Ethical Realism

November 10, 2009

Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Moral Beliefs Can’t Motivate

There is evidence that moral values involve desires. When we say “human life has intrinsic value,” we expect a desire to promote human life and a pro-attitude towards human life. The connection between moral beliefs and desires is not clear, and some people have argued that morality is only about desires. If morality is only about desires, then we should reject the existence of intrinsic values because our intrinsic value beliefs would merely state our desires. These concerns reflect Humean psychology, which states that there are beliefs and desires, and beliefs can’t motivate. Mark Platts, John Searle, and others have disputed Humean psychology. Although not all philosophers agree with Humean psychology, I will not question it here. Instead, I will attempt to prove that Humean psychology is compatible with moral realism.

I will explain Humean psychology, four Humean objections against moral realism, and my reply to those objections. The Humean objections to moral realism that I will discuss are the following:

  1. Intrinsic values don’t exist because they can’t motivate.
  2. Moral experience indicates that moral values are desires.
  3. Even if there are intrinsic values, they still can’t motivate.
  4. We can’t reason about moral values.

1. Humean Psychology

Humean psychology basically says that beliefs and desires are totally different kinds of things. The difference between beliefs and desires reflects Hume’s gap between “ought” and “is” (prescriptive and descriptive facts). What we desire is prescriptive and what we believe is descriptive.

According to Humean psychology, all reasoning is means-ends reasoning. A belief can help you know how to best satisfy a desire. You can desire an apple, and the belief that an apple is on the table will give me a reason to pick up the apple. All reasoning will be like this. We can’t reason about which desires to accept or which desires to reject. Desires aren’t true or false.

Of course, we can reason about which desires we really have. Sometimes we are wrong about which desires we have. Some pain in the stomach might be hunger. Sometimes we might not know why our stomach hurts. We will desire to alleviate the pain in our stomach and eating food would then be the appropriate means to achieve such an end, but it might take us a moment to figure out why our stomach hurts.

I have already discussed how anti-realists are interested in final ends. For a Humean, all our desires are actually final ends. A final end is something we find to be of importance without being useful. It’s valued for its own sake. Whenever we have a desire, we must desire it for its own sake. To value something for any other reason would be just to value it in order to satisfy a desire.

Our desires must be “given.” We can’t decide on which desires we want, which desires we should have, or commit ourselves to having a desire. This is why Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Section III).

2. Intrinsic values don’t exist because they can’t motivate.

Objection: Some philosophers have argued that what some believe to be intrinsic values just reflect their desires. The argument is basically the following:

  1. Our moral values reflect either beliefs or desires, but not both.
  2. Our moral values are motivational.
  3. Desires are motivational, but beliefs aren’t.
  4. Therefore, moral values reflect desires.
  5. If moral values reflect desires, then they aren’t intrinsic values.
  6. Therefore, moral values aren’t intrinsic values.

To say “pain is intrinsically bad” is to say “I desire people to avoid pain,” or possibly “I desire myself to avoid pain.” One reason to accept this is because moral values don’t appear to be beliefs. Moral beliefs would be unable to motivate us, but moral values always reflect a pro-attitude and reflect a motivation. To say that murder is wrong is to communicate a motivation to eliminate murder. To say that pain has intrinsic disvalue communicates a motivation to avoid pain (and perhaps to help others avoid pain.)

My Reply: There are at least three ways to attack this argument. We can either reject premise 1, premise 2, or premise 3:

Rejecting Premise 1

It could be false that “our moral values reflect either beliefs or desires, but not both.” Why not both? I don’t know how this premise can be justified. It is a metaphysical premise about the nature of beliefs, desires, and moral values. I want to suggest that we have to admit that it is possible for a moral value to reflect both a belief and a desire. It is possible to find out that something is good, even if we already desire it.

Rejecting Premise 2

It could be false that “our moral values are motivational.” Correlation doesn’t indicate an identity. Sure, we might (almost) always have a desire that correlates with a moral value, but that fact doesn’t prove that the moral value is a desire. It is possible that moral values are not in and of themselves motivational. Instead, the fact that we are motivated to promote intrinsic values could be a contingent fact about human beings. In other words we usually already have a desire for it.

