Can a person be immoral while holding moral beliefs? (2016)

Note: This is another paper from my freshman year (2016). However, compared to my first semester the writing is a huge improvement.

Walter Tay Ann Lee


Class 1: UWC2101Y – Issues In and Around Justice

Dr Jeremy Arnold

In this paper, I will consider Kitcher’s arguments against moral realism and an externalist view of morality, as presented in “Biology and Ethics (2007)”, and some problems that arise with his evolutionary story of morality. I will claim that his evolutionary story is merely a “story” and that Brink’s views on the nature of morality (realism and externalism) are not undermined by his evolutionary story. I will argue, that the crucial claims about the nature of morality in Kitcher’s evolutionary story can be interpreted in such a way as to remove any real inconsistencies with Brink’s views.

Kitcher introduces his argument by first, defining biological and psychological altruism and second, explaining how such forms of altruism are possible (Kitcher 4 – 9). For Kitcher, biological altruism happens when an organism behaves in a way that benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. Kitcher then defines psychological altruism as the agent’s conscious intentions to help others, even if the act of helping may not affect their biological fitness (which would not count as altruistic in the biological sense). His argument for the plausibility of altruism involves thought experiments and computer simulations, and is rather straightforward so I will not discuss it here. More importantly, he believes our altruistic dispositions and capacity for fellow-feeling is insufficient and claims that morality was evolved to account for this insufficiency (Kitcher 9).

His argument begins with Hume’s claim that our capacity for fellow-feeling is limited (Kitcher 9). Kitcher then provides real-world examples which show that Hume’s claim makes sense; animals have self-directed desires which can override their altruistic dispositions. Kitcher explains, “There is a delicate interplay of opposing forces – the altruistic dispositions drawing animals to act together and the selfish disruptions threatening to decompose the social group – and this interplay is mediated by time-consuming activities of peace-making” (Kitcher 10). That is, our primate ancestors spent enormous amounts of time grooming each other to repair the ruptured social bonds. However, this is not how we humans live today; humans don’t spend hours each day grooming one another. Kitcher’s conjecture is that normative guidance (what he calls morality, roughly speaking), and our capacity for normative guidance was evolved to reinforce the pressures that would preserve the social fabric, thus, replacing the need for social grooming (Kitcher 10). Simply put, we have developed a capacity for articulating rules and we use those rules to shape our wishes, plans and intentions. In this way, we do not have to live under the constant threat of overt conflict and are able to live in enormously bigger groups.

We can see why this makes Kitcher an antirealist (and at odds with Brink’s moral realism); if morality (normative guidance) was evolved for the sake of social cohesion, there is no need to say that moral facts exist to explain morality. Kitcher asks, can we see these ‘moral facts’ that Brink talks about (Kitcher 14)? He draws an analogy, when setting light to a cat, do we perceive the wrongness of the act? From Brink’s perspective, setting light to a cat has a ‘wrongness’ to it. But what kind of property is wrongness? Are we able to verify or observe the existence of this ‘wrongness’ property? For Kitcher, we are just trained to respond in a certain way when we see the cat lighted on fire. Is it necessary to invoke the ‘fact that it is wrong’ to explain the judgment? Kitcher doesn’t seem to think so.

I argue, however, that this does not undermine Brink’s position on moral realism. Kitcher makes a sharp distinction between science and morality – science is about tracking facts of the world but morality isn’t. But why is that true? Kitcher gives no explanation and says “…my conjectural genealogy has no analogous consolation” (Kitcher 15). That is, he tells you to ‘look at his story’ and see that, according to his story, the social training given to us for moral judgments is not about detecting facts of the world but for the purpose of social cohesion. Thus, Kitcher has already presupposed antirealism when writing his story and provides no support for his assumption. Similarly, a realist, like Brink, could construe his own biological story by presupposing realism.

To construe such a story, we shall first look at the link between biology and ethics. On this view, both Kitcher (2) and Brink (144 – 170) seem to believe that ethical naturalism is defensible. What they really disagree about is whether moral facts exist. For argument’s sake, we will grant Kitcher that the purpose of morality is to foster social cohesion. However, the moral realist can still say that this grounds morality in reality or framework that is neither the result of human decision nor rationale. That is, human decision does not decide what is good for social cohesion (moral good), evolution does. Thus, the realist can say that moral facts are just facts about social cohesion.

