Mixed Motives & Moral Judgement

“The difficulty is to try and teach the multitude that something can be true and untrue at the same time.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer

We all like clear, unambiguous distinctions and judgments. It is comforting to fit statements into the neat categories of “true” or “untrue;” to fit intentions and actions into the categories of “moral” and “immoral.” Unfortunately, most things in life are pretty fuzzy. Statements are mostly somewhat true and partially false–this one included. Actions are hardly ever purely immoral or purely moral. This is because the intentions upon which actions are based determine the moral standing of the action, and actions are nearly always a combination of many different motives or intentions. Actions are not innately moral or immoral apart from intentions. This can be clearly demonstrated using any number of examples, but lets use the example of chopping someone’s arm off. This action is “bad” in the case of a teacher reprimanding a naughty student, “good” in the case of a surgeon amputating a gangrenous arm, “morally fuzzy” in the case of a soldier severing the arm of an attacking enemy, and “fuzzier still” in the case of a surgeon who amputates a gangrenous arm when there was penicillin available. It is both true and untrue that chopping off arms is immoral. In the last case involving the surgeon, we simply need to know more about the surgeon’s intentions to make any judgment. Why didn’t he/she use the penicillin option? If the surgeon intended to ration what little penicillin was available for more pressing cases we are likely to lean towards calling the action “moral,” if he didn’t use it because the gangrenous patient was black we might lean towards a judgment of “immoral,” and if the surgeon simply forgot about the supply of penicillin because he was out drinking heavily the night before in order to drown the memories of pain and suffering that are burned into his retinas every day, we are likely to throw our hands up in exasperation or ask for more information.

The limitations of our moral reasoning are compounded by four main factors: 1) nearly all of our actions issue from a complex mixture of motives and intentions,  2) we are not so great at knowing which motives are driving us, 3) when we are aware of our motives and can form clear, conscious intentions, we often don’t know in what proportion each contributes to our doing certain actions, and 4) we rarely know how well someone else knows their own will but yet usually judge people only on motives that they were consciously aware of (i.e. intentions). To state this last point more clearly, we cannot condemn an action that appears clearly immoral unless we know for certain that the person is aware of the immoral intentions that prompted the action. If the surgeon in the previous example was unaware that certain racist beliefs and motives were influencing his decision to amputate instead of treat with penicillin, but instead thought that he was making an objective, unbiased decision in a difficult process of triage, then we might hesitate before condemning him as an immoral person. Perhaps the surgeon would be appalled to find that he had such hidden motives and would immediately ostracize these from his will, thus proving that he was in fact a moral person. The action of apportioning more medical resources to one’s preferred racial group is obviously an immoral action, but unknowingly doing so is not so obviously an immoral action. Perhaps we would forgive such an oversight in a first-year surgeon, but not a salty, fifty-eight-year-old veteran who should, we presume, have had time to know his motives better, but such a judgment is certainly playing imprecisely with shades of gray.

