Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Amoralist Challenge to Internalism

Moral internalism is the claim that motivation/reason for action is built into the very concept of morality. So if you recognize that you morally ought to X, it follows from that fact alone that you have motive/reason to X. As the slashes make clear, there are two forms of moral internalism: one is concerned with motivation, and the other with 'reasons' or rational justification. Both are implausible, and indeed conclusively refuted by the conceivability of the amoralist and the coherence of his question, "why should I be moral?".

The amoralist is someone who pays no heed to moral demands. He might recognize that a particular action is morally required, but he denies that this gives him any reason to do it. As I wrote in a recent post:
I can imagine someone sincerely saying, "Yes, I agree that X would be the right thing to do. But so what? I don't care about morality, I just want what's best for me, and I can better achieve that by doing Y." Upon hearing such a stark admission of amorality, I would probably be shocked and disgusted at the person's vicious character. But I would not consider their statement to be incoherent.

I then go on to describe how motivational internalists have to deny that such a being is possible. They must say the statement is insincere - the apparent "amoralist" isn't really talking about morality, but rather (inverted commas, what other people call) "morality". This response fails to take the amoralist seriously. As Brink writes, "We can imagine someone who regards certain demands as moral demands - and not simply as conventional moral demands - and yet remains unmoved." (p.148) There is nothing incoherent about this picture, thus proving that motivating force is not internal to the concept of morality after all. We should reject motivational internalism.

Of course, we all recognize that there is some significant connection between moral judgments and motivation. But internalism mistakes this connection, and a better account of it can be provided by externalism:
Though it makes the motivational force of moral considerations a matter of contingent psychological fact, externalism can base this motivation on "deep" or widely shared psychological facts. If, for example, sympathy is, as Hume held, a deeply seated and widely shared psychological trait, then, as a matter of contingent psychological fact, the vast majority of people will have at least a desire to comply (even) with other-regarding moral demands. Moral motivation, on such a view, can be widespread and predictable, even if it is neither necessary, nor universal, nor overriding. These are limitations in the actual motivational force of moral considerations which, I think, reflection on common sense morality recognizes. (David Brink, 'Externalist Moral Realism' in M. Smith, Meta-ethics, p.149.)

We should also reject moral reasons internalism, for similar reasons. In this case, it is the coherence of the amoralist's challenge, rather than his mere existence, which refutes the theory. The amoralist asks, "why should I be moral?", and this is a fair question. But the reasons internalist must reject it out of hand as incoherent. According to the internalist, it is inherent in the concept of morality that it provides reasons to act, so to recognize a moral demand just is to recognize a reason to act. So it is senseless to ask the amoralist's question; the internalist must reject it as conceptually confused.

The internalist can support this position by arguing that the question "why be moral?" is equivalent to the question "why should I do what I ought?", and that this is clearly incoherent. But this argument rests on an equivocation. It ignores that there are different kinds of 'should'. Clearly the amoralist is not asking why he morally ought to be moral - that would indeed be senseless! Rather, he is asking for a non-moral justification. He is appealing to a rational 'should'. In other words, he is asking: "what reason do I have to fulfil my moral obligations?", or, equivalently, "is the framework of morality genuinely reason-giving?" These are clearly coherent, and indeed vitally important, philosophical questions.

The conceptual coherence of such questions is sufficient to refute moral reasons internalism. If there are moral reasons, this is not merely a conceptual truth about morality, but also depends upon our substantive theory of rationality, the content of morality, and facts about agents and the world. (Brink, p.153) We have thus established externalism. And just as well, since internalism can only provide facile answers to the difficult questions above ("Why be moral? You just should - it's built into the very definition of the concept!"). If we want to find a more satisfying answer, we must first admit externalism. Only then can the question be seriously asked - and thus seriously answered.

6 comments:

  1. In your article, you say "internalism can only provide facile answers to the difficult questions above ("Why be moral? You just should - it's built into the very definition of the concept!"). If we want to find a more satisfying answer, we must first admit externalism. Only then can the question be seriously asked - and thus seriously answered."

    This seems to overlook one possibility - namely the possiblity that reasons internalism might prove to be true, although not conceptually true. Say it is the case that moral action necessarily satisfies some desires everyone has (like self-interested desires, or a desire to do the moral thing - read de dicto). If so, then the following claim will be true: "if A morally ought to phi, then A automatically has some reason to phi" - which just is agent reasons internalism. However, it is not supposed to be analytically true. Its truth is contingent on whether the desires in question actually are universally shared. (This is the line pursued by Philippa Foot in "Moral Beliefs")

    So I think it's wrong to say that only on externalism can the challenge of the amoralist be answered in a serious and non-trivial way. Reasons internalism might turn out true for non-conceptual reasons.

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  2. That's a different form of "internalism" from the one I was discussing. I provided my definition in the first sentence: "Moral internalism is the claim that motivation/reason for action is built into the very concept of morality."

    Your non-conceptual reasons internalism is thus a form of moral reasons externalism, in my sense.

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  3. Yeah, that's a good point. But it also means that you haven't allowed the internalist very many resources with which to provide a "serious" response to the amoralist challenge.

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  4. Internalism can also simply suggest that a rational person is moved to act, at least to some extent, by their moral judgments.

    I present my criticism of your argument:

    If someone says “I agree, that helping the earthquake victims is the right thing to do; but, so what? I don’t really care whats right” -- That is a typical statement of the theoretical amoralist. If this ‘amoralist’ exists and is rational, then he believes through rationality that there is no sufficient reason for him to behave in a moral way.

    To contradict internalism in the sense that I mentioned above, where one just needs to be morally motivated by their moral judgments at least to SOME EXTENT, then this amoralist would have to utter sentences like those above, consistently again and again so as to never be moved by their moral judgments. However, by doing that, he is using people around him as an means to an end consistently, and using them as tools for his own benefit, thus not recognizing them as their own beings. He is almost entering the world of the solipsist, where everything exists only from their perspective and is not real on its own account. This person then fails to see the world from a broader perspective and understand his surroundings as they really exist.

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  5. Hey there,

    never seen this site before so woo.

    i am a third year philosophy student from the UK and this is the subject of my dissertaion and i must say that i like very much the idea re-presented here of the amoralist. i just wanted to chip in at this point and say that your arguments John are not sufficient to disprove Richard's. this is due to a lack of substantiation to your point "This person then fails to see the world from a broader perspective and understand his surroundings as they really exist." if this is the case then you need to give strong metaphysical arguments showing how the world "really" is. and off the top of my head, im not sure how compatible externalism and solipcism are...

    Peace.

    TeeJ.

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  6. You should check out Jesse Prinz's discussion of psychopaths in "The Emotional Construction of Morals" (p.44-47). He makes a powerful case that actual data on psychopaths supports internalism, rather than externalism. I think you'd find it interesting.

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