Ralph Wedgwood on Internalist Moral Motivation

I recently picked up Ralph Wedgwood’s The Nature of Normativity, being one of the more recent exhaustive defenses of moral realism. I’ve taken to writing summaries of the books I read, rather than just annotating them, in an effort to better understand and internalize the overall arguments of books, and though I will likely post comments on the book here, today I want to share a brief entry commenting on Wedgwood’s internalist position on moral motivation. More and more I think the debate over moral motivation is one of the most (if not the most) important debates in metaethics, as many philosophers argue from the truth of internalism to other conclusions, such that much rests, in these works, on the merits of internalism, merits which I think are dubitable. Wedgwood adds further nuance to older internalist positions (such as Michael Smith’s view, see here), but I am not sure that these nuances make the view more credible.

Wedgwood supports a version of that the internalist thesis that there is an essential connection between normative judgments and motivation for action. The sort of normative judgment Wedgwood has in mind is a general normative judgment that encompasses moral and prudential judgments, which seems the best way to account for moments where we deliberate between doing what we morally ought to do, and what we prudentially ought to do. This broader account of normative judgments leads Wedgwood to note that such judgments are inherently practical, because we understand the question “what ought I to do?” as equivalent to asking “what to do?”, such that “ought” judgments are action-guiding for rational persons because judging that one ought to do x rationally entails one intends to do x.

This restricted version of internalism applies only to rational agents, and allows for akrasia, or weakness of the will, a phenomenon that the stronger version could not accommodate, but here becomes the idea that weakness of the will is irrationality. A lot comes to be riding on defining rationality in a way that is not trivial (such as defining rationality as the state of acting on ones judgments), and Wedgwood appeals to the notion of rationality as designed in rational choice theory. There rationality entails synchronic requirements, essentially internally consistent beliefs and intentions, and diachronic requirements, essentially following proper rules of reasoning. Wedgwood then integrates another notion of rationality into his internalist thesis – the idea that having a belief creates a disposition in a rational person to conform to basic requirements of rationality that apply to them in virtue of that belief. The idea, then, is that internalism is the thesis that in making a normative judgment x, a rational person has a disposition to intend x. Further nuancing internalism in this way allows the internalist to accommodate persons who make judgments, but remain unmotivated by them, due to depression or intoxication, not because they do not have a disposition to intend x in virtue of the judgment to x, but because the disposition is blocked from being realized due to these factors.

Wedgwood then considers some objections to this version of internalism, one of which is that there seem to be cases where one might come to a judgment to x, but not form any intention to x, and be rational in so doing, as in the example of making the judgment that one should not torture Dick Cheney, but not forming any intention to not torture Cheney, due to the improbability of this possibility arising. Wedgewood concedes that this counterexample shows that we must refine the scope of what judgments are internally motivating to those that are “of the appropriate sort” – such as those where one knows that one’s having the intention to x makes a difference to the likelihood of x occurring. The appropriate sort of judgment, then, is one concerning states of affairs that would not arise if one did not intend them.

A difficult objection to this view of internalism is that in moments of moral uncertainty we might make the judgment that we ought to do x or y, and the wrong choice being disastrous, the rational move would be to form the intention to z, a second-best option. To respond that we come to the judgment that z requires a notion of moral transparency that we do not seem to have. Wedgwood notes that this objection forces us to restrict internalism to be concerned only with judgments that are made without “relevant uncertainty”.

Facing these objections, Wedgwood gives further explanation to how these normative judgments are motivating. When a person does x intentionally, that person’s motivation for x-ing consists of the mental states that motivated that person to x. The same can be said for the motivating of intentions, in that, a person is motivated to have the intention to x in virtue of certain mental states. That certain mental states commonly result in certain intentions confirms the dispositional role of mental states to intentions. Noting this, it seems that making a normative judgment is a mental state that activates a disposition to an intention, such that this judgment to x motivates the intention to x, with the result that “this judgment was your motivation for having the intention to x” (Wedgwood, 33).

From this Wedgwood notes that a judgment is sufficient, by itself, to constitute motivation for the intention to x, thus denying the externalist’s claim that something external to the judgment is necessary for motivation, such as a desire to be moral. On the lack of the necessity of desire for motivation Wedgwood posits that such a desire is either identical to the dispositions he has been discussing, such that it is not external to the judgment, or desires are not identical to dispositions, but in which case we have no need for desires in our picture of motivation, as the use of dispositions is sufficient for motivation. Wedgwood notes that he takes normative judgments to be beliefs, such that he subscribes to a anti-Humean picture of moral motivation (see here for my comments on Jonathan Dancy’s anti-Humean account of moral motivation).

It should be clear that Wedgwood’s contribution to the internalist/externalist debate is his introduction of dispositions as a link between judgments and intentions in rational persons. It does indeed seem that there might be rational conditions that require that if one has a certain mental state then one would be irrational to not have a certain other mental state that is entailed by the first state. But one might still properly wonder whether it is correct to say that mental state2 is in fact motivated by mental state1. While we may grant mental state2 is conceptually entailed by mental state1, it seems quite different to say that mental state2 is caused by mental state1, the latter of which exhibits a sudden push that is more true to the phenomenology of motivation than the former. So, I doubt Wedgwood’s dismissal of externalism on the grounds that dispositions do all the explanatory work needed for motivation; to me, something is missing in this account of motivation.

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  1. Ralph Wedgwood on Cornell Realism and Australian Realism (moral semantics) | ausomeawestin
  2. Wedgwood’s Moral Semantics Program: Conceptual Role Semantics | ausomeawestin

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