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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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R. Jay Wallace, University of California, Berkeley
Posted 08/10/01

s-drop.gif - 1.3 Kigrún Svavarsdóttir's challenging paper "Moral Cognitivism and Motivation" mounts a powerful case against the widely-held thesis that moral judgments are necessarily connected to the motivation to comply with them. This thesis, which Svavarsdóttir refers to as "motivational internalism", is commonly invoked in metaethical debates about the proper analysis of the mental act of moral judgment, as a constraint that such accounts must satisfy. Internalism in this form has been appealed to by noncognitivists, for instance, as a consideration in favor of their style of analysis, which (it is thought) can readily explain the necessary connection between moral judgment and motivation. But it is possible for cognitivists to accept motivational internalism, and to explain the necessary connection it postulates between moral judgment and motivation in some other way (e.g. through the articulation of an alternative motivational psychology).

Svavarsdóttir, who is sympathetic to cognitivism in some form (169), prefers to take on motivational internalism directly. Her argument against it builds on the imagined case of Patrick, someone who is to all appearances adept at moral thought and judgment, but who shows no tendency whatsoever to care about whether his behavior does or does not comply with the moral conclusions that he accepts and endorses (176-8). Svavarsdóttir invites us to consider this example as a bit of observable behavior that we are called on to investigate empirically (180). Motivational internalists, she concedes, may well be able to come up with explanations of the empirical data on offer in a case of this kind (postulating, for instance, a motivational tendency on Patrick's part to comply with his moral judgments that is never strong enough to eventuate in observable moral behavior). She herself finds these explanations less plausible than the alternative account made available by externalism (178-9); but her case against motivational internalism does not turn on such intuitions of comparative plausibility. Instead she offers a methodological case against internalism, contending that it violates more general principles on the proper explanation of observable phenomena. Specifically, Svavarsdóttir contends that empirical theories carry a distinctive burden of proof when they exclude explanatory hypotheses that cannot readily be seen to be false or otherwise defective (180-1). The burden is to justify the exclusion of hypotheses that would otherwise seem to be in the running, as accounts of the observable phenomena. In the particular case at issue, Svavarsdóttir suggests that there is no justification available that does not simply presuppose the internalist thesis, in a way that would obviously be question-begging in the context of the debate about that very thesis (181-2). (Motivational internalism might be a conceptual truth about moral concepts or about the concept of the moral; but it would be circular to deploy internalism as an adequacy constraint on philosophical accounts of such concepts, and then defend internalism by arguing that it falls out of any adequate analysis of such concepts, as a kind of conceptual truth.)

In the remainder of her discussion Svavarsdóttir sets herself three tasks. First, she offers a debunking explanation of the intuition appealed to by motivational internalists, tracing it to a legitimate and important insight into the nature of commitment that gets misinterpreted as a point about moral judgment more generally (sec. 4). Second, she responds to a familiar internalist explanation of cases such as Patrick's, in which people apparently make moral claims without betraying any tendency to be motivated in accordance with them (sec. 5). Internalists frequently contend that people who fit this description must be using moral language in a deviant or "inverted commas" sense. But Svavarsdóttir suggests that this is not the most natural way to understand the figure of the "moral cynic", and that the internalist's less natural account should therefore be accepted only if it could be shown, on independent grounds, that it is impossible to acknowledge moral requirements without being motivated by them (192, 194).

Finally, Svavarsdóttir offers an extended rebuttal of Michael Smith's attempted reductio of the kind of externalist position she favors (sec. 6). Smith notes that changes in peoples' moral judgments are reliably associated with changes in their motivations, and he argues that the externalist can account for this pattern only on the assumption that those who act morally are motivated exclusively by the desire to do what is right (where this is read de dicto and not de re). But this, he contends, is simply implausible as an account of the structure of moral motivation. The moral agent is typically moved not by the desire to do what is right per se-something Smith regards as potentially "fetishistic"-but by a range of concerns that take as their objects the concrete considerations that make actions right in various situations (such as honesty, the well-being of others, fairness, and so on).

