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Moral motivation

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Questions about the possibility and nature of moral motivation occupy a central place in the history of ethics. Philosophers disagree, however, about the role that motivational investigations should play within the larger subject of ethical theory. These disagreements surface in the dispute about whether moral thought is necessarily motivating – ‘internalists’ affirming that it is,‘externalists’ denying this.

The disagreement between externalists and internalists reflects a basic difference in how the subject matter of ethics is conceived: externalism goes with the view that ethics is primarily about the truth of theories, construed as sets of propositions, while internalists see morality as a set of principles meant to guide the practical deliberations of individual agents. Internalists interpret questions of objectivity in ethics as questions of practical reason, about the authority of moral principles to regulate our activities. Here controversy has centred on whether the authority of practical principles for a given agent must be grounded in that agent’s antecedent desires, or whether, instead, practical reason can give rise to new motivations.

There are also important questions about the content of moral motivations. A moral theory should help us to make sense of the fact that people are often moved to do the right thing, by identifying a basic motive to moral behaviour that is both widespread and intelligible, as a serious source of reasons. Philosophers have accounted for moral motivation in terms of self-interest, sympathy, and a higher-order concern to act in accordance with moral principles. But each of these approaches faces difficult challenges. Can egoistic accounts capture the distinctive character of moral motivation? Can impartial sympathy be integrated within a realistic system of human ends? Can we make sense of responsiveness to moral principle, as a natural human incentive?

Citing this article:
Wallace, R. Jay. Moral motivation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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