Motivational Internalism and the Challenge of Amoralism


  • For especially helpful discussions and comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I thank Sergio Tenenbaum, Christian Miller, Joseph Millum, Ben Sachs, Elselijn Kingma, Gurpreet Rattan, Jonathan Weisberg, Tom Hurka and an anonymous referee for this journal. Earlier drafts of this paper were presented to audiences at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto in December 2009, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Northern Illinois in January 2010, the Department of Philosophy at Fordham University in February 2010, the Pacific Division APA in April 2010, the New Scholars in Bioethics in May 2011 and the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University in June 2011. I thank the audiences at all these venues for their feedback.


Motivational internalism is the thesis that captures the commonplace thought that moral judgements are necessarily motivationally efficacious. But this thesis appears to be in tension with another aspect of our ordinary moral experience. Proponents of the contrast thesis, motivational externalism, cite everyday examples of amoralism to demonstrate that it is conceptually possible to be completely unmoved by what seem to be sincere first-person moral judgements. This paper argues that the challenge of amoralism gives us no reason to reject or modify motivational internalism. Instead of attempting to diagnose the motivational failure of the amoral agent or restrict the internalist thesis in the face of these examples, I argue that we should critically examine the assumptions that underlie the challenge. Such an examination reveals that the examples smuggle in substantive assumptions that the internalist has no reason to accept. This argument has two important implications for the debate in moral motivation: first, it reveals that the motivational externalist needs a new argumentative strategy; and second, it shows that there is nothing especially problematic about a formulation of the thesis that captures the core internalist intuition that first-person moral judgements are necessarily accompanied by motivation.