philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Feature articles

PhiloSophos knowledge base

Philosophical Connections

Pathways to Philosophy programs

University of London BA

Pathways web sites

Philosophy lovers gallery

GVKlempner: complete videos

PhiloSophos home

Pathways to Philosophy

Evaluative Judgement, Motivation and the Moral Standard

by Richard H. Corrigan

In this paper I will discuss the concepts of evaluative and motivational systems, the moral standard, moral normativity and moral imperatives, and explain their relevance to moral responsibility. It is my ultimate intention to comprehensively delineate the indispensability of evaluative judgement for moral action.

To be able to judge one choice to be more beneficial than another, the agent must be able to attribute a degree of value (in terms of expected benefit) to each of the options. After Watson, I will call the sum of the factors and capacities that allow him to do so the agent's evaluation system (Watson, 1982). This system is reflective of the agent's hierarchy of values, which embodies the values that have motivational efficacy for the agent, as they are judged to be of benefit by him.[1]

The agent's reasons for having a particular hierarchy of values will reflect the benefits that he believes are to be gained from acting in accordance with them. However, his particular hierarchy of values will also reflect the degree of cost that he is willing to bear in order to live in accordance with the values that it embodies. For example, the agent believes that there are benefits to living according to Christian values — for instance, the feeling of satisfaction gained from piety, righteousness, the possibility of eternal salvation and so forth. However, he also realises that in order to live according to Christianity he must give up the pleasures of living as a hedonist. He judges the cost of doing so to outweigh the gain. He thereby more strongly identifies with hedonism and allows its continued integration in his evaluation system. The cost of modifying value systems may also be seen in terms of feelings of dislocation from community, betrayal of culture and so forth — basically anything that contributes to the agent's belief that it is better to retain his current hierarchy of values.

Is there a set of values that the agent should adopt purely in virtue of his participation in a given culture? The evaluation system of a culture is not a completely closed and consistent system in the logical sense. However, there must be some common values, as this is in part what constitutes a culture. Yet it is obvious that different groups within a culture have different values. Therefore, the individual in society is caught in what I will call a 'state of compromise'; he is caught between competing values. I am not necessarily refuting the suggestion that society strives for a harmonious integration of evaluation systems; I am rather suggesting that this is very difficult to accomplish when there is not complete consensus. Personal evaluation systems are perspectival — they reflect the individual's interpretation of, and reaction to, his society, culture and personal experiences.

Because of the existence of the state of compromise, evaluation systems are not fixed constants. They have a plasticity that allows development and change over time. I am not defending the idea that the agent can modify his hierarchy of values on a whim; values may be deeply ingrained. I am rather suggesting that particular states of affairs may cause the agent to reassess his hierarchy of values or to modify them. These may be social or personal, but must provide sufficient stimulus for the individual to reconsider his particular evaluation system. However, when I argue that the agent must have the ability to make evaluative judgements in order to have the capacity for moral responsibility, and that the ability to do so is dependent on his having an evaluation system, I mean that at the time of judging how to act he must be capable of evaluative analysis on the basis of his current evaluation system.

This is distinct from his motivational system. A motivational system is a set of factors that moves an agent to action (I shall not attempt to give an account of each of these factors). It will include his desires and may include his evaluation system (unless he is abdicating his ability to evaluate his actions and/ or desires). The agent's motivational system does not necessarily coincide with his evaluation system each time he chooses to act. When he acts according to a first-order (pre-reflective) desire with which he would not identify, he is not acting according to his evaluation system. Nevertheless, he still has a motivational system (part of which is constituted by his first-order desire).

There are inevitably grey areas where the merit of a particular action/ desire/ goal has not been clearly established, and these may only be evaluated as they arise. There are areas in which the agent's initial evaluation may be subject to revision, or in which special circumstances require him to suspend a general conviction, but all of this can be accommodated by his evaluation system. It is only in light of evaluation that a second-order desire becomes the agent's will. When he wants to have a particular desire there is reflective consideration involved, there are reasons why he believes the desire to be of greatest benefit.

