These questions regard Prichard’s 1912 paper “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Prichard says the question has arisen in philosophy: “Why ought I do what I ought to do?”

Two types of answers can be given, according to him both break down.

1) doing these things will be for our own good

**this argument fails because it reduces obligation to inclination.

2) this answer has 2 forms (2.1, 2.2) 2.1) a good consequence will result from doing these things. E.g. “I ought to do X because it will lead to Y”

**This argument fails because to have a valid “because” relation we must suppose that Y ought to be, since an “ought” can only be derived from another ought. But the very form “ought to be” is incorrect since “ought” can only refer to actions.

2.2) the intrinsic goodness of the action.

**This argument fails because it only refers to the motive out of which an action is done; and tightness and obligation can not be based on a motive.

Somehow I failed to understand everything with the ** in front, his evidence for his arguments. If someone could please elaborate in layman’s terms it would be much appreciated. I am not a philosophy student, but I am trying to read in the field, and it is hard.



The intuition of moral obligation

H.A. Prichard's ethical theory is a form of intuitionism. You can get a first sense of his position from the following commentary :

Prichard's positive doctrine, as already expressed in the 1912 article, was that we have immediate knowledge of particular moral obligations in particular circumstances, and that such knowledge no more requires justification or derivation than any other kind of immediate knowledge. Just as the theory of knowledge can deal with scepticism only by inducing people to notice instances of genuine knowledge, so the principal task of moral philosophy is to recall people from unnecessary moral doubt or sophistication to the immediacy of the apprehension of obligation. (D. J. B. Hawkins, 'The Ethics of H. A. Prichard', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1951), pp. 242-247 : 243.)

Prichard's central view is that we simply apprehend a certain action as obligatory. He does not explain the moral epistemology that supports this claim, i.e. how we intuit a moral obligation. But in fairness to him, I think it does follow that if I simply apprehend a moral obligation - say, to give money to this or that homeless person - then inclination or self-interest or the deduction of the obligation from a general moral principle containing an 'ought' from which I derive the conclusion that I ought (as a moral obligation) to give money to this or that homeless person, play no role in the apprehension of moral obligation.

The intrinsic goodness of the action can fulfil no role because it provides a motive for doing the action. But an action done under moral obligation is done, not from a motive, but from the mere apprehension that it is obligatory.

Motive, moral worth and moral obligation

Prichard accepts that the motive of an action determines its moral worth; but insists that moral worth has nothing to do with moral obligation.

A further extract might help. It isn't entirely easy reading but I'll comment at the end :

According to Prichard and Ross, obligation is independent of moral worth both in the sense that the rightness of an action can not be analyzed in terms of moral worth and in the sense that one can not infer the rightness of an action from its displaying moral worth or vice versa. The main reason for this independence is that the moral worth of an action depends on the motives from which it is done, whereas the rightness of an action does not. As a result, it is possible to act from a motive that gives an action moral worth without having done something that is right, and it is possible to do something right without having done it from a motive that would give the action moral worth. That the moral worth of an action depends on the motive from which it is done also provides the basis for intuitionists' arguments that rightness can not be analyzed in terms of moral worth. It has seemed to follow from this dependence that any analysis of rightness in terms of moral worth commits one to the view that what one ought to do is to act from a certain motive, one that would give one's action moral worth. Intuitionists have offered a number of reasons for thinking that this latter view is untenable. First, if the motive in question is the motive of duty, then the proposed analysis will be circular. Second, any such analysis leads to an infinite regress. If what is right is acting from a good motive, and if acting from a motive is itself an action, then it will be right to act from a good motive from a good motive, and so on ad infinitum. Third, any such analysis commits one to the possibility of being moved to be moved (or of willing to will), and that is unintelligible. Finally, any such analysis violates the principle that 'ought' implies 'can'. In order to act from a motive, I must have it; but motives are not the sorts of things that I can call up at will. From all of this it has seemed to follow that whatever it is that makes an action obligatory or right, it is independent of whatever would allow an action to display moral worth. (Norman O. Dahl, 'Obligation and Moral Worth: Reflections on Prichard and Kant', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 50, No. 3, Symposium on Rationality and Moral Values (Nov., 1986), pp. 369- 399 : 369-70.)

I think a fair gloss on this is to say that in Prichard's view certain actions just are morally obligatory, a matter of duty. He believes that we can, but 'how' he doesn't say, apprehend that an action is obligatory. Obligation is unconditional on anything - save the apprehension that it is a matter of duty. It could not be conditional on motivation because motivation is contingent. I do not have full control over my motives. So if moral obligation depended on motivation it could not be unconditional in the right way; it would be dependent on the chance or fortuity of my motivation.

Prichard is fully prepared to concede moral worth to actions done from certain kinds of motivation. If I give money to the homeless from compassion, this action has moral worth. Moral worth is important but it is quite distinct from moral obligation, which is a requirement apprehended as binding whatever one might be motivated to do.

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    Thank you for your comment and further sources! Would you be able to explain what this means? “Ought can only refer to actions”... that justification really throws me off. – Zelda Quandt Oct 3 '18 at 13:19
  • @Zelda Quandt. I can see my original answer didn't fully clear up your concerns. I have revised it and I hope the new material will make things plainer. But get back to me if it doesn't. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 3 '18 at 14:38
  • Thank you sincerely. It has cleared everything up but one part of his writing, which granted, I should let go. But I am trying to improve in the rigour of my readings, to improve my reasoning. There is one part in his paper, argument 2.1, where he says ought can only refer to actions. Is he saying that ought can only be used for actions because that’s what we can manipulate? E.g. it isn’t the case that the sky ought to be green. It is what it is. But we “ought to” colour it red. ? In which case, I think I get it :)) – Zelda Quandt Oct 4 '18 at 5:06
  • @Zelda Quandt. Thanks - I'll see if I can fit in the last piece of the puzzle. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 4 '18 at 13:44

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