An Introduction to Internalism in Meta-Ethics

When somebody recognizes that some action is morally wrong, that person is usually motivated to avoid engaging in that action. The same thing seems to be true for people recognizing that something is morally obligatory and being motivated to pursue it. It’s a phenomenon that we are probably all familiar with: Morality and motivation to act or avoid acting are closely connected. In contemporary meta-ethics, the nature of the connection between morality and motivation is a hotly debated subject. Internalists view it as necessary, while externalists view it as contingent. What’s even more interesting, however, is that this same debate strongly resembles other debates in meta-ethics; and because of this, all of those debates can rightfully be lumped together under the label of “internalism vs. externalism.” In this post, I will explore these various debates, and give examples of views that fall under various internalist labels.

Relevant Definitions:

The internalism vs. externalism debates in contemporary meta-ethics concern the nature of the connection between reasons, motivation, moral truths and/or facts, and moral judgment [1]. Internalism in meta-ethics, broadly construed, takes the nature of the connection between these various things to be necessary. As we’ll see, however, when we combine these things, very different kinds of connections emerge. Before creating the taxonomy, then, we should define the various relata.

Motivation in meta-ethics concerns being moved to act or avoid. On one hand, a person is motivated to avoid X if that person is usually moved to act in a way that is not X. Being motivated to avoid cigarette smoking is to usually be moved to do something other than smoking cigarettes in situations where one has the opportunity to smoke cigarettes. On the other hand, one is motivated to do something if one is usually moved to do it. Usually, motivation comes with the experience of feeling “pulled towards” something one desires or one believes they ought to pursue. With avoidance, one tends to have the experience of feeling “repelled from” something that one does not desire or believes they ought not to pursue. It’s best to add the “usually” clause, because sometimes I can be motivated to do something yet not do it due to weakness of the will [2]. I may be motivated to quit smoking cigarettes, but other factors outweigh the motivating force of quitting such that I don’t actually quit. So, at least in some standard cases that don’t involve morality, motivation is what’s called defeasible [3]. To be defeasibly motivated is to be moved to act in normal circumstances, but in circumstances like suffering from akrasia, one can lose motivational force.

Reasons can be understood as things that explain intentional action, and subsequently makes it rational. To say that I intentionally went to my car and started it up is to commit one to the claim that I had some reason(s) to go to my car and start it up. Another way of understanding this is by examining unintentional results of action. If I intentionally reach my arm across the table to grab the salt, and in the process I knock my wine glass over, I did not intentionally knock over my wine glass. My unintentional knocking over of the wine glass does not require reasons to explain it; instead, it can be explained by my clumsiness. Like motivation, reasons can be defeasible or indefeasible. A defeasible reason for action may be defeated by other reasons. So, I may have a reason to buy cigarettes, but it’s defeasible insofar as I have a better reason not to smoke.

Moral truth can be understood as truth-bearers with moral content having obtaining truth conditions. Propositions about moral facts, for instance, corresponding to actual states of affairs involving obtaining moral facts would constitute moral truth. Moral facts, then, are obtaining states of affairs involving moral properties like goodness, badness, rightness, and wrongness [4].

Judgment is fairly straightforward. To judge that something is the case is to sincerely commit oneself to some state of affairs obtaining by virtue of expressing a proposition that represents that state of affairs. So, to judge that it’s raining outside is to sincerely assert that it’s raining outside. It’s a bit more tricky in moral cases. If I said that moral judgment is just sincerely asserting that something obtains, then I would be committed to non-cognitivism entailing that one doesn’t make moral judgments [5]. Since that seems false, a more neutral definition should be developed. Let’s just say that a moral judgment is some sort of psychological state that either commits one to some obtaining moral state of affairs or expresses some pro or con attitude towards some state of affairs, or expresses a commitment to some plan of action or set of norms. While that’s a cumbersome and unwieldy sentence, it characterizes moral judgment such that it begs no questions against various forms of non-cognitivism.

Judgment Internalism:

So, with our terminology in hand, let’s explore judgment internalism. Since internalism in meta-ethics involves a necessary connection between various relata, Judgment Internalism will be a thesis about the necessary connection between moral judgment and reasons or motivation.

Motivational Judgment Internalism (MJI) locates the connection between moral judgment and motivation. MJI asserts that sincere moral judgment is necessarily connected to motivation. A sincere moral judgment entails that the person making it is motivated in some sense.

There are two kinds of MJI: defeasible and indefeasible. Indefeasible MJI says that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is motivated to do P [6]. On this formulation, any person who sincerely judges that they ought to do something, or that something is good, bad, right, or wrong, then that person is either motivated to pursue it or avoid it. Unlike the cigarettes example, though, Indefeasible MJI says that if one makes a moral judgment, then one is necessarily moved to act or avoid.

An example of Indefeasible MJI is any version of simple subjectivism that identifies moral properties with approval or disapproval of a particular agent. An agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S approves of X, and if S approves of X then S is motivated to do X [7]. This is a form of Indefeasible MJI because any time that S judges that X is obligatory, that is the same as S approving of X. There is no clause that limits the set of sincere judgments that are necessarily connected to motivation like defeasible versions of judgment internalism.

