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Sigrún Svavarsdóttir
(Ohio State University)
"Moral Cognitivism and Motivation"
The Philosophical Review, Vol. 108 No. 2 1999, pp. 161-219.
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John Skorupski, St. Andrews University
Posted 08/10/01


s-drop.gif - 1.3 Kigrún Svavarsdóttir's careful account of moral motivation contains many sensible, well-judged and illuminating things. And I agree with her rejection of motivational internalism, -- at least as she states it:

moral judgements are of conceptual necessity connected to motivation to pursue or promote what is judged favorably and to shun or prevent what is judged unfavorably, except in individuals suffering from motivational disorders that affect them more generally (p. 165)

It depends, obviously, on how one is to understand the claim that moral judgements are 'connected to motivation'. I understand it to mean that they are in and of themselves motivating to some degree (except in individuals suffering from motivational disorders that affect them more generally).

The reason why I agree in rejecting this motivational internalism is that I see no 'conceptual necessity' here. On the other hand, I do think that moral judgements are quite often -- probably quite typically -- in and of themselves motivating (as indeed are various other kinds of judgement). So they can motivate, even if they don't always do so.

This means that we may disagree about something else, namely, the role of desire in motivation, and in particular in moral motivation. Svavarsdóttir proposes that

the disposition to be motivated by one's moral judgements is grounded in a conative attitude (desire) taken towards objects under a moral mode of presentation (p. 170)

and she calls this desire 'the desire to be moral'. Although she notes that it can be sustained by other desires, still as I understand her she holds that it always plays an explanatory role in any case of morally-motivated action. True, she also says, in the same paragraph:

I doubt there is any unique psychology that sustains a disposition to be motivated by one's own moral judgements. (p. 170)

I have the very same doubt - but I think she must mean this doubt weakly, in such a way that it's consistent with her view that this disposition (call it the moral disposition) is always 'grounded' in the desire to be moral. I, on the other hand, mean it strongly: I don't see why the disposition to be moral has to be 'sustained' by, or 'grounded' in, any one thing describable at the intentional level -- a fortiori, in the desire to be moral. At the end of her paper, Svavarsdóttir says:

the notion of desire I am employing is that of an intentional state that grounds a disposition to be motivated to undertake actions under a certain description. (p. 216)

This focuses our disagreement. Why does the moral disposition have to be grounded in some one intentional state - or in any intentional state at all? I am disposed to do the morally obligatory thing when I take it to be the morally obligatory thing. Why does there have to be some further intentional state that grounds this disposition?

At one point, in discussing Michael Smith, Svavarsdóttir seems to agree that there does not have to be. The crucial thing, she says, is that one has the moral disposition --

To say that it [the disposition] is due to the desire to be moral is really to say that one need only conceive of something in moral terms in order to be motivationally affected, that no further motivation is needed to care to do what one judges morally favourable or avoid what one judges morally unfavourable. (p. 201)[1]

With this I could have only a terminological dispute (in that the word 'desire', used thus, seems to me to be used misleadingly). But it seems to be a slip. For she almost immediately falls back on postulating a desire to be moral in a more robust, explanatory sense of the word 'desire' -- when she distinguishes herself from the 'internalists' who

do not see any need to postulate a desire to be moral to explain this phenomenon [i.e. the moral disposition], since they hold that making a moral judgement suffices in general for moral motivation. (p. 201)

Like them, I see no need for such a postulate - finding it quite plausible that 'making a moral judgement suffices in general [or at any rate very often] for moral motivation'. Why then does Svavarsdóttir think there must be a need for more?

She disclaims the Humean theory of motivation; her case is based simply on the observed 'patterns of variations in moral motivation' which, she thinks, suggest that the 'motivational impact' of a moral judgement 'depends on something more than the making of the judgement itself' (pp. 216 - 7).

