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Exploring Conscience and Motive: Man is NOT a Machine

Satisfactory Essays
Exploring Conscience and Motive: Man is NOT a Machine

Many philosophers believe that all human action stems from desire or motive or urge or some such thing. On this view, if men ever do the good or the right it is because in some sense they desire to. Perhaps the desire to do the right is sometimes nothing more than the pressures of past societal or parental training, or conceivably it might stem from some sort of social instinct planted deep within us, or more likely it stems from the realization that it is in the long-term interest of the agent. But in any case it is supposed that men do not act independently of some kind of desire. Consider the stark expression of this view from an important ethical theorist, Richard Brandt:

. . . action-tendencies are a multiplicative function of valences (occurrent desires and aversions), and hence . . . an action-tendency is always zero in magnitude if there is no valence attached to the contemplated action itself or its expected outcome . . . no intentional action will occur without desire or aversion directed at it or its outcome, and hence no rational, ideally criticized action will take place without desire or aversion. (If some philosophers have thought, as some seem to have done, that a person can do his duty even if so doing is not positively valenced for him . . . , perhaps 'out of respect' for duty in some sense, they were wrong; and their psychology of morality needs basic revision.)1

This appears to be a purely mechanistic view of human action. Exactly the same thing as Brandt says of human action could be said of the movement of billiard balls . A billiard ball does not move unless there is a positive valence in the direction of its movement.

This view has a powerful appeal to the human imagination,--so much so that many philosophers find it self-evident, and find that they are unable even to conceive an alternative. Paul Henle, speaking of an approach to ethics which seems to deny that men always act from desire, flatly declares that such an approach creates "an insoluble problem of ethical motivation".2

On the other hand, there is a remarkable tradition, mainly derived from Kant, which denies that human action must always be understood as stemming from desires and motives. This tradition acknowledges of course that men are often and even usually motivated by desire.
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