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Commentator:
Michael Smith, Australian National University
(msmith@coombs.anu.edu.au)
Posted 4/28/97

c-drop.gif - 1.4 Konsider the following three claims.

Claim 1: If an agent believes that it is right to do x in circumstances C then she is motivated to do x in C

Claim 2: If an agent believes that it is right to do x in C then, insofar as she is rational, she is motivated to do x in C

Claim 3: If an agent believes that it is right to do x in C then, insofar as she is rational, either she is motivated to do x in C, or she is indifferent to doing x in C, or she is averse to doing x in C

Anyone who provides an account of the nature of moral belief needs to take a stand of which of these claims is true, and then to ensure their account explains why that claim is true.

Many philosophers hold that moral belief is motivation-constituting. Their view is supposed to explain why Claim 1 is true. Alfred Mele's main aim in "Internalist Moral Cognitivism and Listlessness" is to argue against this view of moral belief. His argument is, in essence, that any plausible account of moral belief needs to square with the common sense idea that depression can sap an agent's motivations while leaving her evaluative outlook intact. The view that moral belief is motivation-constituting fails in this regard. He calls this the 'problem of listlessness.' He concludes that Claim 1 is therefore false.

Mele describes an ingenious thought-experiment in order to bring out this conflict between Claim 1 and common sense. Before going on to describe and evaluate this thought-experiment, however, let me flag the problem I see emerging right from the outset. It seems to me that the thought-experiment Mele describes doesn't just suggest that Claim 1 is false. It equally suggests that Claim 2 is false. The upshot is thus that, if we accept Mele's argument against Claim 1, we should embrace Claim 3. As I see things, those who ultimately want to defend the more modest Claim 2 that is, any internalist who doesn't believe that there are motivation-constituting moral beliefs should therefore put their differences with those who embrace Claim 1 to one side and see whether they can't together find some reason to reject Mele's thought-experiment.

Here is the thought-experiment. Imagine a planet on which the majority of adults have a long-term generic desire to do what is morally required, a desire that motivates them whenever they seek to satisfy moral requirements. The inhabitants of this planet are so constituted that the presence of this desire is causally necessary for them to seek to satisfy moral requirements. Now imagine a woman who, while believing that she is morally required to act in a certain way, undergoes a traumatic experience and falls into a deep depression. As a result of her depression she claims that she is no longer motivated to do what she believes she is morally required to do. Her depression has totally sapped her desire to do what is morally required. Psychologists on the planet administer all sorts of tests to determine whether she really has the belief but lacks the motivation. They administer lie-detector tests, brain scans, and behavioural tests of other sorts. These tests all suggest that, though the woman believes it is right to act in a certain way, she has no desire at all to act in that way.

Mele claims that his thought-experiment, and the problem of listlessness that it allows him to bring out, constitutes a decisive objection to Claim 1. If the thought experiment is so much as coherent, after all, then it shows that it is indeed possible for there to be people who have moral beliefs while lacking corresponding motivations: the depressed people on the planet he describes are like this. But it is this very possibility that is supposed to be ruled out by Claim 1. Those who wish to defend Claim 1 therefore need to show that the thought-experiment Mele describes is incoherent.

Mele considers, and rejects, a number of responses that defenders of Claim 1 might give in their attempt to show that the thought-experiment is incoherent. He suggests that they might offer the argument from moral experience: 'the woman described can't really believe that she is morally required to act in certain ways because to have this belief is to apprehend a reason so to act, and it is impossible to apprehend such a reason and be indifferent.' Or they might offer the argument from toothlessness: 'to reject Claim 1 is to drive a wedge between moral beliefs and intentional conduct, thus taking the essentially practical bite out of morality.' Or they might offer the proper grasp response: 'if the woman described really isn't motivated to do the things she says she believes are morally required then, despite her disposition to utter the words "I am morally required to do such-and-such," she mustn't really understand what it is that she says, and so must not really have the moral belief.' But Mele thinks that none of these responses has any plausiblity.

Let's suppose we concede Mele's point: none of these responses show that his thought-experiment is incoherent. What follows? As I see things anyone who is convinced by Mele's thought-experiment should, in consistency, reject not just Claim 1 but Claim 2 as well. In other words, they should accept Claim 3. This is because, in order to accept Claim 2, we would have to find fault with the following thought-experiment, a thought-experiment which seems to me to be on all fours with the thought-experiment Mele conducts in refuting Claim 1.