Against this, Svavarsdóttir basically bites the bullet. The externalist position she herself favors traces moral motivation to a conative attitude whose objects are presented using distinctively moral concepts (such as a desire to do what is morally valuable or required, where this is construed de dicto: cf. 169-70, 197-8). But Svavarsdóttir contends that there is nothing implausible in the supposition that moral agents are moved by concerns of this sort; that supposition can be reconciled with our familiar conceptions of moral goodness and perfection, and it coheres as well with the intentional perspective of virtuous agents. It might indeed be implausible to suppose that moral agents are motivated exclusively by what Svavarsdóttir herself calls "the desire to be moral" (170), or that all their moral concerns are derivative from or instrumentally related to a fundamental desire of this kind. But Svavarsdóttir plausibly observes that externalists no less than internalists can credit moral agents with nonderivative concerns for such values as honesty, fairness, and the weal and woe of others. The postulation of an effective concern to do what is morally required in no way excludes the postulation of other concrete motivations of this kind, and someone who is initially moved by the desire to be moral might well come to develop, in time, nonderivative concerns for the sorts of consideration that make actions right or required in the various circumstances of action.

Svavarsdóttir's subtle discussion of these issues raises a host of important questions about the structure of moral motivation and its relation to moral judgment. I find myself largely in agreement with her argument against the version of motivational internalism that she primarily addresses in the paper. At the same time, I don't believe that that version of the internalist thesis best captures the considerations that have led many philosophers to deny that moral judgment is only contingently connected to moral motivation. So I shall begin by articulating a different version of internalism, one that does better justice to the intuition that moral judgment is non-contingently related to moral motivation, and that is immune to the objections brought forward in Svavarsdóttir's paper. Then, in light of the alternative account of internalism I have presented, I shall offer some critical remarks about the positive account of moral motivation Svavarsdóttir favors. It will emerge that her account does after all render moral motivation problematically fetishistic, though the sense of fetishism at issue will differ from the kind that figures in Svavarsdóttir's dispute with Smith.

1. Moral Judgment and Moral Reasons.
Svavarsdóttir cites Patrick as an example of an agent who is to all appearances competent and sincere in his endorsement of moral claims, but who shows no sign of being moved to act in accordance with such claims. I agree with her in thinking that cases of this sort certainly seem to be possible. Motivational internalists need not demur, but they would insist on describing and explaining such cases in a distinctive way. In particular, motivational internalists hold that things are not as they initially appear to be with figures like Patrick: he cannot sincerely endorse moral judgments without having some tendency, however minute and indiscernible, to be motivated to act in accordance with them. Svavarsdóttir argues persuasively that this restriction of the class of admissible explanations of Patrick's behavior carries a heavy burden of argument, which it is hard to see how the internalist could discharge without begging the central questions. We should therefore join Svavarsdóttir in rejecting motivational internalism, in the version of it she primarily considers.

Many of those who are attracted to internalism in some form would be prepared to go along with this conclusion. As Svavarsdóttir is well aware, philosophers such as Korsgaard and Smith concede that it is possible to grasp moral claims without in fact being moved to comply with them. [1] These philosophers accordingly concede that internalism should not be understood as a general conceptual truth about the mental act of moral judgment. In the version of internalism that they favor, the conceptual connection between moral judgment and motivation can be formulated adequately only with the help of a rationality condition. The internalist thesis that results from the importation of this condition says that moral judgment necessarily gives rise to corresponding motivation in those agents who are practically rational.

Svavarsdóttir objects to this form of internalism that it opens up a can of worms, raising complex issues about the notion of practical rationality that threaten to render the internalist thesis useless as a constraint on accounts of moral thought (164-5). I agree with her that the notion of practical rationality is potentially obscure and difficult, and for reasons to be explained directly I would prefer to formulate internalism in a way that differs somewhat from the version favored by Korsgaard and Smith. But cases such as Patrick's already suffice to call into question the suggestion that internalism functions as a general constraint on moral thought and judgment. Philosophers have introduced the rationality condition as a way of capturing the grain of truth in internalism, while leaving room for the kinds of examples that figure centrally in Svavarsdóttir's own argument. The question is whether an alternative formulation of internalism can be found that does justice to our assumption that moral cynicism of this variety is possible, and how we are to understand the role of internalism in our theorizing about morality if it does not function as a general constraint on moral judgment.

