Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Reputation and moral behavior

Authored by: Jan M. Engelmann , Christian Zeller

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Mind

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138827691
eBook ISBN: 9781315530178
Adobe ISBN: 9781315530161


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People routinely share valuable resources with needy others, spare their precious time to volunteer at homeless shelters, and donate money to noble causes. Philosophers from Plato to Hume and Kant to Rawls have speculated about the motivations underlying such behaviors. Generally speaking, people might act morally for two different reasons. On the one hand, people might behave morally because they judge it the right thing to do, because they identify with moral principles. Some have called this doing the right thing for the right reason (Scanlon, 2010). We will refer to such motivations as ‘genuine compliance’. On the other hand, people might behave morally for strategic reasons, and, more specifically, to improve their reputation. So people might also do the right thing for the wrong reason. We will refer to such motivations as ‘strategic compliance’. In the past decade or so, experimental research has started to seriously address the motivations underlying moral behavior. Numerous empirical investigations have found strong evidence for a strategic compliance perspective. Results from such diverse disciplines as biology, psychology, and economics convincingly show that reputational incentives provide a powerful motivation for moral behavior. However, some authors argue not only that strategic reasons for moral behavior exist, but that all moral behavior is in fact reducible to such self-interested motivations (e.g. Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts, 2006). In the following, we will refer to this perspective as the ‘reductionist view’.

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