A World Without Values collects thirteen essays on moral skepticism written by leading analytic philosophers, including David Copp, Jamie Dreier, Richard Joyce, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Michael Smith. While non-specialists may be put off by some technical vocabulary, the topics covered by many of the essays should interest readers of Metapsychology Reviews. To convey a better a sense of these essays, I say something first about the anthology's overall focus. After discussing these preliminary points, I trace an interesting argument for moral skepticism taken up by a number of contributors to AWWV. Finally, I discuss what makes this argument interesting -- a thesis called motivational internalism -- and take a closer look at one of the essays in AWWV that explore this thesis.
Two Preliminary Points
First of all, the essays in AWWV do not address specific ethical questions such as 'Is torture morally wrong?'. Instead, their focus is meta-ethical: what do we mean, or what are we doing, when we say 'Torture is morally wrong' and make other moral claims. A broadly realist (or objectivist) meta-ethics holds: when we claim that torture is wrong, we intend to state an objective fact about all those actions that constitute torture, namely, that they possess the property of moral wrongness much like we might say of ripe tomatoes that they possess the property of redness. By contrast, a broadly anti-realist (or subjectivist) meta-ethics holds: we simply express an attitude or feeling about torture (extreme disapproval, for instance) when we say 'Torture is wrong' much like when, upon hitting my thumb with a hammer, I express extreme discomfort by saying 'Owww!' (among other choice words).
Furthermore, as the subtitle indicates, the essays in AWWV take John Mackie's "moral error theory" as their starting point. Like more familiar "error theories" about astrology and religion known respectively as commonsense and atheism, Mackie's moral error theory claims that part of our language systematically gets things wrong. But according to what linguistic domain an error theory targets -- talk of planetary influences on individual lives, talk of God, or talk of moral obligations -- an error theory's claim of systematic falsity can be difficult to defend. For taking an entire linguistic domain (astrology, say) to be false requires interpreting this domain in a certain way (as positing real connections between the positions of the planets and terrestrial happenings), and only then, given that interpretation, can the error theorist argue that the relevant domain errs systematically. The general interest possessed by the essays in AWWV largely stems from this crucial issue: how, in general, is moral language best interpreted -- as fact-stating or merely expressive -- and how, beyond this, must Mackie interpret the commitments of moral language to justifiably convict it of massive error.
Mackie's Most Interesting Argument
As my phrasing of the crucial interpretive issue suggests, Mackie's most interesting argument for moral error theory involves reading moral language as committed not only to objectivity -- to stating facts about what morally is the case -- but to something further. This 'something further' is the special prescriptive force that Mackie takes moral claims to possess and that, on his interpretation, ordinary moral language presupposes. About 'objective prescriptivity', Mackie writes:
Plato's Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be. The Form of the Good is such that knowledge of it provides the knower with both a direction and an overriding motive; something's being good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it. An objective good would be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it, not because of any contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because this end has to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it. Similarly, if there were objective principles of right and wrong, any wrong (possible) course of action would have not-to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it. (quoted by Sinnott-Armstrong, p. 56 of AWWV)
In other words, Mackie claims that ordinary moral talk presupposes not only objective facts about what is good or bad, right or wrong but also the view that an objective moral fact, or at least knowledge of such a fact, possesses an unconditional power to motivate. But -- Mackie's argument continues -- facts like this would be too strange (or 'queer', in his words) for us to countenance. Still, because ordinary moral talk presupposes such facts -- that is, because what ordinary moral talk purports to be about does not exist -- ordinary moral talk can only be false.
