Motivations and Results

Yesterday I wrote about Quassim Cassam’s suggestion that virtues are teleological and that as a result motivations are also teleological. However, that may not actually be correct, and that may not actually be the argument that Cassam puts forward.
Cassam writes, “there is no reason to suppose that epistemic vices are rooted in a desire for ignorance. Epistemic vices may result in ignorance but that is not the same as being motivated by a desire for ignorance.” Cassam is maintaining a consequentialist view that epistemic vices systematically obstruct knowledge. It is a consequentialist argument in the sense that the outcome of particular behaviors and ways of thinking are likely to hinder knowledge, and we can understand those ways of thinking and behaviors as vices based on their consequences.
Cassam continues, “the closed-minded needn’t lack a healthy desire for knowledge but their approach to inquiry isn’t conductive to knowledge. There is a mismatch between what they seek – cognitive contact with reality – and how they go about achieving it.”
From this point it is hard to argue that motivations are also teleological and consequential. Limiting our thinking to just epistemic motivations, we can see that someone may not be motivated by trying to prove what they already believe is correct or motivated by a prejudice against certain information and opinions, yet can still end up obstructing knowledge, developing epistemic prejudices, or being closed-minded.
The idea of a thought bubble is a useful demonstration. Few of us would say that thought bubbles are good for us and most of us would acknowledge that they obstruct knowledge by trapping us in an information ecosystem where everyone we know and interact with holds the same beliefs and views. But few of us ever really escape thought bubbles. We don’t necessarily aim to be closed-minded and chose to only surround ourselves with people who think the same as us, but our time, attention, and energy is limited. We cannot always go about finding people outside our place of work, our religious communities, or our families to obtain drastically different views than our own. We only have so much time to watch the news, read books, and seek out information about the minimum wage, the causes of WWII, and new cancer therapies. Thought bubbles are an unavoidable outcome of the huge amount of information available and our limited ability to focus on and develop knowledge of any specific thing.
We may not be motivated to obstruct knowledge. We truly be motivated by finding more knowledge, but environmental factors, other decisions that we have made, and potentially just ignorance of how to improve our information ecosystem could prevent us from eliminating or avoiding an epistemic vice. Our motivations in these instances cannot be thought of teleologically. Judging them by the outcome alone misses many of the factors beyond our control that influenced where we ultimately ended up and whether we developed epistemic vices. What motivations serve us well in some situations may turn out to be epistemic vices that hinder knowledge in other situations. While outcomes may end up similar, there does seem to be a true difference between making an error that hinders knowledge and deliberately hindering knowledge out of a motivation to hold on to power, prestige, influence, or prior beliefs. 

An Idea of Inner Moral Views

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of fortune.”

 

Seneca seems to be suggesting that we can turn inward and recognize a sort of moral philosophy entirely introspectively. What is good and what we should do can be reasoned on our own, without requiring the input of other people and society. Individually, Seneca suggests, moral ethics, values, and a good life are possible.

 

The views that Seneca puts forward remind me an idea I have had for a while. The idea is that we should individually live in a way that embraces free will. We should live as though what we are going to do will shape the world in a meaningful way and deliver us to the future we want. But when we look at society, we should approach others as if they do not have free will and are limited by their experiences and surroundings in what they can truly accomplish. This pushes us to do our best and achieve great things, but without putting us in a place where we feel better than others and where we don’t put people down because they did not manage to achieve the same level of success as us. In a similar way, we should live our lives believing that we can develop our independent moral values and structures and be a good person without relying on others to tell us we are good, but when we look out at society we should try to work with other people to develop a clear definition and picture of what we think is good, moral, and just. We should view society as operating as though each person is dependent on others and incapable of individually changing the world without collective action. I’m still working through these two contradictory views of self versus world, and while they conflict, they seem to be able to create a narrative that is functional for us.

 

I feel that Seneca’s quote argues for deontological ethics, the idea that we have a duty to do things that are good entirely on their own. I usually take a more teleological view of ethics, which can be defined more as a form of ends justify the means type ethics. I see a deontological view of ethics as being easier to stand on its own without need of justification where teleological ethics is more utilitarian and consequentialist, holding that are actions cannot be deemed to be good solely based on whether we feel they are right, but are tied in some way to the fortune of the outcome that they produce.

 

Perhaps we should live as though our moral philosophy is deontological, telling ourselves that we are going to adopt a set of beliefs and habits that are morally good on their own, simply for their own sake. But we should in reality be living a more teleologial life. We should think about the consequences of going to the gym, of being nice to others, and of making smart donations to Givewell.org recommended charities. We can put on a deontological face, but be almost entirely teleological behind the mask, doing the best to maximize the good we actually achieve while telling others that we engage in good actions simply because the actions are good all on their own. This is again the kind of contradictory split I mentioned above, viewing how we should act in one light, and viewing the way we think about society in an entirely different light. I know it doesn’t make sense to combine and put together into a larger view, but for me it does create a situation where my thoughts and actions align in a way that makes me more empathetic to society and more responsible for my own decisions.