Friday, August 03, 2012

Desirism: Objections to Motivational Internalism

In yesterday's post I argued for the possibility of deriving 'ought' from 'is' by making 'ought' a hypothetical imperative. "You ought to do X" means that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who do X and condemn those who do not do X. The latter can be derived from 'is', so the former can be derived from 'is'.

One of the implications of this view is that it conflicts with the doctrine of motivational internalism.

Motivational internalism holds that if a person sincerely believes that X is wrong, then he is motivated not to do X. On some versions of internalism, this motivation may be overridden by other concerns, but it is always there.

A person can accept that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn people who do X without at all being moved not to not do X. He can shrug his shoulders and say, "Eh, I don't care."

Consequently, desirism is inconsistent with motivational internalism.

The justification for motivational internalism comes from the observation that we never see a person change their moral judgment without changing their behavior. A person who changes her mind on capital punishment - who goes from thinking that capital punishment is obligatory to thinking that it is wrong - is expected to undergo a change in behavior as well. In fact, she is required to undergo a change in behavior - otherwise we doubt that she has actually changed her mind or, at best, she is pretending that she still holds her former views.

Motivational internalism explains this my making motivation a part of the meaning of moral terms. A person who says 'X is wrong' when not motivated to refrain from doing X has not learned to use moral terms correctly.

If we break it down, there are two major types of motivational internalism. Strong internalism states that if a person judges X to be wrong she has an overriding reason not to do X. Correspondingly, weak internalism holds that if a person judges X to be wrong then she has some aversion to doing X, but it can be overridden by other interests.

So, how can desirism explain the observations that seem to support internalism - the near perfect match between moral judgment and motivation?

First, when we are talking about something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn, we are almost always talking about something that the agent has many and strong reasons to condemn. The hit man still has reasons to encourage society to use condemnation to build in people generally an aversion to killing. The rapist who has any female friends whatsoever (or male friends who themselves has female friends) has reasons to promote condemnation of those who force sex on women without consent. We all have reasons to promote a general aversion to lying or to taking the property of others without consent.

Second, many of us have a desire to do the right thing. One way to get a person to refrain from lying is to give him an aversion to lying. Another way is to give him an aversion to doing that which is wrong and a belief that lying is wrong. We use both methods. Giving him a belief that lying is wrong is not sufficient to motivate him. However, it will motivate anybody with an aversion to doing that which is wrong - and the vast majority of us have that aversion.

Third, People generally have reason to avoid condemnation and punishment. Desirism identifies what is wrong with what people have reason to condemn or punish. Condemnation and punishment play on the reward system - they are inherently things that those condemned or punished have reasons to avoid. You cannot punish a kid by denying him permission to watch a television show he would never want to watch. Consequently, even the person who has no interest in avoiding that which is wrong has an interest in avoiding what others judge to be wrong. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, admitting that something is wrong implies admitting that others have reasons to condemn those who do X. People have many and strong reasons to deny that others have a reason to condemn or punish them.

Fourth, humans are great rationalizers. They tend to adopt propositions that they want to believe are true. Being motivated to perform an action implies being motivated to believe that the state that the action brings about or the act itself is good. This brings about a correspondence between what a person is motivated to do and what he is motivated to believe that does not depend on any type of necessary connection between the two.

These elements point to a pernicious implication of internalism - it's use in deflecting guilt.

Under intenalism, 'I have an obligation to do X' implies 'I am motivated to do X'

If this is true, then 'I am not motivated to do X' implies 'I have no obligation to do X'.

In other words, the following reasoning would be sound. "I am not at all moved by the plight of the sick and hungry. Therefore, I have no obligation to help them. I can test your moral claims by testing my motivation. If my motivation does not correspond to your claims, then your claims are false."

An answer to this may be, "Obligation does not depend on what you are motivated to do now, but on what you would be motivated to do if you had all of the relevant facts."

Still, this means that if a person knew all of the relevant facts about a poor and starving community and was indifferent to their fate, then the claim that he had an obligation to help would be false. It also means that if a person can cultivate an indifference to the plight of the poor in the face of knowing all of the facts, then he can rid himself of any obligation to help the poor.

Desirism holds that claim that one has an obligation would still be true, even if the agent had no interest in living up to that obligation. Desirism would says, "It may not be the case that you do not care, but you should care. By this we mean that people generally have many and strong reasons to make people care by praising those who care and condemning those who do not."

In other words, with desirism, moral claims do not concern what we ARE motivated to do. They are concerned with what we SHOULD BE motivated to do - and seek to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to cause people to have the motivations they should have.

