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Consequentialism and our best selves


I develop and defend a maximizing theory of moral motivation: I claim that consequentialists should recommend only those desires, emotions, and dispositions that will make the outcome best. I advance a conservative account of the motives that are possible for us; I say that a motive is an alternative if and only if it is in our psychological control. The resulting theory is less demanding than its competitors. It also permits us to maintain many of the motivations that we value most, including our love for those most important to us. I conclude that we are closer to meeting morality’s demands on our character than has been appreciated.

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  1. See Williams (1973, 1981), Railton (1984), and Wolf (1982) respectively. These concerns have more general application; see Baron (1984) and Piper (1987) for discussion. I think Mason (1999) is correct, however, that “the mud seems to have stuck to consequentialism in particular.”

  2. Jackson (1991) writes only that it is “chilling” to imagine that morality might require that we jettison our fundamental commitments to our friends and family.

  3. My formulation of the right-making view is grounded in remarks by Arpaly (2003), Markovits (2010), and Stratton-Lake (2011). That said, these philosophers present the right-making view as a position about virtuous or morally worthy motivation, not what motivations we should have. I assume, however, that these philosophers would agree that, in general, we should be motivated in ways that are virtuous—indeed Stratton-Lake (2011: 373) suggests that the motivations the right-making view recommends are those that are morally “required” (though compare Markovits (2010: 235)).

  4. See Parfit (1984: 24).

  5. Stratton-Lake (2011: 373) presents a similar argument to show that the right-making view and consequentialism are inconsistent but concludes that this is simply so much the worse for consequentialism. See also Markovits (2010: 234–236).

  6. On this point see especially Portmore (2019: 1–14). (I disagree with Portmore, however, that what “ultimately matters” is what we should non-instrumentally care about.) I should stress that there is a difference between what ultimately matters morally and what ultimately matters epistemically, aesthetically, and so on. I therefore do not assume that all things must be evaluated in terms of what matters morally or that the consequentialist must e.g. reject the legitimacy of epistemic normativity.

  7. Pettit and Smith (2000) argue similarly.

  8. This example is due to Yablo (1992). See also his (1997). I am thankful to Bradford Skow for suggesting an appeal to proportionality to settle these kinds of conflicts between moral explanations.

  9. The test of proportionality is in fact somewhat more complicated; see Woodward (2010) for discussion. However, for our purposes, this simple form of the test will suffice.

  10. See also his (2021: 431, fn. 11).

  11. See his (2012, 2021).

  12. D’arms and Jacobson (2000) thus warn of a “moralistic fallacy” when theorizing about fittingness.

  13. Note that if fittingness did have some input to what we should do but was not relevant to the value of things, then this would be inconsistent with the truth of consequentialism.

  14. Chappell (2012) argues also that fittingness might play a fundamental definitional or structural role in a consequentialist ontology: we might analyze goodness in terms of fittingness (see also McHugh and Way (2016)). I reject fitting attitude analyses of goodness. I am a Moorean about the structure of moral philosophy; I have attempted to defend my views in Tucker (2020). However, I think this issue is ultimately tangential to the question I am interested in here: namely, whether in addition to questions about the deontic status of a motive there is an independent and morally important question about the fittingness of a motive.

  15. Chappell (2021: 428).

  16. See Chappell (2012).

  17. See e.g. Smart (1973: 71).

  18. For defense of this thesis see e.g. Oddie (2017).

  19. In speaking of what we ‘think’ I do not mean what we ‘believe’. Thoughts may take the form of ‘strikings’ or ‘seemings’ with propositional content; they can therefore be true or false. See Howard (2018) and Rosen (2015). We might say that when the thoughts implicit in some attitude are false, then this attitude is unfitting in some merely descriptive sense. I have no objection to this proposal; I expand upon it in fn. 35. But I note that this descriptive notion of fittingness is radically different than the sui generis notion postulated which is, of course, normative—this is why the question “which motives is it fitting to have” is supposed to be a question about moral motivation. See Howard (2018: 12, en. 30).

  20. Chappell (2021: 428).

  21. See Moore (1993: 192, 196–197, 219–220).

  22. See fn. 3.

  23. See also Norcross (1997), Mason (1998, 1999), and Conee (2001).

  24. In his (1988) Railton suggests a different view, valoric utilitarianism, which evaluates all things directly, in relation to the outcome. However, this version of Railton’s view does not assign deontic evaluations; it is closer to a kind of global, scalar consequentialism.

  25. See Portmore (2019: 40).

  26. I am thankful to Mikhail Valdman for making this point to me.

  27. We might worry that this is a misunderstanding of the broad Moorean view; it should be formulated (as perhaps Moore intended) in terms of what is generally the case—where ‘generally’ is a modal restriction that eliminates unusual worlds, like the demon world. According to this modal version of Moore’s view, we are rightly motivated when our motivations are such that, in normal worlds, these motivations would lead us to act to produce the best result. This will do little, however, to help us avoid the objection. Suppose the demon will inflict terrible pain and suffering upon all of us if we are motivated in ways that, in normal worlds, lead us to act in ways that make things best. Surely, then, if we are in the demon world, we should not possess these otherwise valuable motives: they would do nothing but make things as bad as possible, while helping no one.