These four factors converge on the canvas of life to cover it with innumerable shades of gray that often render moral judgments about others difficult or impossible to make. However, the fourth factor is not applicable to each individual’s evaluation of his own character, as each of us does know (a priori and by definition) which motives we are aware of. In this way it would seem easier to evaluate our own character than that of others, that is if it were not for our nearly insurmountable bias to think well of ourselves. At least we know which motives we are aware of, but the curve-ball comes from factor 3: we often don’t know in what proportion each motive/intention contributes to our doing certain actions. Perhaps the racist surgeon knows that he has racial biases, but thinks that these are so insignificantly tiny that they couldn’t possibly outweigh the altruistic motives that prompted his recitation of the Hippocratic Oath. How could he test whether this story is true? How would a third party be able to know how strong his racist motives are versus his altruistic ones if he can’t even do so? What proportion of “evil” motives can we tolerate in an action before we forever consign it neatly into the “immoral” category? This last question is an especially tricky one. If we answer the question by saying that any shred of immoral intentions render any action immoral then we risk having to throw out some seemingly moral actions, which issued from numerous, weighty moral intentions that were necessary and sufficient to prompt the action, but which were polluted by the tiniest hint of immoral intention. For example, we could have a mountain of good, moral reasons for donating large sums of money to charity, but this would become an immoral action if there existed a tiny little voice that whispered, “charity offers great tax breaks and giving it away is certainly better than giving this money to those thieving, socialist, money-grubbing bureaucrats in government.” This is obviously not the best place to draw the line, especially because the evil little voice was not necessary or sufficient to prompt the action on its own. Perhaps that is the answer to this tough question: an action is moral if it was produced by moral intentions that were in and of themselves necessary and sufficient to produce the action, regardless of whatever small shades of evil intent may have been in play as well. Though this appears to mark some progress, we are still stuck with the question of how to judge an action that was produced by both moral and immoral intentions, with the moral intentions being far greater in number and weight but ultimately not sufficient to produce the action alone. True or False: I am being a good, moral person if I donate lots of money to charity for lots of good reasons springing from righteous motives, but not without some evil reasons whose motivational force was necessary to push me over the edge into action? If we abandon our simple-minded dualism and start dealing with shades of gray here we might conclude that I am moral to the extent that my actions flow from moral motives and vice verca. The answer, in this case, to the True or False question is that the action is both. This way if I know the proportion of good versus evil motives in my will, as well as their relative strengths, I could know for certain how moral and immoral of a person I am. If I knew which motives were in play in a given action, and their relative strengths, I could tell which of my actions was moral and immoral. This should at least partially satisfy us in terms of evaluating our own moral characters. However, a further difficulty remains when evaluating the moral nature of others.

All too often we hear someone’s explanatory story of why they did something and they seem to leave out a ton of important reasons that they could have mentioned but didn’t–reasons that we know correlate with motives in every persons’ will. If we call them on this, they can deny that these reasons, though rational and all that, had any influence on their action. We simply have to take them at their word, as we have no way of judging which motives they were aware of. If the above philanthropist tells us he gave his money away because of a deep wellspring of compassion and love for mankind and nothing more, how are we supposed to know that other reasons pertinent to his self-interest never factored in? For the sake of argument let’s assume that we know that he hates paying taxes to the government and that he hates giving money to his ungrateful children. We call him on this, but he just responds by saying that “though these are things I care about, they never sprang to mind as conscious intentions that prompted my donations and thus had no bearing on this decision whatsoever.” There is scarcely any way that he could tell in this case whether these desires played a part, let alone an outside observer. To be sure, we can certainly do something in the name of some righteous sentiment or other, but is it actually possible, in the face of prevailing evil motives that reinforce such an action, to act only on our good motives? I am not sure that such an idea is even coherent, but nonetheless we have all encountered people who swear up and down that though there are logical reasons that spring from immoral motives to do something, that they in fact performed the action from purely good motives only. What do we make of such people? Are they simply very adept at self-manipulation and in total denial about their actual motivations? Are they just good at identifying the sweet smelling motives in the potpourri of their will; choosing to identify rationally with these instead of the noxious motives?

To be sure, this is one of the most maddening features of human relationships and moral life. Because of the limitations on what we can possibly know about another person, as well as those on what he can possibly know about himself, it is totally defensible for someone to make the following kind of claim: “I am breaking up with you not because Cindy came into the picture last month and we fell in love, or because Cindy is extremely wealthy and hot, or because it is now my month to do the laundry, or because I despise your mother who is an evil spawn of Satan. No, I am leaving you only because we have different religious values.” Perhaps that one factor was necessary and sufficient to cause the action, and the rest was all icing on the cake, but this will come as small consolation to the dejected lover who is stuck having to take his word for it, all the while knowing that he could either be overtly lying to her or covertly lying to himself. To those fortunate enough to have avoided such torrid breakups, I am sure you have at least met a doctor or two who claims to care only about helping people and that money is a non-issue. Though many of them are likely full of it on a number of different levels, we cannot prove them wrong and can only console ourselves by suggestively blurting out the words of David Hume:

“Where ambition can cover its enterprises, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of passions.”

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One Response to Mixed Motives & Moral Judgement

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