Stalemate in Moral Motivation

By: Elizabeth Southgate, MSc Philosophy 2015, University of Glasgow

Debate between Externalists and Internalists over the correct characterization of moral motivation has largely focused on whether the ‘Amoralist’ is a genuine possibility. I claim that such arguments have led to genuine philosophical stalemate. No advantage will be gained on either side by considering the possibility of Amoralists and if the issue is to be resolved at all, it will be done on other grounds. I give a brief explanation of the phenomenon of moral motivation, outline Internalism and Externalism, and argue for this conclusion, before considering a prominent attempt in the literature to gain ground in this debate without relying on claims about Amoralists (Michael Smith’s Moral Fetishism argument[1]).

Although we do not always act in accordance with our moral judgements, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that there is a general connection between judging that X is right and being motivated (to some degree) to X. In other words, people generally feel moved to do what they judge is right. Whilst not completely uncontroversial, this link is startlingly reliable and influences many of the interactions we have with other people. Most would think it extremely odd, for example, for me to sincerely profess that I believe vegetarianism to be morally right and the correct way to behave towards food, before going on to say that this judgement gives me absolutely no motivation not to eat meat. For what more could I need to be motivated to be a vegetarian than to sincerely judge it to be right? While the basic phenomenon of moral motivation is relatively uncontroversial, the correct way to characterize and explain it is not.

There are two main positions on moral motivation, Internalism and Externalism, which contradict each other in their core commitments. The Internalist holds that motivation is a necessary part of what makes a moral judgement a moral judgement. For the Internalist, moral judgements are either necessarily motivating by actually being a motivating state (such as a desire), or by necessarily being accompanied by them. The Internalist need not claim, however, that moral motivation is particularly strong, that it cannot be overridden or, in the case of some counterfactual positions, that it be present at all. For example, an Internalist could consistently hold that moral judgements are essentially motivating insofar as we are rational.[2] All the Internalist is committed to is some necessary connection between moral judgements and motivation, without which the judgement in question is not a moral one. Externalists deny this characterization. For the Externalist it is entirely possible to make a moral judgement without being motivated to act to any extent (or in any possible world) because motivation is not a necessary feature of making moral judgements and nor is it necessitated by them. Wherever moral motivation comes from, it is not part of what makes a moral judgement a moral judgement.[3]

Given this, debate between Internalists and Externalists has largely focused on the possibility of an Amoralist. That is, the possibility of an individual who successfully makes sincere moral judgements whilst being completely devoid of motivation and yet whilst remaining rational. The possibility of such a person is at the foundation of the Externalist argument, while their denial is crucial for the Internalist. For if the Amoralist was a genuine possibility, then motivation would not be a necessary part of moral judgements and Internalism would be false. It is worth noting what would need to be the case for this to obtain. Amoralism need not be a global phenomenon. To show Internalism false there need not, conceptually or otherwise, be any individual who persistently and systematically makes non-motivating moral judgements – all that is needed is for there to be at least one individual who did so at least once. That is, for such a thing to be a genuine possibility. Externalists have given a number of plausible Amoralism cases. Some turn on general and persistent conditions of certain agents such as clinical depression or psychopathy, while others cite plausible specific failures, such as cases in which the demands of morality are simply too high or would require too great a cost. Russ Shafer-Landau, for example, suggests five plausible cases of Amoralism in Moral realism: A Defence[4] the success of only one such example would be needed.

Now, no-one really doubts that cases with lack of motivation obtain but Internalists have ready answers for these purported counterexamples. The standard line is to contend that motivation fails in such cases simply because, despite appearances, the agent was not really making a moral judgement at all. Therefore, the case is no counter-example. On one account, Hare argues that when Amoralists make what seem to be moral judgements, the speech should actually be understood in an ‘inverted commas’ sense[5], where this means that instead of expressing a genuine moral judgement, the agent in question is merely reporting what moralists would judge about the situation in question. He maintains that ‘X-ing is right’ asserted by an Amoralist is actually a statement of the type ‘X-ing is what moralists judge to be right’. Such a paraphrase (on this this, or another account of what the Amoralist is doing instead of making a moral judgement) could clearly be given for every Amoralist example. In response to this sort of line on the Amoralist cases, Externalists such as David Brink complain that to paraphrase in this manner simply does not take the cases seriously enough.[6] According to Internalists, the complaint goes, it is a conceptual truth that agents who make moral judgements are appropriately motivated, and so Amoralists cannot possibly be making moral judgements. But this is not any type of truth at all, the Externalist maintains. If Amoralists use moral terms to pick out the same properties as we do, and differ only by having no motivation to act on them, they have made a moral judgement unconnected from motivation and Internalism fails.