In order for an agent to have the capacity for moral responsibility, it must be possible for his evaluation system and motivational system to completely coincide. If this does not occur then the individual would be incapable of performing the actions that he believes, upon reflection, are of the greatest moral value. To be capable of accurately judging what desire or action has the greatest moral value, the agent must have an understanding of the correct moral standard[2] against which it should be assessed. It is in light of the moral standard that an agent's acts can be accurately morally assessed. It is a gauge that allows accurate assessment of the moral value of an act, desire, intention and so forth.

If the agent does not have the capacity to reach an understanding of the moral standard (through whatever route, possible candidates for which being habituation, revelation, intuition, reflective consideration, inherent knowledge, and so forth), then there is no way that he can consistently assess the moral worth of different desires/ actions, and accurately judge them to be morally superior or deficient. An agent's hierarchy of values reflects what action/ desire he believes is of greatest benefit. In terms of the moral standard, what is of greatest benefit will be that which has the greatest moral worth.

This understanding does not have to be explicit. The agent does not have to be able to give an exact account of the structure of the moral standard. An implicit understanding of it is sufficient for moral responsibility. He does, however, have to be capable of using it when making moral judgements.

To be able to conform to a moral standard, the agent must be sensitive to the normative requirements that it entails. The moral standard helps to establish moral norms for those who adopt it as part of their evaluation system (Copp, 1995 esp. pp. 21, 82 and 103). Moral norms are rules and prescriptions, either general or specific, for what it is morally correct to do (Gibbard, 1985 esp. p. 12). In light of the moral standard it is rational to adopt the moral norms that it entails. In order to justify blaming someone for not conforming to a moral norm, it must be possible to rationalise one's moral censure — there must be a reason why one feels morally indignant.

Moral norms are what allow the formation of 'ought' and 'ought-not' type moral imperatives (for example, 'you ought to be generous', 'you ought not to steal'). These imperatives are, in part, justified by appeal to the values embodied in the moral standard. One of the reasons that one can provide for blaming someone for doing something that one believes morally deficient, is that they should have known what they were doing was wrong and this should have supplied sufficient motivation for them not to do it. In other words, the moral norm was something that they should have complied with, as it was possible and rational to do so.

The ability to adopt the moral standard, and live according to it, does not necessarily mean that the agent can harmonize all of his first-order desires with that standard. It is rather that he is capable of accepting the hierarchy of values that it embodies, and of forming second-order desires (desires that the agent wants to have) that are in accordance with it (Pettit and Smith, 1996 p. 443). The ability to live according to it requires the capacity to make the desire to conform to the moral norm one's will and to act accordingly. In order to have the capacity to become the agent's will, his desire to conform to the moral standard must be the desire with the greatest latent strength. It must be the desire that can be stronger than all other desires and thereby become the agent's will, if he chooses to identify with it. In order for the desire to act morally to become his will, the agent must believe that there is greater benefit in acting in accordance with moral norms than acting contrary to them. This is what will give the desire effective strength and make it the agent's will.

Making the desire to conform to the moral norm one's will is not necessarily synonymous with being moral. The agent could act in accordance with the moral standard without believing in the moral values that it embodies (for example, he could do so from fear). Thus, for the agent to be moral, as opposed to just having the ability to act in accordance with moral norms, requires that he have the desire to be moral and not just the desire to act in a way that will most likely be perceived by others to be moral, to want that desire, and be able to make it his will. This will involve the capacity to make the moral standard the dominant hierarchy of values in his evaluation system, and to identify with the values that constitute it. It is not sufficient that the agent be aware that there is such a thing as a moral standard, and that it can be used as the yardstick against which the value of individual actions and desires can be measured. He must have the actual capacity to use it as such a measure. He must be able to come to the belief that being moral is of greatest benefit.