  28. My argument is therefore similar to a special case of the powerful arguments advanced in Pettit and Smith (2000) and Smith (2008). See also Greaves (2020).

  29. See also Streumer (2003); for reply see Brown (2005).

  30. Of course, as Parfit (1984: 32) mentions, we might endorse some complicated form of consequentialism that attributes intrinsic value to love from one’s own parents. Such views might have different implications in the case given, but we could simply modify the significance of the benefit so as to overcome this.

  31. We might object that the ought to do is, in fact, reducible to the ought to be—roughly, we ought to do something when it ought to be that we do it. I think this reply cannot succeed. I take it that claims about what ought to be divide into two types. Some things ought to be relative to an agent—as when we say that Lucy ought to be kinder. Some things ought to be simpliciter—as when we say that it ought to be that no one dies of hunger. (I expand on this distinction in §6.) But the ought to do cannot be reduced to either the relativized or non-relativized ought to be. Begin with the relativized notion. Consider the claim that we ought to do something when we ought to be such that we do it. This claim is false; it may be best for us to be the kinds of persons that sometimes act wrongly. So turn to the non-relativized notion: we claim that we ought to perform some action when it ought to be simpliciter that we perform that action. But this claim is false, too. To say that something ought to be simpliciter is to say, roughly, that it would occur in a world that is morally ideal. But we may be obligated to act in certain ways (such as in cases of self-defense) only because others will in fact act wrongly; in such cases we ought to do something (such as kill an attacker) though, in a morally ideal world, we would not act in this way. Thus, from the fact that some act is obligatory it does not follow that it ought to be. See Feldman (1986: 179–196).

  32. See Driver (2012: 149). In fact, Driver’s position is richer than the one I suggest here; she imagines cases in which our actions and motives are wrong, but our motives are nonetheless good, allowing for further complexity. I think this is possible also, but I will not investigate such ambivalence here.

  33. See e.g. Smart (1973: 54): “Whose was the responsibility? The act-utilitarian will quite consistently reply that the notion of the responsibility is a piece of metaphysical nonsense and should be replaced by ‘Whom would it be useful to blame?’” For a more recent contribution to this general tradition see Morris (2017). A variant of this proposal speaks not of the value of blaming some individual but of the value of our general practices of praise and blame; see Mason (2020).

  34. Parfit (2011: 163–172) denies that we can deserve to suffer. Portmore (2019: 54–63) draws a close connection between a person being blameworthy and it being fitting for them to experience guilt; he argues further that fitting guilt involves deserved suffering.

  35. Can I allow, however, that there is such a thing as legitimate moral criticism? I have expressed skepticism about fittingness as a sui generis moral concept. I am also skeptical of similar notions, such as desert. It may therefore seem infelicitous to speak of legitimate moral criticism: surely legitimate moral criticism is simply criticism that is fitting or deserved. But though I have objected to fittingness as a sui generis moral notion, I do not object to a concept of fittingness that is simply descriptive. According to the alethic view of fittingness, some moral criticism such as blame, regret, or condemnation will be fitting (or as I say, legitimate) if and only if the thoughts it implicates (such as that person did something wrong) are true (see Rosen (2015)). This kind of fittingness is simply a matter of representing things as they are; I do not take it to generate any moral reasons. When I speak of criticism that is legitimate, I mean to speak of criticism that is fitting only in this minimal, descriptive way. I do not think that in employing this concept, I must abandon any of the claims I have made thus far.

  36. I reference this distinction also in fn. 31.

  37. See Portmore (2019: 24).

  38. See also Portmore (2019: 66–69) for an insightful discussion of this point.

  39. Some may reject the analogy I have drawn; they may say that criticism of actions differs fundamentally from criticism of motives. I disagree—as I have attempted to show throughout this paper, actions and motives are simply different ways of affecting the outcome and thus, for the consequentialist, their moral status should be determined in fundamentally the same way. Because I endorse this kind of deontic equivalence, I believe also that the justification of moral criticism of actions and motives should be addressed in fundamentally the same way.


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I am extremely grateful to Fred Feldman, Bradford Skow, Peter Graham, Robert Gruber, Andrew Moon, Mikhail Valdman, Anthony Ellis, James Fritz, Eugene Mills, Catherine Sutton, Kevin Brosnan, Sarah Colquhoun, Donald Smith, Cooper Ackerly, Stephen Ingram, Lisa Tucker, and two very helpful anonymous referees from Philosophical Studies.


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Tucker, M. Consequentialism and our best selves. Philos Stud 180, 101–120 (2023).

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  • Consequentialism
  • Motives
  • Demandingness
  • Alternatives
  • Partiality