van Roojen Reviews Jackson and Pettit


Posted March 8, 1995

"Moral Functionalism And Moral Motivation," The Philosophical Quarterly Vol 45 (January 1995): pp. 20 - 39, by Frank Jackson and Philip Pettit (The Australian National University, Canberra)

Reviewed by Mark van Roojen, (University of Nebraska, Lincoln), (MSV@UNLINFO.UNL.EDU)

Jackson and Pettit propose that a "functionalist" analysis of evaluative content, patterned on functionalist analyses of mental states, can handle two problems which must be addressed if non-cognitivism is to be defeated. (1) They can capture the cognitive content of evaluative beliefs involving rightness, fairness and the like. And (2) they can explain how there could be a non-contingent connection between having beliefs with such content, and being appropriately motivated to act as the valuation prescribes. The paper thus has two parts, a first which explicates the theory and argues for it as the best explanation of the supervenience of the evaluative facts on the naturalistic facts and of moral epistemology, and a second section using the theory to explain the plausibility of motivational internalism.

A functionalist theory of moral content proceeds along the lines proposed by David Lewis for defining interconnected theoretical terms. It starts by collecting what received or "folk" moral theory says about moral properties, such as rightness, goodness, fairness, and so on. Folk moral theory containing evaluative terms will contain claims about their interconnections ("A fair outcome is, ceteris paribus better than an unfair one."), about their connections with ordinary naturalistic claims ("Lotteries are often fair."), their connections with motivation ("Believing an option best, is ceteris paribus to prefer it."), and so on. The claims of folk theory are then strung together in a long conjunction, with the evaluative terms each displaced by a distinct variable. We can now define the individual moral properties as the unique satisfiers of each of the variables, assuming that there are any. To say that an option is right, then, will be to say that it has the "descriptive property" (p. 25) which uniquely satisfies the various things said about the rightness variable. And so on for the other moral terms. The authors claim that this will enable evaluative terms to pick out descriptive properties, in virtue of the place these properties play in overall moral theory, and in a way that is holistic, requiring other moral terms to simultaneously pick out "complementary" descriptive properties.

We ought accept the theory, the authors urge, because it explains the a priori status of the supervenience of the evaluative on the descriptive. Descriptively indiscernible worlds will have the same descriptive properties filling the same roles, hence the property filling the fairness role in such worlds will be the same. And descriptively identical items will be alike in having or lacking that descriptive property. Furthermore, if the meanings of moral terms are fixed by the roles they play in commonplace theory, moral thinking will naturally proceed out from those commonplaces. Hence, the theory explains the role of example and analogy in reflective moral thinking aimed at reflective equilibrium.

The authors then put the theory to work explaining the non- contingent connection between holding a moral judgement and a desire to do what the judgement prescribes. It should be easy to see why the account posits such a connection under full information, but the connection to be explained is supposed to exist even when the judgement itself is false, and that is harder to do. For, among ordinary mortals with less than full information, it does not seem hard to find those who at once believe an option good, right or fair and yet do not seem motivated on its behalf. And, employing the analysis, it seems quite possible to believe that an option has a property playing the rightness-role, while remaining similarly unmotivated.

Jackson and Pettit reply that we should admit two ways of believing a content which admits of a functionalist analysis. One way is intellectualistic, and requires the explicit possession of each of the concepts employed in the analysis, and their explicit employment in assenting to the content in question. The other way of believing the same content is to be disposed to make inferences as the analysis would warrant. While ideal belief in a content would require both elements, one can have the belief either way. For evaluative beliefs, the relevant dispositions include dispositions to treat similar cases as evaluatively similar, to regard fairer options as more likely to be right, to desire and choose right options over less right options, and so on. And these last dispositions, being constitutive of this way of believing evaluative contents, provide non-contingent connections with motivations. But one can believe the same content in the intellectualist fashion without being suitably motivated.

The proposal is of obvious interest. But one might worry about whether there are any unique occupants of the relevant roles. The prospects might vary, depending on how one divides the "moral" from the natural. Are terms like `rational', `reasonable', `reason', or `motive' to count as evaluative terms, and hence to be included among those defined by their roles, or not? If they are, it may be easier to construct alternative adequate ways of filling in the variables. If they are not, have evaluative terms been reduced to natural properties? And, can the natural/non-natural distinction be filled out in other than an ad hoc way? If the proposal ends up equating natural properties with non-evaluative properties, we cannot define the natural as the non-evaluative. On the other hand, for any more substantial characterization of the distinction, it seems possible that those falling on the non-natural side might possess evaluative properties. If so, are we justified in insisting that the evaluative properties are natural?

A related worry, is about how to justify the requirement that the property in question must be the unique natural/descriptive property that plays the evaluative role in question. If it is not one of the requirements of folk-morality, how is it justified? A possible reply might be: from the conjunction of folk morality with naturalism. If all properties are natural properties, and if folk-morality is true, then the role fillers must be natural properties.

Future articles will hopefully afford the authors opportunity to clarify these issues, and to further defend the theory.