Notes on Choice and Morality
Here I'm going to discuss a few concepts that are relevant to the analysis of moral merit and guilt.
The axiom of inseparable motivation
*When there are multiple incentives for an action, it's impossible to do it "for" only some of them.* If they were all there, they all affected the difficulty of the decision, so you by definition were motivated by all of them. In other words, it can't be said that a person is more loyal to X than to Y until they're forced to choose between them - and not just because it hasn't been proven, its truth value is actually undefined until then.
The axiom of necessary motivation
Every action chosen is either what was most tempting, most moral, or a compromise between the two. No one ever does what is both less tempting to them and less moral than another option they were aware of.
You might think there are loads of cases where someone acts in a way that seems both less enjoyable and equally or less moral than another action. Of course, the most tempting thing isn't necessarily what will make the agent happiest, because the agent can misjudge that, and probably also because of time preference. But the other thing you're likely missing if you're making that objection is the concept of ideals. We have *beliefs* about what we consider right and wrong, and admire people who follow our beliefs - including ourselves. This creates an emotional incentive to act according to one's own ideology that is separate from the necessarily correct guidance of conscience, because we want to feel proud of ourselves. Note that the formation of such beliefs can be explained as a self-interested way of increasing one's own happiness by enshrining how one already acts as right.
It's also worth talking about some psychological factors besides ideals that complicate temptation calculations:
- Self-pity / rewarding oneself: when we have it bad, or after we do something morally good, we feel that we *deserve* some degree of indulgence, and so we find it harder to act good even when the degree of ostensible temptation is the same. Likewise, guilt can provide exhortation that makes it easier to act good.
- Instinct: an established habit makes something easier to do, separately from ideals. This explains a lot why two people with different habits might find the same action in the same situation more or less alluring.
- Discontinuity: if the only options are to do something extremely heroic or something extremely evil, the judgement of merit for either action is skewed. The evil action is less evil because the only way to avoid it was a great sacrifice, and the good action is less good because the only other way would've led to self-hate.
I should also discuss the concept of intention here. The notion is common that you can "intend" to do something you haven't actually had the opportunity to do yet, and that this has moral weight. I'd like to explain why this is true: "intending" to do something consists of telling yourself you're going to, which raises the temptation to do it (by biasing your instinct toward it) and thus raises the chance that you will, which has a fraction of the moral weight. The reason people do it is that it makes them more comfortable in the short-term. For example, if I know that in a few hours I'll have the chance to undergo an extreme pain for a noble cause, I'll feel very anxious because I think I might do it and so I'll be partially experiencing the fear of the pain. Telling myself that I won't, and thus reducing the chance that I will, relieves my fear.