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Effort and Moral Worth


One of the factors that contributes to an agent’s praiseworthiness and blameworthiness — his or her moral worth — is effort. On the one hand, agents who act effortlessly seem to have high moral worth. On the other hand, agents who act effortfully seem to have high moral worth as well. I explore and explain this pair of intuitions and the contour of our views about associated cases.

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  1. 1.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in Malcolm (1984, p. 116).

  2. 2.

    For locutionary convenience, in this paper I will talk about the moral worth of actions. Agents and traits can also have moral worth. For a broader treatment of moral worth and its objects, see Arpaly (2003), and Sorensen (2004).

  3. 3.

    Unless otherwise noted, when I use the term “moral worth,” I’ll only be talking about moral worth with respect to effort. Other factors are certainly relevant to moral worth; but I’ll ignore them for now.

  4. 4.

    Some of the best examples include Parfit (1984), Kagan (1999), Hurka (2001b), and Temkin (1996). Some uncomfortable readers will not be assuaged by this list, since all of these authors are consequentialists. Perhaps consequentialists find it more natural to think in terms of graphs. But I see no necessary connection here: non-consequentialists can certainly benefit from diagrammatic methodology as well.

  5. 5.

    Some think that only the desires and capabilities one has voluntarily, or as the result of voluntary choices and actions, count in the evaluation of moral worth. In other words, Max’s obstacles count against his act’s moral worth only if he has somehow voluntarily brought them on himself. Others disagree (see Adams 1985). Readers in the first group should restrict their attention to those obstacles that are voluntarily obtained. (Note that this group may have some difficulty imagining that Nigel could have voluntarily come to feel such intense pathological resistance to donating.) Readers in the second group can think more ecumenically about obstacles.

    Relatedly, some think it matters whether the obstacles come from circumstances outside or instead inside the agent’s character. Again, readers in the first group will need to focus on a restricted set of obstacles. See Foot (1978, pp. 11–14), Hursthouse (1999, pp. 94–99), and Sidgwick (1981, pp. 224–225, 429). My thanks to Steve Sverdlik for discussion here.

  6. 6.

    Kant also believed that minimal Effort Required can be morally worthy — a fact that may come as a surprise to those who only know him through the Groundwork. For Kant, the path to becoming a good human being requires both a change of heart and a “gradual reform of sensibility” — that is, a reform of one’s sensible or empirical nature (Kant 1999, 6:47). One’s “sensibility” includes inclinations and passions and other mental states that an agent has passively, with no active contribution of his own. For Kant, agents with high moral character have actualized those counterfactual situations where one’s sensible nature is brought more into accord with reason and the moral law. Agents who have done so are moral not so much by habit, since that connotes something merely mechanical and automatic, but instead by what Kant calls proficiency or facility [Fertigkeit]. (Kant discusses “proficiency,” or the “subjective perfection of the capacity of choice,” in the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant 1996, 6:407). He also says this elsewhere: “Reason gradually draws sensibility into a state of proficiency (habitus)” (Reflexionen 5611, 252; quoted in Munzel 1999, pp. 91–92).) Actualizing counterfactual situations where one is morally proficient has a very high moral value for Kant. That Kant’s considered position is close to Aristotle’s is a surprise to many.

  7. 7.

    Just as it might comes as a surprise to some that Kant can value minimal Effort Required, so it might come as a surprise that there is evidence that Aristotle values high degrees of Effort Expended. Aristotle says that “both art and virtue are always concerned with what is harder; for even the good is better when it is harder” (1984a, 1105a10; see also 1984b, 1365a). Aristotle is speaking in this context of someone (like Nigel) who is not an ideal agent — someone for whom performing a good action means fighting against contra-moral pleasures. But Aristotle finds at least something to admire even in this non-ideal agent.

  8. 8.