How can we know if all values are motivational? I propose the following ways:

  1. To identify values that would not be motivational.
  2. To identify situations when values don’t motivate.

Identifying values that would not be motivational – Consider what it would be like to find out something has intrinsic value that we have no interest in, such as rocks. Even if we somehow found out rocks had intrinsic value, we might be unable to care. Taking care of rocks is not something that humans are willing to do. It isn’t surprising that we don’t talk about values that we can’t find motivational because these aren’t of any interest to us.

Identifying situations when values don’t motivate – Consider that we probably don’t always desire what we believe to be good. Even if we found out that human life has intrinsic value, we might not be motivated to help people who would die without our help. Many people claim to value human life, but they don’t donate most of their money to charities. It is reasonable to admit that sometimes we don’t desire what we believe to be good because we have a degree of selfishness. To be selfish doesn’t prove that we actually believe that we have more value than anyone else.

Rejecting Premise 3

It could be false that “desires can motivate, but beliefs can’t,” but I won’t discuss this possibility because it would require us to reject Humeanism entirely. Premise 3 will be justified if Humean psychology is justified.

3. Moral experience indicates that moral values are desires.

I have already discussed some reason to deny that we experience moral values to be desires. When we experience pain, we experience that there is something bad about it. The belief that pain is bad is not the same thing as the desire to avoid pain. We desire to avoid pain precisely because there is something bad about it. We can then believe that pain is bad and simultaneously desire to avoid pain. We can believe pain has intrinsic value, and simultaneously have a desire to avoid pain.

There are at least one way a Humean might try to show that moral values are desires—A Humean could point out that our desires are like our moral values. There are two experiences that seem to indicate that desires are like moral values. One, we can’t have conflicting moral values. Two, we can have genuine conflicting moral obligations.

Can desires conflict with our moral values? – A Humean would point out how absurd it would be for a person to sincerely say, “All things equal, murder and torture are wrong,” but to want to be murdered or to experience pain. This could reflect that moral values are desires because desires can’t conflict in this way, but desires can conflict with our beliefs. We can’t desire something and its opposite at the same time without an overriding reason to do so. You can’t desire pleasure but desire not to have that same pleasure simultaneously. It is also important to notice that desires can conflict with our beliefs: The fact that a mountain exists has nothing to do with whether or not I want it to exist. I can believe a mountain exists, but want it not to exist.

We could restate the argument as the following:

  1. Moral values are either beliefs or desires, or both.
  2. You can’t desire x and not-x simultaneously.
  3. You can’t desire x and value not-x at the same time.
  4. All beliefs are compatible with all desires. (It is possible to have any belief and any desire at the same time.)
  5. Not all moral values are compatible with all desires.
  6. Therefore, moral values don’t reflect beliefs.
  7. Therefore, morel values reflect desires.

Reply: The moral experience that desires can’t conflict with moral values can be explained by a moral realist in at least two ways. First, it might be possible to desire something and its negation simultaneously. I will not discuss this possibility because it would require us to reject Humean psychology entirely. Second, we can argue that premise 3 is not sufficiently justified: Perhaps you can desire not-x and judge that x is good at the same time. Intrinsic values could merely correlate with our desires as a contingent fact of human beings. What I said earlier about how “it is possible that moral values are not in and of themselves motivational” can apply here as well. Knowing that pain is bad and desiring not to have pain are two different things and it’s a contingent fact that the desire to avoid pain correlates with the fact that pain is intrinsically bad. (Additionally, it is possible that some intrinsic values won’t correlate with our desires.)

Can we have genuine conflicting moral obligations? – Consider that we can’t reject an obligation on the grounds that it conflicts with another obligation, as argued by Bernard Williams in “Ethical Consistency.”1 Conflicting obligations are those that can’t both be satisfied. Perhaps you have to go to school, but you also have to go to the hospital to see an injured friend. It might be impossible to do both. No matter which obligation you satisfy, you could appropriately still feel regret, and you might feel that you have to “make it up” to whoever you wronged by your decision (if anyone.) We can then give the following argument to reject moral realism:

  1. Moral obligations reflect either beliefs or desires.
  2. When we have two conflicting beliefs, we have a good reason to reject one of them.
  3. When we have two conflicting moral obligations, we don’t have good reason to reject one of them.
  4. So, moral obligations aren’t beliefs.
  5. Therefore, moral obligations are desires.

