The Motivation Test

Let us look at what we might call the motivation test. This test has been promulgated by, among others, Christine Korsgaard. The basic idea is that we first assume that morality (here left vague by me for just a moment) will require justification. For example to Callicles, the skeptic, the hedonist, whomever we chose. The moral theorist who is a realist may be tempted to point to “facts” of some kind, nonmoral facts, that provide justification for morality. The test is this: if we explain the justification to whomever it is we are challenged by, they will be motivated to act morally well. Supposedly, any theory the justification for which fails the motivation test is inadequate to justify acting morally.

I suppose someone asks me why I did something, and, eventually, I explain that I did what I did ultimately because it was the right thing to do—say an act of charity. The challenge is apparently to give a justification for why I did the right thing instead of something else. Properly explained the facts justifying morality are such that they justify my particular moral action—because they justify my moral motivation. If it were unintelligible that I do what I did upon such justification, or worse if it were obscure how any motivation could be justified by the “facts” I provide, then, supposedly, my facts are inadequate to ground morality practically. My inadequate theory must then yield to some other theory that, at least, is able to shed light on, and indeed (it seems) cause someone to act morally well.

For this is what the motivation test is really asking for—a theory that, when properly understood, becomes the basis for action. There is some sort of necessary connection between the “facts” and certain sorts of motivation. If I understand the justification for morality (and we’ve left this term vague, remember) then I too will be motivated to act well. Whether I actually do or not is beside the point, for there must always be room for akrasia and so forth. Still, this demand for a necessary connection between justification and motivation seems misplaced; I think it is really more a hope that such a thing could exist that keeps us looking for it than any realistic expectation that autonomous agents could actually be affected by it. I myself would certainly like there to be some formulation of words, describing a theory, which if properly understood would lead the audience to be motivated to act well, whatever their previous disposition. That, however, is a pipe dream.

Now before you jump all over me for describing the motivation test in this fashion, let me point out that although there are a great many different subtle ways of putting the point, they in the end all boil down to creating a condition that, it appears, only Kantian theories can meet. For the rational mind, understanding the categorical imperative, thereby will bind itself to act accordingly, etc. Some Humeans also like to use this one, whether they are prescriptivists, emotivists, or straight up historical-reconstructionists about the Treatise etc. because they believe that their own justificatory structure--their "facts"--will do the job while other theories (virtue and deontological ones) have some fatal flaw in this area. The project here is to point out that this idea is really some fancy window-dressing for wishful thinking, and that virtue theories can sidestep this "problem" altogether, by rejecting the need for a nonmoral justification of morality as least in regard to the actual motivation of agents in situ.


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