There are many qualities to love about “Breaking Bad”, but I think the feature that so deeply engrosses audiences is the moral terrain that Walter White walks, and the cool and collected manner he amorally navigates it. I will argue that Walter White is an amoralist, and then posit that White’s amoral existence undermines the internalist’s argument against cognitivism, and by extension, moral realism.
Walter White is a gifted chemistry teacher, who upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer uses his skills to make potent methamphetamine for distribution in order to leave his family with financial security. White quickly finds out that the drug trade comes with many occupational hazards, and in the first episode alone is faced with a life-or-death situation; he kills to survive. One assailant is poisoned by a concoction of chemicals, the other, Krazy 8, is knocked unconscious, leaving him to be executed by White later. White is reluctant to so directly take a man’s life, and is close to letting the man free when he realizes that the man has a weapon and will murder him upon being freed. Walt strangles him to death.
This is a defining moment for White’s character. We see that he does have a sense of moral right and wrong, such that he is not a psychopath, but that he fails to be motivated to act in accord with those moral standards.
1.2. White as an Amoralist
An amoralist in the philosophical sense is, “an agent who on a single occasion fails to be motivated by a moral judgment that he endorses” (Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense, page 145). In other words, the amoralist genuinely makes a moral judgment but is not moved to act in accord with that judgment.
For example, an agent acts amorally when they think, “In this situation, it would be morally wrong for me to steal the money from the tip jar”, and then proceed to steal the money from the tip jar. Independently of whether or not the action is immoral, we can always wonder whether an agent acted amorally. Moral propositions are action guiding in that they express beliefs about what actions to take, such that if one genuinely holds a moral belief to be true, it seems strange not to be motivated to act in accord with that moral belief. When we are unmotivated by our moral beliefs we act amorally.
It seems to me that White has a set of moral beliefs, one of which is that it is morally wrong to murder another person. White is faced with a strange dilemma: he has a moral reason not to kill Krazy 8, and a non-moral reason to kill Krazy 8 (namely, that Walt will be killed). As such, this is not a standard moral dilemma where one must choose the better of two morally bad acts, but a choice between acting on a moral reason or a non-moral reason. Walt desperately wants to act on the non-moral reason because he cannot shake the feeling that Krazy 8 will murder him. At the same time, he is compelled to let the man go due to the moral reason that it is wrong to commit murder. That the dilemma is so agonizing for White shows that he genuinely believes that it is true that it is wrong to murder another person. Yet he murders Krazy 8. Thus, White was not sufficiently motivated to act in accord with his own moral beliefs. Therefore, amoralism is a logical possibility.
White instantiates amoralism frequently throughout the series. Anyone who has seen the show will agree that countless times White says to Jesse Pinkman (his main accomplice), “Jesse, I know ________, but ________”.
White says something along these lines too often to count. When he does, he notes that there is a moral reason against the action, but there is a non-moral reason for the action. Thus, he frequently concedes to Jesse that from a moral point of view they should not commit the action, but that they will commit it any way. This shows that it is possible to have moral beliefs that one holds as true, but be unmotivated to act in accord with those moral beliefs. Further testament to the possibility of amoralism.
2.1 Moral Motivation Internalism and Moral Motivation Externalism
Moral motivation internalism (hereafter MMI or internalism) denies the possibility of an amoralist; internalism is the theory that there is a conceptual connection between moral judgments and motivation. The thought is that moral judgments are action guiding, so if someone truly believes a moral judgment, they will be motivated to take that action. It is also maintained that this theory accounts for the rarity of witnessing someone genuinely endorsing a moral belief and then doing the opposite.
The problem is that this claim is far too strong; positing the conceptual connection of moral belief and motivation rules out the logical possibility of the amoralist, which I have argued is logically possible, as evidenced by Walter White.
Moral Motivation Externalism (hereafter MME or externalism) is the denial of internalism. “Externalism claims that the motivational force […] of moral considerations depend[s] on factors external to the moral considerations themselves” (David Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, page 42). Making a moral judgment is not sufficient for being motivated to act in accord with it, says the externalist, one needs additional desires and beliefs.
The externalist allows for the possibility of the amoralist. The externalist might notice that Walt has a moral belief about the wrongness of murder, and a non-moral practical belief about what to do to stay alive, but due to background desires he is not motivated to act on the moral belief.
Given their commitment to the logical connection between belief and motivation, the internalist must deny that White actually believes the moral judgments that he expresses, such that his moral beliefs lack true moral content. White might think that he genuinely believes in his moral beliefs, but obviously he does not, because otherwise he would be motivated to act on them, says the internalist. The debate comes down to this:
- Internalist: Internalism is true!
- Externalist: Internalism isn’t true! If internalism is true, then amoralists don’t exist, but amoralists do exist, so internalism is false. (modus tollens)
- Internalist: No, internalism is true! If internalism is true, then amoralists don’t exist, and internalism is true, so amoralists don’t exist. (modus ponens)
Now, I’m not trying to imply that the internalists argument is bad; their argument is valid, and just as valid as the externalists’. It’s just not very convincing by itself, because their response to the objection is that the objection isn’t possible because their view is true. The argument is valid, but it is wanting, such that, without an independent argument for internalism we are well advised to reject it.