Now clearly Hare’s is not the only account open to the Internalist, but at this point the debate starts to look like will be very difficult, if not impossible, to solve on non-question-begging grounds. If the issue at hand is just whether the Amoralist is a genuine possibility – and all the data we have in these cases is gained empirically in observing the behavior, speech acts etc. of the agents in question -then both the Externalist and the Internalist analyses fit.[7] The Amoralist’s observable actions can be accounted for both by the Externalist as a lack of motivation (or by other desires extinguishing moral motivation), and by the Internalist as lack of moral judgement (or by a stronger motivation overriding moral motivation). Since the same empirical facts are available to – and agreed upon by – each party, to argue in either direction based on the Amoralist, assumptions must be made as to how the data should be interpreted; assumptions about whether or not using moral terms without an appropriate link to motivation is enough for a judgement to be a moral one. But this is no good. It is no good to argue on the basis that the opposing position makes mistaken claims about what it is to make a moral judgement, because this is precisely the issue at stake here and to do so simply begs the question. The case of the Amoralist is thus a genuine philosophical stalemate. Given the same empirical data, the Externalist will always be able to claim that a moral judgement has been made and the Internalist will always be able to deny it. The data could always be interpreted to favour either party, given the necessary controversial assumptions, and as such the debate will not be resolved on these grounds. This is not to say, however, that it might not progress along other lines. Considerations such as the wider theoretical commitments or pragmatic consequences of adopting either position might be brought to bear on the issue in order to resolve it.[8]

Smith argues for just such a line in ‘The Moral Problem’.[9] He notes that any successful theory of moral motivation must be able to account for the sort of general characteristics we usually take the motivation-moral judgement relation to have. In particular, he notes that any successful theory must be able to convincingly account for the fact that change in motivation reliably tracks change in moral judgement. Since the Externalist claims that motivation has no necessary connection with moral judgement – which easily explains this for Internalists – they need a different account of the phenomenon. Smith argues that the only explanation open to the Externalist is to posit an overarching morally self-conscious desire to do the right thing which is present in good and strong-willed people. Change in moral motivation can then be accounted for by the Externalist as the combination of the desire to do right things and the content of particular moral judgements. The explanatory desire (or a belief on a different sort of account) must be separate from the moral judgement itself so that the account does not just collapse into Internalism and so the possible failure of moral motivation at the core of the Externalist account is possible.

However Smith argues that if this is the only account that can be given by Externalists, then Externalism fails on grounds independent of the Amoralist because it presents an untenable picture of what it is to be a good person. This is so, claims Smith, because it is quite implausible that the truly good person is motivated to do what is right ‘de dicto’ and this is what positing an external and self-consciously moral desire to do the right thing entails. ‘De dicto’ is a scope disambiguation – a desire to do the right thing de dicto is a desire to do those things which fall under the description ‘the right thing’ no matter which things those are, as opposed to having a desire to do particular right things under their specific descriptions (de re desire). Smith notes that the Externalist’s explanation must invoke a de dicto rather than a de re desire to do the right thing because claiming that we have desires to do particular right things will not account for reliable change in motivation. For there is no reason why, even if you had a desire to do the particular thing you previously thought right, upon changing your mind you should have a desire to do the particular thing you now think to be right. Smith argues, however, that to say that the good person cares about doing the right thing de dicto is to say that the good person cares only derivatively about specific moral goods such as justice, equality and wellbeing. Given this, he argues that the Externalist commits himself to a picture of the good person as a sort of moral fetishist – a person who cares only about doing the right thing and about other moral goods only as a consequence of fulfilling this desire. This is completely implausible, thinks Smith and, since the Externalist is committed to this picture, gives us grounds to reject Externalism. For it is constitutive of being a good person that you care non-derivatively about what you think is right – about the particular ends of morality for their own sake – just as it is constitutive of being a good friend that you care non-derivatively about your friend.

