Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Internalism: A Pernicious False Belief

Internalism not only represents a false belief.

Internalism is one of those pernicious false beliefs that gets people killed - or brings them to suffer other harms. In this, it is like the belief that vaccines cause autism, or the belief that we can dump unlimited amounts of CO2 and CH4 into the atmosphere and not change the climate.

Caroline West defines "the most popular version of internalism" as:

[I]t is a conceptual truth about morality that an agent who judges that she morally ought to φ will, insofar as she is rational, be prima facie motivated to φ. (in "Business as Usual? The Error Theory, Internalism, and the Function of Morality," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.)
Why is this a pernicious false belief?

Because, if it is the case that "X is wrong" implies "I am motivated not to do X", then it follows that if "I am motivated to do X" then "X is not wrong."

It effectively create a morality in which whatever a person is motivated to do is morally right, and the only things that are wrong are things the agent actually does not want to do.

Granted, internalism actually talks about what a person would be motivated to do if they were rational. However, this will not eliminate the problem. It is rational for the rapist to kill his victim. It is rational for the person who can take money or merchanise without being caught to take it. It is rational for a person who can get away with a beneficial lie or successfully bully a rival to lie or successfully bully a rival. One can draw no necessary connection between what it is rational for a person to do and what is right.

West admits that internalism is in conflict with a set of three other beliefs (all of which, I would be willing to argue, are true).
(1) Cognitivism, the view that moral claims express beliefs that can be true or false.

(2) The Humean theory of motivation, the thesis that beliefs and desires are distinct existences, and that the motivational states are desires.

(3) The Humean theory of normative reason, which holds that reason alone mandates no revision to a subject's existing desire set, except instrumentally.
NOTE: I usually present the third proposition as, "There is no rationality of desires-as-ends. There is only a rationality of desires-as-means. This is because what we desire as a means is a combination of what we desire as an end plus beliefs, and beliefs can be evaluated rationally.

On this account, if moral claims are beliefs, and only desires motivate, and there is no rationality of desires-as-ends, then there is a disconnect between moral beliefs and motivation.

However, what is more important is that there is a disconnect between moral truth and motivation.

Internalists try to get around this problem by arguing that there is a set of beliefs called "judgments" (which includes moral beliefs) that are motivating and can be evaluated for rationality.

In fact, no such entities exist. This is as much a fiction as postulating angels to explain what keeps the planets in motion.

Here is where that perniciousness comes in again. If the belief that something is morally obligatory provides motivation to do it, then the fact that one does not feel motivated suggests that it is not obligatory. We can determine our moral obligations by looking at what motivates us and, by good fortune, the only things that morality prohibits us from doing are those things we are not motivated to do anyway.

Contrast this with the view that that a person does not determine right from wrong by looking at what one is motivated to do or to refrain from doing. What determines right from wrong is, in some important way, what helps or harms others. Because it is the case that a person can want to do things harmful to others, and want not to do things that would help others, looking to one's own motivation is a very poor way to determine what is right and wrong.

And, yet, a lot of people do this. They look first at what they want to do or what they do not want to do. They then rationalize what they want to do or not doing what they do not want to do. That is, they look for some argument, however unsound it may be, that seems to support the conclusion that what they want to do is right and what they are not morally required to do that which they do not want to do.

This points to where the internalist's "moral judgment" defense fails. The internalist has to argue that there is something about "harm to others" that it is necessarily irrational for an agent to cause and rational for an agent to prevent. Now, let's look at the lion or any other predator or parasite and try to find a way to argue that predators and parasites are necessarily irrational. Just as evolution creates predators and parasites in nature, it has created predatory and parasitical attitudes in us.

Internalism is not only a false belief and a pernicious belief, it is also very, very common. The consequence is a lot of people end up getting hurt, and some of them get killed (or worse).

In her article, West will go on to argue that the various functions of morality (she will identify five) all presuppose some sort of internalism. All of these involve various ways in which moral claims are supposed to alter behavior in some way.

In a follow-up post, I will look at her argument and say, "No, these functions do not suggest any type of internalism. These functions suggest the use of rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to mold malleable desires."