    This account parallels Michael Slote’s view that the value of some goods is dependent on other goods (Slote 1983), and Thomas Hurka’s related defense of virtue and desert as dependent or higher-level intrinsic values (Hurka 2001a). For Hurka, virtue is a relation between attitudes and more basic intrinsic goods. For instance, the intrinsic value of virtue obtains when an agent feels pleasure at the pleasure of another person, or (in the case of compassion) pain at another’s pain. Desert has a parallel higher-level structure. The intrinsic value of desert obtains when an agent is virtuous and also feeling pleasure, or (for fans of retributivism) is vicious and also feels pain.

    Hurka notes that certain combinations between lower-level states are intrinsically bad. In the case of virtue, feeling pleasure at another’s pain (sadism) is intrinsically bad. The same seems true for the two kinds of effort above — certain combinations are bad. Being able to act rightly with virtuous ease, combined with not acting, may be bad; and being able to act rightly only with significant effort, combined with not acting, is also bad.

    I have described effort as a relation between some state of character and doing a right action. This means that what we might call external considerations can contribute to the moral worth of effort. For instance, an agent’s being able to successfully perform an action can depend on outside influences — Janette and Nigel can’t write a check to UNICEF if others, say, physically restrain them from doing so. Those who believe moral worth is only ever constituted by internal factors will want to change the sample account above in the following way: effortlessness is a relation between intending a right action and the virtuous state of character that makes the action easy; and effort expended is a relation between intending a right action and the deficient state of character that makes the action hard.

  9. 9.

    The second account fits the views of W. D. Ross and Thomas Hurka. For a defense of an occurrent state account of virtue, see Hurka (2006).

  10. 10.

    Recall the Aristotle text from note 7, which, although it does not specify settled traits to expend effort, does seem to permit Aristotelians to value continent Effort Expended.

  11. 11.

    Note that on the Percentage View of Effort Expended, any agent can get a high moral worth score: agents with modest capacities for exerting effort can score as high as agents with tremendous capacities for exerting effort, as long as they are exerting all the effort they possibly can. On the Absolute View of Effort Expended, agents with modest capabilities for exerting effort cannot score as high as agents with greater capabilities for exerting effort.

  12. 12.

    What about the opposite intuition — that no lack of Effort Required will ever be able to equal high amounts of Effort Expended? I’ll set this intuition aside for this paper, but here are a few brief notes about it. In this case, Nigel’s moral worth score would function as a sort of limit that a no-effort-required agent like Janette act could never reach. Graphically, we could represent this in at least three ways. First, the left (Effort Required) side of the curve could rise more gently (similar to the way the right side rises more gently in Fig. 7). Second, the left (Effort Required) side of the curve could flatten out on the top (similar to the way the right side flattens out in Fig. 8). Either of these two approaches would fit a Percentage View of Effort Expended. A third approach takes advantage of the fact that Effort Required has a logical limit — zero or no Effort Required (Janette) — but Effort Expended on the Absolute View does not. On this approach, we don’t flatten or change the slope of either side of the curve, but rather let the Effort Expended side outrun the Effort Required side by letting it go on. To match the intuition being explored in this footnote, Effort Expended would need to outrun Effort Required within the empirical human limit for Effort Expended noted above.

  13. 13.

    Remember that effort-expended asymptotism assumes the Absolute View of Effort Expended. But Fig. 9 is also relevant to the Percentage View. Here’s how. Combining the Effort Required curve in Fig. 9 with the standard (Percentage View) Effort Expended curve from Fig. 3 may yield Fig. 7. Put another way, if the Effort Required curve drops in a certain way at the bottom, it may explain the intuition that combined effort curves have a more gentle slope on the right side.

  14. 14.

    More demanding acts than L4 are possible, of course — for instance, an agent may sacrifice his or her life. I don’t mean to treat L4 as a maximally demanding act. But I think our intuitions about life-sacrifice cases are bound to vary considerably because of the plural religious and non-religious convictions we have. I set extreme or maximally demanding acts aside because of this complexity.

  15. 15.

    This is a good place for a reminder that whenever I use the term “moral worth” in this paper, I mean only moral worth with respect to effort. Other factors certainly figure into overall moral worth; but I’m not concerned with them here.

  16. 16.

