Should a moral action be evaluated directly as it is with rewards - real or possible - being put aside? In other words - is a consideration of covert rewards that the actor is gaining or those selfish motivations that he is hiding irrelevant for this evaluation?

Two examples: a politician makes a difficult work and uses his power in order to promote something useful for the whole society and, finally, obtains more votes at next elections; a company advances a non-profit project while everybody understands that this is improving its image. Both actions are followed by rewards that, in principle, can be considered or can be put aside.

Are there arguments against the "non-consideration" of rewards in a moral action evaluation?

  • i don't think it can be entirely irrelevant, but it be somewhat impractical for them to be relevant. i'm sorry as i do not know the meaning of "practical ethics" i think
    – user6917
    Sep 1, 2014 at 11:39
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    A company is not a person and is therefore not capable of making a moral decision. A moral politician is an oxymoron. Sep 1, 2014 at 14:55
  • Yes, I admit that this is correct what you say about politicians, but anyway we have a right to take them as moral persons, at least theoretically! As for companies, this is a human activity and, I think, we should not let the persons, which lead it, hide themselves behind the word "company" in order to withdraw their responsibility for their actions. In this sense, we can consider companies as moral persons Sep 1, 2014 at 19:47

4 Answers 4


A paradigmatic protagonist of considering the rewards is Kant. But to him it does not matter if you are rewarded, but if you are doing something because of the reward. Only if you do it without being motivated by the reward at all, it is a good action. That is basically the reason why with Kant there is no promise that you will actually go to heaven if you do good. You only are entiteld to hope for it.

In utilitarism on the other hand the basic idea is that utility is maximised. Usually the total sum of utility is considered. So if you are rewarded for your good work, this adds to the total sum of happiness generated by your actions. If you are a politician and increase the happiness of millions of people, your contribution will not be a large portion of the total happiness, but if anything it will never reduce the morality of your actions.

  • Yes, these are good players. One can confront them. The Utilitarian says: "the society endorses any good action, do them and do not lose yourself in reflections about subtleties of what is behind them - they do not matter for us". And "Kant" objects: "the autonomy of the moral is too important; if we lose it we lose the moral itself. So, do not think about rewards when you plan a good action or it would be without value" - the rewards consideration matters. This is the argument against. Sep 1, 2014 at 11:55
  • what about heaven as the "perfect coincidence if virtue and happiness" ?
    – user6917
    Sep 1, 2014 at 12:26
  • @user3293056 Heaven is the perfect coincidence if virtue and happiness. This is why according to Kant you can never know if there is a heaven. If you knew that good deeds will lead to eternal happiness your capability to do stuff just because they are the right thing to do would be crippled. You would (and could) always be motivated by the prospect of going to heaven.
    – Einer
    Sep 1, 2014 at 13:00
  • so it motivates but only with the grace of god?
    – user6917
    Sep 1, 2014 at 14:59
  • Don't you need a "not" in the first sentence or am I parsing it poorly? For Kant, the reward is generally not to be regarded, but the reward for acting morally in generally is eventually that God will make things just (I'm forgetting the exact term but this latter point is called something like "Kant's happiness thesis")
    – virmaior
    Sep 8, 2014 at 23:32

You wouldn't just evaluate an action for its moral value, you would then act on it. Maybe you would just act by admiring or hating the person depending on your evaluation, but you would act - otherwise the evaluation is pointless.

Now you can choose to evaluate that action including or excluding any reward that was received. You will of course get different results. But also your action will start at a different baseline. Take the politician who did some excellent work. If you ignore that he got elected because of his good work, then you evaluate the action, assign it a very high moral value, and decide that he deserves a reward - which is very good, because that's what actually happened, he did get a reward! Or you include the fact that he got elected in your evaluation. The total is now of much less moral value because doing good and getting rewarded evens itself out (more or less). You decide that he doesn't deserve a reward, but that decision is taken from the point of view that he did already get elected and doesn't deserve any more.

To answer the question directly: No, the reward doesn't destroy the moral value of an action. But if you evaluate not just the action, but the action plus any results of the action, then of course your evaluation of the sum will be different. You add a moral value for the action, you subtract a moral value for accepting the reward, and come to a total.

Now if a reward was hidden (by the person we are looking at), and we find out about it, then we would subtract the moral issue of the person trying to seem more moral than they are, and trying to get more recognition for their morality than deserved. If someone hands out goods to people in need, that's a good thing to do. If that person received all the goods without having to pay for them and just donates their time, that's still a good thing, not quite as good as paying themselves. If their time is also paid for, then the moral value might be a total of zero, but not because the moral value of handing out goods was destroyed, but because the payment compensated for it. But if that person pretended that all the goods came out of their own pocket without any compensation, and fooled is into believing that they are a highly moral person, then the total would be a big negative.


