The irrelevance of motive to the moral content of an action

Or, whether Bush invaded Iraq because of oil is of no relevance to assessing the morality, or for that matter the wisdom, of going to war.

I see this preoccupation with motive as one of the most significant biases in current political and moral discourse.


  1. Gabriel M. Says:

    But then there's the lying.

    Killing serial killers for my own, maybe sexual enjoyment would make Kant frown.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I can't believe you just posted that! Can you explain your position a bit more bluematter?

  3. datacharmer Says:

    Gabriel - when it comes to assessing whether your action is a)moral and b)desirable for society, looking at your reasons for doing what you do can only serve as a distraction. If you save a kid from drowning, your action is good and should be encouraged by society. Whether you did it for personal gain or following an altruistic impulse does not change anything of substance (apart, perhaps, from the treatment you will receive at the pearly gates). Firemen save lives largely because they get paid and earn respect, scientists come up with life-saving medicines for similar reasons. Does that change the fact that what they do is good (i.e. both moral and socially desirable)?

    When assessing whether the war in Iraq was a good deed, the motives of Bush, America and 'the coalition of the willing' as a whole do not matter. As a citizen (and judge of morality) deciding whether to lend them my support, I only care about the results of their actions; their motives are completely irrelevant. The Iraq campaign could have been an ethical action that good citizens should support even if Bush and co.'s motivation was purely personal gain.

    And just to be crystal clear, I am not saying anything here about what I think about the morality or wisdom of going to war in Iraq; I am just saying that bringing up the 'oil' argument constitutes a fallacy (a fallacy that is often repeated in the context of markets: since companies are in it for the profits, their actions cannot be moral. Bollocks, I say.)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    datacharmer, you are essentially setting out a utilitarian point of view (a variety of consequentialism)- which is the moral philosophy which economics is built on, though most economist don't realise it (surely you do?). You can't simply dismiss those who hold that motives are important (the deontological view), e.g. Kant, without some substantial argument.

    Utiltarianism has some rather large problems (e.g. difficulty of treating individuals as ends in themselves, 'negative responsibility'-See Bernard Williams on this one, justice, viability of sacrificing innocent people etc). So more argument from you required.

  5. datacharmer Says:

    Thanks for your comment, and I agree with your view on utilitarianism - moral results do not justify immoral actions.

    However, I think you are confusing the issue here. I am not talking about the morality of the war here (justice, viability of sacrificing innocent people etc); I am talking about whether motives are important determinants of the morality of an action.

    Deontological ethics refer to the morality of the actions that bring about a situation. I'm referring to the morality or the motives behind the action that brought about a situation. A moral action leading to moral results but which has immoral motives behind it is ethical both in the utilitarian and deontological moral universe.

    As I said before, I don't refer to the morality of the war (or the methods used to persuade public opinion), I'm referring to whether the motives behind it are relevant. And they are not.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I think your wrong on this- Kant was certainly interested in the motive more than the action itself.

    Take the example of attempted murder. A man tries to shoot a baby but finds that the gun chamber is empty. Is there anything morally wrong in what has happened?- according to you the answer is 'no' (the man's murderous motive is irrelevant, and the gun didn't go off so there is no 'immoral action'.) However, I know how the courts and Kant would see it- equivalent to murder and certaintly wrong. Are you suggesting they would they be incorrect in this conclusion?

  7. datacharmer Says:

    But the action you are describing is immoral, and so is its (intended) result. Whether it suceeded or not does not bear on morality, and you are absolutely right as to its moral content and the (entirely appropriate) reaction of the law to it. The crucial thing to understand though is that the (intended) action is immoral in itself, it's not the motive that makes it so.

    If that same man shot a baby to save the world, would you find it moral? Kant certainly wouldn't, and we don't disagree on that.

  8. Spr-Eagle Says:

    Datacharmer - seems to me that this discussion started off on the wrong foot. Why are we talking about moral content of an action? As you rightly, I think, point out, the motive is irrelevant. However, that doesn't to me seem a useful maxim to stand by. As humans and actors in the world, we are not only interested in actions, but the motives of our fellow men. For example, peronally, it's not as important to me that the war in Iraq is immoral, but that most powerful man in the world is an immoral (and evil) son-of-a-bitch. This is what really matters, since it is the person that has the power to create events, whether they end up being moral or immoral, chances are in this case, they'll be the latter.