But then the difficulty lies in the move from (i) showing that the motivational impact of the judgement can be affected by factors other than the judgement itself, to the conclusion (ii) that it involves the specific existence of a desire to be moral. The Humean theory of motivation could help to underpin this move -- but Svavarsdóttir, to my mind rightly, disclaims it. So how does she get from the platitude, (i), to the very substantial conclusion that a moral judgement motivates (presumably in the right way, the way appropriate to moral motivation) only when joined to a desire to be moral?

The example of Patrick seems to play a main role. But before getting to it let's drop the moral disposition for a moment and consider instead the disposition to do what on thinks to be the best thing to do, the thing one should do, in the broadest deliberative sense. Suppose I'm driving along the motorway and I notice from the fuel gauge that my petrol is low. I think to myself 'I should stop at the next petrol station' -- and almost immediately I see a turn-off to a petrol station. In scenario A I pull into it. In scenario B I fail to slow down, and drive past, possibly thinking 'Damn it! I should have stopped at that one.' Any number of differentiating causal antecedents could explain this. There's no reason to think that all such antecedents must even take the form of states describable at the 'intentional' or the 'personal' level. And there's no reason to think that my disposition to do what I take myself to have most reason to do (in this case, pull into the station), must be grounded in a desire to do the thing I have most reason to do. Moreover, I can have that disposition -- that pathway from beliefs about what I should do to motor responses -- in both scenarios. It's just that in B something goes wrong with the pathway -- for example because of the time I've spent at the wheel -- and thus action fails to ensue.[2]


Now for Patrick. The initial circumstances make him a somewhat plausible character. He could well just be winding up Virginia, with her willingness to 'put her social position at risk', and to 'confront' him about it (p. 176). Svavarsdóttir's description of her 'morally committed heroine' leaves open the possibility that Virginia's a bit phony, and this element in the example may give Patrick's reaction a degree of initial intelligibility which is ultimately irrelevant to the question at issue. However, let's accept that the Additional Information provided on pp. 177 - 8 points to the conclusion that Patrick 'is completely cynical about moral matters', and not just weary of Virginia. I'll come back to why the word 'cynical' might seem appropriate as a description of his attitude. However we will assume henceforth that the case is not that Patrick has the moral disposition, but that for one reason or another it doesn't trigger action here. Rather, Patrick can see the right but never has a disposition to follow it.

Surely this is possible -- 'conceptually'. Yet surely it is also surprising. Let's suppose that Patrick agrees with Virginia that he, Patrick, has a moral obligation. It's not that he thinks, for example, that while Virginia may have acted admirably, or self-dramatisingly, he, at any rate, for his part, has no duty in the matter. Does he then also agree that inaction on his part is blameworthy? If not, one can begin to wonder whether he really does believe that he has a duty. For the following is a pretty obvious truth: if I fail to do what I have a moral duty to do then I am blameworthy. Either Patrick doesn't really believe that he is failing in a duty or he rejects the conditional (or he's exceptionally obtuse). But if he rejects the conditional, we can begin to wonder whether he understands what moral obligation is.

Alternatively, he accepts that his inaction is blameworthy. So does he feel guilty? Apparently not. Again quite possible: in the same way you can believe that what you did was shameful without actually feeling shame, that what you did was admirable without actually feeling pride, and so on. In general, you can believe that a given emotional response would be reasonable, without actually feeling it.

However, whatever Patrick feels, if he thinks his inaction is blameworthy, and he works out the consequences of his opinions, he must also think he had more reason to act than not to. Why is this? It turns on the following thesis: if you did what you had most reason to do then you can't be blamed for doing it -- that is, it isn't reasonable to blame you for doing it. (It was, after all, what you had most reason to do: how can it be blameworthy to do that?), Contraposing: if it's reasonable to blame you for what you did, then what you did wasn't what you had most reason to do. So Patrick can and should reason thus:

As Virginia says, I have a duty to help these politically persecuted strangers. So it's quite reasonable to blame me for not helping them. But it wouldn't be reasonable to blame me for not helping if not helping was what I had most reason to do. So what I have most reason to do is help.[3]

This argument makes a connection between what one has a moral duty to do and what one should do in what I referred to above as the broadest deliberative sense - the sense of 'should' that equates to what one has most reason overall to do. It makes a connection like the 'rationalist' thesis Svavarsdóttir mentions on p. 175. But I wouldn't call my version of it rationalist; for, even though it appeals to considerations about when it's appropriate to blame, these are considerations about the reasonableness of a sentiment.