Morality is not concerned with what motivates the rational agent. Morality is concerned with what would motivate the rational agent with good desires and lacked bad desires. "Good desires" are those that people generally have reason to promote, while "bad desires" are those that people generally have reason to inhibit.

This will get us away from this pernicious, false doctrine that a person can determine their obligations and prohibitions by looking at their own motivations.


ScottF said...

Caroline West defines "the most popular version of internalism" as:
[I]t is a conceptual truth about morality that an agent who judges that she morally ought to φ will, insofar as she is rational, be prima facie motivated to φ. (in "Business as Usual? The Error Theory, Internalism, and the Function of Morality," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.)
...this a pernicious false belief because, if it is the case that "X is wrong" implies "I am motivated not to do X", then it follows that if "I am motivated to do X" then "X is not wrong."


NO, you are quite wrong on at least three points here. West says that motivation follows judgment *insofar as the agent is rational*. Almost certainly, you disagree with West's conception of rationality (I don't know what hers is, I admit, but most internalists, I think, do not agree with yours). You may have good reasons for adopting your definition, or think that you do; but substituting yours for hers and pointing out the ensuing problems does not point to a problem in *her* position.

Even then, she says motivation only follows the agent's *judgment* that, say, X is moral; she does not claim that it follows from X's being moral for the agent. At most an agent G could infer from her presumed rationality and her lack of motivation to X that G has (perhaps implicitly) judged that X is not obligatory; it does not follow that X is not obligatory, or that she should continue judging that it is.

Finally, your interpretive sentence changes the antecedent's involving what one *ought* to do to what one *ought not* to do. Now, if "doing X" is interchangeable with "not doing X-bar", i.e., the complement of X (anything which involves not doing X), then you could get your interpretation; does West see "doing" that way? If she does, fine; if not, you're using the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Of course, you could without this fallacy suggest that one could read from one's *lack* of motivation to X that one is not obliged to X, which would still present problems--if it followed from what West said. But for reasons given above, it does not.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I need to start by begging a pardon. I value the enthusiasm the has you responding with five long posts. However, it is difficult for me to find the time to answer all of them well. Please do not expect that I can post responses as quickly as you do.

Having said that . . . You are correct that for West the motivation to do X follows from the judgment that X is good.

I have discussed my objections against internalism elsewhere. The most serious of those objections is that if a judgment that X is good effects behavior, then it effects the evolutionary fitness of the creature. If it effects the evolutionary fitness of the creature, then evolution is going to mold judgment away from what is truly good and towards that which brings about genetic replication. We can see in nature that fitness us not necessarily benevolent. Every predator and parasite found in nature has a certain amount of evolutionary fitness. So evolution would find no objection molding us in such a way that parisitical and predatory behaviors are judged to be good.

Another problem with this account is that judgments are propositional attitudes. They are expressed in the form, "Agent judges that P" where P is a proposition of the form, "O is good." Now, give me an account of what it takes for "O is good" to be true. Please identify for mr a single O such that "O is good" is true and agents are necessarily motivated to realize O.

When these two issues are combined, we see that the real problem is that there is no O that is necessary for evolutionary fitness and, even if there were, rationality does not require that agents do that which makes them evolutionarily fit. There is no irrationality in choosing to be the end of one's genetic line.

Anyway, because I have defended the thesis that such entities that would be required for internalism it be true in the real world do not exist, I sought here to argue, "Not only is internalism a false doctrine (as shown elsewhere), it is also a pernicious doctrine (as shown here)."

The only thing that actually motivates an agent is her own desires. To link morality necessarily to what motivates an agent is to link it necessarily to the agent's desires - including whatever parasitical and predatory desires the agent may have acquired.

ScottF said...

It doesn't look like you've responded to any of my initial points against your arguments that internalism is pernicious, but have simply presented several new (to me) objections to its truth. So be it; I'll respond to these as well.

Your points about evolutionary pressure and moral judgments would be cogent *if* moral judgments were always directly selected for. This is the basis of Sharon Street's similar objection to moral realism. It is not cogent if, as many, many people (including myself) belief, moral judgments are not directly selected for, but are by-products (aka spandrels) of a general capacity for reasoning--including the capacity for self-reflection, consistent type-wise evaluation of self and others, abstraction, etc. These powers have massive evolutionary benefits for creatures who have them, and their genes. Of course correct moral judgments often are beneficial for groups, but not always for individuals, so if they were selected for individually, the non-beneficial ones would be selected against. But if they are spandrels linked to another trait strongly selected for, they will be retained.

