described is a kind of moral Gettier case…that might be interesting….but what is it that is supposed to be controdictory about doing the right thing without knowing that you are?


3 thoughts on “Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

  1. Humans have evolved an instinctual sense of good and evil. An ethical system is perceived as successful if its application usually results in outcomes we perceive as good.
    Once a society has accepted an ethical system, our social nature usually causes feelings of guilt when we break a rule.
    Let’s say someone consciously broke a rule, and that action happened to result in a good outcome.
    1) It’s likely the rule-breaker felt guilt at the time.
    2) If the ethical system is valid, often the ‘good result’ disappears if you step back and look at the bigger picture. Perhaps third parties have been injured, or no longer trust the person performing the action.
    3) Perhaps the good result was contingent on luck, i.e. actions uncontrolled by the rule-breaker, which might not come together next time.
    4) If this particular transgression always results in a positive result, perhaps the ethical system needs to be changed.

  2. Hi Adam Grant, thanks for teh comment!

    I am not sure how this comment is supposed to relate to the point that I was trying to make in the post. What I wanted to explore was whether there were any cases where a person performs some action that is morally relevant, has a reason for performing the action that in fact turns out to be the wrong kind of reason (i.e. comes from a mistaken moral theory), and yet we would want to say that the person had performed a morally good action even though we ackowledged that they acted for the wrong reason. If one is a utilitarian then teh answer is usually ‘yes’. I wanted to suggest that maybe a Kantian is committed to the same thing…

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