The Aspects of Internalist and an Externalist about Moral Motivation

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Throughout philosophy, there is an ongoing debate concerning how our moral judgements effect our moral motivation. In this essay I will examine two different explanations of how our moral judgements are linked to motivation; internalism and externalism, whilst arguing and concluding the latter. I will begin by outlining the Ed Gein case and using it as the framework to identify the two theories. Throughout this essay, I will argue in favour of externalists, including criticisms mainly from Michael Smith- a weak internalist. However, I will that his objections are not persuasive enough.

Ed Gein was a murderer who killed innocent people, making masks out of their skin and soup bowls from their scalps. Gein claimed that he knew what he was doing was wrong but argued that he didn’t know why it concerned him (Fisher p.128). The foundation of an internalist theory argues that it is ‘conceptually impossible’ for our motivation to not have a necessary link to our moral judgement. Thus claiming, if Ed Gein genuinely thought it was morally wrong, then he would have a conceptual necessity not to do it. Initially, the internalist view seems plausible that there is a necessary link between moral judgement and motivation. This is due to countless everyday examples; judging it right to be a vegetarian therefore motivating you to become a vegetarian, or judging it right to follow your religion therefore motivating you to follow your religion. However, through cases like Ed Gein, it is clear that this is not always the case. Moreover, metaethicists, i.e. Michael Smith (1994) follow the form of weak internalism, which holds a slightly different, less punitive theory. They claim that there is still a necessary connection between moral judgement and motivation, but only if they are ‘C’ (Fisher, L3). Various philosophers have derived what is meant by ‘C’: psychologically normal (i.e. Blackburn), practically rational (i.e. Smith) and morally perceptive (i.e. McDowell). If you are ‘C’ and make a moral judgement, then you are necessarily motivated. Therefore, it could be argued that Ed Gein was not making a genuine moral judgement when he said: ‘it is wrong to skin people’. Rather he believed that ‘in society it is wrong to skin people’. Therefore, he is not making a genuine moral judgement by explaining the lack of motivation to stop. So, weak internalist argue that whenever moral judgements don’t lead to motivation, it is because it is not a genuine moral judgement. Whilst weak internalists’ give a valid argument for the Ed Gein case, there are still problems classifying how to judge someone as ‘C’. This creates an unstable foundation, as there is no strict guide how to judge someone as ‘C’. I will now justify why I believe that the externalists argument gives a far more universal and clear cut theory.

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Externalists claim that moral judgements are contingent and external to our motivation. However, if a moral judgement does motivate then it is in virtue of the agent’s desire (Fisher p.129). Externalists explain that Ed Gein is not motivated to stop because he doesn’t have the desire or motivation to stop, even though he argues to have the wrong judgment. Thus, the main difference between internalist and externalists is that internalists’ believe the link between moral motivation and judgement is necessary, whilst externalists believe it is contingent and only connected through the desire of an agent. Undoubtedly, this shows a solution to the problem internalists’ face i.e. not covering cases when there is no link between moral judgement and motivation. It adds the element of an agent’s desire (Fisher, L3). Thus, externalists explain that people can make a moral judgement without being motivated to follow through, purely because an agent’s desire can change. To use a simpler example, when discussing vegetarianism with a friend and they agree that eating meat is wrong, yet fail to be motivated to follow through. This is explained through a lack of appropriate desire. They do make a genuine moral judgement that eating meat is wrong, but lack the desire, hence fail to become motivated. Intuitively, externalism is more appealing because it is inevitable that during the process of making a judgement and being motivated, external factors will likely come into play i.e. a student being tempted to eat meat because it is cheaper than being a vegetarian. This doesn’t mean there is no genuine moral judgement, merely external factors come into play.

Michael Smith, a leading contemporary metaethicist, further developed the argument between internalism and externalism in his book ‘The Moral Problem’ (Miller, 2003). Smith advocates in order to fix the problem between the two theories, he needs to identity a common ground that would be of mutual agreement between the two. (Fisher p.131). Furthermore, Smith argues that both internalist and externalists generally would agree that ‘a change in motivation follows reliably in the wake of a change in moral judgement’ (Smith, 1994: 71). This is known as the ‘Striking fact’. An example of this is if I judged it right to vote ‘leave’ for Brexit, then I would be motivated to do so. If I changed my mind and thought it was right to ‘remain’, then I would be motivated to vote remain instead. Smith strongly argues in favour of internalism, so at first glance it looks like this favours internalism due to the necessary connection between moral judgement and motivation. It suggests that externalists don’t accept it. However, the striking fact does not mention a route from moral judgement to motivation. Thus, allowing externalism to accept and explain how it also fits their theory.