I have three answers, of ascending mootness.


If the virtuous acts are a lie in the sense of the politician appearing to do good only so they can do something monstrous, then no I think it cannot be said he or she can be credited with the goodness of the first act. I think a less extreme example is that worthwhile behaviour in one domain can leads to e.g. freeriding in another. I have forgotten the term for this.


Certain rewards may perhaps be such that despite their overwhelming value the recipient can be credited with the action that leads to them. I am thinking of e.g. Kant, who claims that reward in heaven is necessarily postulated in practical reasoning, in deciding how to behave.

Kant argued that practical reason requires that people believe in God and the immortality of the soul including reward and punishment in heaven.

The journey of modern theology p88.

We are to be motivated by the postulation of the coincidence between virtue and happiness, which seems to include the hope of personal reward from a beneficent God.

Similar things can probably be found in other religions; e.g. in Buddhism good karma associated with an act doesn't make the act neutral.


Finally, allow me to suggest that while there may be such a thing as a guilty mind, or immoral motivations, these have to be transparent to the agent in order to count against him or her. In the same way it would be quite odd to say that someone deliberately did something awful without knowing that they intended to do it, symmetrically, it may be that someone can only be motivated by e.g. greed if they know that they are.

And actually one's motivations may be pretty inaccessible. Quite famously, Nietzsche claimed that we can't rank acts according to motivation, but his answer was to throw out all morality or at least all vast amounts of it. Perhaps he went too far, and the pejorative should be on damning covert rewards.


There are arguments against not considering the rewards that a person gets for performing an action when evaluating its moral value. If the person receives no reward then there should be a presumption that what he did was wrong. If the person gets no reward then his actions don't solve any problem for him and that makes them worse than actions that do solve some problem he has. He also should neither demand nor accept sacrifices from another person, i.e. - the other person engaging in actions that don't solve a problem she has. If a person does something and expects not to receive any reward then he is ignoring a problem with his proposed course of action, which is bad.

If a person gains a reward for doing something he shouldn't hide it although he is under no obligation to explain it to other people.

In addition, without the expectation of some reward he doesn't get feedback on whether his actions are any good. If he expects a reward and doesn't get it then he has some signal that there is something wrong with what he's doing. He can then try to solve that problem. So it is better to undertake actions for which you expect a reward and to succeed.

Also, the reward should not consist of praise from other people. Chasing such rewards involves ignoring your own judgement and treating other people as an authority. But so-called authorities are fallible, so treating them as sources of knowledge that should not be criticised is ignoring potential problems, which is irrational.

The politician does something that is "useful for society". What does that mean? If the policy makes some change that makes it easier for people to, say, run a business then he will benefit. More businesses will start up and make more useful stuff, which he will be able to buy. If the reform removes some problem from the criminal justice system that results in fewer convictions of innocent people then he benefits. He is able to cooperate with these people, or they could be hired by businesses that will make useful stuff, or those people might write good software or music or novels or... And even if he uses none of those products directly, they might help other people do stuff for him. If the votes are the sole benefit he gets, then he has done something wrong. For example, he may get votes giving government handouts to some group of people thus making those people dependent when they need not be so.

Companies should only engage in activities that make a profit. Goods and services should only be provided if they are profitable since otherwise the company are just ignoring a problem with what they're doing. The people who use the good or service prefer the resources used to provide it to the good or service in question. The company should not pander to people who think that it is better to do stuff for which you make no money, any more than they should pander to any other irrational idea.

  • Or will make a profit; Amazon didn't make a profit for some time; the research that bio-tech was done mainly by universities supported by public subsidies; and very recently lenses with negative refractive indexes have been engineered - so called 'perfect lenses' - which should lead to optical imaging below what is currently possible. Sep 1, 2014 at 13:33
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    'Reward should not consist of praise from other people'; presumably you're not happy about the Nobel or Field medal prizes; 'Authorities are fallible'; yes like Newton, which took the genius of Lebniez to demonstrate he was wrong; and whose arguments were justified by Einstein; at least we got GPS out of after several centuries of so-called speculative and unproductive arguments... Sep 1, 2014 at 13:41
  • Your first comment doesn't make a clear argument, could you clarify? I don't care about medals. As for the rest of your comment, again you don't make a clear argument. You should say what you mean explicitly.
    – alanf
    Sep 2, 2014 at 8:34
  • "If the person receives no reward then there should be a presumption that what he did was wrong. " How is that? So donating to charity is wrong, because you don't get a reward?
    – gnasher729
    Oct 3, 2014 at 16:08
  • @gnasher729: I explained that in my answer.
    – alanf
    Oct 4, 2014 at 23:02

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