BMCR 2017.10.42

Moral Motivation: A History. Oxford philosophical concepts

, Moral Motivation: A History. Oxford philosophical concepts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xiii, 306. ISBN 9780199316571. $35.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Iakovos Vasiliou’s recent edited volume, Moral Motivation: A History, includes ten full-length essays and four shorter ‘reflections’ on the topic of moral motivation in a variety of historical periods and media. While the essays in this volume mostly center on canonical figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant, the volume also includes, to Vasiliou’s credit, discussion of more surprising topics both within the history of philosophy and in other disciplines such as music history and literature. The contributions are all of high quality, and the volume will be a helpful resource both as a companion to courses including historical treatments of moral motivation, and to scholars working in the area.

In the introduction, Vasiliou provides a brief but useful introduction to the philosophical discussion of moral motivation, including both a quick survey of contemporary approaches, a discussion of what he takes to be the more central concerns of the earlier philosophical tradition, and an overview of the contents of the volume. Surprisingly, Vasiliou’s overview of the volume’s contents almost entirely passes over the four short ‘reflections’, which are short essays by scholars from other disciplines, focusing on topics such as Homer’s Iliad, American literature, and music history. This omission is unfortunate for a couple of reasons: not only are the reflections distinctive enough that they could use an introduction, but it would also have been an opportunity to say something about the crucial role of interdisciplinary work in contemporary philosophical study of moral motivation.1

Since the audience of BMCR is likely most interested in the parts of this book that focus on the ancient world, I will restrict my comments to those essays and reflections that deal substantially with Greco-Roman antiquity. The volume begins with Vasiliou’s engaging essay on Plato’s account of moral motivation. Vasiliou explores several quite different topics in Plato’s theory, but the bulk of his essay focuses on the role that the understanding of the form of the good plays in virtuous moral motivation and virtuous action. Vasiliou is largely concerned to challenge the prevailing view in Platonic scholarship that understanding the form of the good is itself capable of motivating one to act virtuously. Appealing to evidence in the Symposium and in the Republic, Vasiliou argues that understanding the form of the good does not itself motivate a person to act virtuously, but is, instead, at most capable of motivating them to continue contemplating the form of the good. Nevertheless, he argues that, even if understanding the form of the good does not play a role in moral motivation, it still makes an important contribution to virtuous action, by giving people who are already motivated to perform virtuous actions due to their good nature and upbringing a better grasp of how to do so effectively.

Susan Suavé Meyer’s contribution focuses on the complex role that the kalon plays in Aristotle’s account of moral motivation. According to Meyer, the kalon has two chief roles: it is the goal of virtuous decision, and it is also the object of the distinctive pleasure that virtuous agents take in virtuous activity. In support of these positions, she not only appeals to textual evidence, but also argues that appreciating the ways in which the kalon is involved in virtuous activity helps to elucidate two longstanding puzzles in Aristotle’s ethics: namely, his distinction between so-called ‘natural’ (φυσική) and ‘genuine’ (κυρία) virtue, and his surprising view that someone who performs a virtuous action, say, repaying a debt under the appropriate circumstances, is engaging in virtuous activity only if, among other conditions, they take the right sort of pleasure in their action. To my mind, the most successful part of the essay is her account of the latter view, which has seemed strange, if not simply absurd, to many readers of Aristotle. Meyer argues that, according to Aristotle, the relevant pleasure in virtuous activity is stimulated directly by the virtuous agent’s recognition that their action is kalon. Thus, according to her interpretation, insofar as the virtuous agent conceives of their virtuous activity as kalon, they will take pleasure in that feature of it, even if it is excruciatingly painful in other respects, as in, say, the case of enduring torture courageously.

Brad Inwood discusses the account of moral motivation developed in the anonymous 1st-2nd-century C.E. Epitome of Peripatetic Ethics preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology. While it might seem incredible that the only full-length essay on postclassical Greek and Roman philosophy included in the volume focuses on this rather unknown and understudied part of the Peripatetic tradition,2 it is among the most successful essays in the volume. Inwood’s discussion of the Epitome focuses especially on the text’s nonstandard account of oikeiōsis, which, he argues, does not develop an account of childhood development like its contemporary rivals, but instead explains the natural human desire for virtue by appealing to our fundamental commitment to, in Inwood’s terms, ‘our own existence, our being what we are in our basic nature’, which characterizes every stage of our lives. Inwood argues that since, according to the Epitome, virtue just is the knowledge of how to distinguish things that promote our nature from those that are inimical to it, and so promotes our commitment to our own existence, we naturally desire and pursue it. Beyond the details of the Epitome’s argument, Inwood argues that an important consequence of its nonstandard approach to oikeiōsis is that it shifts the focus of the account from explaining how we come to care about virtue in the course of our development, which other contemporary accounts of oikeiōsis address as well, to instead offering an explanation of why we should want to be virtuous.