Furthermore, externalists believe that as long as you have a certain desire to do what is right, then your moral judgement will (with the addition of the desire to do what is right) create a motivation. Likewise, if you do not care about morality, there will be no motivation. The link between moral judgement and motivation is through the agent’s desires. So, if I judge It right to vote ‘leave’ and I have the desire to do what is right, then I will have the motivation to vote ‘leave’. Thus, in regard to externalists explaining the striking fact, if I change my judgement and chose it right to vote ‘remain’, with desire too, then my motivation would inevitably change. The general non-specific desire is called ‘de dicto’ (Fisher L3). Consequently, given that externalists follow de dicto, it accounts plausible for them to follow the striking fact, allowing another argument in favour of externalism.

However, Smith is still not satisfied with the externalist response to this argument and forms yet another criticism. Smith believes that externalists incorrectly describe the psychology of a moral agent. This is through the use of de dicto; using a general non-specific desire to ‘do what is right’ in specific situations. (Fisher, p.132) For example, deriving a desire to do what is right and vote ‘leave’, whilst also deriving a desire to do what is right and vote ‘remain’. They are both based on the same general desire to do what is right. However, usually we think that a moral agent is motivated through specific features rather than a general concept. For example, if a good person would desire to raise money for charity because they have a personal connection to that charity, the externalist would claim that the good person does not have a desire to help that charity. This is due to the personal connection over the desire to do what is right.

Additionally, Smith claims that this creates an ‘abnormality’ of the good agent’s moral psychology. Merely, having a general desire causes the good agent to have a wrong moral psychology (Fisher p.133). In ‘The Moral Problem’ Smith claims that ‘common-sense tells us that being motivated is a fetish or moral vice, not the one and only moral virtue’ (Smith, 1994: 75). Thus, Smith claims that externalists turn a good moral agent into a ‘moral fetishist’ i.e. someone driven by a general desire, rather than a specific one (Fisher, p.133). As previously shown, both theories accept the striking fact, but Smith argues internalism gives a more persuasive argument for it, allowing no burden and creating no further issues. Unlike how he claims that externalists explain the striking fact, at the cost of a moral agent becoming a moral fetishist.

Even though internalists’, namely Michael Smith, creates a counter argument claiming that externalists turn a good moral agent into a moral fetishist, due to desire. This is not always true and thus thought not to be very effective, as having a general desire can lead to doing what is right in a specific occasion. If Smith’s argument worked, it would need to be a result of the moral agent consciously knowing the desire they are making, in which this is invalid. However, a further objection to this is mentioned by Brook J. Sadler. Smith claimed that ‘being a morally good person, you have a direct concern for what you think is right… de re and not de dicto’ (Sadler, 69). Yet, it has been shown that being a morally good person can indeed come from a de dicto. There are countless background desires to prove that we are not consciously aware of them. For example, I may have the general desire to live a nutritious life, but not be conscious of it. I also may have a desire to break, without being conscious of it. This shows how in some instances, having a general desire does lead to what is right, therefore, making Smiths argument unjust. Allowing the externalist argument to once again become valid, resulting in Sadler and Smith not succeeding in showing that de dicto is implausible.

In conclusion, throughout this essay I have continuously and productively shown how the externalist view is a plausible account about moral motivation. Whilst showing various criticisms, namely through Michael Smith, the externalist theory had reason and explanations to cover it all. Not only is the externalist argument easy to follow, it also allows for the justification of how a moral judgement affectively creates a moral motivation; through a de dicto account of desire mixed with an appropriate judgement. However, the internalist and externalist argument is still an ongoing debate throughout the philosophy of moral motivation, yet as shown in this paper, it is clear to me that the externalists have the superior argument.


  1. Fisher, Andrew. Metaethics: An Introduction, Routledge, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central
  2. Fisher, Andrew. Lecture 3, Introduction to Metaethics
  3. Miller, Alexander. An introduction to Contemporary Metaethics / Alexander Miller. Cambridge 2003, Print
  4. Sadler, B. (2003). The possibility of A moralism: a defence against internalism, Philosophy, 78(303). 67-78
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