In thinking about these issues, we would do well to begin by focusing on the putative connection between morality and reasons for action. What attracts us to internalism about moral judgment, I believe, is the thought that moral considerations at least purport to have normative significance, in the sense of being considerations that count for or against courses of action that are open to us. Thus it is not merely a brute fact about us that we tend to find ourselves drawn to actions that we judge to be morally right or valuable. From the first-person point of view, these moral characteristics present themselves to us as considerations that recommend or speak in favor of the actions to which they apply. Furthermore, the fact that they strike us as normative in this way is connected to our tendency to be motivated in accordance with the moral judgments that we endorse. This strongly suggests that we can arrive at an adequate understanding of the internalist thesis only by attending to the putatively normative dimension of morality.

Those philosophers who have recently favored a rationality condition in their formulations of the internalist thesis can best be understood as responding to this normative dimension of morality. Korsgaard's suggestion that moral judgments are motivating in those agents who are practically rational, for instance, stems from a concern with the status of moral considerations as reasons for action. [2] Her idea seems to be that it is characteristic of rational agents to be motivated in accordance with their reasons for action. The normative dimension of morality does not entail that people will necessarily be motivated to comply with the moral judgments they sincerely endorse-remember Patrick-but it does entail that they will be so motivated insofar as they are practically rational. The problem with this suggestion, however, is that it does not in general seem plausible to define rationality in such a way that rational agents perfectly comply with their reasons for action or belief. As T. M. Scanlon has observed, [3] a person may without irrationality fail to be motivated in accordance with their reasons if, for instance, they do not accept that those reasons obtain. Thus it may be the case that there is reason to prepare in mid-career for one's retirement years. But if I do not accept this normative judgment, then my failure to set aside sufficient funds in my retirement account will most likely be a sign of imprudence rather than irrationality-or so, at any rate, it would be natural to think. This suggests that we do best to reserve the term "irrationality" to refer to cases in which people fail to act and think in accordance with the normative judgments about their reasons that they themselves endorse.

If we accept this suggestion, we will need a different way to formulate the internal connection between moral judgment and motivation. Here is one possibility that suggests itself. Assume, first, that it is a condition of rationality that one is motivated in accordance with the normative judgments that one endorses. It is presumably not impossible to fail to be motivated in accordance with such judgments-something like this happens, for instance, in cases such as weakness of will and self-deception. But when such cases arise, it is natural to say that the agents involved in them are irrational, insofar they fail to be motivated as they themselves judge that they ought to be. Assume, further, that moral considerations do in fact represent genuine reasons for action, having the status of considerations that, for any agent, count for or against that agent's acting in certain specified ways. If this is the case, then we can say that agents are necessarily motivated to act in accordance with moral requirements, to the extent they are deliberating correctly and are otherwise practically rational. The condition of correct deliberation rules out cases in which an agent does not acknowledge the truth of moral judgments, or does not acknowledge that such judgments have normative significance for practical reflection. [4] And the rationality condition rules out agents whose motivations fail to align with their own verdicts about what there is reason to do, in the style of weakness of will.

Obviously the thesis that I have just arrived at-the motivation requirement, as we might dub it-is a long way from motivational internalism in the form that Svavarsdóttir is primarily concerned to address. One thing that immediately stands out about it is that it no longer places any problematic restrictions on the description or explanation of imaginable cases such as Patrick's. The distinctive thing about Patrick is the absence in him of any motives that align with the moral judgments that he himself sincerely endorses. But the motivation requirement, as I have formulated it, allows at least two ways in which a description of this kind might literally be true. It could be the case, first, that Patrick accepts both the truth of some moral judgment, and the normative significance of the judgment thus arrived at, without being motivated accordingly. He might believe, for instance, that one is morally obligated to help politically persecuted strangers, and that one's being so obligated speaks strongly in favor of acting accordingly, without really caring about whether he himself succeeds in providing such assistance when he is in a position to do so. (Perhaps he is depressed.) In this development of the scenario, Patrick turns out to be practically irrational, failing to be motivated in accordance with normative claims that he himself accepts. Alternatively, Patrick might acknowledge the truth of moral judgments without yet accepting that conclusions about what is morally right and wrong have any normative significance at all for him (or perhaps for any agent). Thus he might accept that one is morally obligated to help innocent strangers who are in distress, without granting that this fact by itself counts in favor of his doing anything to provide such assistance when he can. The moral cynic whom Svavarsdóttir describes in her article sounds more like the Patrick of this latter scenario, but the fact that there are at least two ways of failing to be motivated in accordance with moral judgments one sincerely accepts shows that the motivational requirement does not run afoul of Svavarsdóttir's reasonable strictures on the explanation of psychological phenomena.