It is unclear however, that Smith gives a fair characterisation of what the Externalist must be committed to. While it is fairly plausible that the Externalist will have to give an account of reliable moral motivation based on some overarching moral desire, this does not necessarily commit him to moral fetishism (or at least does not without further argument). For claiming that the Externalist’s good person has a de dicto desire to do the right thing, does not rule out their also having genuine concern for equality, honesty, justice and other particular moral ends for their own sake. Given this, it is unclear why a desire to do what is right (de dicto) necessarily amounts to some all-encompassing fetishist aim. The Externalist might claim, for example, that the good person has a de dicto desire to do the right thing, precisely because they care about the real ends of morality. That is, that the good person has a higher order desire to only have and act on correct first order moral judgements about equality/justice/well-being, because they care about those ends for their own sake and want to do the right thing with respect to them. Even if a line of this particular sort is not viable, since the Externalist can accept Smith’s claims about their needing a de dicto desire without necessarily having to accept that this rules out also caring about particular moral ends, Smith’s argument in the moral problem does not conclusively refute Externalism. More needs to be said to rule out the Externalist making this move.[10]

However, although Smith’s claims about Externalism seem too quick to conclude the debate, the approach he takes looks fruitful. It seems unlikely given the intuition-bashing that must go on over the case of the Amoralist, that discussion of its possibility will produce results. Smith’s approach is different. Consideration of the wider commitments of the theories in question does not rely on interpreting motivation cases, and hence on making assumptions about the role of motivation in the status of moral judgements. In making arguments such as Smith’s the Externalist or Internalist has at least the possibility of gaining ground without assuming their own positions. As such, adopting a similar approach looks like it will yield better results than the Amoralist cases – or at least non-question-begging arguments. We should abandon the Amoralist and continue the debate on this sort of line instead.



Brink, D., (1984), ‘Externalist Moral Realism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Supplement

Hare, R. M. (1952), The Language of Morals, Oxford: OUP

Rosati, Connie S., (2014), “Moral Motivation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Shafer-Landau, Russ (2003), Moral Realism: A Defence, Oxford: OUP.

Smith, Michael (1994). The Moral Problem, Oxford: Blackwell.

[1] Smith, Michael (1994). The Moral Problem, Oxford: Blackwell, pp.71-76

[2] See Smith, Michael (1994) for an example of such an Internalist account.

[3] Ibid. 60-63 and Rosati, Connie S., “Moral Motivation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) were sources.

[4] Shafer-Landau: 2003, Moral Realism: A Defence, Oxford: OUP, pp.142-162

[5] Hare: 1952, The Language of Morals, Oxford: OUP, pp.124-6, 163-5

[6] Brink: 1984, ‘Externalist Moral Realism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Supplement, p.30

[7] There is a further interesting issue here (raised to me by Dr Campbell Brown, University of Glasgow) that I do not have space to address. Namely, that there would (presumably) be no observable difference between an agent who was unmotivated and one who was motivated to the smallest degree possible. It looks likely that it would be impossible choose between the two, the agent themselves might not even accurately do so. Given that the difference is crucial to the Internalism-Externalism debate, it might look like the charge of stalemate might also reasonably be given here instead. Since the evidence would be indistinguishable for two such agents, if the debate rested on their distinction, then the available evidence itself produces a stalemate before it is even interpreted by either party (advances in neuroscience notwithstanding).

[8] Note that in reaching this conclusion, I need not and do not make the strong claim that there will never be any empirical evidence to decide the debate. Neuroscience might well eventually determine the brain states which ground motivation, and to claim otherwise would be to take a strong position about philosophy of mind I do not intend to endorse. I merely claim that a stalemate has been reached in the debate given the current available empirical information (and thought experiments – some can imagine the Amoralist while others cannot) and leave the question to be reopened given further advances in other fields. It is worth noting however, that some Internalisms only require counterfactual rather than current motivation to be linked with moral judgements. If it is thought plausible that counterfactual brain states are not the sort of thing that could be determined by science at this world, then the stalemate over the Amoralist might persist through any amount of empirical information – at least for one variety of Internalism.

[9] Smith: 1994, pp.71-76

[10] Shafer-Landau makes a similar point in Moral Realism: A Defence pp. 156-160

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