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Commentator:
Lee Overton, Wake Forest University
(overtohl@wfu.edu )
Posted 3/24/97

o-drop.gif - 1.3 Kne version of internalist moral cognitivism holds that people who lack motivation-constituting beliefs lack any genuine first-person moral beliefs. Motivation for A-ing is supposed by this view to be "built into" any genuine belief that one is (oneself) morally required to A. The view's truth thus requires the existence of "besires"--psychological states which have the features constitutive of both beliefs and desires, but which are not mere compounds of belief and desire. Alfred Mele finds two matters about this Constitutive Internalist Moral Cognitivism especially worrisome.

Here's the first. What's to be done if, as seems likely, no one has any besires? It's difficult to see how we could find acceptable in that case a moral theory that tells us that we would have no genuine first person moral beliefs. The matter at issue here is whether it makes sense to allow moral theory to impose conceptual constraints on what sorts of psychological attitude may make up the human motivational economy.

The worry is pressed home. "Consider," writes Mele, "an unfortunate person--someone who is neither amoral nor wicked--suffering from clinical depression owing to the recent tragic deaths of her husband and children in a plane crash. Seemingly, we can imagine that she retains certain of her beliefs about what she is morally required to do...while being utterly devoid of motivation to act accordingly. She has aided her ailing uncle for years, believing herself to be morally required to do so. Perhaps she continues to believe this, but now is utterly unmotivated to assist him. If we can imagine this (more precisely, if it is possible), then...agents may believe that they are morally required to A and yet have no motivation to A." (733)

But then, seemingly, for any first-person moral belief, it's at least possible for a kind of motivation-disabling listlessness to break the normally tight connection between one's moral beliefs and one's motivating attitudes, so that although one believes one ought (oneself) morally to act in such and such a way, one lacks the motivation to act in accordance with one's prescription. But if Constitutive Internalist Moral Cognitivism is true, then the beliefs that fall, or could fall, to listlessness are not genuine moral beliefs. Why? Because there is no necessary connection between such beliefs and motivation on the part of the believer to act in accordance with them. But this has absurd consequences. Since listlessness could presumably afflict any moral belief at all, no one would ever have had a genuine moral belief at all. "The upshot," writes Mele, "would be that...there is a very real chance that we have never believed ourselves morally required to do anything." (743-44) His view is that even the most committed Constitutive Internalist will yield before conceding that none of us have ever had first-person moral beliefs.

Constitutive Internalist Moral Cognitivism thus falls to Mele's ax, but we're still left wondering whether internalists simply made too strong a conceptual demand in this case or, what is much more controversial, whether moral theorists are supposed to stay altogether out of the business of putting conceptual demands on the theory of motivation. Is it unacceptable, we want to ask, for moral theoretic intuitions--in particular, internalist intuitions--to influence the theory of motivation? This seems altogether too strong a conclusion. All Mele wants to say, I think, is that moral theorists should stay out of the business of making demands on what sorts of motivating psychological states there are. Unfortunately, his second worry takes us beyond this sensible advice.

Here's the second worry: why should it even matter to moral theory what the specifics of human motivation turn out to be? If what we want to account for is the tight connection that normally holds between moral beliefs and appropriate motivation, let us turn to the theory of motivation to see what is on offer. Should it matter to moral theorists what the theorists of motivation offer? Suppose, as Mele suggests, they offer this: that we act on first person moral beliefs not because such beliefs are motivation-constituting but because we have long-standing desires to do what is moral. Why should it matter to moral theorists if this turned out to be the case?

But now, whereas Mele's first worry shows how Constitutive Internalist Moral Cognitivism goes too far in its conceptual demands, this second worry is supported by a suggestion that seems to go too far in the other direction, and it is up to moral theorists to explain why. Although it is undoubtedly true that people sometimes act on beliefs about their moral requirements because they want to do what is moral, it cannot be true that moral agency consists simply in acting on one's moral beliefs only because one wants to do what is moral. At least some moral beliefs, at their formation, seem to be necessarily accompanied by a motivation distinct from and underived from the desire to be moral. That is to say, it seems that if you cannot come up with the motivation, you cannot come up with the belief, either. The listless lack of motivation thus seems intimately related--maybe even necessarily so--to the inability to produce the moral beliefs. But this would rule out the possibility about motivation that Mele suggests. For, it makes no sense to say that the desire to be moral is produced at once with the production of first person moral beliefs. And anyway, the point of introducing the desire to be moral is to offer something long-standing, that is already and usually there, in order to explain why we normally act as believe we ought.

