Moral Internalism vs. Moral Externalism

By Michael Gakuran | | Philosophy | Leave a comment |

Moral Internalism vs. Moral ExternalismBefore jumping into the Expressivist pool, we need somebackground on the debate surrounding Moral Judgement Internalism and Moral Judgement Externalism. Here it is. Do you think that we are necesarily motivated to perform actions or that our motivations lie contingently out in the world? How to best understand our moral convictions?

Humean Motivation

Let’s take a look at a basic explanation of Hume’s account of motivation, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to the Humean view, belief is insufficient for motivation, which always requires, in addition to belief, the presence of a desire or conative state. Moral motivation thus cannot arise from moral belief alone but must depend as well upon a pre-existing desire or other conative or intrinsically motivating state. It would perhaps be fair to say that Humeanism continues to be the dominant view. It has been held both by some who accept and by some who reject cognitivism and moral realism, so it has not alone been considered decisive in settling broader issues in metaethics. The view has been held by noncognitivist anti-realists, for example, but also by moral realists like Michael Smith (1994) and Peter Railton (1986a). A number of prominent philosophers, including Thomas Nagel (1970), John McDowell (1979), Mark Platts (1980), David McNaughton (1988), Jonathan Dancy (1993), Thomas Scanlon (1998), and Russ Shafer-Landau (2003), have rejected the Humean picture, however, arguing that, in fact, moral motivation does not depend on the existence of desire: moral belief can itself give rise to motivation.

So, for Hume, moral belief alone cannot motivate us to act – we always need a motivating state or desire to do so. Anti Humean views are several. Once again, allow me to plug the SEoP in for an exceptionally lucid explanation:

Some hold that moral belief is sufficient to motivate directly. Merely believing that it is right, say, to keep a promise will move the believer, at least to some degree, to act so as to keep it. Others hold that moral beliefs produce desires, which then motivate in conjunction with the moral beliefs that produced them. Believing that it is right to keep a promise produces a desire to do so, and these cognitive and conative states jointly move the believer, at least to some degree, to act so as to keep the promise. Certain virtue theorists offer a quite refined version of the latter idea, arguing that only a particular type of moral belief—one tied to an ideal or complete conception of a situation in light of a more expansive understanding of how to live—necessarily generates in an individual the motivation to do as a moral belief of that type indicates she ought.[4] The virtuous person has not mere moral beliefs but a complex of moral belief and outlook which will reliably move her to behave morally. Proponents of various anti-Humean views readily acknowledge that persons often fail to be moved and to act as they believe they ought. According to any of these views, however, a failure of motivation springs from a cognitive failure.

Okay, so now with some background in mind, let’s consider Moral Judgement Internalism and Moral Judgement Externalism.

(Note: some motivations not connected to moral judgement. For example, the motivation to drink water because of thirst, or kicking cat as a naive child, not fully understanding the world. So we are only considering judgements that contain moral criteria.)

Moral Judgement Internalism

The central question behind our motivations is this: Are our motivations necessary or contingent? In other words, do they come from inside us (intuitive) or from outside us (from external factors)? If we say they are intuitive, most likely we will argue that moral judgements are anti-realist (that is, they argue that moral properties do not exist). If we suppose that moral judgements are contingent, we are likely to be arguing for moral realism (that there are moral properties/moral facts in the world). But note, we are not restricted to these categories. I argue for example, that one can be MJI and still maintain that our beliefs necessarily entail motivations (through things like evolution and the nature of human society) – so I am a MJI Realist. More in a future article.

MJI holds the former – that our motivations are come from inside us. Essentially, if an individual sincerely judges that she ought to do some action (such as plucking all the feathers from a pigeon), then she would be intrinsically motivated to do it. This is because there is a necessary connection. She cannot hold the pigeon-plucking judgement without being motivated in some way to do it. Note though, that MJI can have both strong and weak forms:

Strong Internalism: A person who makes a moral judgement will be overwhelmingly motivated to follow that judgement. This form of MJI does not allow the agent to have akrasia (weakness of will). Since we can quite clearly conceive of cases where the agent judges something to be right but fails to act on that judgement, we tend to think that strong internalism is not a good argument. Better, is:

Weak Internalism: Although a person who makes a moral judgement is motivated to act upon it, that motivation to act can fail due to conflicting desires or mental problems (such as depression, illness, weakness of will or irrational fears). Here then, we see much more scope for variation and adequate explanation of the actions of human beings.

So, to summarise clearly, take Shafer-Landau’s clear depiction of MJI from his paper “A Defense of Motivational Externalism” (p270):

1. Necessarily, if one sincerely judges an action right, then one is motivated to some extent to act in accordance with that judgment.
2. When taken by themselves, beliefs neither motivate nor entail any motivationally efficacious states.
3. Therefore moral judgments are not beliefs.

Weak Internalism seems like a strong argument, right? Let’s consider Externalism first:

Moral Judgement Externalism

MJE says that there is no necessary connection between moral judgement and motivation. Any connection between moral judgement and motivation is contingent. That is, the MJE will only act if there is a further fact found somewhere in the world which motivates him to act. In this sense, moral judgements are initially motivationally inert. For example, a man is motivated to pluck the pigeon of all its feathers because he saw the pigeon fouling on his new car. He is perhaps not intrinsically motivated to do it, but after seeing his shiny new car dirtied, he can’t help himself to a little revenge.

The MJI will want to respond by saying that the man is motivated, but he is suffering from ‘irrationality’. He sees his new car soiled and wants revenge, so he isn’t thinking clearly. If he were thinking clearly, he would not be motivated to pluck the pigeon, as he would judge it to be wrong and thus be motivated not to pluck it.

