In this essay we will be looking at whether we have reasons to act morally, and at the related question of whether we can have amoral reasons for forming moral intentions. The first question is also known as Hume's `is -- ought' problem: The problem of how to get from `is', the state of affairs, to discussing `ought', what morally speaking should be done, in a way that can be seen as argumentatively sound.
If we speak to non-philosophers, the `is -- ought' problem hardly seems to be an issue. The answers commonly given range from `one should be moral, because it is wrong to do otherwise', to `it would be bad for society if everyone started murdering each other, so being moral is important'. Morality here is either taken for granted, or unproblematically seen in terms of its relationship with other ends. Yet many philosophers hold that there is no way from `is' to `ought', while much depends on this, such as whether we can convince morally ignorant people to act otherwise, assuming they are open to reason.
What we are going to argue is that there is a way from `is' to `ought'. However this way is not direct. We are not going to prove that one can derive moral statements directly from factual statements, as Searle tried to do. It will rather be a detour that shows how we, assuming both our human condition and our rationality, necessarily receive (as in being given) moral reasons: and this in the minimalistic sense of pro tanto, prima facie reasons for being considerate of others. Thus they will be reasons as far as they go, and until rebutted. They will, however, not be calling upon self-interest or something similar, but be proper moral reasons that need to be responded to in moral terms. Also, the given path will only apply for normal human beings, not for neuropathological cases, nor for all possible rational agents, as Kant tried to do. In addition morality here will be defined in Scanlon's narrow sense of `what we owe to each other'; what obligations we have to others.
Now in order to do this we have to address two separate problems. The first is that of `why to act at all ?', as opposed to merely observe all the time. Thus we start by going from what `is', to intentions and actions. The second is `why to be considerate of others ?', as in why to consider their reasons at all. For this we go from having rational intentions to the consideration of others in the formation of ones own intentions.
Then I am going to argue that, whether this is enough to establish that we have moral reasons, or whether it is impossible by definition to find amoral reasons for forming moral intentions, depends on how we approach morality, and whether we take a moral view on amoral reasons. More precisely it depends on whether we recognize the distinction between the reasons to be moral, and the moral reasons that can be considered valid once we are speaking in moral terms. Reasons for performing morally praiseworthy actions can, after all, be separated from reasons for forming moral intentions. And thus it is incorrect to demand of the latter that they be moral, or even morally acceptable, in order to be valid reasons for being moral.