Recent Work on Motivational Internalism

Imagine a person who is not at all motivated to help others. I don’t just mean a person who doesn’t care about others as much as she should; I mean a person who is literally not motivated at all, not even to the tiniest degree. Now comes the question: Could such a person genuinely believe that she is morally obligated to help other people?

This question lies at the heart of a complex philosophical debate. Motivational externalists (in one sense of the term) argue that it is possible for an agent to hold a moral belief in the absence of any corresponding motivation. It could be that the agent genuinely believes she has this moral obligation but simply doesn’t care at all about what she is morally obligated to do. By contrast, motivational internalists argue that such a belief would be impossible. On this latter view, it is necessarily the case that if an agent believes she is morally obligated to do something, she is at least somewhat motivated to do it.

Although work in this area draws on numerous different kinds of considerations, one important form of argument involves appeals to people’s ordinary intuitions. It is with regard to this one form of argument that we have seen especially impressive progress over the past few years. There has been a real surge of research involving systematic experimental studies about people’s intuitions on this question, and we now know far more about the intuitive view bout these matters than we did even a couple of years ago.

So I was thinking that it might be a good idea to try to put together a summary of some of the key recent findings on this topic. I’ve included a draft of such a summary below. Please write in if you have done some other work that should be added in, or if there is anything I should change in what is already there. (I will be happy to add in further information as it appears.) And more importantly, feel free to write in if you have any thoughts about how these findings might or might not be relevant to the larger philosophical debate.

Ok, here is the summary:

Participants were given a vignette about a psychopath who is not at all motivated to avoid hurting others. The majority said that this agent nonetheless understood that hurting others is morally wrong.

Strandberg, C. & Björklund, F. (2012). Is Moral Internalism Supported by Folk Intuitions? Philosophical Psychology, 1-17.
Participants were told about an agent who was not at all motivated to perform an action. Most concluded that the agent could nonetheless believe that she was morally required to perform it.

Leben, D. & Wilckens, K. (forthcoming). Pushing the Intuitions Behind Moral Internalism. Philosophical Psychology.

Argues that participants’ own moral judgments impact their intuitions in these cases. A series of experiments show that when an agent is not motivated to perform an action, participants are more inclined to say that the agent could believe she is morally required to perform it to the extent that they themselves hold that moral belief. 

Björnsson, G., Eriksson, J., Strandberg, C., Francén Olinder, R. and Björklund, F. (forthcoming). Motivational Internalism and Folk Intuitions. Philosophical Psychology.
Participants received modified versions of the sorts of cases used in earlier studies. The majority said that an agent who lacked the relevant motivation did not have the moral belief. Participants were significantly less inclined to ascribe belief than they were to ascribe understanding.

Worsnip, A. & Phillips, J. Motivating Internalism. Unpublished manuscript. 
Argues that we should replace dicotomous questions about whether or not an agent made a moral judgment with ratings along a scale. When the question is reformulated in this way, participants rate the agent’s mental state less as being a moral judgment when she lacks motivation.
Buckwalter, W. & Turri, J. In the Thick of Moral Motivation. Unpublished manuscript.
Introduces a distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ belief. Provides experimental evidence that people are externalist about thin belief but internalist about thick belief.
[Cross-posted at Experimental Philosophy.]

7 Replies to “Recent Work on Motivational Internalism

  1. One question Joshua. You write that:
    “It is with regard to this one form of argument that we have seen especially impressive progress over the past few years”.
    Could you please help with me with what the form of argument you are referring to here is?

  2. Hi Joshua,
    Is anyone studying the more mellow descendents of mad dog judgment internalism?
    For example, Smith’s practical rationality version? Or Blackburn’s version in Ruling Passions?
    I also wonder: are these studies informed by the Slote/Finlay/Copp implication views? Do they shed light on the related debate about whether the motivational bit is part of the conventional meaning or not?
    Last, I wonder whether anyone has done coupled studies about whether the folk think color blind people can make color judgments or not. This might help put the results in dialectical context (say by linking them to the Brink/Smith debate)? Just some random thoughts…

  3. Brad, in our studies (in “Motivational internalism and folk intuitions”) we tried scenarios relevant to versions of conditional internalism, thus going beyond the simplest forms of internalism. Still, for anyone interested in whether particular versions of internalism resonates particularly well with non-philosophers, there is plenty left to do. Of course, the subtler the differences between the views, the more difficult it will be to work out the relevant implications for cases and to get the details of such cases across to subjects. We found it difficult already to avoid what we took to be the more obvious confounds when investigating some more basic differences.

  4. I might perhaps add that in one of our studies subjects were as willing to attribute moral belief in an explicit “inverted commas” scenario as in a regular amoralist scenario. (The inverted commas scenario was like the regular amoralist scenario with the exception that the agent’s putative moral judgments were explicitly concerned with whether others would say that the action in question was morally wrong.) This might indicate that folk attributions of moral belief to amoralists are not attributions of the sort of moral belief that metaethicists have been interested in: everyone agrees that inverted commas beliefs are possible, whatever the correct metaethical theory.

  5. Brad,
    just wanted to chip in with one further thought, on top of the very helpful information in Gunnar’s recent comment.
    The Worsnip and Phillips paper also introduces a version of internalism that is less mad dog and more mellow (though not along quite the same dimensions that, e.g., Smith and Blackburn have pursued).
    Specifically, they suggest that the concept of moral judgment might be a prototype concept, meaning that one could say of any given psychological state that it is a moral judgment *to a certain degree*. Then they provide experimental evidence that when the agent has no motivation, people tend to say that his or her psychological state counts as a moral judgment to a lesser degree.

  6. Jussi,
    My apologies for being so late in responding. What I meant to say was that there has been a lot of interesting progress in the development of arguments that in some way rely on facts about people’s intuitions regarding cases like the one I described in the post above.
    If you look through the different papers listed there, you will find that different ones appeal to these facts in somewhat different ways, but just to give one example, consider the type of argument mentioned in my reply to Brad above. Given that an agent has a particular type of psychological state, we could ask the question as to whether that type of psychological state counts as a *moral judgment*. This question seems to hinge on issues about the concept of moral judgment, and some of the papers suggest that we can use experimental data to make progress on questions of that type.

  7. Hi Gunnar and Joshua,
    Thanks! Looks like several of the papers are operating with various mellow versions of internalism. I can see how this gets complicated and hard to assess.

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