Acting for the Right Reasons
Markovits (Julia)
Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2010), pp. 201-242
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. This essay examines the thought that our right actions have moral worth only if we perform them for the right reasons. On the face of it, views about the conditions of moral worth seem independent of what first-order moral views we hold. That is, we can debate what else must be true of right actions for them to count as morally worthy without first settling the question of what it takes for them to be right.
  2. My initial aim will be to identify the conditions under which right actions have moral worth, and I believe the intuitive appeal of my account of moral worth and the force of most of the arguments I marshal in its support are independent of our adopting any particular first-order ethical standpoint.
  3. Nonetheless, the view of moral worth I defend turns out to have implausible implications when held in conjunction with any of a class of first-order ethical views that includes utilitarianism. Because utilitarians would, I think, be hard-pressed to come up with an account of moral worth that is as independently plausible as the one I defend, my argument for this account turns out to provide an objection to utilitarianism. Thinking about moral worth may tell us something about which actions are right after all.
  4. In section 1, I introduce and begin to argue against the traditional Kantian account of moral worth, according to which morally worthy actions must be performed from the "motive of duty," or because they are right. I suggest an alternative formulation of the thought that morally worthy actions must be performed for the right reasons, according to which morally worthy actions are those performed for the reasons why they are right. I argue that this alternative account should in fact be accepted by Kantians because it is entailed by some central tenets of Kantian ethics.
  5. In section 2, I argue that this account provides plausible sufficient conditions for an action's having moral worth; that it can explain the moral worth of some actions whose worth the motive of duty thesis excludes; and that it provides a good account of the idea that in the case of morally worthy actions, it is no accident that the agent acts rightly.
  6. In section 3, I argue that this account also provides plausible necessary conditions for the moral worth of actions and defend that claim against proposed counterexamples.
  7. In section 4, I argue that the plausibility of my account of moral worth, which is largely independent of any particular ethical standpoint, gives us some reason to doubt a class of ethical theories that includes utilitarianism.
  8. Section 5, the final section before the conclusion, considers some issues concerning partially worthy actions, including the case of wrong actions that seem nonetheless partially worthy.

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