This feature of the motivational requirement renders it useless, of course, as a constraint on philosophical accounts of moral judgment. As I have formulated it, the thesis tells us nothing much about the nature of the mental act of moral judgment in particular. It presupposes, perhaps, that there is a distinctive stance of normative judgment-the kind of judgment typified schematically by the belief that considerations of kind c recommend or speak in favor of x-ing-that is necessarily connected to motivation, at least in those agents who are rational. But there is no conceptual guarantee that moral judgments are normative judgments of this kind. I write this as someone who happens to believe that moral considerations have genuine normative significance, representing considerations that recommend or speak in favor of various of the actions that are open to us. Even if this is correct, however, it is not correct as a matter of conceptual necessity, and it is accordingly quite possible to endorse moral claims while denying that they provide one with reasons for action (or at least remaining noncommittal on the issue). As I suggested above, this seems to me to be the natural way to characterize what moral cynics such as Patrick are doing.

What can perhaps be said about the connection between morality and motivation is that moral considerations aspire to the normative status of reasons for action. This is admittedly rather vague, but I mean by it to be gesturing in the direction of the following, rather quotidian facts: We typically cite moral considerations in discussion with other people, as factors that are of direct normative significance, counting for or against options for action that are under active consideration. Furthermore, we raise our children to treat moral considerations in this way; and as adults, many of us structure our deliberations on the supposition that moral considerations have normative status, taking facts about rightness and moral value to have direct significance for our decisions about what to do. These aspects of our moral practice, already alluded to above, suggest that morality is widely taken to constitute a normative domain, insofar as moral considerations play the role in our individual and collective deliberations that is commonly ascribed to genuine reasons for action. Perhaps we are, as a matter of fact, wrong to view morality in this way. If that should turn out to be the case, however, it would come to many of us as a surprise, and force us to rethink assumptions about the nature and significance of morality that we had tended to take for granted. To the extent this is the case, it seems fair to say that morality aspires to the status of a normative domain.

Is this a conceptual truth, either about the concept of morality or about the moral concepts? I don't quite know how to answer that question. The facts to which I have just referred seem to indicate that it is quite fundamental to our understanding of morality that it should be taken by people to function as a normative domain. A person who rejected the normative significance of moral distinctions, but without any sense in doing so that they were going against widespread and entrenched assumptions, would certainly be missing something-if not about the concept of morality, then certainly about common moral practices. On the other hand, even if turns out that moral distinctions are in fact normatively significant, this won't be true in virtue of the concept of morality alone. I agree with Svavarsdóttir that the Patricks of this world do not seem to be making a simple conceptual mistake when they deny that morality is something that they ought to be concerned about. So it seems the most we can say, sticking to the plane of conceptual truth, is that morality aspires to normative significance.

But the motivational requirement, in the version I have proposed, is distinct from this quasi-conceptual claim about the aspirations of morality. Even if morality was not widely taken to be a source of distinctive reasons for action, it might still be the case that it has that kind of normative status in fact. This, together with the further assumption that normative judgments are motivating in those rational agents who endorse them, suffices to yield the motivation requirement, which says that agents are necessarily motivated to act in accordance with moral standards, to the extent they are deliberating correctly and are otherwise practically rational. The requirement contained in this formulation derives neither from the concept of morality nor from the moral concepts individually, but from the substantive assumption-a version of what Svavarsdóttir would refer to as "rationalism" (175)-that morality is a genuine source of reasons for action, together with further assumptions about what it is to reason correctly and to be rational relative to one's own normative commitments. It is the normativity of morality that grounds the requirement, such as it is, that we should be motivated in accordance with moral standards.

