Moral Rationalism and Moral Motivation


Several prominent philosophers believe that moral facts are facts about what reasons we have, and that this entails that moral judgments are necessarily and inherently motivating. According to this argument, if morality cannot move us, then it is hard to understand how it could be sensibly regarded as action-guiding or normative. That is, they endorse a traditional argument for motivational judgment internalism based on moral rationalism. This paper criticizes this argument, and argues instead that there is no necessary or conceptual connection between moral facts and motivation. First, I formulate MJI as the thesis that moral judgments are necessarily and inherently motivating, and introduced several refinements designed to accommodate some plausible exceptions to the initial formulation. I then introduce MR as the thesis that moral facts are identical with or analyzable in terms of facts about requirements of reason. MR is ambiguous between an interpretation that analyzes moral requirements in terms of motivating reasons, and is also subject to various possible refinements, and an interpretation that proceeds in terms of justifying reasons. Finally, I argue that neither interpretation entails any interesting or plausible formulation of MJI. If the argument of this paper are sound, then there is no important connection between moral rationalism and motivational internalism.

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  1. 1.

    Parfit (2011a, p. 268).

  2. 2.

    Parfit (2011a, chs. 24 – 25) contain a rich discussion of these families of views.

  3. 3.

    See Brink (1989, pp. 37 – 43), Darwall (1983, pp. 51 – 2), Shafer-Landau (2003, pp. 142 – 5), Smith (1994, pp. 60 – 1), and Stevenson (1937, pp. 16, 18, 27). Of course this is not the only argument for MJI; many internalists accept internalism for other reasons and would reject the argument from MR for MJI. But the MR argument for MJI is influential and has been advanced by several prominent internalists.

  4. 4.

    This formulation is inspired by Smith (1994, p. 61). A similar formulation appears in Shafer-Landau (2003, p. 143). Many contemporary internalists would now reject this way of formulating the view, according to which there is an internal, conceptual, or necessary connection between moral judgment and motivation. Often this move is made in response to arguments involving amoralists. Such internalists hold that the connection between moral judgment and motivation is contingent and defeasible. An influential pair of representatives of this view will be discussed later on.

  5. 5.

    Shafer-Landau (2003, p.142).

  6. 6.

    Smith (1994, p. 61). See also Blackburn (1984), Johnston (1989), Pettit and Smith (1993), and Shafer-Landau (2003, p.143).

  7. 7.

    Dreier (1990, pp. 10 – 11), Stocker (1979). Dreier credits Gideon Rosen with the example of the Sadists.

  8. 8.

    Dreier (1990, p. 11).

  9. 9.

    There is considerable disagreement among philosophers who accept MJI concerning how MJI is best understood. Some philosophers have argued that versions of MJI that include a practical rationality requirement, according to which the link between moral judgment and motivation is conditional the agent’s practical rationality, thereby sever the conceptual tie between judgment and motivation and collapse into MJE (see Svavarsdóttir 1999 and Bromwich2016).

  10. 10.

    This formulation is based on Smith (1994, p. 62). Many philosophers formulate the thesis in terms of moral requirements rather than permissions; see Brink (1997, p. 6), Dorsey (2015, p. 22), Parfit (2011b, p. 141), Shafer-Landau (2003, p. 190), and van Roojen (2010, p. 495).

  11. 11.

    Smith (1994, p. 62).

  12. 12.

    Smith (1994, p. 62). Smith cites Korsgaard (1986) as a source for the platitude.

  13. 13.

    Smith (1994, pp. 85 – 7).

  14. 14.

    Korsgaard (1986, p. 11).

  15. 15.

    See Williams and Smart (1973, pp. 106 – 7), Nagel (1979, p. 9), and Falk (1948).

  16. 16.

    Korsgaard (1986, pp. 10 – 11). There is a similar passage in Korsgaard (1996, p. 85).

  17. 17.

    van Roojen (2010, p. 501).

  18. 18.

    Similar arguments are mentioned in Brink (1989, p.37), Darwall (1983, pp. 80 – 1), and Harman (1975, pp. 5 – 6).

  19. 19.

    Smith (1994, ch. 5).

  20. 20.

    It is worth noting here that the stipulations to S’s practical rationality are designed to accommodate situations in which S’s motivations fail to reflect her judgments, not cases in which S’s judgments are not correct.

  21. 21.

    Additionally, ϕ might be right without S realizing that it is one of her alternatives. I thank Neil Feit for suggesting this.

  22. 22.

    Dreier (1990, pp. 16 – 7) raises a puzzle for his moderate internalism based on false moral beliefs. If moral beliefs are, in part, beliefs about the attitudes of the speaker, then certain false moral beliefs will be false because they contain false information about the attitudes of the speaker. For example, S’s belief that ϕ is right is in part a belief about S’s own motivational state with respect to ϕ. But it is possible that S’s judgment is false, in that S lacks the requisite motivational state with respect to ϕ. In such cases, MMJI has the consequence that the speaker will be motivated to ϕ despite the fact that, by hypothesis, she is not. But Dreier’s remarks constitute a puzzle that arises on MMJI, not an argument against the premise that MR entails some version of judgment internalism.

  23. 23.

    van Roojen (2010, p. 514).

  24. 24.

    van Roojen (2010, p. 516).

  25. 25.

    van Roojen (2010, pp. 516 –7).

  26. 26.

    van Roojen (2010, p. 518).

  27. 27.

    See, for example, Bedke (2008).

  28. 28.

    I am grateful to Neil Feit, Rekha Nath, Chase Wrenn, and several anonymous referees for helpful discussion of the issues with which this paper is concerned and comments on earlier drafts.


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Klocksiem, J. Moral Rationalism and Moral Motivation. Acta Anal 36, 123–136 (2021).

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