Reply: This experience can be explained by a moral realist in at least four ways. One, if there is only one intrinsic value, then our obligations might never actually conflict. This is the position of classical utilitarianism, which has already been defended by some philosophers. This answer basically states that regret doesn’t reflect true moral beliefs when we do the right thing, but regret could reflect true moral beliefs when we do the wrong thing. If moral obligations never conflict, then premise 3 might be false because moral obligations might be able to reflect beliefs.

Two, the realist could admit that we can have two conflicting obligations nothing-else-considered: You might decide not to go to work because you need to spend time with a suicidal friend, for example. But all-things-considered, it might be better to spend time with your suicidal friend instead of go to work. If it was at any point possible to do both, then at that point you would have had an all-things-considered obligation to do both. So, we would just find out that you broke an all-things-considered obligation after all. The two obligations didn’t have to conflict by necessity. (They didn’t at some earlier point in time, so a wrong decision was made at some point.)

Williams would find option two and three to be dismissive of our experiences involving the fact that regret seems to make a lot of sense when we fail to live up to an obligation. Basically these replies deny that we have two conflicting obligations, so they can’t explain why regret seems appropriate.

Williams also argued that such dismissive replies neglect the fact that we should avoid getting into situations that give us two conflicting obligations. If we can’t have conflicting obligations, then we have no reason to avoid getting into situations that require us to break an obligation. For example, we could accept the duties of a 50 hour work load when we also have obligations to a sick mother we need to spend time with.

I am unconvinced by Williams’s rebuttal that we need to avoid getting into situations that could give us conflicting obligations, and this somehow provides evidence that obligations aren’t based on beliefs. If all things equal, we have an obligation to avoid such situations, then the moral realist would justifiably feel regret when he or she gets into such a situation due to negligence.

Three, if there are multiple intrinsic values, then our obligations could be expected to conflict. Let’s say that pleasure has intrinsic value and pain has intrinsic disvalue. In that case eating chocolate will be good insofar as it gives us pleasure and bad insofar as it can contribute to health problems (and therefore pain) later on. We might feel regret for eating chocolate, even though it was good to get the pleasure; and we might also regret not eating it, even though it could contribute to pain later on. There might be no way to determine which course of action is all-things-considered best in this situation, so it could make sense to feel regret either way. However, it might not make sense to feel regret if we found out that we really made the right choice all-things-considered.

Four, obligations might involve both beliefs and desires. our desires can lead us to regret, so intrinsic values might have nothing to do with regret. We might be able to reject an obligation in the form of a belief, but still be unable to reject the obligation in the form of a desire. For example, we might desire to go to work and spend time with a depressed friend, even when these obligations conflict. We might decide we have an all-things-considered obligation to spend time with our friend, but we will still regret not going to work. In this case we might simply desire to both go to work and spend time with a friend. The desire does not necessarily match the all-things-considered value judgment. We might desire many things, even if we can’t satisfy them all. We might then feel regret concerning any of the desires that don’t get satisfied.

4. Even if there are intrinsic values, they can’t motivate.

This objection against realism is basically a practical one:

  1. If moral values reflect beliefs, then they can’t motivate us.
  2. However, the whole point of moral values is to motivate us.
  3. Therefore, moral values don’t reflect beliefs.

Reply: I disagree that the whole point of moral values is that they motivate us. We can know that pain is bad separately from the fact that we desire to avoid it. To repeat from earlier, the reason that we tend to discuss moral values when we desire them rather than intrinsic values we don’t desire is that we are simply not interested in the possible moral value of rocks and so forth. In fact, our interest in morality might be limited to the intrinsic value of things that coincides with our desires. The intrinsic disvalue of pain coincides with our desire that people don’t feel pain.

It is quite possible for desires to coincide with intrinsic values, and it is quite possible that we can nurture desires that coincide with intrinsic values. For example, we can choose to nurture our desire for people to avoid pain. We might also be able to do the opposite: Neglect our desire for people to avoid pain. Nurtured desires might become stronger and better at motivating us, and desires we neglect could become weaker. Therefore, intrinsic values themselves don’t need to be motivational in order to have practical implications. Perhaps we can choose to indulge and “exercise” some desires and ignore others.

Of course, we do want to admit that morality needs to be effective in order to be worth discussing. If we found out that moral values don’t influence the world at all, then we might suspect that they don’t exist. I have two responses to this problem. One, moral beliefs don’t have to motivate us in order to be effective. Instead, we might be able to decide which of several desires to act on. We can desire to do something with greater intrinsic value and to do something selfish. We might be able to then decide to do whatever has greater intrinsic value.

