Does Moral Philosophy Rest On A Mistake?

That’s the provocative title of Harold Arthur Prichard’s famous 1912 essay. Prichard is cited frequently by Korsgaard, who uses him as a kind of moral skeptic to bounce her arguments off. Here’s what he wrote.

Moral philosophy, according to Prichard, comes in two varieties: attempts to justify moral actions by showing that they are in our best interest, and attempts to justify moral actions by showing that they are sort of inherently ‘good’. Let’s deal with the first variety.

Say you’ve got a debt to repay, but if you repay it you’ll have to eat ramen for a month. “I don’t want to eat ramen!” you say. “Why should I have to repay my debt?” Well, the moral philosopher replies, if you don’t repay your debt other people won’t trust you. Moreover, you’ll eventually turn into a bitter, suspicious person, and die unhappy. “Wow,” you say, “I guess I ought to repay my debt after all!” The moral philosopher has successfully convinced you to act ethically.

But has he really? Prichard says no, since the philosopher has failed to convince you that you ought to pay your debts. He’s only made you want to pay them. Instead of cultivating a moral desire within you, he’s given you a powerful non-moral desire that does sort of the same job.

Prichard argues that any action taken from a powerful desire (even a desire to do good) is not a moral action. His argument gets a little complicated here. On one level, acting from a desire turns “obligation into inclination”. Instead of acting from your moral obligations, you’re simply doing what you want to do. But can’t the second variety of moral philosopher say that certain desires are good desires? No, Prichard says! That’s a fundamental error in thought. Look at it this way: we can only be obligated to do “something which is within our power”. But the only things within our power are actions. We can’t “will to will,” Prichard argues: our desires are out of our control, and so it doesn’t make sense to say that some are ethical and some aren’t.

So we can’t locate moral goodness in our desires. This leaves us two other options: to say that actions can be inherently good, or to say that certain things in the world can be inherently good. The first roughly corresponds to Kantian ethics, and the second corresponds to utilitarian ethics.

Prichard begins his criticism of the actions-are-good line by claiming that we simply can’t consider actions separately from their motives. He divides motives into two categories – desires and duties – and immediately does away with actions motivated by desires (using the argument above). What about actions motivated by duties?

Again, Prichard’s idea here is complicated. He’s arguing against the idea that somebody can consider an action, observe that it would be a morally good action, then from that observation decide that therefore they ought to do it. Prichard’s argument goes like this: when we decide that an action is morally good, that presupposes the sense of obligation to do it. Instead of deciding what we ought to do by looking at which actions are morally good, we decide which actions are morally good by considering what we ought most to do. So it doesn’t make sense to say that an action can be inherently good, since in practice we locate the goodness elsewhere (in, I think Prichard means, the sense of obligation).

To summarize: we can’t justify morality through appeals to our self-interest, because even if successful all we’ve done is given a non-moral reason. We can’t justify morality through calling desires or virtues moral, because we can’t control our desires and surely morality, whatever it is, has to be within our control. We can’t justify morality through calling actions moral, because either moral actions spring from a non-moral desire or a sense of obligation that accounts for the moral thing instead of the action itself. So what do we conclude?

Prichard concludes that this mysterious sense of obligation is the source of morality, but it’s not the kind of source we can ask questions about. It’s not a desire, he argues, or even a purpose. And it’s not unified: there are a number of differing obligations, just as there are a number of differing virtues (courage, humility, etc). Moreover, Prichard claims that our sense of obligation is the “immediate” result of a process of “moral thought”. How should we think about tricky ethical situations, according to Prichard? Don’t engage in “general [moral] thinking”. Instead, get “face to face with a particular instance of the situation,” so you can directly appreciate the obligations that bear upon you.


One thought on “Does Moral Philosophy Rest On A Mistake?

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