Where does that leave Patrick? Well, it's possible for a person to think that a given action is what he has most reason to do, but still not be motivated to do it. Although typically the conviction that this is what one has most reason to do in itself motivates one to do this, it certainly doesn't always. A host of circumstances can defeat its motivating power. Beliefs about what one has reason to do can go motivationally dead on one, just as beliefs about one's moral obligation can. So even if Patrick concedes that he has reason to help, that acceptance may fail to make him help. 'OK', he may say, 'that may be what I have most reason to do, but what is that to me?' And to such a response there's likely to be no answer.

But maybe Patrick refuses to accept that he should help (that that's what he has most reason to do), even though he accepts that helping is what he has a duty to do. Now we've argued that anyone who understands the concept of the moral will accept the following conditional: if you fail to do what you have a moral duty to do then you are blameworthy. And we've assumed that Patrick does understand the concept of the moral. So if Patrick thinks the issue through he will have to reject the second conditional I appealed to: if you did what you had most reason to do then you can't be blamed for doing it.

If that's how we should see him then I think we'd be right to describe him as cynical. For the reasons one could cite in favour of blaming someone who has done what he has most reason to do are likely to be cynical, or at any rate manipulative. They won't appeal to the internal hermeneutics of the sentiment of blame, but to the expediency of the act of blame. They'll appeal to the reasons we might have for the act -- the act of expressing the sentiment -- even in circumstances where we don't really have reason to feel the sentiment. They will be reasons, to be blunt, for pretending. Patrick, on this view, will have entirely detached the question of when it's useful to go in for blaming people from the question of what there is reason to feel about them -- or himself -- and of how the sentiment of blame is directed to the reasons on which one acts or on which one fails to act.

It seems to me to be moot whether, on this understanding of him, we can say that Patrick makes all the judgements which go along with moral judgement proper. The problem, as one might have expected, now centres on whether, in rejecting the second conditional, he properly understands what it is for something to be blameworthy. These issues obviously need to be pursued in much more detail. But what of the main question: does the case of Patrick show, or illustrate, that the difference between the person who acts on a moral belief and the person who does not is the presence or absence of a desire to be moral? Hardly. I don't disagree that we can say of him 'he knew what was right in the circumstances, but could not have cared less' (p. 178). But really that says little more than 'he knew what what was right in the circumstances, but that just didn't motivate him'. It does say a little more, in that it rules out, say, 'he was motivated, but something else motivated him more', or 'he was motivated, but for some reason or other he just didn't get round to doing it' So it shows a convincing counter-example to motivational internalism as defined in the passage from Svavarsdóttir which I cited at the beginning. Patrick evidently lacks a desire to be moral, and presumably the desire to be moral can be a moral motivator. But that doesn't show that the desire to be moral is the only moral motivator - or the only thing that Patrick lacks. Perhaps there are people who do what they take to be their duty, irrespective of any desire to be moral, or any other desire. They also have something Patrick lacks - a sense of duty? Or they lack something Patrick has - some sort of occluding cynicism, of false sophistication, about the moral?

I conclude that Svavarsdóttir makes a good case against motivational internalism. But she does not show that moral judgements cannot be in and of themselves motivating, nor does she establish her positive hypothesis about the role of the desire to be moral.


1. I assume the words 'care to' in the penultimate line could be deleted without changing the sense.

2. Or maybe the pathway is only statistically effective. One shouldn't automatically assume determinism - at any level -- in this debate.

3. This assumes, of course, that in any choice set there is at least one action that the agent has most reason to do. (There can be more than one.) The choice in this case is helping or not helping.

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