If a MJI made a judgement and didn’t act upon the action, we would accuse her of being insincere, since MJI necessarily demands that the subject act on their motivations. The MJE denies this necessary connection, and because of that must state what is it that motivates us to act, pointing to external sources of motivation. Many MJEs will also point out that, just because we judge something to be right, we aren’t always motivated to perform the action, citing some counter examples (from Dr. Pekka’s lecture slides):


Another type of case in which the connection between moral judgement and corresponding motivation is broken is that of wicked or Satanic agents who are motivated to do something precisely because they think it is wrong.
1) Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost): “Evil be thou my good!”
2) St. Augustine confesses (in his Confessions) that, in his youth, he and some friends once stole pears from a neighbour, just because it was wrong: they had no interest whatsoever in the pears and could get much tastier fruit along morally acceptable and less strenuous routes.

The Internalist response would be to deny that wicked agents are truly intelligible. In response to the Satan example, one could argue that Satan felt morally wrong by God and wanted to do things that God considered bad, not things which Satan himself necessarily considered bad. As for those juicy pears, it could be argued that it is the excitement of doing bad things, and that overcoming the ‘wrong’ through self-improvement to do what is ‘right’ leaves a sense of self-satisfaction.


Quite simply, that the agent in question feels some strong emotion like depression and, no matter what judgements they make, fail to be motivated to act. The weak MJI has no problem replying to this problem, and I do not see it as a serious concern either, so I will move onto the final picture, that of the Amoralist.

The Amoralist

First, the definition of an amoralist. I like Shafer-Landau’s (p271):

The externalist position is usually framed by reference to an amoralist, one whose characteristic disposition is to disregard what he takes to be genuine moral demands.

So an amoralist is not someone who knows what is right and chooses to act in the opposite manner (such a person would be immoral). Nor is the amoralist someone who has no concept of morals whatsoever (although one could argue for this definition – people with Antisocial Personality Disorder may fall under such a definition). I am taking the amoralist to be someone who considers that the ‘moral’ claims being made are, in fact, not moral at all. The amoralist might claim that they are not genuine moral claims that are being made or that such claims do not apply to themselves; that we cannot universalise morality into a system and, thus, they will not follow what are being claimed as ‘moral judgements’.

So what is the problem? Well, for the MJI, if the amoralist were proved to exist, it would undermine their whole theory. For the MJI, remember, claims that when we make a moral judgement, we are necessarily motivated to follow through with it. The amoralist would represent someone who is making a moral judgement, but not being motivated to do it. Hence the necessity between judgement and motivation would fail. Do such people exist? According to Wikipedia, they do:

Such principled amoralism is arguably present in the philosophy of Max Stirner, philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Daniel Quinn, Richard Garner, and to a degree the Marquis de Sade. Existentialist philosophers often also need to confront the possibility that their philosophies are amoralist, because of claims like Sartre’s, that we invent meaning.

But I would hold that the amoralist is not a good counterexample to MJI, because by denying the very moral systems that we base our societies on, he places himself ‘outside of the loop’, so to speak. I contend that he cannot make ‘moral judgements’ because he does not himself consider them to be moral. In this sense, I feel that the amoralist poses no threat to MJI. This is similar to what Hare says (1952):

They in effect say ‘It would be `morally obligatory’ to help the persecuted,” merely reporting what other people think about the case, without committing themselves to the norm reported.

So while I do think that such people are a conceptual possibility, I don’t think that they pose any real threat to MJI, because they discredit themselves as moral decision-makers by not accepting the systems of morals we have. As for someone with an illness, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, again I would claim that they are ‘outside the loop’ of moral decision making, as they do not or cannot fully understand the implications of moral judgements.

Does this make me a Moral Judgement Internalist then?

Not necessarily. Consider this paragraph from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to David Brink, externalism makes the motivational force of our moral judgments “a matter of contingent psychological fact, depending on both the content of people’s moral views and their attitudes and desires” (Brink 1989, 49). Still, these attitudes and desires may be widely shared and rooted in central features of human nature. Suppose, as the philosopher David Hume maintained, that sympathy is a deep and widely shared feature of human psychology. Then, Brink observes, while it may be a contingent fact that most people will have some desire to comply with what they believe morality requires, it will also be a deep fact about them. “Moral motivation, on such a view, can be widespread and predictable, even if it is neither necessary, nor universal, nor overriding” (Brink 1989, 49).

Here, then, we can see Brink supposing that human nature (that I argue has evolved over time) causes a deep and shared connection among all members of human society, regardless of individual society. In this sense, such a deep and inbuilt psychological connection would indeed seem like a ‘necessary connection’, but it would perhaps not need to be necessary. The contingent, external factors affecting our decision-making are also accounted for; we can explain why we certainly feel a strong connection between moral judgement and motivation, but also to circumstantial factors. We have an inbuilt desire to do certain things that further humanity, we are not limited to this and are also influenced by external factors around us, such as watching other people and developing a desire to cooperate and comply with what they believe morality requires.

So, my mind is not made up on the MJI vs. MJE debate, but I think my problem lies with the necessary vs. contingent connection, rather than the putative (supposed) problems caused by the amoralist and his wicked and apathetic counterparts. In my view, currently both MJI and MJE provide plausible solutions to the debate, and one is not tied down to being a realist or anti-realist because of the distinction.



The lecture notes of Dr. Pekka Vayrynen at the University of Leeds

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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