Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Humean Externalism and the Argument from Depression

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Humean Externalism and the Argument from Depression

Article excerpt

A DOMINANT POSITION IN MORAL PSYCHOLOGY combines two independently plausible views: the Humean theory of motivation and motivational externalism. (1) Motivational externalism is the denial of "internalist" claims that motivational force is somehow "built in" or "internal" to moral judgment. (2) The Humean theory of motivation, inspired by Hume's (1978/1888: 415) claims that reason is motivationally inert and is merely "the slave of the passions, and cannot pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them," holds that, whenever an agent acts, the motivational impetus for her action necessarily has its source in her desires. According to Humean externalism, moral motivation is the product of one's moral desires--the desire to be moral, perhaps (3)--which are distinct from or "external" to her motivationally inert moral judgments. (4)

Humean externalism is an attractive picture. Many philosophers find the arguments in favor of externalism to be highly compelling. These arguments are generally framed around plausible descriptions of human agents that fail to be motivated in appropriate ways, given their moral outlooks. In particular, a number of externalists have drawn on examples of severely depressed or listless agents who lack moral motivation. By demonstrating that there is a gap between the making of a moral judgment and one's being appropriately motivated, these examples are meant to establish that moral judgments are not themselves effective sources of moral motivation. Some further motivational attitude is needed to fill the gap. The Humean theory dovetails nicely with these externalist arguments. Many externalists endorse some form of cognitivism about moral judgments, according to which moral judgment is a species of belief. (5) On the Humean view, it should be no surprise that there is a gap between moral beliefs and motivation. Moreover, according to the Humean, desires can fill this gap in a way that suggests elegant explanations of both widespread moral motivation and motivational failures associated with severe depression. So to the extent that one finds the externalist arguments compelling, one might also be tempted by the Humean version of this view.

This essay argues that examples of severe depression offer no support for Humean externalism. If the argument based on depression is to undermine a philosophically important internalist thesis, it must make use of some unspecified general constraint on motivational states. However, at a reasonable level of abstraction, the assumption needed to complete the externalist argument is also likely to imply that even desires could not be motivational states. Thus, the argument from depression depends on an assumption that is incompatible with the truth of the Humean theory. Furthermore, the natural Humean responses to this anti-Humean argument turn out to be versions of strategies that, if successful, internalists could deploy in defense of their position. These responses are thus unlikely to be available to the Humean externalist. In short, at a reasonable level of abstraction, one of the key motivations for externalism undermines, rather than supports, the Humean theory.

1. Internalisms and Externalisms

In the opening line of The Language of Morals, R. M. Hare writes: "If we were to ask of a person 'What are his moral principles?' the way in which we could be most sure of a true answer would be studying what he did." Albeit somewhat overstated, Hare's observation is that we regularly express our moral outlooks through our actions. A student who thinks that cheating is wrong might decide not to copy answers from another's exam, though there is little chance of being caught. A philanthropist might reasonably explain her charitable activities by insisting that successful people have a responsibility to give back to their communities. When asked, an omnivore is likely to argue that there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.