Imagine a planet on which the majority of adults have a long-term generic desire to do what is morally required, a desire that motivates them whenever they they seek to satisfy moral requirements. Indeed, just as on the planet Mele describes, the inhabitants of this planet are so constituted that the presence of this desire is causally necessary for them to seek to satisfy moral requirements. But now imagine further that there is a woman who, while believing that she is morally required to act in a certain way, and without suffering from any irrationality, claims that she just isn't motivated to do what she believes she is morally required to do. She says that she has no desire to do what she is morally required to do, and that she is none the less rational for that. The psychologists on the planet administer all sorts of tests in order to determine whether she really does have the belief but lack the motivation, while remaining completely rational. They administer lie-detector tests, brain scans, and behavioural tests of other sorts, and what these tests all suggest is that, though she believes it right to act in a certain way, she has no desire at all to act in that way, and she is not irrational either. Let's call this the the 'problem of amoralism.'

How might someone attracted to Claim 2 attempt to demonstrate the incoherence of what has just been said? The only responses that come to mind are versions of those that Mele has already considered, and rejected, when defenders of Claim 1 attempted to use them to show that Mele himself had not described a coherent possibility in his attempt to refute Claim 1. For example, defenders of Claim 2 might offer the argument from moral experience: 'the woman described can't really believe that she is morally required to act in certain ways because to have this belief is to apprehend a reason so to act, and it is impossible to apprehend such a reason and be indifferent while remaining completely rational.' Or they might offer the argument from toothlessness: 'to reject Claim 2 is to drive a wedge between moral beliefs and intentional conduct, thus taking the essentially practical bite out of morality.' Or they might offer the proper grasp response: 'if the woman described really isn't motivated to do the things she says she believes to be morally required, and if she really isn't irrational either, then, despite her disposition to utter the words "I am morally required to do such-and-such," she mustn't really understand what it is that she says, and so must not really have the moral belief.'

I can see no reason for supposing that, at the level of abstraction at which we are operating, these responses are any more plausible when given in defence of Claim 2 than they were when they were given in defence of Claim 1. What Mele says in reply to each these responses, when they were given in defence of Claim 1, could equally be said in reply to them when they are given in defence of Claim 2. I am therefore led to conclude that those who think that Mele's argument really does refute Claim 1 should also think that it (provides us with the materials to construct a strictly analogous argument that) refutes Claim 2 as well.

Let me emphasise that what I have just said does not really count as an objection to what Mele says. Perhaps there is no way of developing an objection to Claim 1 or Claim 2 or Claim 3 that remains neutral on the claims that remain. If that is right then Mele cannot be blamed for failing to remain neutral. But it does suggest a 'Buyer beware!' policy for those who are in the market for an argument to wield against Claim 1. Anyone who wants to defend Claim 2, rather than Claim 3, should think twice before buying Mele's argument.

Mele's own lack of neutrality emerged when he told us how the inhabitants of his planet are motivated to act morally. He stipulates, remember, that they have a long term generic desire to do what is morally required, and that the possession of this desire is causally necessary for doing what is morally required. Those who accept Claim 1 should have resisted the thought-experiment at this very moment. After all, as they see things, such a generic desire simply is not required for moral motivation in people who have moral beliefs. For these theorists tell us that it is in the nature of the belief that doing x is morally required that it is itself a desire to do x; that it is in the nature of the belief that doing y is morally required that it is itself a desire to do y; and so on. Given their view about the nature of moral belief it follows that there is simply no motivational role for the generic desire to play in people who are not depressed, if indeed they have moral beliefs. They should therefore have insisted that the thought-experiment was flawed even before the introduction of those who (allegedly) suffer from listlessness. If the thought-experiment were to be patched up at this point to their satisfaction, they might say, it could not be developed in a way that counts against their view. The same goes for those who accept Claim 2. For they too deny that such a generic desire is required for moral motivation in people who have moral beliefs. As they see things, it is in the nature of the belief that doing x is morally required that it itself a rational cause or causal sustainer of a desire to do x; it is in the nature of the belief that doing y is morally required that it itself a rational cause or causal sustainer of a desire to do y; and so on. Given their view about the nature of moral belief it follows that there is again no motivational role for the generic desire to play in people who are not depressed, if indeed they have moral beliefs. They too should therefore have insisted that the analogous thought-experiment is flawed even before the introduction of those who are (allegedly) amoral. If the thought-experiment were once again to be patched up at this point to their satisfaction then, they might say, it could not be developed in a way that counts against their view.

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