“I know it’s morally wrong, but so what?” On the possibility of amoralists.

In my Laidlaw project I have been looking at the connection between moral judgements — judgements like ‘it’s morally wrong to eat meat’ or ‘it’s morally good to help strangers in need’ — and moral motivation, often called the practical aspect or force of moral judgements. A large part of my project has been dedicated to evaluating whether it’s possible to genuinely judge something to be right or wrong while also being left completely unmoved by that judgement. If it’s possible to make genuine moral judgements while remaining unmoved by them, that allows for the possibility of amoralists. Amoralists are people who recognise or make moral judgements but also lack the motivational aspect that so many of us are (hopefully) familiar with.

In the debate on the connection between moral judgements and motivation, there are two broad, rival philosophical camps: motivational internalism and motivational externalism. These two camps are separated by whether they consider the motivation that follows from moral judgements to be necessary and internal to the judgements or contingent and external to the judgements (hence the names). Part of the debate between internalists and externalists centres on the possibility of amoralists. The amoralist’s attitude can be captured by statements such as ‘I know I ought to do it, but why should I care?’ or ‘I know it’s morally wrong, but so what?’ The amoralist appears to make or recognise moral judgements as well as any other person, but remains unmoved by those judgements.

For internalists it would not be possible to make genuine moral judgements without being at least partly moved by them, because they hold that moral judgements are by definition motivational. There is a necessary and conceptual connection between making a moral judgement and being moved by that judgement, so on their view amoralists are conceptually impossible. Externalists, on the other hand, often appeal to the intuitive possibility of amoralists. They use the amoralist to try to show that there is only a contingent connection between moral judgements and moral motivation. They do this by separating the motivational aspect from the moral judgements by, for example, taking moral judgements to be beliefs and taking the Humean theory of motivation to be correct; the view that only desires can motivate action. So, moral beliefs are not motivating by themselves, but may be accompanied by some desire to be good, and that’s where the external and contingent motivation of moral judgements comes from. This means that, for externalists, it is possible to make genuine moral judgements while also remaining unmoved by them, and thus the amoralist is not conceptually impossible.

Internalists often respond by arguing that what we actually imagine when imagining the amoralist is someone making “moral judgements” — “inverted comma moral judgements”. Michael Smith (1994) compares these “moral judgements” to the (inverted comma) “colour judgements” of someone who has been blind from birth but who manages to perfectly distinguish coloured objects by means of touch. Smith thinks it would be strange to say that the blind person actually possesses colour terms, just like it would be strange to say that the amoralist possesses moral terms if she is completely unmoved by them.

This led me to investigate topics in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind on concept possession and mental content (the contents of attitudes like beliefs and desires). The freedom given to us in this internship has been particularly rewarding for this reason. I have been interested in exploring a more holistic approach to doing philosophy where I can and need to move between different branches of philosophy and look at connections between them, and this summer project has given me the liberty to do just this.

David Hume looking fabulously smug due to his sweet hat and his lasting impact on metaethics.

In the end I’d like to thank Dr Justin Snedegar for supervising me and for the support over the summer, especially when I was frustrated because of dead ends in my research. Thanks to CAPOD for giving us valuable networking sessions and leadership talks over the summer. Finally, thanks to Lord Laidlaw for giving me the opportunity to explore and research a topic of my own interest so early in my academic career. This has been an incredible experience and a massive boost of motivation to continue with academic research.

Brink, D. Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Pigden, C. Hume on Motivation and Virtue, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Smith, M. The Moral Problem, Blackwell, 1994.