If, as a psychologically 'normal' human being, I find acts that I would call 'immoral' to be repugnant (and my gut response to immorality 'feels' different enough form aversion to, say, eating excrement, so that I can be justified in calling only one of those 'immoral') than I already have a motivation for acting morally: it 'feels wrong'.

However, what would a moral realist, who believes that the definition of ethical behavior is independent of human feelings of aversion, say about motivation for acting morally? Even if a moral realist has a perfect definition of morality, how do those definitions provide a motivation for humans to act morally? According to moral realists, does the motivation for acting morally even have to be related to an objective definition of morality?

I see no connection between standard forms of moral realism and motivation for ethical behavior:

  • Divine Command Theory: besides for the obvious ontological problem of whether such a thing exists as a 'divine command', this doesn't create moral obligation. If a god told me "if you act morally then you'll get to eat pie in Heaven, but if you don't, you will burn in Hell for eternity", than of course I'd be motivated to act morally, but only because I like pie and dislike fire, not because such acts are moral.

  • A Categorical Imperative as a Free Agent: while Kant, if I understood him correctly, believes that acts can only be moral if they come out of conviction that such acts are morally obligatory, I fail to understand why I would want to do those things that are obligatory.

  • Naturalism: the way that I've seen this view presented by Nicholas Sturgeon (among others), 'moral' is a quality, but not one that includes anything that could be constructed as a reason to act in that particular manner (though there's been a lot of discussion on this, here for example, I haven't seen anything compelling)

  • Pragmatism or Reciprocity: there's an idea that I should be motivated to act morally towards others, since I don't want people to take advantage of or harm me, if they were to find out that I acted immorally to them they would feel justified in doing so. However, this practical motivation still seems like a far cry from any moral imperative. If I can be sure that I won't be caught, I have no reason not to harm others.

Am I missing something? Is there such a thing as a purely moral motivation, or one based purely on a feeling of obligation towards moral principles that doesn't appeal to human feeling? Put differently, is there any way to compel a psychopath to act morally when no one is watching?

  • 1
    I suggest Christine M. Korsgaard's The Sources of Normativity.
    – labreuer
    Jul 2, 2014 at 12:50
  • The Christian God would be more likely to tell you "Be like me and you will get to eat pie in heaven."
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 2, 2014 at 15:09
  • Why do you assert moral realists must believe moral reasons are independent of feelings? Aristotelian virtue theorists would beg to differ.
    – virmaior
    Jul 2, 2014 at 16:24
  • @NeilMeyer actually the bible seems to contradict itself: sometimes it says to be like god and sometimes it sounds like god say to be good. Is virtue loved by the gods because they are virtuous, or do the gods act virtuously because it is good?
    – That Guy
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:48
  • @virmaior not asserting, I'm just asking if it exists or if it can be justified. Certainly according to Aristotle it does not
    – That Guy
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:52

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure the first question --whether there can be moral motivations "independent of human feeling" is answerable --but the second question, about the psychopath, is the entire subject of Plato's Republic.

His answer, if you don't mind spoilers, is that it's always in your best interests, properly understood, to act morally, even in the case where the opposite seems true.

It's well worth reading --the arguments are actually very good, even if you're not a Platonist. Ultimately, however, it all comes back to his central contention that morality is deeply fundamental to the structure of the universe.


Ayn Rand would say that the right thing to do is what is in your rational self interest:


Why would it not be in your rational self interest to steal or cheat or commit murder or waste your time by taking drugs or whatever if you can get away with it?

First, you might imagine that you won't get caught but in reality there is no way you can make sure you won't be caught. You might be seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. You might inadvertently leave a record of something bad you did. To think that you can be sure you won't be caught is to imagine that you know everything about all technology or techniques that could be applied to catching you in any way. This is not a tenable position.

Second, even if you don't get caught doing bad stuff makes you worse off. If you murder somebody you deprive yourself of an unknown stream of benefits that the person you killed might have produced. Also, that person presumably had some problem with what you were doing. The rational response to this objection would be to find a way to solve that problem. For example, if your victim was banging your wife and you got angry about this, there are ways to deal with that other than killing him. You might have decided that if you wife prefers him you would prefer not to deal with her and divorce her. You might decide that the institution of marriage is not much good and that you shouldn't hold your wife to her marital vows but you still want to associate with her in some way. You might have decided to ask you wife why she's having sex with somebody else and address her problem. There are many other possible options. In each case you would learn something and make your life better. If you kill him, even if you get away with it, you have deprived yourself of an opportunity to improve your life.

  • This seems very wrong. Your giving hypothetical cases where the immoral act is self-harming, but what if after a detailed cost-benefit analysis I can be sure that my murdering of someone is good for me? Such cases may in fact be more common
    – That Guy
    Jul 9, 2014 at 15:51
  • A person is capable of creating new knowledge. It is impossible to predict the content of such knowledge since if you could predict its content you would already know it. Such knowledge could lead to an indefinite stream of future benefits. So the calculation you describe is impossible and anyone who claims to be able to make it is wrong.
    – alanf
    Jul 10, 2014 at 8:21
  • @than you shouldn't perform any action at all! I always need to do some sort of similar calculation when any decision, such as when deciding to go to grad school in philosophy or go to law school. Why should the decision to buy something instead of steal it be any different? I weigh the options, determine, to the best of my ability, the odds of each case turning out better or worse...
    – That Guy
    Jul 10, 2014 at 13:06
  • There is at least one decision you have made without weighing the costs and benefits: the decision to assess your other decisions in terms of costs and benefits. So it must be possible to make decisions without weighing costs and benefits or you would never have made any decisions at all. In some specific limited cases it may be possible to make a cost-benefit decision: Do I prefer have £2 to having a sandwich? But usually the better way to make a decision between two or more courses of action is to ask which has potential to solve more interesting problems.
    – alanf
    Jul 10, 2014 at 13:29

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