Now, the antirealist might argue that people disagree on what is better for social cohesion. For example, Nazi culture versus American culture. But of what importance is disagreement? Ultimately, what a realist is being realist about is that there is a fact of the matter on whether something is right or wrong – that there is a correct answer. In the evolutionary case, a realist is just saying that whether something is good or not for social cohesion is a fact; it is not constituted by individual or collective opinions. As Brink would put it, we might disagree on what is better but we don’t say that there is no such fact of the matter. We don’t say that there is no correct answer to the question of what is better for social cohesion.

Of course, the realist might not believe that moral facts are just facts about biology. Because then, which evolutionary facts are the moral ones? Facts about the eyes, ears, or nose? However, for this story it does not matter. Ultimately, whatever facts they are, we still agree that facts do exist. What I’m arguing is that even if we grant Kitcher the ability to derive an ought (“what we ought to do”) from an is (“natural properties of the world that we can observe”), it remains that facts of the matter still exist, whatever the facts are. Thus, the realist can conjecture a similar story to Kitcher’s one while presupposing realism.

We can also see why Kitcher’s story makes him an internalist. Kitcher makes internalist-sounding statements in his paper, such as, “…evolutionary biology supports the idea that the function of moral attitudes is to create motivation for the kinds of altruistic behaviour that improve social cohesion” (Kitcher 1). Here, you can observe that Kitcher seems to believe that moral attitudes must “create motivation”, quite similar to an internalist view. That is, because moral good is defined (roughly speaking) as altruistic behaviour that improves social cohesion, his statement above says that the very function of moral attitudes is to create motivation to do moral good. Notice how this is an internalist view; that moral considerations must motivate or provide reasons for action.

Before we attempt to conceptually combine Brink’s externalism with Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics, we will first examine how Brink uses the ‘amoralist’ to argue in favour of externalism. This is important because I will use the same amoralist to argue in support of an externalist view of Kitcher’s story. We will begin with the amoralist scenario.

Now, we are at a bar where poor Jack has stolen 5 dollars to pay for his drink. Very convincingly, Jack states and believes that stealing is indeed wrong, and that ‘stealing is wrong’ can be a true statement. Yet, he holds on to the 5 dollars, and shows no inclination to change his stealing behaviour.

We would think that someone who sincerely believes that the act of stealing is wrong to feel motivated to not steal. Moreover, we expect moral considerations to motivate people to act in certain ways, or at least to provide them with reason to act in those ways.

Brink begins his argument by defining internalism and externalism (Brink 37 – 43). The belief that there is a conceptual connection between moral judgments and motivation is the internalist view that Kitcher holds. The internalist believes moral judgments are action-guiding, so if someone like Jack sincerely believes that stealing is wrong, they will be motivated to not steal. That is, moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action. Additionally, for internalists, the concept of morality itself shows that moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reasons for action (Brink 39). A moral ‘fact’ must motivate us to act, otherwise it is not moral.

However, Brink denies that moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reasons for action and is what moral philosophers call an ‘externalist’ (Brink 42). Externalists like Brink believe that moral considerations only contingently motivate or justify. However, what are the motivations and justifications contingent upon? Do moral considerations contingently motivate and justify simultaneously, or does motivation and justification take turns? Brink himself does not provide a straightforward answer because to him, it does not really matter. Externalism, to Brink, is just the denial of internalism. The main idea is that moral considerations do not necessarily motivate or justify. Motivational power depends on things other than the concept of morality, such as what the content of morality turns out to be, a substantive theory of reasons for action, or facts about agents such as their interests or desires (Brink 42 – 43).

Brink (37 – 80) argues in favour of externalism by pointing out the many flaws of internalism. He begins by showing why internalism seems to be more plausible or commensensical. This is well explained by using one of Mackie’s (15 – 43) arguments for antirealism:

  1. If there are any genuine moral requirements, then they must be intrinsically motivating and intrinsically reason-giving.
  2. Nothing is either intrinsically motivating or intrinsically reason-giving.
  3. Therefore, there are no genuine moral requirements.

