The Problem of Amoralism

If you think about it, the amoralist is a familiar character. Imagine a person who knows that some things are right or wrong, but is unmoved by that fact. This person even sincerely speaks of things being right, wrong, good, and bad, but isn’t ever motivated to act on such statements. People like this occasionally pop up in literature, such as Huck Finn [1]. Perhaps, unlike Huck, this character believes that a powerful class of people got the weak, powerless people to believe that some things are morally required and others morally forbidden, in an attempt to control the people for their own selfish ends. It seems possible that the amoralist could believe all of that and yet also think that some of the moral claims made by the powerless are true [2].

The possibility of a genuine amoralist presents a problem for two forms of internalism discussed in my previous post [3]. Before going into exactly how and why amoralism presents a problem for these positions, I’m going to briefly unpack both kinds of internalism. If you want a more thorough treatment of these positions, or internalism as such, see my previous post and follow the recommended read list.


Judgment internalism is a view in meta-ethics that takes moral judgment to be necessarily connected to either motivation or reasons. In this post, the position that is under dispute is judgment internalism about motivation (MJI). MJI sees a necessary connection between sincere moral judgment and moral motivation. The position can be defeasible or indefeasible depending on the conditions under which a sincere moral judgment motivates a person. On the one hand, Defeasible MJI takes the condition to, usually, be that of rationality; a person will be morally motivated if she makes a sincere moral judgment and is not irrational. Indefeasible MJI, on the other hand, adds no condition of rationality. So, a person who makes a sincere moral judgment will necessarily be morally motivated, on Indefeasible MJI.

Existence internalism (EI) connects moral facts/truths with motivation or reasons. The possibility of amoralists presents a problem for the version that connects reasons and moral facts/truths. EI about moral facts/truths and reasons says that if a person believes that X is morally required, then that person has a reason to do X [4]. EI about moral facts/truths and reasons comes in defeasible and indefeasible versions. The defeasible form restricts the scope of who will have reasons given a belief about some moral fact to rational persons. The indefeasible form has no scope restriction of that kind.

The possibility of amoralists presents problems for both MJI and EI about moral facts/truths and reasons. The sort of amoralist described in the opening of this post can make sincere moral judgments without any motivation to act on them. If such a person is a genuine possibility, regardless of whether or not she’s rational, then there is a counterexample to indefeasible MJI.

Threat to Judgment Internalism:

Indefeasible MJI says that anybody who sincerely makes a moral judgment will thereby be motivated to act on it, and that is a necessary connection. In other words, Indefeasible MJI entails that anybody making such sincere judgments are necessarily motivated, so if it’s possible that some people can make such judgments without motivation, then there cannot be a necessary connection between motivation and judgment. So, if genuine amoralists are possible, then MJI is false.

Defeasible MJI is threatened by amoralists just if they are rational. So, if a rational amoralist is possible, then there can’t be a necessary connection between a rational person sincerely making a moral judgment and being motivated to act on that judgment. Externalist critics of Defeasible MJI attempt to demonstrate the possibility of rational amoralists by either giving detailed descriptions of them or referring to works of fiction that develop allegedly amoralist characters. A detailed, coherent account of a rational amoralist provides evidence that such a person could exist. However, providing detailed narratives could prove to be a double-edged sword; more detail that gets filled in could end up rendering the story less plausible than a more abstract formulation of the amoralist appears to be [5].

One move any MJI could make is to deny that amoralists ever make genuine moral judgments. Instead, they could appeal to an example like anthropologists discovering an evaluative concept employed by another culture. The anthropologist learns how to make judgments using the evaluative concept she learned, but she doesn’t subscribe to the cosmology of that tribe, so she does not hold the metaphysical commitments required for that concept to have extension. She learns to use the concept by deploying it in evaluative judgment, but she only uses it in a closed quotes sense. She does not genuinely judge things according to that evaluative concept, but instead makes pseudo-judgments that effectively puts air quotes around the word(s) expressing the concept. Analogously, the amoralist may appear to make moral judgments, but she really just uses moral terminology in a closed quotes sense, which means she effectively puts air quotes around terms she uses from that discourse.

The move that only a Defeasible MJI could make is to admit that genuine amoralists are possible, but only if we conceive of them as embedded within a linguistic community which allows for us to assign moral content to his thoughts and utterances. But the reason we can assign such contents is only because within that community, people normally use the same terminology to guide action. The action guiding character of what we call moral utterances is what licenses us to believe that the amoralist has genuine moral beliefs and makes genuine moral judgments. So, an amoralist is only possible if normal denizens of that linguistic community use moral judgments in an action guiding manner. In other words, only if Defeasible MJI is true about normal people in that community can we even make sense of the amoralist as conceived of by critics of MJI.

Or, perhaps amoralists are genuinely possible and rational, but only if they are embedded within a linguistic community that allows for their utterances and beliefs to have truly moral content, and that framework is constituted by people who normally do have and recognize reasons entailed by moral facts/truths. So, only by admitting that internalism is true about the denizens of that social reality can one allow for the possibility of the amoralist.