Let us now consider an example where Jones has a desire to strike Black (first-order desire). I will assume that Jones has identified with and adopted the moral standard. He knows that he has two options: he can either act in accordance with his first-order desire, or he can choose not to do so. He judges it to be morally superior not to strike Black. This conclusion is reached due to the fact that the moral standard is part of his evaluation system and his knowledge of it informs him that it is morally deficient (lacking moral value) to strike people because of a trivial affront. He does not want to have the desire to strike others, as he recognises that harbouring it leads to morally deficient thoughts/ actions/ and so forth, which do not conform to the moral norm. Because of his identification with the moral standard, he believes it to be of greatest benefit not to strike Black. He therefore does not form the second-order desire to do so. His first-order desire is thereby held in check (it lacks strength because it is not judged to be most beneficial). In this case, his evaluation and motivational systems coincide.

If he had acted according to his first-order desire, then not only would he have had to take ownership of both his desire and action, he would also have had to accept moral responsibility for them (as he had knowledge of the moral standard, it could have formed part of his evaluation system and could have been an effective part of his motivational system, if he had so chosen).

Certain first-order desires may have moral content in themselves, but all first-order desires are pre-reflective. Therefore, the agent does not necessarily have any control over whether they arise or not (although it may be possible for him to avoid circumstances in which he knows that a certain desire could, or would, emerge). The agent cannot be morally responsible for having a desire that he is powerless to avoid. Therefore, it is at the level of identification with those desires that the agent's moral responsibility begins to manifest itself. Negligent or intentional failure to integrate the moral standard into one's evaluation system is no excuse for failing to act morally, providing one could do so (and that it was rational for one to do so). The failure to make a judgement about the moral status of one's desires or actions is morally reprehensible in itself, providing one can do so.

It is possible to be morally responsible for having a morally deficient second-order desire that one does not act on because of a lack of courage or determination. For example, one may be a racist, desire to inflict harm on different ethnic groups, want to have this desire and yet act on the stronger desire to stay out of trouble. Given that racist violence is morally deficient, it is my claim that identifying with the desire to engage in it is also morally deficient (this is assuming that racism and racist violence is judged/ known to be morally deficient in light of the moral standard, and that the racist has access to the moral standard and can adopt it).


I have shown in this paper that evaluative judgement plays a role in the agent's ability to take moral ownership of the actions that he performs and the desires with which he identifies. I have contended that if the agent is capable of making such judgements and fails to do so, intentionally or due to negligence, he is still responsible for the actions that issue from the unevaluated desires, and must assume responsibility for leaving them unevaluated. However, I have also attempted to show that the capacity for evaluative judgement, in itself, is not sufficient for moral responsibility. The ability to make moral judgements is not synonymous with the ability to act morally. The agent must also be able to identify with the desire to be moral and to make that desire his will. He must have access to the moral standard and have the capacity to integrate it into his hierarchy of values. He must also have the ability to come to the belief that it is most beneficial to act in accordance with the moral norms embodied in the moral standard. If this is the case then the agent has the capacity to be a moral person, and any failures on his part are the product of his own weakness or wilfulness. If one has the capacities that I have outlined in this paper, then one must take ownership of one's morally deficient intentions, desires and actions. One is a suitable candidate for morally reactive attitudes and for the application of the categories of praise and blame.


1. It should be noted that, for the agent, a certain action's/desire's value may be context specific (that is, what is judged to be most valuable in one specific set of circumstances may be judged to be of diminished value in another).

2. When referring to 'the moral standard' from here onwards I mean the correct moral standard unless otherwise stated.


Copp, D. (1995). Morality, Normativity and Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

Gibbard, A. (1985). Moral Judgment and the Acceptance of Norms. Ethics, 96, 5-21.

Pettit, P. and Smith, M. (1996). Freedom in Belief and Desire. The Journal of Philosophy, 93, 429-499.

Watson, G. (1982a). 'Free Agency'. In Watson, G (ed.) (1982). Free Will. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

© Richard Corrigan 2008


Richard H. Corrigan (Ph.D)
University College Dublin
Editor of the Philosophical Frontiers Journal