Motivation Without Charm

O Duty,
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).

8 thoughts on “Motivation Without Charm

  1. Hi Nomy, Interesting post! I tried submitting a comment earlier, but it didn’t show, and I think you don’t see it on your approval list. So this is a test comment.


      1. Okay, trying again! I find myself generally sympathetic with the view expressed here, but I wonder about part of what’s going on in the background.

        One way of thinking about the discussion between Kantian and Humean views of motivation is as a debate between two views about the *cause* of duty-compliant behavior: is it a desire? or is a sense of duty that runs contrary to desire? I have trouble translating this into my own favored approach to the attitudes because I understand attitudes dispositionally. On one way of reading a dispositional approach to desire, desires are not metaphysically distinct states that cause behavior. Rather they are dispositional structures where desire-characteristic behavior is partly constitutive of possessing the dispositional structure. (Compare extraversion doesn’t *cause* enjoying parties; it is partly *constituted by* being disposed to enjoy parties.)

        On a causal approach the motive of duty to conform to a norm of honesty and the motive of desire to be honest can seem a forced choice between two very different types of things. But on a dispositional approach, they might be constituted by very similar sets of dispositions, in which case the choice of which way to describe what’s going on might be less stark. (Compare again to personality traits conceived dispositionally, and the choice between saying that someone is brave vs saying she is bold.)

        Extending this thought farther, it might even be the case that the person does not quite conform exactly to the dispositional structure constitutive of “desiring to be honest” or and whatever dispositional structure we want to say is constitutive of the motive of duty in a dispositionalist retooling of the motive of duty, in which case we might be faced with an imperfect choice between them, admitting that both are only approximations or simplifications.


      2. I really really don’t like the idea that a desire is a disposition – Tim Schroeder and I write about it in In Praise of Desire so I feel too lazy to get into it now. To be honest, I think that if being an extrovert is partially constituted by being disposed to enjoy parties then “Jeff is an extrovert” is not yet an explanation of his enjoyment of parties. “Extrovert” that way sounds more like a diagnosis, not quite an explanation. For explanation I want the ground for the disposition. I am not sure your explanation of the desire/duty thing makes me like dispositions better than before, because I think that, even though the first person perspective is far from trustworthy and if often overrated by philosophers, the fact that acting out of duty and acting out of desire *feel* so different from the first person perspective needs explanation. Being brave and being bold don’t feel that different. The phenomenological difference between the feeling of “I want” and the feeling of “I ought to” is huge – huge enough for a whole tradition of humans as divided each into a deity and a beast to have developed over the millennia. I think the tradition is mistaken but one needs to explain why it often *feels* right.


      3. Right, it’s quite a different view of desire than the one that Tim and you favor, so it’s a question from outside your set-up. Now in my mind it’s a virtue that my approach might make the question of whether the real motive is duty or desire more of a labeling question than a hard-core realist question, since my impression (including phenomenologically) is that acting from a sense that its one’s duty to be honest and acting from a desire to be honest aren’t super different. But I guess you have the opposite impression!

        I don’t see why explanation has to be causal. Explaining the position of the planets by calculating Keplerian orbits isn’t (probably) causal. Mathematical explanations aren’t causal. Sometimes these have been called explanations by unification or by fitting individual phenomena into a larger pattern. Personality trait explanations could be like that, no?

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      4. I think a theory explaining away the duty/inclination thing needs to explain why there seems to be such a huge difference to so many people. My answer: because even if two things are in many ways the same, they can feel very different if one is pleasant and the other is painful, and that factor distracts us from the lack of a more essential difference. Do you have an explanation?
        Fair enough that explanations of empirical facts don’t have to be causal. They do however need to law-like. A person I knew once had little red bumps on her skin (I think that’s what it was). The doctor gave her an explanation in the form of a nice Latin phrase. She looked it up an the Latin phrase meant “little red bumps”. She thought it was hilarious. I think many DSM definitions are equally funny as explanations, even though the list of symptoms is longer than “red pumps”. Perhaps what the dsm definitions are lacking is not necessarily causality but law-likeness. So I admit “Jeff loves parties because he’s an extrovert” sounds like an explanation if one adds something like “an extrovert is a person who is energized by the company of others by default”.


  2. (I am not implying that the explanation provided by your theory or by the big 5 theory itself aren’t law-like! When I actually work on this I’ll have to ask you where to read more about your view).


    1. Sure — back in touch later! Philip Kitcher’s early work on explanation by unification is one source. (I bet there’s good recent stuff too; I haven’t kept up.) On the felt difference, I think your explanation of the conditions on which it feels like duty vs when it feels like desire is pretty attractive! I just wanted to push back on the metaphysical/causal story that seemed to lie implicitly underneath — and I thought one possible advantage of my approach is that it can easily handle the range of cases where “from desire” and “from duty” seem pretty similar phenomenologically and behaviorally.


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