Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Morality and Self-Interest


So it turns out that when classes end on Wednesday, that means you can still have class on Wednesday. Who knew? Not me! Fortunately, Simon was on the case, so we had one more day. And I’m glad because I got a lot out of the chapter we read.

Yes, it’s one more from Williams’s book Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. This chapter is paired with the that I made an optional reading for the first day. That was also in response to a question from Simon. It all fits together!

Where was I? Right, why those chapters are paired together. They are paired together because they both concern attempts to find an objective basis for ethical thinking in what it means to be a good person. There are objective standards for determining whether something is, say, a good watch; primarily, it has to tell time accurately. This works for watches because we know what the function of a watch is: primarily, to tell time. Is there a function for people that would allow us to come up with objective standards for describing someone as a good person? That is the question that unites these two chapters. The chapter on Aristotle concerns Aristotle’s attempt to supply an account of human nature that would fit the bill. This chapter concerns the attempt to identify our function in terms of our role in a supernatural being’s plan for the universe.

What is he doing?

This is a devilishly complicated chapter. But if you step back, you’ll see that this is what’s going on.

Williams is talking about the attempt to say that morality comes from God. This sort of thinking about ethics was criticized by Immanuel Kant. Kant held that there are two possible reasons for obeying God’s wishes.

  1. God is good and just.
  2. God will punish you if you don’t obey.

Kant thought the first alternative was fine but that it would not be compatible with basing ethics on God’s will. You would have to know that God is good and just before you could know that you should obey his will. If so, goodness and justice can’t come from God’s will.

Kant thought the second alternative was inappropriate for morality because it involves the wrong kind of motivation. People who comply with the moral rules out of fear of divine punishment do so for self-interested reasons and that, Kant thought, means that they are not truly acting morally.

By the end of the chapter, Williams has argued that there is a third option. The reason to comply with God’s will might be based on a relationship with God. You might think that you have to do what God wants because you fear being separated from God. (This is, in fact, what religious people often say.) That motivation is based on neither your ethical evaluation of God nor on your own interests. Williams makes the case that it is a recognizable motivation for a lot of what we commonly think of as moral behavior. So the task for religious ethics is not to show how compliance with God’s will can meet the standards for moral motivation. Rather, the problem is in explaining the nature of the relationship between finite mortals and an infinite supernatural being.

Is there anything for secular ethics in there?

In the middle of the chapter, Williams has a comparison of the views of Kant and David Hume on moral motivation. To simplify things greatly, Kant believed that moral motivation had to be pure: the person who acts morally is the one who is motivated by duty alone. We got a taste of Kantian ethics when we read Herman. For Hume, by contrast, moral behavior is motivated by sympathy and sympathy involves a mixture of concern for others and for yourself. You sympathize with others, for Hume, when you feel what they do and so when you act out of sympathy, it’s partly in order to experience the joys, or to relieve the pains, that others feel for yourself.

Williams makes a case for Hume’s side of this dispute, in part by noting some of the extreme positions that Kant is apparently driven to.

For instance, we returned to our earlier discussion of intention with three cases.

  1. Zach gives to charity because he thinks it’s the right thing to do; Singer convinced him, say.
  2. Zane gives to charity because he thinks it will make him look good; if he didn’t think it would help him get into college, he wouldn’t do it.
  3. Zoë gives nothing to charity and buys succulents for herself instead; like me, she really likes succulents.

Williams notes that we morally disapprove of Zane. He’s a faker! (In the example; the real Zane is very nice and authentic.) But, at the same time, it would be misleading to think that Zane and Zoë did basically the same, wrong thing. Zane did give to charity after all and Zoë spent her money on herself. That suggests that the purity of your motivations is not the only thing that matters.

Williams also noted that if you assume that there is a sharp distinction between moral considerations and self-interested ones and you think that morality takes priority over self-interest, you can wind up having to appeal to strange devices like duties to yourself in order to explain why anyone could ever be permitted to act in their own interests.

This prompted Simon to note that it is just assumed that morality is more important than other considerations. I think that’s a good point. On the face of it, there are lots of moral obligations that are not that important. I’m contractually obliged to go to all faculty meetings, for example, but, well, uh, let’s just say that while I do my best, sometimes I just have too much to do (and I want to sleep at night). The obligation to go to all the faculty meetings just isn’t that important even though it’s a genuine obligation. At least, that’s how I see it. Another interpretation of this kind of case is that I’m not really obliged to go; if I was, I wouldn’t skip the meetings for those reasons. While I have an opinion, I don’t think it’s obvious which interpretation is correct.

Williams does think that morality and self-interest are opposed to one another, but he does not draw the line in the same place that Kant does and he does not draw it as sharply as Kant does. Morality involves concern for the interests of others and that can come at the expense of your interests. The main concern with self-interested motivations, in turn, is when they lead people to act at the expense of others. In the case of the religious theory of ethics, for instance, the concern for salvation does not raise this issue since, presumably, there is no way of pursuing your own salvation at the expense of someone else. Williams holds out the possibility that something similar could be true of other theories of ethics without showing that this is so.


Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.