Weakness of the Will and Particularism (and Dancy, cognitivist internalism, and moral motivation)

moral reasons dancyI tend to be skeptical of moral particularism, but after reading Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations (click here for my review), wherein particularism was dismissed out of hand, I decided I better explore particularism more thoroughly – after all, it wasn’t long ago that ethical intuitionism was too hastily dismissed. So I picked up a copy of Moral Reasons, the essential statement of contemporary particularism by Jonathan Dancy. While the work on particularism that I have read has mainly focused on criticism of moral principles (which the particularist rejects) as not meeting the richness of moral life (phenomena that can also be explained by pluralism), Dancy makes the case for particularism by considering moral motivation.

Dancy thinks that the evidence points in favor of externalism rather than internalism when it comes to moral motivation (I agree; see here for my argument for externalism with appeal to Breaking Bad, as well as background on internalism and externalism), but thinks there is something to be said about the internalists position that it seems impossible to imagine a case where a person says “I see that that is the right thing to do, but I don’t see that rightness as being relevant to my decision making”. Worrying that this issue might be caused by a faulty adherence to Humeanism, Dancy considers the anti-Humean views of Kant, Nagel and McDowell, who argue against Hume for cognitivist internalism. Finding that all these views deny the real possibility of a person who sees something as the right thing to do but fails to do it due to depression, intoxication, or general indifference, Dancy throws out the Humean model altogether.

The Problem of the Weakness of the Will and Dancy’s Solution
However, before positing his own theory of motivation Dancy argues that the problem of weakness of the will poses a difficulty for forms of internalist cognitivism in moral motivation, such that if his theory of motivation avoids that problem then his view should be favored by internalist cognitivists of all stripes. The anti-cognitivist argument from weakness of the will is that if a person can have the same moral beliefs and general mindset (removing the possibility of indifference we discussed above) in two situations but be motivated in only one then non-cognitive elements are doing the work in morality. If the cognitivist has maintained that desires are irrelevant to moral motivation then what explains the lack of motivation now? If the cognitivist argued that desires are caused by beliefs then why have the beliefs caused the desire in one case but not the other?

Dancy proposes that the way around this problem is by denying the assumption that “if a state is anywhere sufficient for action, it must be everywhere sufficient” (Moral Reasons, page 22). The assumption is caused by conflating an intrinsically motivating state with an essentially motivating state, and an extrinsically motivating state with a contingently motivating state. Dancy denies that a contingently motivating state cannot be an intrinsically motivating state. By conflating the two distinctions extrinsic motivation becomes linked to the presence of desires, and by drawing out these two distinctions it becomes possible for a belief to be motivating in virtue of itself (intrinsically, without a desire) in some, but not all situations. This avoids the problem posed by weakness of will, but it does so at the cost of jettisoning the essential ideas of Humean motivation, that being that desires are essentially and intrinsically motivating, and beliefs are contingently and extrinsically motivating, with no in between.

This allows us to make better sense of Dancy’s theory of motivation. Rather than there being Humean desires and beliefs, Dancy proposes that there are two “representations” – representations in the sense of being cognitive in representing the way the world is. There is a representation present to mind of how things are, and a representation present to mind that if I do this action, things will be this way. Neither representation resembles a desire in the Humean sense, and it seems the latter representation, which takes the form of a conditional, is the sort of intrinsically yet contingently motivating state that Dancy proposed as the solution to the problem of weakness of the will.

Towards Particularism
The upshot of all of this is that a motivating reason in one instance might not be a motivating reason in another because motivating reasons are contingent on the situation – one cannot generalize among motivating reasons. But if, as the cognitivist holds, our moral judgments are in response to the moral properties of a situation that give reasons to act in certain ways, it seems moral reasons for a certain action are contingent on the situation – one cannot generalize among moral reasons. The properties that are relevant to there being a moral reason for a certain action here might not be relevant in another situation, as reasons are contingent on the particular facts of the situation. Thus, “the moral relevance of a property in a new case cannot be predicted from its relevance elsewhere” (Moral Reasons, page 57).

Conclusion: Some Skepticism
That, as I understand him, is Dancy’s argument for moral particularism from moral motivation. It is certainly a brilliant argument, and he is to be commended for the ingenuity in his thoughts on philosophical problems that date back to Plato. But one must recall that this argument for particularism rests on the foundation of cognitive internalism. Is that a sturdy foundation? We are asked to choose between Dancy’s theory, and a non-cognitivist account of moral motivation – externalist moral motivation. Which seems more plausible? I see no problem with conceding that our motivation for being moral is due to some desire or other (externalist moral motivation), while maintaining that there are objective truths about morality. In many ways I think the default position for moral motivation should be non-cognitivist, and that we should be argued to internalism. Dancy thinks that intellectual intuitions are on the side of internalism, but for his argument from motivation to be convincing he needs to do more work to disprove externalism for moral motivation.


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  1. A Critical Review of Moral Reasons by Jonathan Dancy | ausomeawestin
  2. Ralph Wedgwood on Internalist Moral Motivation | ausomeawestin

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