2.2 Michael Smith on Internalism
Recognizing this standstill, Michael Smith has attempted to develop an independent argument for internalism. It is simple enough. He asks us to imagine a virtuous person and consider whether that person does good things because they desire to do certain actions, and those actions happen to be good, or that person does good things because they desire to do good things, and so desire to do certain actions that are good. Smith thinks the former statement is true, such that the internalist view is vindicated.
However, as thought experiments go, this one is pretty poor, because I have the opposite intuition! If someone just took actions, and the actions were good then that is all well and good, but it seems he lacks the agency and autonomy necessary to say he is virtuous. I think a virtuous person is someone who desires to do good things. Smith’s idea of a virtuous person just sounds like a morally lucky person to me.
Smith needs to deny the possibility that we can have desires without being aware of them. Otherwise the externalist can easily retort that it only seems like we have a desire to do that one action, really we have an unfelt desire to do good, and so derivatively we desire to take that action, such that without that unfelt desire we would not desire to take that action. This does seem a tad farfetched but I don’t want to stake too much on it either way.
The problem is that elsewhere in his book, The Moral Problem, he posits that we can have desires without being aware of
them, and does so to fend off the anti-Humean critique against motivational Humeanism, a theory he supports. Motivational Humeanism is the theory that “motivation has its source in the presence of a relevant desire and means-end belief” (Michael Smith, The Moral Problem, page 92). The idea is that no one is motivated to undertake an action unless they in some way desire to undertake the action.
Anti-Humeans (beginning with Kant) thought that a person could be sufficiently motivated to undertake an action with just a means-end belief, that is, without desires. Anti-Humeans posit that we can perform a moral action just because of a belief. They point to occasions where we have the strong desire to steal money from the tip jar, but the belief that it is wrong to steal, and wherein we ultimately do not steal the money from the tip jar despite not feeling any desire to do the right thing. Smith’s response is that we can have desires without feeling them, but if this is so, then the externalist can easily say that we have the desire to do good, but we just do not feel it. Thus, if we can have desires without being aware of them then externalism cannot be ruled out very easily, or if we cannot have desires without being aware of them then motivational Humeanism seems to be defeated. In the next section I will show why this dilemma is significant.
2.3 The Anti-Cognitivist Argument
I have argued that because we either can or cannot have desires without being aware of them, either internalism or motivational Humeanism is false because both cannot be true at the same time. The reason why this is significant is that both internalism and motivational Humeanism must be true in order for a standard argument against cognitivism, the view that moral judgments are beliefs, to be sound. Moral realism entails that we have moral beliefs that are truth functional, and that independently existing moral properties either make our beliefs true or false. Stated like this, one can easily see that for moral realism to be true, cognitivism must be true. By showing that the main argument against cognitivism is not sound, I hope to make moral realism a more tenable position. The idea of the argument is that if we are always motivated by our moral judgments, and beliefs are never motivating by themselves (I’m not motivated to do anything in virtue of just the belief that 2+2=4), then moral judgments must not be expressions of beliefs, but of emotions or preferences.
The anti-cognitivism argument is well stated by Shafer-Landau, so I will quote him at length.
- Necessarily, if one sincerely judges an action right, then one is motivated to some extent to act in accordance with that judgment. (Motivational Judgment Internalism [what I referred to as Moral Motivation Internalism]
- When taken by themselves, beliefs neither motivate nor generate any motivationally efficacious states. (Motivational Humeanism)
- Therefore moral judgments are not beliefs. (Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense, page 121).
The argument is valid, meaning that the truth of the conclusion follows from the truth of the premises, but in order to be sound, such that the conclusion is certain to be true, both premises must be true, which I have argued is impossible.
If we can have desires without being aware of them then Michael Smith’s positive argument for internalism fails, and given that the internalist could not provide an argument against the possibility of the amoralist that was not question-begging, without Smith’s separate support for internalism we should take externalism as true. Or we could hold that internalism is true, because we cannot have desires without being aware of them, but if this is so then we have good reason to doubt motivational Humeanism.
It might be useful to see how if even if one premise is true, the falsity of the other makes the first premise safe for moral realists. If internalism is true but Humeanism is false then we could be sufficiently motivated to act on our moral judgments because we think our moral beliefs are true. If internalism is false, but Humeanism is true, then we could be motivated by external desires to act on our moral beliefs. In either case, cognitivism is not defeated, and moral realism remains a viable metaethical position.
Walter White exhibits the characteristics of an amoralist, such that he serves as a counterexample to moral motivation internalism. If White is not an amoralist, then motivational Humeanism seems dubitable. In either case, cognitivism is a viable position, and either combination of the premises makes reasonable hypotheses for moral motivation. I am somewhat skeptical of motivational Humeanism, but given that it is widely accepted, to the point of being the orthodox view of human motivation, I do not want to rest a defense of moral realism on its negation. Instead, I favor accepting moral motivation externalism, and I think Walter White, as an amoralist, gives us good reason to take this position.