"give me an account of what it takes for "O is good" to be true. Please identify for mr a single O such that "O is good" is true and agents are necessarily motivated to realize O."

Mine is: O is good =(def) failure to value O is not a possible object of indefinite higher-order positive valuation. That is, either valuing O, or valuing the choice to not value O, or valuing the choice to value the choice to not value O, etc., cannot be valued by an agent G for agents at large (most notably, for *other* agents, whose failure to value O increases the chance of frustrating your ends). [The recursion is necessary to cover cases where a first-order judgment appears universalizable, but some higher-order judgment to select or describe one's FO judgment in the particular way that makes it so universalizable is itself non-universalizable. E.g., a racist could universalizably judge that "promoting the interests of whites" is good; but could not so value "promoting the interest of your own race" is good, though this plus his being white is palpably the basis on which the FO judgment was specially selected]

Note, I'm taking "good" here to be "morally obligatory," not "permissible." I would of course only think that agents are necessarily motivated by the former, not the latter judgment.

Any agent who judges that O is good under my definition would not be able to wholly-self approve of his own accurately-described actual valuations as a set; therefore acting on it is intrinsically motivating assuming that agents are at least minimally inclined to approve, or seek to approve, of themselves. And I am indeed inclined to think that an entity which is not so inclined is just some kind of weird teleological mechanism, not a true agent.

"The only thing that actually motivates an agent is her own desires."

You seem to like saying this a lot. But I'm not sure what content it has. It sounds on one level like the trivial argument for egoism: anything we do, we do because we wanted to do that in some sense, or we wouldn't have done it. OK, but if "becoming motivated by X to Y" can occur in a way that simultaneously, constitutively, also involves acquiring a desire to Y, then this claim can be true without any restrictions on X. X doesn't have to itself be a pre-existing desire. X could motivate us by causing us to desire Y. But then X could still motivate the agent--by causing desire Y.

Though if you restrict motivations to pre-existing desires, then I still think you can get morality out of this, since the desire to be self-approving of one's values will require this, given my definition of morally obligatory good.

ScottF said...

I said above "Any agent who judges that O is good under my definition would not be able to wholly-self approve of his own accurately-described actual valuations as a set..." without completing a key condition. Add to this "...unless she values herself O'ing, unless this set of valuations includes her O'ing." With this amendment my consequent follows more clearly.

I should also clarify that the desire for self-approval is only essential to *reflective* agency. I think that non-human animals are also (mostly) agents, but being non-reflective, they have no desire for self-approval, and hence no moral obligations.

ScottF said...

I also note that you are still appealing directly to the fallacy of assuming the consequent, even though I criticized you for doing this above. You suggest that internalism must "link morality necessarily to what motivates an agent..." again ignoring the fact that the internalist link goes IN THE OTHER DIRECTION: from moral judgment to desires, not from desires to moral judgments. If you continue to maintain that internalists reason in the other direction, you have only yourself to blame for your resulting bafflement as to why anyone holds this position--for no one does, I think.

I appreciate your exploration of the many issues you cover on your blog, many of which I am interested in as well. As noted earlier, I actually think we agree on large swaths of the field: utilitarianism generally, no spooky intrinsic values floating in this world or a Platonic one, etc. You often express sincere puzzlement about many positions you disagree with, and some of them I disagree with too and am also puzzled about; in some cases I think the people we are mutually puzzled by haven't thought certain issues through very clearly, or stated their own position well. Other times you seem puzzled by positions I agree with, and I am trying to explain why I & some others find them plausible, suspecting that again you haven't encountered the arguments for them which I find more compelling. You may or may not agree. My aim is not necessarily to convince you. Perhaps you can present to me some argument for your views which I haven't seen clearly before, while I enjoy trying out different ways of explaining my views, which helps me clarify my own views (which may pay off in some writing I'm doing on related topics). So if you don't object, I'll continue to raise some issues here and hope that you too benefit from the exchange. But when you repeatedly attack straw man positions after it has been explained to you that the people you are supposedly disagreeing with do not hold those positions, then it behooves you to consider why you aren't picking up on the clarification.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am sorry for my delay again. This time, my excuse is that I became ill. Though I am not fully mended, I hope that I can at least concentrate well enough to give a coherent answer to some of your issues.

