Skip to main content

Advertisement

Log in

Same duties, different motives: ethical theory and the phenomenon of moral motive pluralism

  • Published:
Philosophical Studies Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Viewed in its entirety, moral philosophizing, and the moral behavior of people throughout history, presents a curious puzzle. On the one hand, interpersonal duties display a remarkably stable core content: morality the world over enjoins people to keep their word; refrain from violence, theft and cheating; and help those in need. On the other hand, the asserted motives that drive people’s moral actions evince a dazzling diversity: from empathy or sympathy, to practical or prudential reason, to custom and honor, cultural identity, excellence and independence, faith and spirituality, narrative and beauty, and more besides. I term this twin phenomenon—a core of fixed moral duties driven by diverse motives—“moral motive pluralism.” In this article, I marshal evidence to show the prevalence of the phenomenon. Contrary to widespread assumptions, across generations and cultures, diverse motives drive different people to perform their moral duties. But despite this diversity, each different motive impels conscientious compliance with the same core moral duties. I argue this phenomenon undermines key types of evidence commonly employed to justify popular moral philosophies, and provides us with reason to seriously consider certain sorts of ethical theories—especially “functionalist” accounts of morality.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. I use “principles” rather than “duties” to avoid a legalistic understanding of the core moral content. Agents must live up to the spirit of the rules as well as their letter. However, I avoid the stronger term “virtues” to resist invoking a thicker, Aristotelian ethic (which I will suggest stands as just one possible moral spring—a ‘proximate motive’ as I will call it—among others).

  2. Serving as imperatives for action as well as standards for judging actions, Rokeachean values are always “centrally connected” to the subject’s cognitive system, interlocking with many other beliefs and attitudes. See Rokeach (1976, pp. 123–124, 159–160).

  3. Rokeach (1976, pp. 111, 123–125, 131) explains many of these disparate psychological attributes. Haidt (2012) provides a similarly inclusive account of the diverse psychological mechanisms underlying conscientious moral behavior. The fact that proximate motives cover such a psychological congeries highlights the breadth of motive plurality: proximate motives differ in kind as well as in content. See Sect. 3.2 below for a functional account of why this may be so.

  4. Far from being a problem for the hypothesis, the complication actually showcases the diversity of people’s internal moral psychologies, despite sweeping overlap in their resulting moral duties.

  5. In fact, even without any core content convergence, the phenomenon of motive plurality can still impact on our moral philosophizing. See n. 14 below.

  6. An enriched description of these proximate motives would reveal overlap between different theorists’ proximate motives (e.g. similar reputational devices in Aristotle, Hume and Darwin). However, as we will see (in Sect.  3.1) with the examples of Hume and Smith, a more granular examination of each proximate motive would not necessarily increase the similarity between list-members.

  7. Some philosophical theories weave different motive-types together. E.g., Aristotle incorporates excellence, moral beauty, honor and psychological integrity. Such “mixed” accounts are not pluralist in my sense—they do not assert that different people each possess distinct psychological makeups driving their own moral compliance.

  8. See also n. 13 below.

  9. Despite its terminological similarity, Ragnar Francén’s “moral motivation pluralism” does not signify a plurality of moral motives, but rather a plurality of opinions regarding the technical question of “what it takes in terms of motivation to be a moral opinion” (2010, p. 130). Though the two notions differ, the plurality of proximate motives (my moral motive pluralism) helps explain the plurality Francén posits.

  10. Gilligan (1982). Moral motive pluralism is consistent with (but does not itself imply) Gilligan’s hypothesis that different genders tend to employ different proximate motives.

  11. While Haidt’s larger theorizing does not explicitly invoke moral motive pluralism, at times he approaches the idea. See especially, Haidt (2012, pp. 128, 368).

  12. Note though that political liberalism differs from moral motive pluralism insofar as it: governs only political questions and not interpersonal morality; avoids substantive claims about moral psychology; is relativized to liberal democratic cultures; and posits a “fact of pluralism” comprising a plurality of belief systems, rather than (with moral motive pluralism) a plurality of values, emotional responses, personality traits and lived practices.

  13. This introspectible feature of proximate motives means that motive-pluralityP provides evidence for motive plurality itself: a philosophical moral theory’s popularity within a given population will be at least partially explained by the then-existing prevalence of the internal qualia associated with that theory.

  14. This argument does not rely on core content convergence. Motive plurality itself suffices to make introspection about moral motives look worryingly parochial.

  15. Of course, all other things are not equal. The capacity to explain observable moral phenomena constitutes just one philosophical desideratum. Endorsing a moral theory will naturally hinge on an aggregate appraisal of all the theory’s strengths and weaknesses.