    These are my intuitions about the moral worth of very demanding acts; but I can imagine others. Some will think that Janette’s purity and Nigel’s effort would be so superhuman in these cases that our intuitions about moral worth run out. It’s hard to praise agents that hardly seem to be human beings anymore. Another way to describe these intuitions would be this: the moral goodness of Janette and Nigel would be such that we can no longer evaluate it as human goodness. For these sorts of intuitions, see Nussbaum (1990, pp. 365–391). How would someone with these intuitions draw L4 (the most demanding line) in Fig. 11? Perhaps as a deep bowl as in Fig. 11, but with leveled-out, flat lips — or perhaps instead as a deep bowl as in Fig. 11, with incomplete, cropped lines near the top of the bowl.

  17. 17.

    By “more effort-expended asymptotic,” I mean that combined effort curves for very demanding acts approach their asymptotes even more slowly than somewhat demanding acts. By “less (or not) effort-expended asymptotic,” I mean that combined effort curves for somewhat demanding moral acts approach their asymptotes aggressively; and undemanding moral acts may have no asymptote at all. This position raises a question. If we extended combined effort curve lines infinitely to the right along the X axis — as we can on the Absolute View of Effort Expended — it would seem that the non-asymptotic curves would eventually “catch upwith and cross the asymptotic curves. I take it that our intuitions say that at the extremes of human expended effort, L1–L4 should come closer to “catching up” with each other; see my comments on “Effort Expended Merging” below. But I do not think the non-asymptotic curves cross the asymptotic curves. I should note that I hold the latter view on the basis of a moral, not a logical or graphical, claim. The moral claim is this: a more demanding act could never be less morally worthy than a less demanding act at the same level of effort. With this (moral) constraint in place, instead of crossing, L1–L3 would join L4 and track it. In any case, even without this constraint, the catching up and crossing would seem to happen beyond the empirical human limit of Effort Expended. As I said above, I’m supposing that the maximum magnitude of human effort runs out not far beyond Nigel.

  18. 18.

    Note that Effort Expended Merging is also compatible with the Percentage View of Effort Expended. L1–L4 come close to merging before they stop at 100% of an agent’s effort.

  19. 19.

    For a helpful discussion of the role of strength and balance among moral, non-moral, and contra-moral desires, see Smith (1991).

  20. 20.

    For more on agent self-evaluations, see Driver (2001), especially chapter two, “The Virtues of Ignorance.” See also Richards (1992).

  21. 21.

    Recall that I stipulated above that we’re interested in cases where the agent underrates both Effort Required and Effort Expended. It may be that on the Modesty View, Nigel’s underrating his Effort Expended counts positively, but his underrating his Effort Required counts negatively. Still, since Effort Expended is the dominant aspect of effort with respect to moral worth in Nigel’s case, it seems reasonable to suppose that his underratings result in a net positive increase in moral worth. This is yet one more simplifying assumption I’ll make in this section: that the “dominant” aspect of effort is the one that dictates what we think of self-evaluations as modifiers of moral worth.

  22. 22.

    More specifically, the object of Modesty would have to be different in Janette’s case. We imagine Nigel as underrating the effort he made. But we imagine Janette as underrating something different: the balance of her desires. I do not pretend to identify all possible objects of modesty here. I am also assuming that modesty towards either object that I do identify has the same effect.

  23. 23.

    Recall that by “moral worth,” I mean only “moral worth with respect to effort.”

  24. 24.

    I say “increase” instead of “maximize” in order to include satisficers. A satisficer may want to increase the Effortlessness up to a certain threshold.

  25. 25.

    I thank Allen Wood for helpful discussion here.


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My thanks to Shelly Kagan, Bob Adams, Allen Wood, Apryl Martin, Dan Graham, Steve Sverdlik, Owen McLeod, the anonymous referees, and audiences at the University of Memphis, the University of Washington, and Scripps College for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Kelly Sorensen.

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Sorensen, K. Effort and Moral Worth. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 13, 89–109 (2010).

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  • Effort
  • Moral worth