    This is what the catergorical imperative is getting at - it's about motives not actions. So while I think you're initial post is right, it is misleading to people that don't have the time to dwell on the issue fully.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Datacharmer- you're saying that firing an unloaded gun at a baby is wrong because the action of firing unloaded guns is wrong, and motive is irrelevant. I think you are incorrect and that it is motive that is important.

    For example, imagine someone knows that the gun is unloaded, points the gun at the baby and fires a blank (knowing that this will do no harm). In this case the same action as my earlier example has occurred, but this time the same action cannot be classed as immoral. Its only the motive (trying to kill the baby)that makes the action immoral.

    Actions in themselves do not have moral content, it is only motives that can be immoral.

  10. datacharmer Says:

    Anonymous - the relevant action here is killing the baby, not firing the gun. Killing babies is immoral whatever the motive; firing guns is never immoral per se.

    Spr-Eagle - I don't think we disagree. You are also right in saying that 'since it is the person that has the power to create events, whether they end up being moral or immoral, chances are in this case, they'll be the latter', but I'm discussing about the morality of a one-shot event here, in a somewhat abstract framework. So, do take Bush's morality into account in deciding whether to vote for him, but ignore it completely when deciding whether or not to support the war.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    If motives are unimportant in morally, why do we have a distinction between manslaughter and murder in the courts? See:

    For example in one case a man might kill a baby when he is in a drunken stupor- and have had no intent to do it, but in another case he may fire the gun purposefully to kill the baby with full knowledge of what he is doing. Though the actions are exactly the same in these two cases (killing a baby), the motive changes the way we view the morality of the act.

    So motive is clearly relevant in assessing the morality of acts.

  12. datacharmer Says:

    Whether I kill my wife drunk or sober, the motive is the same (e.g. I want her money, or I want her to stop talking, or I want to punish her for not doing the dishes). What changes when I am drunk is that I have less control over my actions, so I have diminished responsibility - my motive is the same. Whether I kill someone for their money or because they've been eyeing my sister, the treatment in court will be the same.

    I used my wife as an example here because I think that poor baby has gone through enough for a single comments thread!

  13. Anonymous Says:

    "whether I kill my wife drunk or sober the motive is the same"- No, you are managing to miss the point of my example. I'm asking you to think about a case where the actions are the same but the motive is different.

    Please work within the confines of the example that I am about to set out, or we will be discussing different questions; in return I'll give the baby a break.

    My example is of two acts:

    A1) Man purposively and maliciously shoots wife

    A2) Man accidentially shoots wife

    Assume the actions that take place are exactly the same in both cases, such that an external observer wouldn't be able to distinguish between acts 1) and 2).

    My contention is that act 1) is morally wrong and act 2) is not (or at least, is not as morally wrong).

    The only difference between act 1) and act 2) is motive. Therefore motive is important in judging morality.

    Please tell me which premise of this argument you cannot accept, as it seems pretty straightforward to me.

  14. datacharmer Says:

    A1) Man purposively and maliciously shoots wife
    A2) Man accidentially shoots wife

    are both equally morally repugnant actions. As a third, moral, actor I would dedicate the exact same amount of effort trying to stop the first from happening as I do the second. The killer's motive is irrelevent to me; it's the killing that bothers me.

    The killer's motive is relevant only when assessing how moral the killer himself is (as I said before, 'at the pearly gates'); it is perfectly valid for you to conclude Bush is an immoral person because his motives are what they are. But why should I, as an observer, give a toss? This says nothing about any given action of his - if he takes the bullet instead of the wife, his action is moral and to be applauded regardless of his motive.

    If you, like many opponents of the war, argue that Bush should not be allowed to jump in front of my wife merely because of his motive for doing so, you are being immoral yourselves.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    I can see what you're saying now about bush war etc. Yes, I don't think bush's motive in going into Iraq is particuarly relevant, but I don't think, either, that is completely irrelevant (i.e. I don't think that bush's motive is a piece of information which is of absolutely no relevance to moral deliberations).

    The fact that you acknowledge the relevance of motive to the discussion held at the pearly gates undermines your original argument that motive is totally irrelevant to morality.

    Your position is a bit of an odd mix of conseqentialism, with a bit of deontology thrown in (pearly gates), and I doubt it is internally consistent.

  16. datacharmer Says:

    My original argument is that motive is irrelevant to the moral content of an action, and that motive features prominently in political discource, when it shouldn't.

    I believe my views are perfectly consistent internally; Bush might be immoral and he will have to burn in hell for that, but this by itself does not signify that going to war (or any of his actions for that matter) were immoral.

    Thanks for this discussion, it has been really interesting.