Here, you can clearly see that Mackie holds an internalist view; he believes that moral facts should be intrinsically motivating. This view is very attractive initially because it seems to be the only view able to account for the action-guiding character of morality. In fact, accounting for this action-guiding character of morality is so important that Brink believes we should “…hesitate to accept any metaethical or normative theories according to which moral considerations are considerations to which well informed, reasonable people might always be completely indifferent” (Brink 38).

However, Brink starts to see a few problems with internalism. For example, internalists are unable to account for the ‘amoralist’ and generally insist that the ‘amoralist’ is a conceptual impossibility. Why is this so? Because according to the internalist, it is conceptually impossible for someone to recognize a moral consideration and remain unmoved (Brink 46). That is, internalists believe that the “Stealing Jack” scenario we discussed before is impossible (where Jack believes stealing to be wrong, and continues to steal while making that moral judgment). A typical internalist reply to this scenario is that amoralists are able to use moral language like us and express certain moral views, but not wholeheartedly believe in said moral views. That is, what the amoralists regard as moral considerations are not what we regard as moral considerations; their own views about morality are completely different from conventional views (Brink 46). Hence, the amoralist seems to sincerely make a moral judgment, however, is merely expressing such a judgment and does not really take it to be true.

Brink (47) says this reply is inadequate and believes the internalist does not take the amoralist challenge seriously enough. This is because Brink (48) believes we can conceptually conceive of the amoralist. That is, we are able to imagine someone who genuinely believes something to be wrong, and yet remain unmoved by such a belief (such as the ‘Stealing Jack’ example). This is best said by Brink himself, “We may think that such a person is being irrational and that she can be shown to be irrational. We may even think that such a person is merely possible and has never existed and will never exist (…). But we do think that such a person is possible…” (Brink 48). Thus, if the amoralist is conceptually possible, and the internalist believes the amoralist to be impossible, then the internalist assumption must be false.

However, the internalist argues that we are unable to conceive of the amoralist because the amoralist question of “Why should I be moral?” is preposterous. The internalist believes moral considerations to be intrinsically motivating, and thus, it is odd to ask the amoralist question. That is, the internalist argues that the question of “Why should I be moral?”, is the same as asking, “Why should I do what I ought to do?”. The internalist would find it, in many cases, to be odd for a person to ask, “Why should I do what I ought to do?”. Because if you ought to do it, and you recognize that you ought to do it, then you should know why you ought to do it!

Brink, however, says that the internalist does not recognize the amoralist question because the internalist does not distinct between the two different versions of ‘should’ (Brink 59); what ‘motivates’ the agent to do what he ought to do, and what gives ‘reason’ for the agent to do what he ought to do. To Brink, this is a very important distinction because he believes that moral considerations can ‘motivate’ one to do moral acts, however, they do not necessarily provide sufficient ‘reason’ to do moral acts (which is also not derived from moral considerations alone). Thus, for Brink, what the amoralist is really asking is, “What is a good reason I should do what I ought to do?”. By applying this distinction, we can see how the amoralist question makes sense. The amoralist makes a sincere moral judgment, and because of that is motivated to act morally, however, has no (or insufficient) good reason to act morally.

A final argument the internalist can make is to resort to weak internalism (Brink 60). Weak internalism claims that moral requirements provide the agent with a reason for action (singular), whereas strong internalism that moral requirements provide the agent with conclusive, overriding, or sufficient reason for action. Consequently, weak amoralism denies that agents have sufficient reason to be moral, while strong amoralism denies that agents have any reason to be moral. Weak internalism is able to take weak amoralism seriously, but treats strong amoralism as incoherent (Brink 60). So we do not need to reject internalism in order to take one form of amoralism seriously.

However, Brink replies, “Although weak internalism may be more plausible than strong internalism, it is still implausible. For even if strong amoralism is less plausible than weak amoralism (…), it is still coherent, and it is evidence against weak internalism that it makes strong amoralism incoherent” (Brink 60). That is, because the weak internalist is still unable to take the strong amoralist seriously, and Brink believes the strong amoralist to be still conceptually conceivable, internalism is still less plausible than externalism. But how does Kitcher’s evolutionary story disprove Brink’s externalist view?

