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  • Joy as a Moral Motive:A Response to Yong Huang's Why Be Moral?
  • Justin Tiwald (bio)


Yong Huang's Why Be Moral? is a splendid book and an outstanding addition to the existing comparative work on the Cheng brothers. It is insightful and refreshingly thoughtful about the particular kind of comparative philosophy it undertakes. In my response, I will raise three concerns about Huang's answer to the very question "Why Be Moral?" which is the subject of the first chapter of the book. First, I suggest that the justificatory interpretation of the question is as important as the motivational one, in general and for the Cheng brothers, and that it shouldn't be dismissed as quickly as Huang dismisses it. Second, I argue that joy cannot be the direct motive for being moral, but propose that it could be (and probably is) an indirect motive, and speculate about the particular kind of indirect motive it might be. Finally, I ask whether Huang's appeal to "being human" as a motive is better understood in the Millian way or the Aristotelian way, and suggest that Mill's approach is a better fit for the Cheng brothers.

Justifying Morality

Huang takes the question "why be moral?" as seeking the proper motivation, not justification, for being moral—that is, he thinks it is more usefully described as a way of asking what motivational reasons we can find for doing (or being) what we ought rather than just asking for, say, an argument or evidence that we ought to do what we ought to do. This is because the justificatory version of the question is problematic. As Huang notes, following Stephen Toulmin, there is a sense in which asking "why be [End Page 280] moral?" is either circular or absurd, because it seems that, at the end of the day, "being moral" just is doing what we ought to do (Toulmin 1964, pp. 160–162). So there is no further justification needed to show that we should do what we ought to do, just as there is no further justification needed to show that scarlet things are red (Huang 2014, p. 31). Huang acknowledges that some have found non-tautological interpretations of the question, most notably Kai Nielsen and David Copp (Huang 2014, pp. 32–133), but in a move I don't quite follow, Huang proposes that we might as well re-interpret this as a motivational question, because "the person asking the question is not a moral skeptic. She knows clearly that she should be moral but lacks the motivation to do so" (p. 33).

But I don't want to give up on the justificatory version of the question so quickly. As I see it, a lot depends on what we mean by "being moral." There's a familiar sense of "being moral" according to which one is moral just in case one is doing what one ought to do all things considered—that's "being moral" in the broadest sense, which I'll call the "all things considered sense." But often in natural language we use "being good," "being moral," or "being ethical" in various narrower senses. For example, sometimes people think that being moral is necessarily other-regarding. According to this view, if I'm stranded on a desert island and deciding between moping about it or finding ways to entertain myself, that's a question about what I ought to do, but not a "moral" question. It's not morally right or morally better to entertain oneself than to bemoan one's fate—it's just more prudent (or something). Then there are the variety of senses of morality that Bernard Williams explicates so well when he talks about the "peculiar institution" of morality, or the sense of morality assumed by Susan Wolf when she argues against moral sainthood, according to which certain types of ethical norms like moral obligations always trump the norms required for a fuller and more well-rounded life.1 Or there is Zhu Xi's construal of "being good" (shan 善) when he complains about the Buddhist tendency to praise as "good" things like venerating religious objects or maintaining a Buddhist...


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pp. 280-287
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