January 11, 2012

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Berkeley and Motivational Internalism

Motivational internalism is a view about moral language or evaluative language in general and its relation to motivation. According to motivational internalism, if someone says 'x is good' but is not in the least motivated to pursue x, then that person is either insincere or not a competent user of the language. This is not supposed to be a fact about human psychology (that all humans pursue the good), but rather a claim about how the word 'good' works: something good is something which is to be pursued, so if you call something 'good' without taking it to be something to be pursued (i.e. being motivated to pursue it) then you are not using the word 'good' correctly.

I believe Berkeley endorses this view in his "Manuscript Introduction." The "Manuscript Introduction" is an earlier version of what eventually became the Introduction to the Principles. It appears to be a fairly polished piece of writing which Berkeley thought was quite close to ready for publication. However, he apparently changed his mind, because the published Introduction has some fairly significant differences, some substantive, some stylistic, and some strategic. Anyway, in the "Manuscript Introduction," Berkeley is concerned about the meaning of the phrase 'good things' in the claim that "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor. 2:9). This is an odd thing to wonder since the phrase 'good things' does not actually appear in the text; Berkeley misquotes it. Anyway, the point is, there is supposed to be this promise of a heavenly reward, or good things, but the reward, the good things, are such as 'Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man' - i.e. things of which we have no idea. How, then, can the Apostle's words be significant? As Berkeley notes, Locke would of course say that we have abstract general ideas of goodness and thinghood, even though we don't have particular ideas of the good things in question here. Berkeley rejects this view. Here's his alternative account:

Upon mention of a Reward to A Man for his pains and perseverance in any occupation whatsoever, it seems to me that divers things do ordinarily ensue. For there may be excited in his Understanding an Idea of the particular good thing to him proposed for a Reward. There may also ensue thereupon an Alacrity and Steddiness in fulfilling those Conditions on which it is to be obtain'd, together with a zealous desire of serving and pleasing the Person in whose Power it is to bestow that good Thing. All these things, I say, may and often do follow upon the pronunciation of those words that declare the Recompence. Now I do not see any reason why the latter may not happen without the former. What is it that Hinders why a Man may not be stirr'd up to diligence and zeal in his Duty by being told he shall have a good Thing for his Reward, tho' at the same time there be excited in his Mind no other Idea than barely those of Sounds or Characters? When he was a Child he had frequently heard those Words used to him to create in him an obedience to the Commands of those that spoke them. And as he grew up he has found by experience that upon the mentioning of those Words by an honest Man it has been his Interest to have doubled his Zeal and Activity for the service of that Person. Thus there having grown up in his Mind a Customary Connexion betwixt the hearing that Proposition and being dispos'd to obey with chearfulness the Injunctions that accompany it. methinks it might be made use of tho' not to introduce into his mind any Idea marked by the Words Good thing yet to excite in him a willingness to perform that which is required of him. And this seems to me all that is design'd by the Speaker except only wn he intends those words shall signifie the Idea of some particular thing. (MI 37)

It seems to me that Berkeley is giving a partial account of language acquisition. He is saying that part of what it is to be a competent user of the word 'reward' is to be such that, upon accepting an assertion of the form 'φing will be rewarded' one is motivated to φ.

Posted by Kenny at January 11, 2012 11:05 AM
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I would have thought that motivational internalism is principally a view about moral thought, and not moral language. I took it to be the view that the state of thinking that something is good has to be motivationally relevant for you (in such-and-such a way), or else it wouldn't really be the state of thinking that the thing was good. This is still not the sort of claim about human psychology you describe (since it would at best suggest that all humans pursue the apparent good).

At first, I assumed that the reason you were framing it in terms of language is because you took the non-cognitivist component of Berkeley's account of moral language to rule out the category "moral thought", but that doesn't seem quite right. Berkeley refers to our attitude in such cases as one of "practical assent", and even if it is to be cashed out in terms of conative mental states, it still seems to be a form of thought (at least, in a broad sense of the term).

There is no need to frame the issue of motivational internalism in terms of language. A variety of views that have nothing to do with language could be (and have been) put forward in order to account for motivational internalism. They are viewed as an explanation of how it could be that judging something to be good could be an inherently motivational state (when judging something to be blue, for instance, is not). The view that moral thought belongs to the conative, rather than to the cognitive, side of the mind is one way to ensure that moral thoughts are motivationally relevant.

Of course, one need not be a strong non-cognitivist to account for motivational internalism in this fashion: I'd regard Reid as offering a sort of hybrid account on which moral thought has both cognitive and non-cognitive components. The presence of conative activity in moral thought is what one needs to account for motivational internalism (not necessarily the absence of cognitive activity).

Now Berkeley offers an account on which moral language plays an integral role in the range of moral thoughts we can have (it would appear), and so he offers an especially language-oriented response to the challenge, but it seems misleading to frame the challenge as one that is in and of itself, about moral language.

Posted by: Lewis Powell at January 11, 2012 1:20 PM

So, it's true that I have always heard motivational internalism formulated as a view about moral judgments, but I thought that given some plausible assumptions about language (e.g. that to assent to a sentence is to make the corresponding judgment) my formulation here would be equivalent. I have sometimes heard people talk about it in terms of what it takes to grasp a moral proposition, but of course Berkeley certainly doesn't have propositions as Platonic objects.

The way I see it, on Berkeley's view, what we would call 'abstract thought' (of course he wouldn't call it that) is inherently linguistic. When you have moral thoughts you need not have any ideas in mind other than "those of Sounds or Characters." If this is right then certainly for Berkeley my formulation will be equivalent to standard formulations. At any rate, my interest here was just to show that Berkeley does hold this view, and for him it is a claim about what it takes to be a competent user of phrases like 'good thing' or 'reward.' Or at least that's how I'm reading MI. So, basically, I think that it's hard to give a theory-independent formulation of the problem, but if you were trying to do that then I agree that it would probably be better not to formulate it in linguistic terms, and I agree that people with different theoretical commitments than Berkeley might formulate both the problem and their preferred solution with minimal reference to moral language.

Posted by: Kenny at January 11, 2012 1:32 PM

My main thought was that framing the issue of motivational internalism as a view about language obscures the fact that Berkeley's response to it is so thoroughly entrenched in his views about language.

My thought was: Understood as a puzzle about moral thought, Berkeley's reply has the feature of being interestingly linguistic. Understood as a puzzle about moral language, the fact that it is a thoroughly linguistic solution seems much less remarkable.

Does that make sense?

Posted by: Lewis Powell at January 12, 2012 9:09 AM

That does make sense, I was just struggling to formulate the puzzle (I don't work on moral psychology, you know) and found the linguistic formulation easier, especially for the Berkeleian context.

Posted by: Kenny at January 12, 2012 9:22 AM

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