Rebirth of Reason


Moral Intentions
by Joseph Rowlands

Altruists are usually focused on how much they care about other people. When moral praise is offered, it is when someone prove how much they care by sacrificing their own interests for the sake of others. Moral contempt is sometimes expressed by accusing someone of not caring about other people.


The interesting thing here is the focus on intentions or emotions. Altruistic acts aren't always thought of as good because of what they accomplish. They are seen as good because they express the desires of the person acting. The morally praiseworthy part is that he cares so much about others that he will act, and not the good that he does.


Consider a case where someone clearly doesn't care about others, but routinely performs altruistic acts of giving anyway. Maybe he think its his duty. Maybe he does it to win over others. Maybe he does it to show off his ability to give. But would his acts earn him unqualified moral praise? Would you say that he is a good person? A moral person? Most people would say he isn't.


If that's the case, then actions aren't as important as dispositions. Helping others isn't as important as wanting to help others. This is consistent with a morality that cares about intentions more than consequences. And it is consistent with the idea of sacrifice as proof of moral worth. Someone who sacrifices is thought to desire helping others so much that he is willing to act on it even when he suffers a significant cost along the way.


This idea is consistent with the view of morality as a kind of test. For morality to test you, it must expose some otherwise hidden disposition. If a moral choice tests your character, it does so by providing alternatives that would only be chosen based on your character. There might be a situation where it will seem that lying is most beneficial to you, and the test will be to see if you're willing to tell the truth anyway. Or altruistic choices would test whether you favor acting in your own interests or helping others.


Contrast this view of morality with the Objectivist view of rational self-interest. In that view, morality is simply a mechanism. It is a method of weighing two options with a moral standard to determine which furthers that standard. The idea that morality is really test doesn't make any sense here. The purpose of Objectivist morality is to allow you weigh your choices. It is a process like measurement or calculation. It's purpose is only to determine which choice better satisfies your needs.


There's no deeper emotion that it is trying to reflect or express. Moral acts are not good because of what they prove about you. They are good because those are the actions that best satisfy your needs.


These two approaches to morality are completely different. The Objectivist view sees morality as a method of calculation. It's value is in making more accurate evaluations, and that's it.


The intention-based view has a different take on the value of a morality. It's value has nothing to do with making more accurate evaluations. It's value is in what your choices say about you. The purpose of this morality is to achieve some kind of status. Your actions are morally important to the extent that they impact your status.


Since the values are different for these two approaches, they also differ in how they treat the moral standard. The Objectivist view is clearly focused on satisfying the moral standard. Life is the moral standard, and the focus is on choosing actions that benefit your life.


The intention-based, altruistic standard shifts the focus from helping other people to achieving moral status. While helping others is still a part of the equation, the focus is more on intentions than on consequences. It doesn't matter as much whether you actually help people than it does if you want to. Sacrifice becomes the standard of moral praise, and actually helping others is unimportant.


This confuses some people. Presumably the goal of moral status is to prove you want to help other people, so helping other people must still be the goal. But look how the measurement works. The greater your sacrifice, the more moral credit you get for the act. It reflects well on you by showing how much you care about helping others. Moral praise is proportional to the sacrifice incurred.


How about the objective amount that you helped someone? Does moral praise go up with that? The example I like to give is the rich man who gives little and the poor man who gives all he has, which is actually less than the rich man. Who gets more credit? The poor man. His sacrifice shows he cares more. The amount he gave has no real impact on the moral calculation. The only thing that is measured is the cost he is willing to endure. If he endures a huge cost to provide little, it is more morally meaningful and praiseworthy than if he endures little cost for a larger benefit.


By looking at what moral credit depends on, the way it is calculated/measured, we can see where the real focus is. When status becomes a goal, it becomes the goal. The focus is on proving what's going on in your heart instead of actually helping others. Morality becomes about having the right feelings instead of actually achieving a result.


With status as the goal, behavior changes. Instead of taking actions that would best improve the moral standard, such as helping others, people take actions that best display their intentions. They start taking actions that make them look moral, instead of taking actions that are moral. Appearance becomes important, and people will act based on appearances.


They may sacrifice. They may lecture others on the important of helping others. They may weep for their fellow man, and complain about how the world just isn't good enough. They may brag about their altruistic actions.


And while the goal of moral status is to show that they genuinely care about other people, once moral status becomes a value itself, people can pursue it for its own sake. People can attempt to appear as if they want to help others, even if they don't. They may go through all the same kind of actions.


The rational self-interest approach that treats morality as merely a kind of calculation does not see any value in morality beyond its ability to improve our choices. Without that view of morality as being valuable on its own, for the status is brings you, there's no danger of switching the focus from life to status. But while it is possible to view morality as merely a means of calculating, even Objectivists will often treat it as if it were a source of moral status. And consequently, they will focus on "being moral" instead of living life. Inevitably they find actions or behaviors that are seen as being moral regardless of its impact on your life, and then choose to act on those rules even when sacrifice is hard to prove their moral worth.


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