Many philosophers draw a distinction between moral and non-moral reasons for action, or motives, such that questions like, “Are moral reasons always overriding?” and “Can I have reason to do what I morally ought not do?” make sense. Not all philosophers draw this distinction: Aristotle is the most obvious example.
My main question is whether it is a useful or important distinction. First, what is the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons for action? Is there some consensus on this I am unaware of? Second, why draw this distinction?
I can think of three candidates for what a “moral” reason is. (i) A reason for action you would have if you treated everyone equally, or took everyone’s interests equally into account. As many others have pointed out, this appears profoundly immoral: if I don’t treat my children or wife preferentially to yours, in situations where I have to choose, there’s something wrong with me. (ii) A reason for action which is other-regarding, i.e. given by the good of others. But this removes duties of self-cultivation, major life choices, etc. from the sphere of morality. And it seems that certain reasons I might be given by the good of others aren’t thereby moral reasons: I could give you a dollar, but why think that’s moral? (iii) A reason for action which, if acted on, deserves anger/guilt/praise/blame. This, it seems to me, confuses what’s morally good/bad or required/prohibited with what’s praiseworthy/blameworthy or with what one is responsible for.
Here’s two arguments for not making much of the distinction. (i) The main question of ethics is what to do or how to live. The moral/non-moral distinction, whatever it is, is irrelevant to this question. (ii) It complicates metaethical questions. For example, one question in metaethics is whether moral beliefs are always motivating, and a standard move is to consider the amoralist, who knows but does not care about morality. Since I don’t know what “morality” is, I never know how to respond. But the question whether beliefs about one’s reasons for action are always motivating is (a little) clearer. And I find it much harder to imagine a steady “arationalist”, who knows but does not care about her reasons for action.