Imagine a masochistic misanthrope. This person hates other people. It causes them great pain to be in company, to be pleasant, to be friendly. All of the social virtues hurt them. But, they get off on that pain. They crave it. They constantly desire it. So, they seek it out. They spend as much time as possible among other people being friendly, polite, helpful, and generous. Ask anyone who has interacted with the Masochistic Misanthrope, and you’ll be told that they are the nicest, kindest, most wonderful person. What can we say about the Misanthrope, morally speaking?
There’s a strong temptation to either apply moral blame, or at least withhold moral praise, to the Masochistic Misanthrope. Everything they do is done out of selfishness. There’s no higher calling, no altruistic motives. There’s a long philosophical history of this view. Kant famously said that only actions that stem from our reason have moral worth. The Misanthrope only acts out of desire, so no matter how good the actions appear, they are morally worthless.
Worth implies some kind of exchange. It is measuring the value of something in comparison to something else. Nothing has worth in isolation. Gold isn’t inherently valuable, it gets its value from what it can be traded for or turned into. If a lump of gold can be traded for a loaf of bread, then that lump is worth one loaf of bread. If it can be turned into a pair of earrings, then it is worth one pair of earrings. That bread is only worth anything in that it can be turned into food (aka eaten). Those earrings are only worth anything in that they can be turned into a feeling (aka they make the wearer feel pretty).
Even those basic goods (food, feelings) are not valuable in isolation. In fact, they can’t be isolated. Happiness doesn’t exist outside of something that feels happy. Food, as food, doesn’t exist apart from something that eats it. (This last one may be confusing to some. I don’t mean to say that an apple doesn’t exist if nothing eats it. I’m saying that an apple is not food if nothing eats it.) All goods are relational. They are good for something or to something.
Morality is more akin to basic goods (food, feelings) than to things like gold or money. I believe that’s where some of the confusion creeps in. People forget the relational nature of basic goods. Morality not only isn’t good in isolation. Like happiness, it doesn’t even exist in isolation. Morality only exists in actions that need a subject and an object. A person can’t simply be good. She needs to be good for something or to something.
Like anything else, if morality has worth it is in exchange with something. We most commonly think of morality as being exchanged for praise or blame (rewards or punishments). It just makes sense that the object of the action is the thing that bestows praise or blame. In other words, the one who performs the action is one party to the exchange, and whoever the action affects is the other. That is most commonly other people, but it can be society, or classes, or anything else.
The focus on motives is wrong. Whatever motivates an action is completely private. Since it is private, non-relational, it has no value. It is usually obscure to the actors themselves. Trying to determine what motivates another person is like trying to determine what they really see when they look at something blue. We might all experience the same thing when we see blue, or we might have wildly different experiences. There’s no way to tell, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we consistently act a certain way when presented with blue and other people can count on that reaction. When we do good, we might have similar motivations, or we might not. There is no way to tell. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we act in a certain situation and whether or not people can count on that reaction.
Some may object that we can know other people’s motivations, that they are relational and carry value. That is not strictly true. Granted, people can report their motivations to others if they wish and if they know themselves. We can only know what is reported. The report itself is an action, not a motivation, and relational. If a person wants to appear selfless, they will report a selfless motivation. If a person wants to appear pious, they will report a religious motivation. That doesn’t change the actual motivation. Differing reports have motivations of their own. It goes on and on.
Getting back to the Masochistic Misanthrope, it seems that our initial temptation was wrong. We cannot apply blame or withhold praise. If the people who are affected by the Misanthrope are the ones who get to dole out praise or blame and they consistently give praise, every time, there is nothing to be done about it, the Misanthrope’s actions are praiseworthy. That’s all we can say about the Misanthrope’s morality.