Again, there is far more here for me to be able to comment on . . . so . . . i'll see if I can focus on some crucial elements.

Now, in the comment above you correctly identified the proposition that:

"the only thing that actually motivates an agent is her own desires."

This is really crucial for, whenever somebody then asserts some other motivating force, my response is to dismiss it, claiming, "It's not real."

If we are going to focus more tightly on this, I need to provide the more precise account rather than this loose "slogan" provided above.

"The ends of all intentional actions are determined by the ultimate desires of intentional agents and by no other thing."

If we sought more detail, then I would add that desires are propositional attitudes taking the form "desires that P" and, for any "desire that P" the motivational force aims at realizing or preserving states of affairs in which P is true.

This is often confused with egoism, but egoism is a different theory. Egoism states that the only thing that an agent always seeks their own benefit. One form of egoism that is closely related to the account I defend is, "Every agent is motivated by an agent's ultimate desires and the only thing an agent ultimately desires is her own well-being." I accept the first part of egoism, but reject the second part. An agent is motivated by that agent's ultimate desires, but agents can desire many things other than her own well-being. She can desire the well-being of others, or being a certain type of person where being a person of that type provides little or no personal benefit, or the preservation of an insitution, or the advancement in scientific knowledge even where it costs the agent her fortune and her health.

All desires are, themselves, caused. We live in a determined universe (or, at least, close enough so for all practical purposes). Indeed, desirism itself talks about how reward and punishment - praise and condemnation - promote certain desires and aversions.

We could, then, say that reward honesty, for example, motivates agents by causing the agents to have a desire to be honest. However, here, we are going to worry about introducing an important ambiguity.

We need to distinguish between the person who is "motivated by a reward" in the sense that the reason that the person was honest was to obtain the reward. He wasn't motivated by honesty at all (we may assume), only by the cash.

This needs to be distinguished form a situation where an agent, living in a culture where honesty is praised and dishonesty is condemned, comes to absorb this value. He comes to value honesty for its own sake. Consequently, he is honest even when he is not rewarded and avoids dishonesty even when he can get away with it.

There is nothing in the phrase, "the only thing that actually motivates an agent is her own desires" that in any way denies the fact that desires, themselves, are caused. Of course they are.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In other words (referring to my final point" when X brings about the desire-that-Y, then X brings about a motivation on the part of the agent who acquires the desire to realize Y. The motivation itself does not exist merely because X exists (any more than the desire exists merely because X exists). But, insofar as X has the power to cause Y, X has the power to make it the case that the agent is motivated to realize Y.

ScottF said...

Thanks for the clarification, Alonzo (and good health to you).

So it sounds like you identify motivation with desires because both must be goal-oriented, teleological, in the same sense; any cause of an action or event, even one which tends to satisfy some goal, is not an agent's motivation if its causal force does not take the form of that agent's desire for the goal.

Well, that sounds ok, actually; this definition of motivation may be correct. I take no stand on it here. But I hardly see why you think internalists would deny, or need to deny, this point. They might say: yes, agents are only motivated by their desires, but if they were rational then some other desires they have--whatever else those might be--will motivated them to act on what they judge to be moral. How they get there depends upon how they construe morality, and judgment; but it hardly seems impossible that some definitions of these could connect to a rational motivation to act morally.

In any case, this was only a side-question, largely orthogonal to my other much more serious objections to your arguments that internalism was either false or pernicious. I have nothing more to say about motivation and desire, but would be interested in hearing your responses to any of those other points.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Would you care to identify two or three that you are most interested in having me address?

ScottF said...

Well...my two main objections to your arguments that internalism is *false* are merely that you were just confused about or overlooked some possibilities. My three objections against your claim that it is *pernicious* are far more serious: that you attacked a straw man misconstrual of your opponent's position, and used a logical fallacy, all quite blatantly. So, you might want to start with those.