Clearly a thesis of this kind cannot be appealed to as a neutral constraint in metaethical disputes, since it rests on a substantive claim about the standing of moral considerations as reasons. But the requirement, as I have formulated it, seems to me to capture what is worth preserving in the idea that moral judgments are somehow internally connected to motivation, tracing that idea to basic assumptions about the normativity of morality. It is a consequence of this that we cannot decide whether to accept or reject the motivation requirement without addressing messy issues about the nature and substance of reasons for action, issues that Svavarsdóttir herself would clearly prefer to avoid (175). But I see no way to come to terms with the concerns that have led philosophers to postulate an internal connection between moral judgment and motivation without confronting these difficult issues head on. We need to consider on its merits the substantive thesis that morality is a normative domain, and we need to explain how normative judgments can be reliably motivating in those agents who are practically rational. (The latter question, by the way, will provide ample material for the ongoing dispute between cognitivists and their expressivist opponents.) Svavarsdóttir insists that motivational internalism be formulated in a way that would enable it to function as a more or less "platitudinous" condition on metaethical theorizing. But the real moral of her discussion may be that this is not the correct way to think about the connection between morality and motivation. The thesis that this connection is a non-contingent one has its place within a broader, substantive view about the normative character of morality, and there is no way to do justice to the thesis without thinking through difficult issues concerning the nature and force of moral reasons on their merits. That is simply where the action is in this area of moral philosophy.

2. The Non-contingent Connection between Moral Judgment and Moral Motivation.
To this point Svavarsdóttir may be inclined to go along with my argument. After all, I have agreed with her that motivational internalism, in the version she primarily considers, should be rejected. The alternative position I have put on the table, the motivation requirement, may well be true, for all that she has said in her article; there is no particular need for her to take a stand on that question at all. I have urged that motivational internalism does not represent the most challenging or plausible way to think about the internal connection between morality and moral motivation; I have also pointed out that recent proponents of internalism have started out by acknowledging that motivation is not in general a necessary condition of sincere moral judgment. But Svavarsdóttir's argument against motivational internalism does not presuppose that the thesis gives the most interesting formulation of the basic internalist idea, only that it is a thesis that has been taken seriously in recent philosophical discussion. And that it undoubtedly has been.

But there is at least one point at which I would like to take issue more directly with a claim that is advanced in Svavarsdóttir's article. This concerns her own positive account of the basic disposition that moves people to comply with the moral requirements they accept. This disposition Svavarsdóttir refers to as the desire to be moral, and she means by it a desire directed toward objects that are conceived under a moral mode of presentation (170, 215-8). Her contention is that we need to distinguish sharply between cognitive judgments couched in moral terms and the conative attitudes that lead us to comply with such judgments if we are to account adequately for patterns of variation in moral motivation, such as those that distinguish Patrick from his morally committed friends (216-7). Furthermore, the explanation of moral motivation in terms of such a desire does not-pace Smith-conflict with important assumptions about the structures of affect and concern characteristic of morally admirable or perfect agents.

But from the perspective of someone attracted to the motivational requirement sketched above, there is something missing in her account of what moves us to comply with moral requirements. The worry I have about this can be put by saying that she makes the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation seem altogether optional and arbitrary. Some agents happen to be moved to do what they judge to be morally right or good, while other agents are not so moved; but there is little in the view she advocates that would under gird the claim that those who are morally motivated are somehow responding appropriately or correctly to the moral distinctions they grasp. Perhaps we can explain, in social terms, why it is desirable that people should be brought up to have reliable dispositions to do what they believe to be morally right or good. But from the point of view of practical reason there is nothing to require that an agent who endorses moral claims should be motivated to comply with them. In this respect, the desire to be moral seems to be a mere optional extra, something some of us just happen to have-in this respect rather like a taste for clams or the color azure.

The motivational requirement, as I have formulated it, suggests a different understanding of the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation. In particular, it gives a sense to the idea that agents who have a desire to do what is right are responding appropriately to the moral circumstances, as they conceive them. This desire isn't merely an optional extra, which an agent may or may not happen to have (as the case may be). It is rather a fitting reaction to the recognition that a course of action would represent the right thing to do. For if the motivation requirement is correct, moral facts of this kind constitute reasons for action, and this in turn makes it appropriate both to judge that they have normative significance, and to be motivated accordingly. To the extent this is the case, the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation can be said to be non-contingent. It is not a psychological necessity that someone who endorses a moral judgment should be motivated accordingly (remember Patrick); but by the same token it is not merely fortuitous that some of us happen to be motivated in this way, as it would seem to be on the account that Svavarsdóttir favors.

