The Significance of Moral Motive Pluralism

By Dr Hugh Breakey
Griffith Law School

For thousands of years, moral philosophers – and more recently moral psychologists – have searched for the ethical fulcrum: the one, ultimate moral motivation that drives conscientious ethical behaviour. In some ways, it made sense to think that there would be one specific psychological quality that motivates ethical conduct. After all, there are enormous cross-cultural similarities in the content of moral rules. If other people behave in a similar way to us, in similar situations, then it is easy to assume they are doing so for essentially the same reasons. (In fact, Thomas Hobbes went so far as to develop this line of thought into his bedrock methodology, announced in the opening pages of his 1651 Leviathan.)

But in a recent article published in Philosophical Studies, I argue that this longstanding assumption is mistaken. Drawing upon evidence from psychology, sociology, political science, and international relations theory, I argue we have compelling reasons to believe that different people and cultures employ very different types of motivational structures to drive their performance of the same core moral duties. Where one person might draw upon empathy, another person might rely on glory. Where one culture might laud values of tradition and custom, another culture might valorise reason and rationality. Yet each may respect, and consistently perform, the same core moral duties.

I call this phenomenon ‘moral motive pluralism’. Moral motive pluralism refers to the wonderful diversity of internal values – including empathy and sympathy, practical and prudential reason, custom and honour, religion and spirituality, cultural identity and human excellence, moral beauty and narrative thinking, and countless more – that are employed by different people and cultures to motivate external compliance with (often) exactly the same moral duties.

One fascinating source of evidence for moral motive pluralism comes from the history of moral philosophy. Surveying the last two and a half millennia of western philosophical theorizing, it is easy to be struck at the stability of a recurring core of moral duties. With very few exceptions, moral philosophers since the Greeks held that people should keep their word, refrain from violence, theft and cheating, and help those in need. The debates through the ages – sometimes vociferous and barbed, sometimes polite and measured – were much less to do with the morality’s content, and much more to do with the proper motives for performing that content. Sometimes philosophers were explicit about where the disagreement lay. Consider Frederick Nietzsche in Daybreak (1881, ¶103):

It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged—but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto. We have to learn to think differently—in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.

To be sure, all these philosophers were not only disagreeing on matters of moral psychology, but also on more foundational questions of metaphysics, epistemology, theology, language and theory of mind. Yet it is their disagreements on moral psychology, in a way, that are most perplexing, for these are open to ordinary introspection. That is, as a Kantian agent, or an Aristotelian agent, or a Nietzschean agent performs an identical moral action – such as conforming to an earlier promise they have made – they would each have quite different internal apprehensions of what is going on inside their head in terms of moral imaginings, areas of attention, modes of reasoning, and felt rewards and punishments. The Kantian would focus on reason and dignity, the Aristotelian on human excellence and emotional completion, and the Nietzschean on the will to power. (I’m simplifying, of course, but the point is that these motivations, thoughts and feelings are all very different.) And this is true even for moral philosophers from very similar traditions. For example, the Scottish enlightenment philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith are often grouped together as moral sentimentalists (for both prioritize emotion over reason in moral motivation), but the internal lives of the moral agents they posit differ considerably.

The different internal moral lives invoked by these theories mean that each of us is, to some extent at least, capable of reflecting on our own introspections, and seeing how far they ratify each theory. As such, if your internal life gels with Kant’s ideas about rational autonomy reigning supreme over the vagaries of human emotion, then you are bound to sympathize with his moral theory. Alternatively, if your introspections dovetail more with Hume’s lauding of emotion and empathy over the rationalist disputations, then you are likely to warm to his account of moral psychology.

These historic differences play out in our contemporary world. When I lecture on different moral theories, it always strikes me how immediately enthusiastic some students are for a particular moral perspective, and how indifferent they appear towards the alternatives. Sometimes, it can feel like half the class sparks into life when we discuss Aristotle, and then doze off when we get to Hobbes or Kant – when another group suddenly becomes engaged. No doubt some of these variable reactions reflect the students’ estimation of each thinker’s larger philosophical arguments. But often, the different evaluations seem quite independent of – and prior to – their analysis of the deeper philosophical fundaments. Instead, it is as if certain types of moral perspectives just make more sense. They match up with what each student feels ethical life is all about.

Following this line of thought leads to the hypothesis that perhaps what made these diverse moral theories so popular in their day, and still popular with different parts of my student cohort, was that each managed to describe how morality actually worked in different people. Despite the fact that they all obeyed more or less the same suite of core moral obligations, different people – across the globe and within my lecture room – had personally and culturally distinct motivational structures driving their conscientious moral behaviour. Or so, at least, I argue.

Understanding the phenomenon of moral motive pluralism has practical importance in our social lives, because it is easy to assume that if another person does not display the same types of values that motivate our ethical action, that they are therefore not peaceful or trustworthy. Yet it may be that the other person is simply employing different values as their way of reliably motivating moral behaviour.

The existence of the empirical phenomenon of moral motive pluralism also impacts on how we should think about the fundamental nature of morality in a philosophical or ‘normative’ sense. In particular, the phenomenon provides us with indirect evidence favouring what philosophers call ‘functionalist’ theories of morality. These are theories that hold that moral duties serve specific, vital functions in human societies, such as to reduce conflict and promote cooperation. Since all societies need these functions fulfilled, all societies have reason to motivate compliance with the core duties that accomplish those functions. But while the duties remain consistent across different societies, the psychological resources called upon to motivate those duties may prove wonderfully diverse, as each person and culture develops their own available resources to bend to the task. In this way, the phenomenon of moral motive pluralism is realised: different values driving strikingly similar moral behaviour.

If this is right, then it turns out that human diversity is not only something to be valued or protected by morality (as John Stuart Mill argued so persuasively in On Liberty). It also impacts on the other side of the ethical coin: on the motivations for performing our moral obligations. Morality, on this view, does not merely protect diversity. It is fuelled by it.