Perhaps more than his skeptical conclusion, it is Mackie's argument that proves interesting. By claiming that ordinary moral talk presupposes 'objective prescriptivity' -- the idea that morality has some special motivational force built in --Mackie hits on something important. As his reference to Plato's Forms suggests, objective prescriptivity -- or what contemporary philosophers call motivational internalism -- has an ancient pedigree reflected in Socrates' view that virtue is knowledge and, correspondingly, no one ever knowingly does wrong. So, for example, motivational internalism would impact (1) psychiatrists trying to understand psychopaths and sociopaths, (2) neurologists exploring the differential effects of traumatic brain injury on cognition vis-a-vis emotion and motivation (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage), and (3) developmental psychologists and educators wanting to understand how, if at all, virtue can be taught. For if motivational internalism were true, we would have reason to (1*) revise our understanding of psychopaths and sociopaths, (2*) be skeptical of traumatic brain injuries that leave affective but no cognitive deficits, and (3*) be confident that virtue can be taught.
Taking Motivational Internalism Seriously
Mackie himself does not believe that motivational internalism is true. As we saw, one of his main arguments for moral talk's systematic falsity hinges upon his claim that motivational internalism is supposedly so strange that it is impossible. Nevertheless, Mackie's argument forces us to take motivational internalism seriously. For one thing, while Mackie maintains that ordinary moral talk is committed to it, what motivational internalism involves is not at all clear. And we need to clearly understand this commitment to assess Mackie's case for moral skepticism. Moreover, despite Mackie's own, negative view of motivational internalism, we may find it less outré the more we understand it. As Simon Kirchin and other contributors emphasize, Mackie's error theory involves a tension between interpreting ordinary moral language accurately and interpreting its supposed commitments (e.g. motivational internalism) so that it comes out systematically false. On one hand, the less plausibly we interpret motivational internalism (so as to convict ordinary moral talk of systematic error), the less plausible Mackie's claim that ordinary moral talk is committed to it. On the other hand, the more plausibly we interpret motivational internalism (so as to make it a sensible commitment of ordinary moral talk), the less plausible becomes Mackie's error theory. In the end, we may come to understand motivational internalism more plausibly than Mackie allows and, correspondingly, reject Mackie's skepticism about ordinary moral language despite its being committed to motivational internalism.
A number of contributors to AWWV address some aspect of motivational internalism and its relation to Mackie's moral skepticism, including David Phillips, Michael Smith, David Copp, and Caroline West. However, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's essay, "Mackie's Internalisms," deserves attention for its exhaustive analysis of the different possible strengths and forms that motivational internalism can take. Without explicitly considering "whether any version of internalism is true" (AWWV, p. 70), Sinnott-Armstrong's analysis takes motivational internalism seriously.
First of all, Sinnott-Armstrong clarifies that, despite the long passage from Mackie quoted earlier, Mackie's argument does not require that motivational internalism be impossible, absurd, or even strange but only that motivational internalism make moral judgments distinctive. Motivational internalism fits the bill because of how generally it conceives of moral judgments. On its view, Sinnott-Armstrong writes, "[O]ne kind of mental state (a motivation) is built into an apparently very different kind of mental state (a judgment)." (AWWV, p. 59) Whether, thus distinguished, intrinsically motivating moral judgments can, like other judgments, be true is a separate question.
Right away, distinguishing (i) fact internalism from judgment internalism, and (ii) overriding-motivation internalism from some-motivation internalism, Sinnott-Armstrong excludes two implausible readings of motivational internalism. Applying the first of these distinctions to the question of 'What is it that has the special force?', he rejects the idea that moral facts, in themselves, are what possess the power to motivate. As he observes, "It is hard to see how a person's motivation could be affected by a fact of which the person has no awareness at all. That really would be queer." (AWWV, p. 61) Instead of fact internalism, Sinnott-Armstrong urges judgment internalism, the view canvassed above that moral judgments qua mental states are what have motivation built into them. Since motivation is itself a mental state, this option makes more sense. Applying the second distinction above to the question of 'How much motivation?', Sinnott-Armstrong again rejects a wildly implausible reading of internalism. Although Mackie's talk of "overriding motive" suggests overriding-motivation internalism -- the view that "Moral judgments have overriding motivations built into them" -- Mackie's argument does not require such a strong interpretation. The weaker interpretation that "Moral judgments have some motivation built into them" makes moral judgments just as distinctive, and it is not vulnerable to obvious counterexamples from, say, conflicts between morality and self-interest.
