DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2012
Retrieved February 22, 2020, from

5. Psychology

Our moral judgments are some kind of psychological attitudes, and many of the philosophical questions that arise about morality are concerned with the nature and function of these attitudes (see Moral judgment). These are the questions asked by moral psychology, another branch of metaethics. Many of these questions are closely connected with semantic and metaphysical issues discussed in the previous sections. Uncontroversially, a central feature of morality is its exceptionally close connection with human motivation. A person who judges that an action is wrong is at least usually motivated to some extent not to perform that action. A focal puzzle of moral psychology concerns the precise nature of this connection and how it is to be explained. Michael Smith goes so far as to call the following dilemma ‘the moral problem’, describing it as ‘the central organizing problem in contemporary metaethics’ (Smith 1994: 11):

  1. Cognitivism: moral judgments express beliefs about moral facts.

  2. Motivational internalism: moral judgments are motivating.

  3. Humean theory of motivation: motivation requires a desire, which is a distinct kind of psychological attitude from belief.

Smith suggests that each of these three propositions is highly plausible, but that they are in apparent tension with each other. While some metaethicists attempt to resolve the tension, each of (i)–(iii) has been challenged. Noncognitivists deny (i), maintaining that moral judgments are really desire-like rather than belief-like attitudes and do not concern objective moral facts. Motivational externalists deny (ii), claiming that moral judgments are only motivating contingently, if an agent has some relevant desire. Other philosophers reject (iii), the Humean theory of motivation (see Hume, D. §11), claiming for example that beliefs can sometimes motivate all by themselves or that moral judgments are a third category of psychological attitudes sharing features of both beliefs and desires.  Since around 2000 the label ‘moral psychology’ has become associated more closely with a new wave of empirical psychological research into morality. This research studies a variety of issues including the causal influences of moral judgments and their neurological bases in the brain.

Citing this article:
Finlay, Stephen. Psychology. Metaethics, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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