Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
That’s Ogden Nash. Now Kant:
Duty! Sublime and mighty name that embraces nothing charming or insinuating but requires submission, and yet does not seek to move the will by threatening anything that would arouse natural aversion or terror in the mind but only holds forth a law that of itself finds entry into the mind and yet gains reluctant reverence (though not always obedience), a law before which all inclinations are dumb, even though they secretly work against it; what origin is there worthy of you, and where is to be found the root of your noble descent which proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations, descent from which is the indispensable condition of that worth which human beings alone can give themselves?
Kant appeals powerfully to the sense that doing the right thing often feels different from doing something you want to do. The Neo-Humean – as in one who thinks moral motivation, like other important motivation, is based on desire – is often asked: if, as a good person, you do right because you want to do right– (de dicto or de re, doesn’t matter for the moment) – why doesn’t doing right because you want to do right feel like going to the beach because you want to go to the beach?
Fair question. Let me have a go.
By default, getting what you intrinsically desire brings pleasure. If you want the Seahawks to win, you feel pleasure when they win. If you are a creature with sexual desire, you get pleasure when it’s satisfied. Confusingly, since one desires pleasure itself, you can also develop a desire for the pleasure that you get when your sexual desires are satisfied (lust, I suppose). Then you have a second layer of motivation to have sex (with desired people). Such second layers are common. If you get pleasure from seeing the Seahawks win, you might want them to win both intrinsically and so that your mood improves. No wonder undergrads think psychological hedonism is true – and no wonder our default expectation is that if I desire something, I somehow anticipate taking pleasure in it.
But sometimes desire satisfaction comes without pleasure. For example, when you are used to the satisfaction. I have a friend who travels to third world countries, and when he comes back to the US he delights in modern conveniences; he takes pleasure in using electricity and running water. I share my friend’s desire for comfort and convenience, and yet my light switches working causes me no pleasure, because I am used to it. Or, take cases when your grasp on the fact that your desire is being satisfied is not vivid enough. If you want to be richer, you are delighted to get a check in the mail, maybe to find a nice tax deduction, but it is likely that no comparable pleasure comes of getting a mortgage at 3.4% interest instead of 3.5%, even if ”theoretically” you know you just got much richer.
As desire satisfaction often does (but sometimes doesn’t) give us pleasure, aversion satisfaction often does (but sometimes doesn’t) give us relief from displeasure.
On to the virtuous agent’s intrinsic desire to do the right thing. It, too, can give pleasure when satisfied. There is even a second layer, so advice columnists may recommend that you volunteer to help the hungry because it will make you feel good. An intrinsic aversion to doing the wrong thing can similarly result in feeling relieved when you do the right thing instead (“Tell her the truth. You’ll feel better”).
But at other times, though you desire to tell the painful truth that you ought to tell your friend, you know that telling her will make her very miserable for a while and cause her to cut you off, maybe forever. You are not the sort of person for whom keeping secrets is hard and your relief in talking is not enough to make as much as a dent in the misery you feel anticipating her reaction. Neither is the knowledge that you will act honestly: perhaps you, a very moral person, are used to acting honestly just like I’m used to electricity.
Your desire for the right is strong enough to lead you to action, despite competing incentives. Yet telling that truth is no day at the beach. There is no pleasure forthcoming (nothing charming or enticing!) and no net relief from displeasure (as when you flee “natural aversion or terror”). A strong motivation to act rightly acting on which involves no visceral (or intellectual) expectation of pleasure and all expectation of grief does not feel like “inclination”. It feels like a sense of duty.
I have tried to help Neo-Humeanism, not to attack Kantianism, but one seeming advantage of my deflationary account of the sense of duty, as opposed to seeing it as a product of Reason, is this: it accounts for the frequent occurrence of the sense of duty – or at least of grim, enticement-free motivational necessitation – in cases where there is no actual moral duty. As in: 1. cases of flat out imaginary duties (a “duty” to get to your early Hitler Youth meeting even though you really don’t feel like it). 2. Cases of saintly or heroic people who report feeling a duty to do things that seem to us supererogatory, and which even they will not condemn others for not doing and 3. cases of commitment to non-moral values (like refusing to make bad art despite being promised a lot of money).
(I (and/or Tim Schroeder) have said some of this elsewhere, but I will be trying to make more of it).