Two, we might be able to change the motivational impact our desires have on us by neglecting them or encouraging them. For example, a drug addict can rid themselves of their addiction by neglecting it. Additionally, we might be able to develop our desire for others to avoid pain by developing close relationships with others.

5 We Can’t Reason About Moral Values

If moral values merely reflect our desires, then it might be true by definition that we can’t reason about moral values. Some philosophers, such as A. J. Ayer, have argued that moral reasoning is only means-to-ends reasoning.2 What food you “should eat” depends on nonmoral facts about health. It is the nonmoral beliefs we have that matters to a moral debate. We don’t argue about what has intrinsic value.

Furthermore, it could be argued that some arguments concern a discovery about “what we really desire.” We can be wrong about what we really desire, so people can spend time trying to separate what they value as a means and what they value as an end in itself.

Reply: There are at least two ways that a moral realist could respond to this problem. One, a moral realist can agree that we don’t reason about intrinsic values. If we can know intrinsic values through intuition, for example, then we might not have to provide much argument for them. Intrinsic values might be self-evident and require no argument. So, it is quite possible for a moral realist to admit that we don’t argue about intrinsic values.

Two, a moral realist can meet the challenge by showing how we do argue about intrinsic values. My Argument for Moral Realism might be one such example because it involves the argument that pain has intrinsic disvalue. What is most important about arguments is the evidence given. Intuition might therefore even be used in arguments. “We have an intuition that x is an intrinsic value” could be considered to be an argument.

Additionally, arguments involving intrinsic value don’t necessarily require any desires. We probably don’t have any desires regarding the following two arguments:

Argument 1

  1. Imagine a world with nothing but plants.
  2. Now imagine a world with plants and woolly mammoths.
  3. We have an intuition that the world with plants and woolly mammoths is better.

This argument is not concerning means-ends reasoning, it has nothing to do with our behavior, and it might have nothing to do with our desires. Therefore, the argument probably isn’t about finding what we “really desire.”

Argument 2

  1. We experience that pain is bad, and we desire to avoid it for that reason.
  2. Therefore, pain’s disvalue isn’t just our desire to avoid it.
  3. Therefore, pain might have an intrinsic disvalue.

This argument makes it clear that pain does not have to be based on our desires, and it is not means-ends reasoning. So, it’s certainly not about finding out “what we really desire.” It is reasoning based on our psychological experiences. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily require practical implications. Sometimes we can realize pain is bad without feeling a desire to avoid small amounts of pain. Sometimes we might not feel a desire to avoid pain because we might just accept that we can’t get rid of it.

The fact that we can argue about intrinsic values can also be treated as an objection that we experience moral values as merely reflecting desires. Such arguments are examples of moral experience that reflects beliefs. Consider other examples of moral experience—We experience moral mistakes, moral progress, and moral evidence.

Consider each of these elements:

Moral mistakes: Some people falsely believe that pain isn’t bad. This belief can be corrected once they understand that we experience that pain is bad separable from our desires. Some people falsely believe that we have no reason to accept that mammoths have intrinsic value, but the above argument gives at least a small amount of evidence that mammoths do have intrinsic value. People commonly accept moral mistakes as part of their everyday experience.

Moral progress: Once we have corrected our mistaken beliefs, we can correct them. This is moral progress. People commonly accept moral progress as part of their moral experience.

Moral evidence: Intuition is evidence of moral facts. It might not be infallible, but it is worthy of consideration. People commonly accept moral evidence as part of their everyday experience.


Some philosophers believe that Humean psychology and moral experience has refuted moral realism. However, Humean psychology and the moral experiences examined here in no way refute moral realism. It is quite possible to be a moral realist and accept Humean psychology.

If Humean psychology is incompatible with moral realism, then we will have to agree that “moral values are motivational.” Although we might experience that moral values are motivational, that could be just because we already had the desire. Our moral values can often (or always) correlate with our desires. All the objections to moral realism above require that we accept that our moral values are motivational. If our moral values aren’t motivational, then we have no reason to think that they reflect desires.

1 Williams, Bernard, “Ethical Consistency,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp, vol. 39, 1965. 103-124.

2 Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic.

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