Can’t Have it Both Ways

A motive that grants moral worth – that makes you worthy of esteem when it leads you to do the right – cannot lead to unexcused wrong actions, absent things like culpable ignorance, self-deception or motivated irrationality. In other words: as long as these shenanigans are absent, you followed the esteem-deserving motive, and you screwed up simply because of an error, you’re excused.

So, if concern for morality de dicto grants moral worth, it cannot (absent shenanigans) lead to unexcused wrong actions.

Now, concern for morality de dicto can lead to some wrong actions: you want to do what’s right, you are mistaken about what’s right, you do wrong. In other words, concern for morality de dicto leads to wrong actions in cases of moral ignorance – including honest (shenanigan-free) moral ignorance. So: if concern for morality de dicto grants moral worth, honest moral ignorance excuses.

However, if honest moral ignorance excuses, it also “excuses” from moral esteem.

I mean it in a simple way, assuming that if moral ignorance excuses, it excuses like factual ignorance (Gideon Rosen’s “parity”). If I am honestly ignorant of the fact that my buying a trinket benefits a terrorist organization, I’m not blameworthy. If I’m honestly ignorant of the fact that my buying a trinket benefits Oxfam I’m not esteem-worthy.

So where were we? If concern for morality de dicto grants moral worth, Honest moral ignorance excuses. If honest moral ignorance excuses, it excuses from esteem.

If honest moral ignorance excuses from esteem, Huck Finn, and some people who less dramatically do right things that they believe to be wrong, are not esteem-worthy even if they are motivated by moral motives de re.

So: if concern for morality de dicto grants moral worth, honest moral ignorance excuses, If honest moral ignorance excuses, it excuses from esteem. If honest moral ignorance excuses from esteem, Huck Finn is not esteem-worthy.

But

If concern for morality de re grants moral worth, Huck Finn and company are esteem-worthy

Therefore

If concern for morality de dicto grants moral worth, concern for morality de re does not.

It’s easy to run it the other way around, too. If de re, then not de dicto.

Can’t have them both ways. Either de dicto moral motivation grants moral worth or moral motivation de re does, but not both, because either some Huck types are esteem worthy, or they are not, not both*.

Now some people would say it’s all unimportant because honest moral ignorance does not exist. Grossly false moral beliefs are all the result of mental shenanigans.

I don’t think so. That does not in itself mean that I deny moral truths are known a priori – mathematical truths surely are, yet most of us get the Monty Hall Problem all wrong and find calculus difficult. Some think it takes irrationality to fail calculus, but even if so, it’s not motivated irrationality. Undergrads don’t want to fail the exam. Nerds are ready to follow the calculation wherever it may take them. Still they make errors.

So I think the burden of proof is on anyone who denies that it can happen, for example, that someone makes an unmotivated moral mistake because a belief was taught to them and they have never encountered anyone who doubted it, which is how people of average rationality get lots of factual beliefs.

Some people would say, wait, there are asymmetries between praise (or esteem) and blame.

Interesting, and I will not try anticipate all objections from this directions, but I must emphasize that not any asymmetry will do. Only the sort that touches upon the symmetry alleged in my trinket example (so, discussions of free will and determinism, for example, are unlikely to be relevant).

There is a technical wrinkle in the fact that Huck does not perform his action because he thinks it’s wrong and we compared him with somehow who does something because she thinks it’s right. That’s OK. If moral ignorance excuses then “she didn’t know it was wrong” rules out blame even if, as far as “she” was concerned, the action was permissible rather than obligatory. So on the other side, “you didn’t know it was right” should rule out esteem-worthiness even if it is not the case that you did the action for the sake of doing wrong. I see no pre-theoretical reasons to mess with this.

Now what happens if there is a mix of motives that grants moral worth? Can’t one of them be concern for morality de dicto?

To be continued.

*This does not rule out such theses as “it’s nice to have the other motivation as a backup to tide you over when you are out of the better kind” – that’s what Kant might have thought of some inclinations (If you go this route, though, please remember: as motivations, de dicto vs de re isn’t the same as grim resolution vs warm fuzzy feeling. It’s not the case that if I do something for my friend on a day I am uncharacteristically mad at him I switched from de re to de dicto motivation).