Going back to Kitcher’s story, Kitcher believes that humans evolved a capacity for normative guidance (morality) and this capacity can reduce the frequency in which our selfish desires override what we believe we ought to do (Kitcher 10). In other words, we have evolved the ability to articulate rules and feel motivated by our rules (moral beliefs), which is an internalist view. Assuming Kitcher’s story is correct, that means that our moral beliefs necessarily motivate and provide reasons for actions, which also means Brink’s arguments for externalism are invalidated by Kitcher’s story. In fact, Kitcher’s view can be construed as a form of weak internalism. He recognizes that our capacity for normative guidance does not necessarily force us to act in accordance with our moral beliefs. Merely, we feel more compelled to act that way, and the tendency for our selfish desires to override our moral considerations is diminished (Kitcher 10). That is, our moral beliefs still necessarily motivate or provide reasons for actions, however, they might not provide sufficient motivation or reasons for action.

However, recall that Brink still finds weak internalism to be problematic (and less plausible) because it cannot account for the amoralist. For most humans, we can surely agree that moral beliefs necessarily motivate and provide reasons for actions. However, the amoralist might not have evolved the capacity to feel motivated by their moral considerations. Recall that there are 2 key features of Kitcher’s conjecture for our evolved capacity for normative guidance (Kitcher 10):

(1) Capacity for articulating rules (express or hold certain moral beliefs) and,

(2) Capacity for using those rules to shape our wishes, plans, and intentions, so that the frequency with which the altruistic tendencies that underlie cooperation are overridden is diminished (obtaining motivation or reasons for action from moral beliefs)

The amoralist might have evolved the first ability to hold moral beliefs, but not have the second ability to feel motivated by the moral beliefs that they hold. Since we can conceptually conceive of such an amoralist, however improbable it may be, externalism is not invalidated by Kitcher’s story and might be more plausible than internalism (since it can account for the amoralist). But if Brink’s externalism is correct, what motivates us to act morally if not moral considerations themselves?

For Brink, what motivates us to act are contingent psychological states (Brink 49). That is, the motivational force of moral judgments and moral belief depends on both the content of people’s moral views and their attitudes and desires (Brink 49). Simply put, moral motivations don’t necessarily come from our moral beliefs, but they could come from our moral beliefs, and other factors (such as our attitudes and desires) can also motivate us to act morally.

I claim that our social training is an example of an external factor that motivates us to act morally. Or rather, it is exactly what Brink refers to when he means ‘contingent psychological states’ (Brink 49). I argue that we feel motivated to do things because we are trained in that way, not because moral judgments themselves motivate or provide reasons for us to act morally. We react with strong disapproval when we see the cat lighted on fire, not because of the moral belief we hold that ‘lighting cats on fire is bad’, but because we are trained to react in that way. Our moral belief that ‘lighting cats on fire is bad’ could motivate us to react with strong disapproval, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate us to react in that way. Why? Because moral beliefs alone do not motivate the amoralist to react in that way. Thus, they can’t be necessarily motivating. That is, the amoralist might receive the same social training that we receive, sincerely believe the same moral beliefs that we believe, and feel motivated to act morally because they are trained to act that way (external factor), but have insufficient reason to act morally (because they lack the second feature of the capacity for normative guidance). Alternatively, the amoralist could have the moral belief that “lighting cats on fire is morally good”, but because of their social training (external factor), feel motivated to not light cats on fire, which is contradictory to their moral beliefs. Hence, even if we accept Kitcher’s evolutionary story of morality, the amoralist is still conceptually possible, and it still makes sense to ask the amoralist question of “Why should I do what I ought to do?”.

Thus, if my arguments are correct, Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics is certainly compatible with Brink’s realist and externalist views and only serves to strengthen them. Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics has no bearing on Brink’s views and the two major metaethical views – realism and antirealism – still remain on the table.



Brink, David. Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kitcher, Philip. Biology and Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin, 1977.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

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