The volume also includes two shorter essays or ‘reflections’ on the ancient world. In her reflection, Nancy Worman maintains that the Iliad represents Achilles as, in her phrase, a sort of ‘moral judge’ of the other characters and, especially, as a critic of what he takes to be subversions of the heroic value system. She also argues that Achilles’ outsized rage and progressively more extreme behavior call his testimony, and so too, she implies, the moral system he promotes into question. Given the brevity and aporetic quality of her discussion, one might have expected at least a few suggestions for further reading, but I suspect that Worman was following series guidelines in limiting footnotes and bibliography to a bare minimum.3 Joy Connolly’s reflection focuses on the privileged role of aesthetic perception and, especially, sight in Cicero’s account of moral development and motivation in his On Moral Duties. As Connolly shows, Cicero’s emphasis on both seeing models of virtuous behavior and being seen by other such people, as well as on the beauty of the virtues themselves, fits well with recent work emphasizing the interpenetration of aesthetic perception and moral value in ancient theory.4 Her reflection concludes with a brief, but provocative, discussion of the influence of Cicero’s aesthetic conception of morality on 18th-century philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson and Edmund Burke.

Two other essays engage with the ancient world in some detail and, together, provide good case studies both of how ancient accounts of moral motivation influenced the subsequent philosophical tradition, and of how the theological commitments of many medieval and early modern philosophers distinguished their views from the earlier tradition. Jonathan Jacobs situates medieval Christian and Jewish approaches to moral motivation against the background of Platonic and Aristotelian thought. While the central focus of Jacobs’ discussion is to outline and distinguish the accounts of moral motivation proposed by Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Maimonides, and Duns Scotus, he also draws several broader distinctions between medieval and ancient conceptions of moral motivation, including the interesting point that medieval philosophers tended to conceive of virtue as a more limited and mutable state than most ancient philosophers. In his contribution, Phillip Mitsis argues that a failure to appreciate Locke’s profound debt to Stoic and Epicurean thought has obscured his account of moral motivation. In particular, Mitsis makes a stimulating case that, by situating Locke’s thought against the background of Stoic and Epicurean theory, we can see that Locke’s commitments to natural law and to hedonism do not reflect opposing and, ultimately, contradictory lines of thought, but rather fit together into a cogent and interesting account of moral motivation that adopts aspects of both Stoic and Epicurean theory. Mitsis also discusses the role that Locke’s theological commitments play in his account, distinguishing it from his ancient sources.

For readers with an interest in modern philosophy, Jacqueline Taylor’s ‘Hume on Moral Motivation’ and Steven Sverdlik’s ‘Consequentalism, Moral Motivation, and the Deontic Relevance of Motives’ are particularly strong. I would also recommend Chadwick Jenkins’ reflection on Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, which is a terrific example of interdisciplinary scholarship.

In sum, this volume includes a number of strong and even groundbreaking contributions. While most readers are likely to focus on the chapters of particular interest to them, the collection as a whole offers a sophisticated and engaging overview of the history of philosophical discussion of moral motivation, and would make an excellent companion to an upper level course on the topic. I recommend the volume to anyone with an interest in the history of the philosophical study of moral motivation.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Moral Motivation and its History, Iakovos Vasiliou
Plato and Moral Motivation, Iakovos Vasiliou
Reflection: Moral Motivation: Achilles and Homer’s Iliad, Nancy Worman
Aristotle on Moral Motivation, Susan Suavé Meyer
A Later (and Nonstandard) Aristotelian Account of Moral Motivation, Brad Inwood
Reflection: Cicero on Moral Motivation and Seeing (How) to Be Good, Joy Connolly
Moral Motivation in Christian and Jewish Medieval Philosophy, Jonathan Jacobs
Act and Moral Motivation in Spinoza’s Ethics, Steven Nadler
Reflection: Moral Motivation and Music as Moral Judge, Chadwick Jenkins
Locke on Pleasure, Law, and Moral Motivation, Phillip Mitsis
Hume on Moral Motivation, Jacqueline Taylor
Kant and Moral Motivation: The Value of Free Rational Willing, Jennifer Uleman
Moral Motivation in Post-Kantian Philosophy: Fichte and Hegel, Angelica Nuzzo
Reflection: Moral Motivation and the Limits of Moral Agency in Literary Naturalism: Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Anne Diebel
Consequentialism, Moral Motivation, and the Deontic Relevance of Motives, Steven Sverdlik


1. Surprisingly, given its open-minded interest in interdisciplinary work, the volume includes neither a full-length essay nor a short reflection discussing recent work on moral motivation in psychology or cognitive science, which has deeply influenced contemporary philosophical discussion of the topic. For a good corrective, with further bibliography, see T. Schroeder, A. Roskies, and S. Nichols, ‘Moral Motivation’, in J. Doris (ed.), The Moral Psychology Handbook (Oxford, 2010).

2. As Inwood comments, the first English translation of the Epitome appeared in R. Sharples, Peripatetic Philosophy, 200 BC to AD 200 (Cambridge, 2010). I hazard to guess that most Anglophone ancient philosophy specialists have never read the text either in Greek or in the new translation, but expect that Inwood’s essay will help to make it a more standard part of the canon. As a further incentive to that end, I would be happy to buy a beer – or non-alcoholic substitute – at this year’s SCS for anyone who has read and is willing to discuss the Epitome.

3. For readers of the reflection who might want to look more deeply into some of the issues Worman raises, good starting points would be D. Elmer, The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad (Baltimore, 2013) and R. Scodel, Epic Framework: Self-Presentation and Social Interaction in Homer (Swansea, 2008).

4. Connolly cites J. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience (Cambridge, 2010), to which might be added G. Richardson Lear, ‘Aristotle on Moral Virtue and the Fine’, in R. Kraut (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 2006), 116-36.