Furthermore, that motivation and moral cognition are connected in this way seems to correspond to the internal perspective on action of the virtuous agent. Such agents characteristically take it that their actions are recommended or justified by the fact that they are morally required or otherwise morally valuable, and this in turn renders their moral motivation intelligible to them, as a fitting response to the considerations that they take to have normative significance. This is something that gets left out on the interesting reconstruction of the intentional perspective of the moral agent that Svavarsdóttir offers (202-3). That picture posits an "internal link" between the mental states of the person who is (say) motivated to help somebody because they believe that doing so would be morally right, insofar as the content of the agent's moral belief relates the object of their general desire to be moral to the more specific desire that motivates them to help. But the internal link in this example is specified without use of any normative concepts (202, note 60), and for this reason it fails to do justice to the internal perspective of the virtuous agent. Such agents do not simply find that they are inexplicably drawn to doing actions which can be described as morally right or good. Rather, their being so motivated is connected to their own acknowledgment that the rightness or goodness of an action counts strongly in favor of performing it. The inclusion of this normative element in the intentional perspective of virtue is thus not merely a piece of Kantian high-mindedness (cf. 216), but something that grows out of our attempts to make sense of ourselves in the first-person perspective of moral deliberation.

Svavarsdóttir's alternative approach to moral motivation makes do with moral beliefs on the one hand, and desires to perform actions that fall under moral descriptions on the other. She succeeds, to my mind, in showing that the postulation of a motivating desire to be moral is compatible with our conceptions of moral virtue and perfection. But unless a normative connection of some kind can be made out between this desire and the moral beliefs that fix its objects, there will remain a sense in which the motivations to which it gives rise can be characterized as "fetishistic". The sense of fetishism at issue can be illustrated by considering intuitionistic accounts of moral motivation, with which Svavarsdóttir's story has considerable affinities (cf. 170, note 18). A familiar objection to such theories, I take it, is that the intuitionistic strategy leaves it a mystery why those of us who find ourselves with a desire to do what is right ought to motivated in this way. Granted, we can in some sense explain moral behavior by supposing that virtuous agents are subject to a desire to be moral, in some form or other. But this pattern of explanation leaves it entirely open whether the considerations that move us are ones that merit our interest and concern; in this respect, morality might well turn out to be a kind of collective fetish, for all the intuitionistic account has to say. (Fetishism in this context can be understood as the irrational investment of interest and attention in objects that are not intrinsically worthy of such a response.)

My present point is that exactly the same comment seems to apply to the account of moral motivation that Svavarsdóttir provides. So long as the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation remains not only psychologically but also normatively contingent, it is going to appear to be the case that moral motivation is fetishistic in the sense just specified. To show that it is not requires a first-order consideration of the putatively normative status of moral considerations, as reasons or justifications for action. This is the sort of question that Svavarsdóttir resolutely refuses to raise. One way to put my objection to Svavarsdóttir's account is to say that it seems very odd to suppose, as she appears to do, that one could account adequately for moral motivation without even broaching issues about the normative status of morality. As I suggested above, issues of this kind are central to the first-person perspective from which moral motivation and agency themselves derive. Without coming to terms with these normative issues, we can hardly do full justice to the common thought that the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation is noncontingent.


1. See Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994), sec. 3.1, and Christine Korsgaard, "Skepticism about Practical Reason," Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), pp. 5-25.

2. Korsgaard's interest in this question is pursued most extensively in her book The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), whose use of the term "normativity" to refer to the status of a consideration as a reason I have followed.

3. T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), chap. 1, sec. 4.

4. We must assume here that the truths to which I have just referred are epistemically accessible to the agent. Someone who for whatever reason is not in a position to see that x is wrong, or that x's wrongness is a reason, may not be deliberating incorrectly in failing to accept either of these judgments.

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