Other examples of Indefeasible MJI are versions of non-cognitivism that analyze moral judgments as utterances that express certain pro or con attitudes towards certain actions and/or states of affairs. On those versions of non-cognitivism, for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X has expressed a pro or con attitude towards P. Pro or con attitudes are just attitudes of approval or disapproval, so any person who sincerely expresses such an attitude is going to be motivated to avoid or pursue some state of affairs. Again, there is no defeasibility clause, so this is a form of Indefeasible MJI.

Defeasible MJI asserts that for all X, if X makes a sincere moral judgment that P, then X is usually motivated to do P. This version of MJI includes the “usually” clause found in the cigarettes example. The “usually” clause in this definition typically encodes a condition that requires X to be rational at the time of judging that P to be motivated to do P. The defeasibility of Defeasible MJI involves the possibility of sincere moral judgment without motivation, but they qualify cases like that with some sort of non-moral evaluative concept like rationality. So a person who makes such a judgment but isn’t moved to act is irrational; if she were rational, she would’ve been moved.

An example of Defeasible MJI is a form of group subjectivism that identifies moral properties with what a particular society or culture approves or disapproves of [8]. Since a particular member of a society may make a sincere moral judgment that doesn’t actually reflect what her society approves or disapproves of, she may not be motivated to act or avoid. The defeasibility is due to the possibility of any particular person being wrong about what her society approves or disapproves of. Any person can be misinformed about their society’s moral beliefs due to irrationality, bias, or just ignorance. So, on this view, an agent S will sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory just if S believes that her society approves of X. However, since S can be wrong about what her society approves of, it generates Defeasible MJI: If an agent S sincerely judges that P is morally wrong, and S knows that her society disapproves of P, then S is motivated to avoid P [9].

Reasons Judgment Internalism (RJI) is a less well explored topic. The position seems to be that if a person makes a sincere moral judgment that X is morally obligatory, then that person must have a reason to do X. So, if some particular person S has no reason to do X, then S cannot sincerely judge that X is morally obligatory. RJI could be motivated by adopting a narrow Humean view of reasons, where a person has a reason to do X just if she desires to do X. Combine narrow Humeanism about reasons with simple subjectivism, and you get Indefeasible RJI. S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory just if S has a reason to do X. S desires to X, so S has a reason to do X. So, S sincerely judges that X is morally obligatory. Simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons is just to identify moral properties with reasons. Since moral properties are constituted by what a particular person approves or disapproves of, and approval and disapproval can be thought of as constituted by desire to pursue or avoid, then it follows that moral properties are constituted by a particular person’s desire to avoid or pursue some action or state of affairs. Narrow Humeanism about reasons caps it off by identifying desires with reasons, creating a position that entails Indefeasible RJI. To generate a version of Defeasible RJI, replace “simple subjectivism” with “group subjectivism,” and mention that a particular member of a group could be wrong about what a group collectively desires.

Existence Internalism:

Existence Internalism (EI) concerns the necessary connection between the existence of moral facts/truths, reasons, and motivation. Combining these relata generates three connections: moral facts/truths are connected to reasons, moral facts/truths are connected to motivation, and reasons are connected to motivation.

EI about moral facts/truths and reasons says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about reasons. So, for instance, if X is a moral fact, then X is also a reason for action. A version of this view is entailed by simple subjectivism combined with narrow Humeanism about reasons. In short, if moral facts are constituted by a particular person’s attitudes towards certain states of affairs, and those relevant attitudes are constituted by desires, then moral facts are constituted by desires. Combine that with Humeanism to generate EI about moral facts and reasons, since moral facts are constituted by desires, and reasons are desires. You get a view that entails moral facts just are reasons. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and reasons adds the proviso that moral facts always entail facts about reasons. So, if X is a moral fact, then X is a reason for S, no matter what. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, entails that X may fail or cease to be a reason for S, even if X is a moral fact.

EI about moral facts/truths and motivation says that the existence of moral facts/truths entails facts about motivation. If X is a moral fact, and S recognizes it as such, then S is motivated to do X. Indefeasible EI about moral facts/truths and motivation adds that whenever S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is motivated to do X [10]. Defeasible EI, on the other hand, says that if S recognizes X as a moral fact, S is usually motivated to do X. The “usually” clause could be related to the rationality of S. So, if S is rational, S will do X is S recognizes it as a moral fact. The kinds of properties that this view would postulate are the ones targeted in one of Mackie’s Arguments from Queerness. One of the examples that Mackie used was Plato’s notion of The Good. The Good is the highest of all the forms in Plato’s system, and the philosopher who recognizes it through the use of reason will necessarily be motivated to act in accordance with it. In short, the philosopher will be motivated to bring about states of affairs in the world that participate or partake in The Good.

Whether or not the defeasible/indefeasible distinction makes sense given Platonism is complicated. Since the philosopher is using reason to recognize The Good, she is going to be rational insofar as she recognizes it, so it seems as though it’s a form of indefeasible EI, since one cannot recognize The Good and fail to be motivated. Perhaps a defeasible form of EI could be some kind of moral non-naturalism that takes moral properties to be sui generis, motivating properties. If a person recognizes a moral fact, given that form of non-naturalism, she would be motivated to act just if she is rational. So, a person could recognize a moral fact yet fail to be motivated due to some sort of irrationality.

