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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Do Moral Beliefs Motivate Action?

Díaz, R.
Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2023).


Do moral beliefs motivate action? To answer this question, extant arguments have considered hypothetical cases of association (dissociation) between agents’ moral beliefs and actions. In this paper, I argue that this approach can be improved by studying people’s actual moral beliefs and actions using empirical research methods. I present three new studies showing that, when the stakes are high, associations between participants’ moral beliefs and actions are actually explained by co-occurring but independent moral emotions. These findings suggest that moral beliefs themselves have little or no motivational force, supporting the Humean picture of moral motivation.


In this paper, I showed that the use of hypothetical cases to extract conclusions regarding the (lack of) motivational power of moral beliefs faces important limitations. I argued that these limitations can be addressed using empirical research tools, and presented a series of studies doing so.

The results of the studies show that, when the stakes are high, the apparent motivational force of beliefs is in fact explained by co-occurring moral emotions. This supports Humean views of moral motivation. The results regarding low-stake situations, however, are open to both Humean and “watered-down” Anti-Humean interpretations.

In moral practice, it probably won’t matter if moral beliefs don’t motivate us much or at all. Arguably, most real-life moral choices involve countervailing motives with more than a little motivational strength, making moral beliefs irrelevant in any case. However, the situation might be different with regards to ethical theory. Accepting that moral beliefs have some motivational force (even if very low) could be enough to solve the Moral Problem (see Introduction)Footnote33 while rejecting that moral beliefs have motivational force would prompt us to reject one of the other claims involved in the puzzle. Future research should help us decide between competing interpretations of the results regarding low-stakes situations presented in this paper.

Overall, the results presented in this paper put pressure on Anti-Humean views of moral motivation, as they suggest that moral beliefs have little or no motivational force.

With regards to methodology, I showed that using empirical research tools improves upon the use of hypothetical cases of moral motivation by ruling out alternative interpretations. Note, however, that the empirical investigations presented in this paper build on extant hypothetical cases and the logical tools involved in the discussion of these cases. In this sense, the studies presented in this paper do not oppose, but rather continue extant work regarding cases. Hopefully, this paper paves the way for more empirical investigations, as well as discussions on the best ways to measure and test the relations between moral behavior, moral beliefs, and moral emotions.