More plausibly, some object to motivational internalism because of its inability to accommodate cases of depression or listlessness. Someone who is depressed may fully believe -- even know -- that she morally ought to keep her promise to go out with friends, but her moral belief to this effect -- like everything else in her world -- is simply inert. However, by distinguishing different forms of motivational internalism according to the kind of mental state involved -- for example, seeming internalism as opposed to occurrent belief internalism -- Sinnott-Armstrong shows how motivational internalism can be refined to accommodate such cases and avoid refutation by counterexample. Armed with the distinction between seemings ("the mental state that occurs when … some content seems or appears to be true") and occurrent beliefs, defenders of motivational internalism can accommodate cases of depression or listlessness. Consistent with such cases, they can grant that occurrent moral beliefs do not have any motivation built-in but claim that moral seemings do. (Of course, defenders of internalism must also urge that if someone's world seems inert and colorless because of his depression, then his world will not seem, or appear, to make any moral demands either.)
On the question of whether motivational internalism might range beyond moral judgments, Sinnott-Armstrong offers the following:
If moral judgments have motivation built into them, that would seem to be because they are practical -- that is, because they are related to action in a certain way … We cannot tell exactly which normative judgments have motivation built into them until we determine what relation to action is needed in order to make a judgment practical and which judgments are practical in that way. All we can say for now is that it would be natural for internalists to claim that all practical judgments have motivation built into them, where practical judgments include more than moral judgments but less than all normative judgments. (AWWV, p. 65)
So, yes, motivational internalism has a broader compass than moral judgment. But more importantly, in affirming this broader compass, Sinnott-Armstrong suggests a larger point to his exhaustive analysis of 'motivational internalism': getting clear about the mental concomitants of action.
Finally, consistent with his approach throughout, Sinnott-Armstrong notes that:
Internalism might be defended by limiting it not only to practical judgments but, further, to a subset of practical judgments. After all, practical judgments vary along several dimensions that might affect their relation to motivation. (AWWV, p. 66)
After discussing these dimensions and their impact on motivation, Sinnott-Armstrong arrives at what he takes to be the weakest possible -- and, hence, most defensible -- version of motivational internalism. Specifically, unlike those who (i) make a general judgment that something is morally wrong, (ii) make a particular judgment about a hypothetical situation (e.g. a man judging that having an abortion is morally wrong in certain specific circumstances), or (iii) make a third-person moral judgment (e.g. judging that someone else ought to pay her debts), Sinnott-Armstrong continues:
The situation is different when someone makes a first-person "in situ" judgment about a concrete action that he or she is able to do at present, such as when I judge that right now I morally ought to go pick up my son, because I promised to do so at this time. (AWWV, pp. 66-67)
Therefore, the least ambitious -- and, hence, most plausible -- version of motivational internalism "limits its claim to first-person present-tense (in situ) moral thoughts that seem true." (AWWV, p. 67) In other words, by limiting motivational internalism to the claim that motivation is only built into moral judgments with this very specific mental profile, it becomes much more difficult to defeat with counterexamples. Even this narrowly conceived, however, motivational internalism still makes moral judgments distinctive and, thereby, allows Mackie's skeptical argument about ordinary moral language to proceed. Of course, the question re-emerges of whether ordinary moral talk is actually committed to motivational internalism, thus conceived. (On the topic of ordinary moral talk's actual commitments, see the essays in AWWV by Kirchin and Don Loeb.) But regardless of how we might answer this question, a great deal can be learned about moral judgment and moral motivation by getting clear on the nature of the commitment at issue.
© 2012 James Taggart
James Taggart received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Brown University in 2009. He now lives in Maryland and teaches at Washington College.