September 4


What the Heck is Moral Motivation and Why You Should Care

By Joshua Turner

September 4, 2023

Moral motivation is an essential aspect of human behavior that drives us to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. The internal force compels us to follow ethical principles and act according to our values. Understanding moral motivation is crucial in various fields, including psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, as it can help us comprehend why people behave the way they do.

Historically, moral motivation has been studied from various perspectives, including religious, philosophical, and psychological. Philosophers have examined moral motivation in terms of duty, virtue, and consequentialism, while psychologists have focused on the role of socialization, empathy, and personality traits.

Recent advances in neuroscience have also shed light on the neural mechanisms underlying moral motivation, providing new insights into the subject.

Key Takeaways:

Understanding Moral Motivation

Moral motivation refers to the internal drive that motivates a person to act in a way consistent with their moral beliefs and values. This type of motivation is often seen as distinct from other forms of motivation, such as extrinsic or instrumental motivation, driven by external factors such as rewards or punishments.

Moral motivation is driven by a person’s desire to do what is right or good. This desire can be seen as an internal force that guides a person’s actions and decisions, even when external factors suggest a different course of action.

While some theories of motivation suggest that all actions are ultimately driven by self-interest, moral motivation suggests that individuals can be motivated by a desire to act in accordance with their moral beliefs, even when doing so might not be in their immediate self-interest.

One of the key debates in the study of moral motivation is the question of internalism versus externalism. Internalism suggests that moral motivation is an internal state of mind, while externalism suggests that moral motivation is driven by external factors such as social norms or cultural expectations.

Despite this debate, most scholars agree that moral motivation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that is influenced by a wide range of factors, including consciousness, cognition, representation, moral rationality, and sentiment.

Understanding moral motivation is key to understanding why individuals act in certain ways and how we can encourage people to act in ways consistent with their moral beliefs and values.

Historical Perspectives

Moral motivation has been a topic of interest for philosophers since ancient times. Plato believed that moral judgments are based on objective moral principles and that the ultimate goal of human life is to achieve moral worth. Conversely, Kant emphasized the importance of duty and moral reasoning in making moral judgments.

Emotions have also been a central aspect of moral motivation. Some philosophers argue that emotions are important in moral judgments, while others believe that emotions hinder moral reasoning.


Moral concepts such as rightness and duty have been used to guide moral judgments and actions. These concepts are often grounded in moral principles, which provide a framework for making moral decisions. However, some philosophers argue that relying too heavily on moral principles can lead to a fetishization of morality, focusing on following rules rather than doing what is right.

Moral motivation is a complex topic involving the agent’s moral reasons for acting. Amoralists, who deny morality, pose a challenge to traditional accounts of moral motivation. Nonetheless, the study of moral motivation remains a crucial area of inquiry for philosophers and psychologists alike.

Neuroscience and Moral Motivation

Neuroscience has shown that the brain’s reward system mediates moral motivation. Studies have found that when people make moral decisions, regions of the brain associated with reward processing, such as the ventral striatum, become active. It suggests that our moral judgments are not solely driven by reason but also by emotional responses.

Science has also shown that empathy plays a crucial role in moral motivation. When we witness someone else’s suffering, we experience a neural response miming the other person’s pain. This response is mediated by mirror neurons, activated when we perform an action and observe someone else performing the same action.

Internalists argue that moral motivation is based on intrinsic values, such as the desire to do what is right. Externalists, on the other hand, argue that moral motivation is based on extrinsic factors, such as social norms and expectations.

Neuroscience has provided valuable insights into the neural mechanisms underlying moral motivation. By better understanding how our brains process moral information, we can develop more effective strategies for promoting ethical behavior.

Access and Management of Moral Motivation Resources

Access and management of moral motivation resources are critical to ensure individuals have the tools to act ethically. Institutional subscriptions, IP-based access, and single sign-on are ways institutions can access moral motivation resources.

Shibboleth and Open Athens are two technologies institutions can use to authenticate users and provide access to resources.

Library card and society member access are other ways individuals can access moral motivation resources. Personal accounts and email alerts are also useful tools for individuals to manage their access to resources. Account management is critical to ensure that users can access the resources they need and can manage their accounts effectively.

Usage statistics are an essential tool for institutions to evaluate the effectiveness of their moral motivation resources. Access to content is critical to ensure that individuals can access the information they need to act ethically. Open Athens technology and remote access are two ways institutions can provide access to resources regardless of the user’s location.

Institutional account management is crucial to ensure institutions can effectively manage their access to moral motivation resources. Access to these resources can help individuals act ethically and make the right decisions.


In this article, we have explored the concept of moral motivation and its importance in our daily lives. We have seen that moral motivation is the driving force behind our actions and decisions, and it helps us to make ethical choices that align with our values and beliefs.

Through our discussion, we have learned that various factors, such as our upbringing, cultural norms, and personal experiences can influence moral motivation. We have also seen that individuals can differ in their level of moral motivation, with some being more motivated than others.

Overall, it is clear that moral motivation is a crucial aspect of our moral lives, and it plays a significant role in shaping our character and defining who we are as individuals. By understanding the importance of moral motivation and cultivating it within ourselves, we can lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives grounded in our values and principles.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of actions that demonstrate moral motivation?

Actions that demonstrate moral motivation include donating to charity, volunteering at a local shelter, and standing up for someone who is being bullied. These actions are motivated by a desire to do what is right and to help others rather than by personal gain.

How does moral motivation differ from moral character?

Moral motivation refers to the desire to act in accordance with moral principles, whereas moral character refers to the consistent demonstration of moral behavior over time. While external factors can influence moral motivation, moral character is more stable and reflects a person’s internal values and beliefs.

Why is it important to have moral motivation in decision-making?

Moral motivation is important in decision-making because it can help individuals make choices that align with their values and principles. It can also lead to greater personal fulfillment, a sense of purpose, and positive social outcomes.

What are some external factors that can influence moral motivation?

External factors influencing moral motivation include social norms, peer pressure, and cultural values. For example, a person may be more motivated to act according to moral principles if surrounded by others who share those values.

How can moral motivation be developed and strengthened?

Moral motivation can be developed and strengthened through education, exposure to diverse perspectives, and practice moral behavior. It can also be helpful to reflect on personal values and beliefs and set goals for acting according to those principles.

What role does moral motivation play in ethical philosophy?

Moral motivation is a key component of ethical philosophy, as it is central to understanding why individuals choose to act in accordance with moral principles. It is also important in determining the moral responsibility of individuals and the ethical implications of their actions.

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