Moral Concepts and Motivation

Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 23, 2009

UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 09-31

Posted: 2 Dec 2009

See all articles by Mark Greenberg

Mark Greenberg

UCLA School of Law and Department of Philosophy

Date Written: November 30, 2009


I first argue that standard versions of moral internalism are untenable in light of a type of example that has not previously been considered in metaethical discussions. As a consequence of having unusual views, a good-willed thinker could make moral judgments and recognize moral facts without having a disposition to be motivated to act accordingly (and without believing himself to have reasons for action). Moreover, on a familiar conception of irrationality as incoherence, the thinker in question need not be irrational, and it is not clear that there is a relevant conception of rationality on which he must be irrational. The first part of the paper therefore strengthens some of the most important arguments that have been taken to undermine internalism and support externalism.

Next, however, I argue that these arguments seem to support externalism over internalism only because it is widely taken for granted that, if concepts are individuated in part by mental transitions, then a thinker cannot have a particular concept without having a disposition to make the concept’s individuating transitions. Considerations in the philosophy of mind, including the general type of example deployed in the first part of the paper, support rejecting that presupposition. Rejecting the presupposition makes visible a different understanding of internalism, one that is not vulnerable to some of the most influential arguments that have been taken to support externalism. According to the proposed position, a thinker who makes a moral judgment or recognizes a moral fact is subject to a conceptual requirement that he be motivated to act accordingly, but need not be disposed to satisfy that requirement. The second part of the paper thus argues that considerations independent of metaethics yield a position that neatly reconciles important internalist and externalist insights.

Finally, in the last part of the paper, I begin the project of extending the arguments to internalism about reasons for action. I give reasons for thinking that patterns of attitudes that are typically taken to be paradigmatic of irrationality – for example, believing that one ought, all things considered, to take a particular action but not being motivated to do so – may not be irrational if they are the product of unusual views.

Keywords: amoralist, concepts, incomplete understanding, moral concepts, ethical concepts, metaethics, moral internalism, moral externalism, moral motivation, moral judgments, reasons for action, irrationality, conceptual role semantics, inferentialism, rationality, moral fact, akrasia, conceptual requirement

Suggested Citation

Greenberg, Mark, Moral Concepts and Motivation (November 30, 2009). Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 23, 2009 , UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 09-31, Available at SSRN:

Mark Greenberg (Contact Author)

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