Threat to Existence Internalism:

The possibility of a rational amoralist also threatens EI about moral facts/truths and reasons. Since reasons are things that make various (holdings of) propositional attitudes and actions rational, having a reason to do X or believe that P would place a requirement on a person to do X or believe that P on pain of irrationality [6].

If the amoralist is rational, then clearly she does not have a reason to do X or believe that P. A rational person is one who acts in accordance with her reasons, and if she has a reason to do something yet refrains from doing it, she has acted irrationally. If an amoralist could be rational, then she never has a reason to do what is moral, which means that moral facts/truths do not entail facts about reasons. The problem here is that reasons and rationality are conceptually linked, and by allowing the possibility of a rational amoralist, one has already admitted that morality and reasons are not tightly linked.

The Existence Internalist has some moves she can make to avoid these implications. An obvious one is to challenge the possibility of a rational amoralist. Perhaps amoralists are conceptually possible, but they are necessarily irrational. Such a move would require challenging individual accounts of amoralists provided by Externalists. Another move that could be made is to somehow show that an amoralist could have reasons to do what is moral yet still remain rational in some restricted sense [7].


The various debates in meta-ethics that are traditionally labelled “internalism vs. externalism” are central to many issues in the field. Several kinds of non-cognitivist theories have internalist commitments which would sap the force of such positions if they turned out to be false. Many theories entail some sort of internalism or externalism, and the debates about those entailments cut to the core of the viability of those views. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore Philippa Foot’s argument for externalism from early in her career. After that, I’ll introduce the debate between moral rationalists and anti-rationalists. Before those two topics, though, I’m going to explore a distinction within subjectivist theories in meta-ethics that almost always gets ignored in popular circles.


Further Reading:

  1. Chapter 3 of David Brink’s book (Arguments for externalism): Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics.
  2. Mark van Roojen’s paper (Responses on behalf of internalism): Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism.
  3. Richard Boyd’s long but rewarding paper (Motivating externalist theses): How to be a Moral Realist
  4. Stephen Darwall’s paper (Motivating internalist theses): Internalism and Agency.
  5. Christian Miller’s paper (Responses on behalf of MJI): Motivational Internalism.



[1]. See van Roojen’s paper, “Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism.”

[2]. van Roojen characterizes Thrasymachus this way in his most recent book. I employed a similar description as van Roojen’s, but I refrained from naming the character Thrasymachus. From my reading of The Republic, Thrasymachus appears to be an immoralist, rather than amoralist. Immoralists think all else being equal, it’s more beneficial to do evil than good, so we ought to do evil. Amoralists are indifferent between good and evil, and instead they do whatever benefits them. The distinction is subtle, because immoralism is amoralism plus the additional claim that the rational or prudent thing to do is evil, whereas bare amoralism allows for good actions to be prudent on occasion. See Philippa Foot’s book, Natural Goodness for a similar reading of the relevant section of The Republic.

[3]. Usually the sort of possibility and necessity employed in internalist vs. externalist debates is conceptual possibility/necessity. Depending on your theory of concepts, conceptual truths are necessary truths. It seems as though most internalists in these debates identify conceptual truths with necessary truths, so for the sake of simplicity and clarity, assume for the sake of argument that conceptual truths are necessary truths. An example of a conceptual truth is “all red objects are colored.” The necessity of that conceptual truth is similar to what internalists take the connections between various moral concepts to be. Quibbling over what sort of necessity is at play in these debates will only be important when one examines the theories of concepts presupposed by the participants in the dialectic. Whether or not the necessity of conceptual truths is metaphysical is also another matter, that may be relevant once one goes deeper into these debates.

[4]. One can either say that it must be a true belief that X is morally required, or just a belief that X is morally required.

[5]. See van Roojen’s paper, “Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism.”

[6]. As long as the reasons aren’t overridden by other considerations.

[7]. See van Roojen’s paper, “Moral Rationalism and Rational Amoralism” for this objection.


  • Saira Khan

    This is very interesting.

    I was reading Van Roojen’s paper, and he states “we attribute thoughts about rightness to the amoralist because she is part of a speech community that uses the term to predicate rightness of actions. This then raises a question about why we are confident her community is using the term to predicate rightness. The answer is that community members use the term in such a way as to guide action. Simply stated, they treat the believed rightness of an action as sufficient to rationalize a motive to do that action. The upshot is that we can imagine people who believe an action right while remaining unmoved, but only against a background in which this is not the normal case.”

    My question is, isn’t his statement “the answer is that community members use the term in such a way as to guide action” begging the question? Surely, for the Humean externalist, the community uses those terms just to express beliefs, which are not motivating. What is the reason for preferring one position over another? Is there a response to Van Roojen? Does the amoralist have to be abnormal to be possible? What about a possible world in which everyone was amoralist?