The last kind of internalism we’ll discuss is EI about reasons and motivation. This version of EI says that facts about reasons entail facts about motivation. If S has a reason to do X, then S is motivated to do X [11]. A classic form of this kind of EI is narrow Humeanism about reasons. Narrow Humeans identify reasons with some subclass of psychological states, such as desires. If somebody desires to do X, then that person has a reason to do X. Further, if one desires to do X, then one is motivated to do X. But if reasons just are desires, then if S has a reason to do X, S is motivated to do X. Identifying reasons with conative states is a simple way to generate EI about reasons and motivation. To generate an indefeasible version, one would need to add the clause that S’s conative states are transparent to her. To make it defeasible EI about reasons and motivation, eschew the transparency clause and allow for the possibility of irrationality. Perhaps S is unaware of her true desires, and is fooling herself about what she really wants. Maybe she thinks what she really wants out of life is to be rich, due to social pressures from her family, but what she really wants is to alleviate as much human suffering as she can. So, she may think she has good reasons to pursue a career in entertainment law or investment banking, but she really desires to do as much good as possible, so she actually has good reasons to become a civil rights attorney [12].


We’ve examined several versions of internalism in meta-ethics. Some may be wondering why externalism wasn’t explained in this post. My reasons for not going into externalism here are i) I didn’t want to make an unwieldy, cumbersome post, and ii) externalism is the negation of internalism, so the varieties of externalism consist in negating everything I listed and replacing the necessary connections with a contingent ones. Explaining the different kinds of connections externalists posit would require unpacking their views on the metaphysics of morality, and that would lead us too far astray. I’ll go further in depth about externalism as it relates to various positions like Cornell Realism in future posts.

In my next post, I will go into a specific debate between internalists and externalists: the possibility of amoralists. Whether or not amoralists are possible is a key point of contention between externalists and internalists about moral judgment. We’ll examine why such a possibility is taken to be a threat to judgment internalism, and how internalists defend their positions.


Further Reading:

  1. SEP entry on moral motivation.
  2. Alex Miller (Intro): Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction. 
  3. W.D. Falk (History of the distinction): Obligation and Rightness
  4. W.D. Falk (History of the distinction): “Ought” and Motivation.
  5. William Frankena (History of the distinction): Obligation and Motivation in Recent Moral Philosophy.
  6. Philippa Foot (Classic statement of externalism): Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives
  7. Michael Smith (Contemporary internalism): The Moral Problem
  8. David O. Brink (Contemporary externalism): Moral Realism and the Foundations of Philosophy.
  9. Ralph Wedgewood (Contemporary internalism): Internalism Explained & The Nature of Normativity.
  10. Jonathan Dancy (Against Humeanism about reasons): Practical Reality.



[1]. Facts and truth are different things, but for the purposes of this post the conflation is innocent. For those interested, an easy way to see the distinction is between ontology and semantics; facts are things that can appear in an ontology, whereas truth is a semantic notion about sentences and/or propositions.

[2]. The same holds for motivation to avoid something. Sometimes, in a situation where one has the opportunity to smoke a cigarette, one gives in to the temptation to smoke.

[3]. To assume that moral motivation is defeasible like motivation to quit smoking is to beg the question against various forms of indefeasible motivational internalism. So let’s stick to non-moral examples to illustrate the defeasible/indefeasible distinction.

[4]. Those properties could be non-moral yet still normative in other contexts, but for lack of a good shorthand, just imagine that when I speak of moral properties I mean something like moral goodness, moral badness, moral rightness, and moral wrongness.

[5]. Unless it’s a hybrid theory or a form of non-cognitivism that allows for a secondary function of moral judgment to be assertion.

[6]. Let P represent a generic “ought” claim like, “you ought to do X, and doing X won’t instantiate any moral badness that outweighs X’s goodness.”

[7]. As long as you add a clause that states that the relevant mental states are transparent to S.

[8]. Societies or cultures can’t approve or disapprove of anything; the people that constitute the societies or cultures do the approving and disapproving.

[9]. And condemn P, and condemn people that engage in P, etc.

[10]. A distinction should be made between versions that link belief about moral facts/truths, and true belief. One view could have any belief that X is good would motivate, and the other would restrict it to true beliefs that X is good.

[11]. If S recognizes that reason to do X.

[12]. Assuming she knows the best career path for her that could alleviate as much suffering as possible. Maybe she researched websites about altruistic career choice.

  • Excellent essay.
    While Smith and Brink’s work has been influential, I’m quite impressed by Ralph Wedgwood’s take on judgment internalism in light of Horgan & Timmon’s wielding of the Moral Twin Earth argument. Even more impressing is Dancy’s anti-Humean view. Look forward to part two of this series. Cheers!

    • Ah, I forgot Wedgewood! I’ll add them to the recommended reading. Thanks for commenting (and reading)!