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Alfred Mele, Davidson College
Posted 5/13/97

i-drop.gif - 1.2 Kn "Internalist Moral Cognitivism and Listlessness" (IMCL), I attacked a pair of theses. The first, my primary target there, is the conjunction of moral cognitivism and the following claim ("constitutive internalism"): "Necessarily, any belief that one is (oneself) morally required to A constitutes motivation to A" (731). The second is the conjunction of moral cognitivism and the claim that, normally, beliefs that one is (oneself) morally required to A are motivation-constituting (748). I had no particular moral ax to grind in the paper. My interest in moral motivation derives from a more general interest in motivation. Elsewhere ("Motivation: Essentially Motivation-Constituting Attitudes," Philosophical Review 104 [1995]: 387-423), I had defended a view of essentially motivation-constituting attitudes according to which they are limited to "action-desires" and attitudes partially constituted by such desires. In IMCL, I was concerned to protect an attractively simple view of essentially motivation-constituting attitudes by arguing, against cognitivist constitutive internalists, that moral agency does not require the existence of motivation-constituting beliefs (or "besires," for short).

I argued that in order to avoid putting the very existence of moral agency at serious risk, moral theorists should leave it open that being a moral agent does not require possessing such special psychological attitudes as "besires." I argued as well that morality can be action-guiding for agents who have no besires. For example, actual or hypothetical moral agents may be possessed of a generic desire to do whatever they morally ought, a desire that, together with beliefs that one morally ought to A, can quite systematically give rise to desires to A that figure in the production of intentional A-ings.

My suggestion about the generic desire--a suggestion offered as an example of something that would enable morality to be action-guiding independently of besires--troubles both of my commentators. Lee Overton contends that, in some cases, in order for agents to acquire a belief that they morally ought to A, some motivation that is not itself the generic desire must already be in place. I don't see how this is inconsistent with anything I said in IMCL. In fact, I mention this apparent possibility there (730; cf. 739), and I nowhere claim that it is not a genuine one. Even so, Overton is on to something important. In IMCL, I supposed that the intelligent inhabitants of an imaginary planet Y were genetically equipped with the generic desire, a desire that "emerges in them when they reach what Yians call 'the age of reason'" (738). This glosses over loads of detail. A full-blown account of moral motivation--but my aim in IMCL did not include providing one--would include an account of how moral motivation is acquired, including how it first emerges in human agents. It would also address the issue of the motivational prerequisites, if any, of the acquisition of first-person moral ought beliefs.

Overton sketches an interesting picture in which moral ought beliefs and associated motivation proceed from the same source--"events" of intuitive moral judgment. From the perspective of IMCL, I have no quarrel with his picture: the picture includes neither essentially nor contingently motivation-constituting beliefs (or belief-like attitudes). I'm not entirely sure how the notion of an intuitive moral judgment is to be interpreted, but it is noteworthy that Overton represents such judgments as events having at least a partial source in the agent's motivational condition.

Michael Smith suggests that if my argument against cognitivist constitutive internalism is successful, a parallel argument falsifies the following thesis: "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." Given other relevant remarks that Smith makes in his commentary, and in the interest of presenting this thesis as a structurally similar counterpart of "constitutive internalism," it may be formulated more fully as follows:

Claim 2*: Necessarily, any belief that one is (oneself) morally required to A is "itself a rational cause or causal sustainer" of motivation to A in a rational agent, a cause whose efficacy does not depend upon its operating in conjunction with a motivation-constituting attitude of the agent.

Claim 2* departs from constitutive internalism in two significant ways. It presents moral ought beliefs as motivation-causing rather than motivation-constituting (cf. Overton's intuitive moral judgments), and it is a claim specifically about rational agents. My argument against cognitivist constitutive internalism applies straightforwardly to a variant of claim 2* arrived at by deleting the word "rational." But if a convincing argument were offered for theses about rationality that support 2*, that very argument might lead us to see why, even if my argument against cognitivist constitutive internalism--a thesis that makes no mention of rationality--is cogent, a parallel argument does not undermine 2*. To say something more concrete about this, I'd need to see the arguments for the relevant theses about rationality. But it is worth mentioning that such arguments would show that in no relevant scenario could empirical tests of the sort I imagined being conducted on planet X establish that rational agents sometimes acquire first-person moral ought beliefs that do not cause or sustain corresponding motivation (while the agents continue to be rational), if these arguments were to show that the very nature of rationality makes this conceptually or metaphysically impossible.

Smith suggests that proponents of 2* should resist the idea that a hypothetical (rational) agent may be psychologically so constituted that her belief that she ought morally to do x will produce or sustain in her a desire to do x only in tandem with some motivation-constituting attitude of hers (e.g., a generic desire to do whatever she morally ought). It's clear that, in the absence of a powerful argument for the impossibility of such an agent, insistence on this impossibility places the existence of our own moral agency at risk. For all I now know, we human beings are psychologically so constituted that whenever a first-person prescriptive belief of ours in any domain (e.g., aesthetics, prudence) issues in a corresponding desire, it does so in conjunction with some motivation-constituting attitude or other that we already have. And for all I now know, we are psychologically so constituted that the emergence in us of our first first-person prescriptive beliefs in any domain depends on the presence in us of some relevant desires or other; and our actual psychological constitutions, for all I know, are such that these desires, or desires that they evolve into or help foster, play an indispensable causal role whenever beliefs of ours that recommend our A-ing issue in desires to A.

One of the virtues of both commentaries is that they illuminate important theoretical complexities encountered in exploring moral motivation. It may be that the nature of morality imposes surprisingly severe constraints on the range of psychologies that can sustain moral agency. Perhaps, for example, morality really is such that, necessarily, no being without besires is a moral agent. (In that case, perhaps it is also true that the human psychological repertoire just does not include besires, so that none of us is a moral agent.) Perhaps, instead, owing to what morality is, moral agency requires a psychological constitution that features beliefs with the power "rationally" to cause corresponding desires independently of any antecedent motivation. If there are good independent grounds for holding that human beings are possessed of beliefs of one or the other of these two kinds, moral philosophers needn't worry much about insisting that the possession of such beliefs is required for moral agency. But if independent grounds for holding that we are possessed of such states of mind are weak or nonexistent, we should at least think twice about the merits of the arguments for theses like cognitivist constitutive internalism and 2*.

I think that the following question is a useful one for a theorist to ask when considering alleged necessary psychological conditions for moral agency: If I (i.e., the theorist, not just this author!) were to discover that, as a matter of empirical fact, no human being satisfies the alleged psychological requirement, would I be strongly inclined to hold that no human being is a moral agent? Obviously, I myself believe that moral agency does not require besires. I'm also inclined to think (and here I go beyond IMCL) that rational moral agents can get along without beliefs having the causal power featured in 2*. But I'm open to argument about this. Moral agency certainly requires some psychological states that nonmoral agency does not--for example, beliefs about what one morally ought to do. Questions about the breadth of the psychological gap between moral and nonmoral agents are, I believe, tantalizingly difficult. Such questions are fertile ground for what is sometimes called "moral psychology." Good old-fashioned moral philosophy has a role to play here: it is likely that, given the nature of morality, one is acting as a moral agent only if one is motivated in certain ways, and not in others, to do what one does. My contention in IMCL is that there is no need for motivation-constituting (cognitivist) beliefs in this connection.

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