Moral beliefs don’t motivate much

Several months ago, there was a post on the NYT opinionator blog called “Confessions of an ex-Moralist” by philosopher Joel Marks, about moving from moral realism to moral nihilism. I don’t think the arguments Marks gives for moral nihilism are any good, but there’s a part at the end worth amplifying, even though the article is very much old news:

One interesting discovery has been that there are fewer practical differences between moralism and amoralism than might have been expected. It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all. Does this lessen my ability to bring others around to sharing my desires, and hence diminish the prospects of ending animal agriculture? On the contrary, I find myself in a far better position than before to change minds – and, what is more important, hearts. For to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

A.J. Ayer once claimed that the values we have are the values we were brought up with as little kids and never change one we’re adults. Therefore, Ayer thought, the only effective moral persuasion involves arguing about what consequences our actions will have. That’s going a little far, I think, but it is striking just how little role fundamental moral beliefs play in motivating people.

To give another example: the philosopher Peter Singer has argued, first in his famous essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and more recently in his book The Life You Can Save, that people in rich countries like the US should give much more to charities that help people in poor countries than they (the people in rich countries) currently do. The main argument he originally gave for this conclusion rested on the following principle:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent.

That may strike many people as plausible at first, but as Singer notes, this principle would have radical consequences:

Since the situation appears to be that very few people are likely to give substantial amounts, it follows that I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents – perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal.

Singer, you may be surprised to learn, says he accepts this consequence. And there have been other philosophers who’ve claimed to accept it. I feel the pull of Singer’s arguments. Yet nobody–and I really mean nobody, at least as far as I know–really does what Singer’s principle requires. Singer himself doesn’t. As his website explains:

Q. Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?

A. I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more than I should. I give about 25% of what I earn to NGO’s, mostly to organizations helping the poor to live a better life. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since I started giving, about thirty years ago, I’ve gradually increased the amount I give, and I’m continuing to do so.

And think that Singer has been advocating on this issue for 40 years now. While his moral beliefs do seem to influence his behavior, there’s still a large gap between his beliefs and his behavior. I know Singer’s arguments only weakly affect my inclinations to act.

However, I think there’s something much more persuasive in The Life You Can Save, namely the part where Singer cites the charity rating organization GiveWell as figuring out that one particular charity was managing to save one life for every $650-$1000 it spent. When you have that kind of factual information, it to some extent moots the moral arguments.

Here’s why: rather than trying to argue anyone into different priorities, all you have do is point out to them that if they care about saving lives enough to spend $1,000 doing it, then they should donate that $1,000 to charity. Forget about the point of marginal utility: all that matters is the point at which you don’t have anything you’d rather spend $1,000 on than saving a life.

In other words, forget about what you think people should do. Just ask them how badly they, as a matter of fact, care about other people’s well-being and work from there.

  • piero

    Very interesting post. I think you might want to have a look at Alonzo Fyfe’s theory of desirism. His blog is at

  • Rike

    Very much food for thought. Thank you!

  • Art

    There is also the case where, for various reasons, rooted in logic and/or religion, people may not see saving a life as a desirable or beneficial goal.

    • Hedonic Treader

      You can then replace the “saving lives” metric with any other ethical metric, such as “prevent negative experiences” or “create positive experiences” in the world.

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  • stephenbenson

    “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

    William James

  • PaddyFace

    I’m probably unusual in this respect, but Peter Singer (via Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die) has substantially changed the way I live my life. The thought experiment about rescuing a drowning child blew my mind. I’ve tried to reorient all my activities toward the ones that will do most good. As I write this comment, I’m wondering a little bit if it’s the best use of my time.

    If I internalized a belief in moral nihilism or relativism, I would probably still conform to my pre-Singer, more commonsense notion of morality. I still wouldn’t eat meat or eggs, but I wouldn’t feel that (for example) I had to donate most of my discretionary income to a charity that campaigns against factory farming. So for me, at least, abstract philosophical discourse has challenged me to push myself in the moral domain, and not to do merely a bit more than everybody else.