It is interesting that it is a closer look at the phenomenon of listlessness that supports this view. The way we think about agents afflicted with listlessness strongly suggests a need for a distinction between moral beliefs and the intuitional moral judgments that produce them. Although a listless person may hold moral beliefs, it seems there is something she cannot do. She is unable to acquire moral beliefs in the canonical way--by making intuitional moral judgments. But at the same time, she is listless and unmotivated. We need to find a way to explain why the ability to produce moral beliefs in the canonical way and the capacity to be motivated in the canonical way, both disappear at once.

Although she may hold moral beliefs and infer new ones from more general moral principles, a person afflicted with listlessness seems to lack the normal capacity essential to making the intuitional moral judgments which produce first person moral beliefs. Whether or not she believes herself morally required to do this or that, she may be unable to see the point of these requirements when such requirements are non-instrumental--unable, that is, to enter that frame of mind necessary to the enterprise of articulating one's moral ideals by appeal to one's intuitive judgments. If so, she's arguably lost the capacity to reaffirm these moral beliefs by appeal to intuitional moral judgments and, in losing this, she loses a capacity essential to moral agency. And the explanation for the loss of this capacity will be her listlessness, the same thing that accounts for her loss of motivation.

Is this our view of the matter? Do we feel that a listless agent has lost the ability to produce or reaffirm first person moral beliefs in the canonical way? That we feel this would be shown by our reluctance to accept any appeal to this person's intuitional moral judgment to inform our moral outlook. I submit we'd be so reluctant. We wouldn't trust her judgment, and the explanation for this distrust is that we do not think she is in touch with what she needs to be in touch with in order to make moral judgments. Perhaps she's lost touch with the sensibility that we deem essential for a moral agent to be in touch with. Perhaps she has lost her feel for the spirit of the tacit moral intentions we share concerning our interpersonal relations. Whatever the case, we no longer feel that her offerings in this area count.

The point is not that the listless person has no moral beliefs, if moral beliefs are beliefs about what one ought to do from the moral point of view. It's just that she has no way within herself of checking those beliefs, and this is what is, plausibly, essential to moral agency--the capacity to check one's moral beliefs by appeal to one's intuitional moral judgment. We would never ask a person lost in listlessness to contribute to the resolution of a moral problem, if in asking someone for this, we mean to ask them to consult their intuitional moral judgment. Anyone can draw consequences from principles (or from their memory), but that is not what we ask of someone when we ask for their moral judgment.

It seems that at least some moral beliefs must be products of such judgments since this would explain how we would, I submit, respond to listless persons' contributions to moral inquiry. But our look at listlessness suggests that the capacity to make these judgments is lost in the same stroke as is the tight connection between moral belief and motivation. The explanation? That intuitional moral judgments produce not only moral beliefs, but also motivating attitudes.

Here is a possible view of the relation between moral belief, moral judgment and motivation: a moral belief is formed as the result of a moral judgment, which is itself an attempt to give shape to the various emotive pushes and pulls that constitute one's feel for one's obligations. The residual first-person moral belief goes on to serve to remind us of moral judgments we have made, thus helping to sustain the motivating attitudes that the judgments brought into existence. (Since this is a standard function of moral belief, we might think, therefore, that a belief that failed to function in this way would cease also to be a moral belief. We don't have to say this, but it would be a sensible way to agree to talk.)

One way of making sense of internalist theoretical intuitions, then, is by carefully distinguishing intuitional moral judgments and moral beliefs. Once this distinction is made, much of the discussion of internalist moral cognitivism can be shown to be off the mark, for it focuses on the issue of whether there must be motivation-constituting truth-seeking attitudes, the presumption being that asking "what attitude does a moral judgment express--a belief, a desire, a compound of both, or a non-compound besire?" gets to the heart of the matter. But if intuitional moral judgments are not the expression of attitudes at all, being rather the events by which attitudes are formed, then this question does not get to the heart of the matter.

Constitutive Internalist Moral Cognitivism was never a good expression of what internalist moral cognitivists really want. But the attempt to explain why Mele must be wrong that all moral motivation might be accounted for by appeal to a general long-standing desire to be moral leads me to suggest the following rescue of internalist moral cognitivism: (1) distinguish clearly between the phenomenon of moral belief and that of intuitional moral judgment; (2) make internalist conceptual claims about moral judgments rather than moral beliefs; and (3) support these conceptual claims by appeal to an account of the role of moral judgments in producing both moral beliefs and motivating attitudes. If we do all of this, we get a sufficiently robust version of internalist moral cognitivism which not only does not succumb to the problem of listlessness, but also explains the scoffing reaction that we are likely to have towards the suggestion that listless persons can contribute to moral discovery. Because the event we single out as moral judgment is not an expression of any attitude at all, internalists are able to hold that moral judgments are essentially motivation-creating without being committed to the existence of motivation-constituting beliefs.

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