Motivational internalism has a lot of people measuring what they should and should not do by measuring what the want to do or not do. They are concluding, in effect, "I am obligated to do what I want to do - what I find myself motivated to do - and prohibited from doing what I have no interest in doing."

This is a very convenient moral theory. It probably goes a long way towards explaining why it is so popular and so widely used. However, in this case, what is convenient for the ego of the agent is something other people still have reason to condemn - whether they want it to be or not.

9 comments:

Jesse Reeve said...

Motivational internalism holds that if a person sincerely believes that X is wrong, then he is motivated not to do X.
...
A person who says 'X is wrong' when not motivated to refrain from doing X has not learned to use moral terms correctly.


This summary of motivational internalism can be refuted succinctly: beliefs are not reasons for action. You don't need to be a desirist to see that just having a belief is not enough to motivate one to do anything. No belief has an intrinsic motivational property.

This includes a belief that one has a reason to act. Believing that one has a reason to act, and having a reason to act, are two different things.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jesse Reeve

While I agree with your claims, the very thing under dispute with respect to motivatinal internalism is whether an agent can be motivated by beliefs alone; particularly the belief "I ought to do X".

Consequently, it would be question-begging just to assert that this is false. Even though I would agree with you that it seems obvious, there are a lot of things that seem obvious (e.g., that the earth is flat, that the universe revolves around the earth) end up being false. Not in this case, but one does need an argument.

Jesse Reeve said...

While I agree with your claims, the very thing under dispute with respect to motivatinal internalism is whether an agent can be motivated by beliefs alone; particularly the belief "I ought to do X".

Actually, the claim of motivational internalism requires something much stronger than this: a belief that will motivate any agent that possesses it to act in a certain specific way. I suspect that this mistake arises from a failure to notice the agent's motivational system-- a pretty serious oversight, but one it's easy to make if you only look at yourself. From the inside, it doesn't feel like there's a separate step of getting motivated once one picks up a moral belief, because one's motivational system is already in place and ready for input.

For any given belief, there's a mind design that responds in any way you can name, or doesn't care. But you don't need to resort to hypothetical creatures like Alph the stone-gatherer to see that moral beliefs have no intrinsically motivating properties. There's no shortage of humans who know that what they do is wrong, but don't care; there are people deliberately doing things that they know are wrong, for the very reason that they are wrong.

Anonymous said...

Under intenalism, 'I have an obligation to do X' implies 'I am motivated to do X'

If this is true, then 'I am not motivated to do X' implies 'I have no obligation to do X'.


Tell me this is parody.

Internalism says believing a moral truth entails having a motivation, not that moral truths send out noetic rays that motivate people irrespective of their moral beliefs.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous, your objection is handled a couple of paragraphs down, where "having all of the facts" includes having the relevants facts - which would include believing the relevant moral truths.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, as an absolutely cast-iron point of logic the statement "Under intenalism, 'I have an obligation to do X' implies 'I am motivated to do X'" is not true. Full stop.

Believing a cake is rectangular implies believing it has four corners. A cake being rectangular does not imply believing it has four corners. Believing you have an obligation (if internalism is true) implies having a certain attitude. Having an obligation (if internalism is true) does not imply having that attitude.

This is completely orthogonal to any particular view in metaethics being true or false. This is just about being able to state basic, basic concepts correctly.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yeah, I'm going to have to accept this criticism as valid. I know what I want to say . . . and this doesn't say it. Thank you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I edited the corresponding page on the Desirism Wiki to correct this error.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

Alonzo, I have read your discussion with Anonymous in the comments and I believe that I understand what you were trying to say. I think what you meant was something like this:

There is a certain sort of double-think that people do in order to assuage their guilt. It goes like this:

1. If I understand a valid moral argument I will be convinced by it.
2. Since motivational internalism is true if I am convinced by such an argument I will feel motivated to act on it.
3. Therefore, if I hear and understand a moral argument and find myself with no motivation to act on it it must be wrong.

This isn't always an explicit logic of course. People who have never heard of the concept of internalism use an implicit form of this reasoning. The worst example I ever saw was a member of the Less Wrong community called "Vladimir M," a hateful bigot who refused to believe it was immoral to harm various outgroups he disliked. He often claimed that his lack of motivation to not harm outgroups proved that doing so was not immoral, and that anyone who disagreed with him was just trying to make themselves look high and mighty.

I think that I have constructed a good steel man of your position. But I also think that your original formulation has some validity as well. Imagine someone who is convinced by a moral argument, and I mean genuinely convinced, not the halfway doublethink form of "convinced" in my steel man. However, they notice that they have no motivation to act morally. If they believe in internalism they may mistakenly be convinced that their lack of motivation is evidence that their convictions are false.

I think that this is something like what you were trying to say.