  16. While I will not pursue the case here, it is at least arguable that Kant provides an example of this position. In his more technical and philosophical works he puts forward a moral philosophic justification for the Categorical Imperative (justifying a specific proximate motive implicating reason and dignity). Yet in his more empirical works Kant puts forward a social theory of morality that provides an alternative explanation (but not justification) of existing moralities, and—at least potentially—their diverse proximate motives.

  17. See especially the text to nn.2–3 above.

  18. Mill (1859/2003, p. 10). Mill himself clearly understood the enticing array of moral motives that could be called upon to impel duties protecting these interests (1861/2001, p. 29).

References

  • Acharya, A. (2004). How ideas spread: Whose norms matter? Norm localization and institutional change in Asian regionalism. International Organization, 58(2), 239–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aristotle. (350BC/2002). Nicomachean ethics (J. Sachs, Trans.). Newbury, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins.

  • Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. (2009). Principles of biomedical ethics (6th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Beitz, C. (2009). The idea of human rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Bok, S. (2002). Common values. London: University of Missouri Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brink, D. O. (1984). Moral realism and the sceptical arguments from disagreement and queerness. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 62, 111–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Buchanan, A. (2010). Human rights, legitimacy and the use of force. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Diessner, R., Solom, R. C., Frost, N. K., Parsons, L., & Davidson, J. (2008). Engagement with beauty: Appreciating natural, artistic, and moral beauty. The Journal of Psychology, 142(3), 303–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Finnemore, M., & Sikkink, K. (1998). International norm dynamics and political change. International Organisation, 52(4), 887–917.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Francén, R. (2010). Moral motivation pluralism. Journal of Ethics, 14, 117–148.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gert, B. (2004). Common morality: Deciding what to do. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Gibbs, J. (2010). Moral development and reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman (2nd ed.). Boston: Penguin Academics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Glendon, M. A. (2001). A world made new: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Haakonssen, K. (1996). Natural law and moral philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2004). How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues. Daedalus, 133(4), 55–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herman, B. (1993). The practice of moral judgment. London: Harvard University Press.

  • Hobbes, T. (1651/2008). Leviathan. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Hume, D. (1739/1969). A treatise of human nature. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books.

  • Hume, D. (1993). An enquiry concerning human understanding. Cambridge: Hackett.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ignatieff, M. (2001). Human rights as politics and idolatry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kant, I. (1785/2008). The moral law: Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals (H. Paton, Trans.). New York: Hutchinson’s University Library.

  • Kolnai, A. (1970). Moral consensus. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 70, 93–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Küng, H. (1998). A global ethic for global politics and economics. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, J. (1690). An essay concerning human understanding (2nd ed.). London: Duckworth.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacIntyre, A. (1981). After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill, J. S. (1859/2003). On liberty. Cambridge: Hackett.

  • Mill, J. S. (1861/2001). Utilitarianism (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Hackett.

  • Nichols, S. (2004). Sentimental rules: On the natural foundations of moral judgment. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Nietzsche, F. (1887/1996). On the genealogy of morals (D. Smith, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Rawls, J. (1993/2005). Political liberalism (Expanded ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Rest, J. (1992). Morality. In P. Mussen (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (4th ed., Vol. III, pp. 556–629). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rest, J. (1994). Background: Theory and research. In J. Rest & D. Narvez (Eds.), Moral development in the professions. London: Taylor & Francis.

    Google Scholar 

  • Risse, T., Ropp, S. C., & Sikkink, K. (Eds.). (1999). The power of human rights: International norms and domestic change. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rokeach, M. (1976). Beliefs, attitudes and values: A theory of organization and change. London: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shue, H. (1980). Basic rights: Subsistence, affluence and US foreign policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Slote, M. (2007). The ethics of care and empathy. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. (1790/2006). The theory of moral sentiments (6th ed.). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

  • Walzer, M. (2000). Just and unjust wars (3rd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiggins, D. (2005). Objectivity in ethics. Ratio, 18, 1–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Williams, B. (2002). Truth & truthfulness: An essay in genealogy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wong, D. B. (2009). Natural moralities: A defense of pluralistic relativism. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This article was many years in the making, and it is impossible here to acknowledge all those whose helpful contributions spurred its development. But particular thanks go to the philosophy cohort at The University of Queensland, and to Michael Vincent, Dave Kinkead, Paul Formosa and (especially) Rachael Briggs, whose penetrating criticisms honed much of the argument presented in Sect. 3.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hugh Breakey.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Breakey, H. Same duties, different motives: ethical theory and the phenomenon of moral motive pluralism. Philos Stud 175, 531–552 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0881-x

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0881-x

Keywords

Navigation