Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

How to Solve Prichard's Dilemma: A Complex Contractualist Account of Moral Motivation

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

How to Solve Prichard's Dilemma: A Complex Contractualist Account of Moral Motivation

Article excerpt

A COMPLETE MORAL THEORY MUST PROVIDE an account of what is often called "moral motivation," the job of which is to explain "what reason one has to be moral." This much tends to be agreed upon. Less clear, however, are the details concerning what is being demanded. The term "moral motivation" seems to imply that what is sought is primarily a psychological account, concerning, perhaps, what does or could motivate an agent to moral action. The language of "the reason to be moral," on the other hand, has a normative ring to it: The explanation being sought here concerns what reasons there are. Thus while there is largely an agreement on the need to provide some kind of account concerning the link between morality and motivation, the details are unclear in the abstract, and anyone hoping to answer the call must do some clarificatory work at the beginning.

T. M. Scanlon, in making a case for his unique brand of contractualism, does just this. In his words, a satisfactory moral theory must "explain the reason-giving and motivating force of judgments of right and wrong" (1998: 147)--a challenge that clearly has both motivating and normative components. Rather than explaining "why one ought to be moral," or "why one has reason to be moral," Scanlon interprets the moral motivational question as asking "how the fact that an act is wrong provides a reason not to do it" (1998: 147-49). And this question can be read in two different ways. On the one hand, we want to know the answer to an empirical question, namely: What do we care about when we care about right and wrong? And on the other hand, we are asking a normative question: Why is right and wrong something we must care about (1998: 148)? The question of moral motivation, then, is actually two questions. For this reason, Scanlon suggests that a better name for the challenge of "moral motivation" is "the motivational basis of morality," as this name wears its dual character more clearly on its face. (1)

In What We Owe to Each Other,; Scanlon outlines the central problem facing any account of the motivational basis of morality, providing his own, contractualist solution. The problem, Scanlon thinks, is to navigate "Prichard's Dilemma" (PD), which arises from the demand that explanations of the reason to act morally be both (a) helpfully explanatory and (b) relevant to morality. According to PD, all moral theories must explain the reason to be moral by reference either to a moral consideration or a nonmoral consideration. Explanations by reference to moral considerations, however, are trivial and unhelpful (thereby violating (a)), while explanations by reference to nonmoral considerations offer implausibly external incentives to be moral (thereby violating (b)). Scanlon's solution to this dilemma is to explain the reason to be moral by reference to a moral-but-still-helpful value--namely, the value of living with others on terms that all can accept.

In this paper, I will accept many of Scanlon's philosophical commitments. Despite this theoretical friendliness, however, I will suggest that Scanlon's own solution fails to navigate PD. I then attempt to derive an alternative solution from his framework, but argue that it, too, fails. In the end, I take the failure of these promising views to indicate that PD is unlikely to be solved by a traditional account of moral motivation, and so suggest a change of strategy.

1. Prichard's Dilemma

According to Scanlon, any attempt to provide an account of the motivational basis of morality faces a difficult challenge, which he calls "Prichard's Dilemma," after H. A. Prichard's description of a similar dilemma (1912). The challenge here is that the question--"Why be moral?"--seems to require, on the one hand, a moral answer. One has reason not to act immorally because the fact of an action's being wrong is a reason not to do it. But this, of course, is not much of an answer at all; it takes the reason-giving force of morality for granted, when the reason-giving force of morality is precisely what we want explained. …

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