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

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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.

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  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).


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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.

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Correspondence to Hugh Breakey.

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Breakey, H. Same duties, different motives: ethical theory and the phenomenon of moral motive pluralism. Philos Stud 175, 531–552 (2018).

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