In the “nuts and bolts” series, I explain and discuss some of the fundamental ideas in philosophy (and theology sometimes) that are taken for granted within the discipline, but which might not be very well known to ordinary human beings. This time the subject is ethical intuitionism (or moral intuitionism).
Firstly, and this cannot be emphasised strongly enough, moral intuitionism is not and has never been a theory about how moral facts are grounded. It is not a meta-ethical theory and it is not an ethical theory. It does not try to explain what makes anything right or wrong, nor does it try to tell us which particular actions are right and which are wrong. If you ever hear someone say “so your intuitions tell you that it’s wrong. That doesn’t make it wrong!” then you have my permission to do something unpleasant to them. Moral intuitionism is not meant to be about what makes things wrong – or right.
So if it’s not a theory of morality, what is it? Moral intuitionism is a moral epistemology. It is no more and no less than a theory about how we can come to know certain things, in this case certain moral facts. We can know them, according to this theory, by intuiting them, by experiencing the intuition that they are true.
There is something intuitively (!!) plausible about intuitionism to most people, and as such it might be thought to represent something of a populist approach to ethics. People appeal to moral intuitions all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “this just doesn’t seem right to me.” However, this is also where things start to fall apart for people when they first encounter ethical intuitionism in a formal setting with a view to getting to the heart of it. “Intuitions”? And what are they? I’ve encountered people with no particular interest in moral epistemology who scoff at the idea: “Intuitions? What, like believing things on a hunch with no real reason? That’s unscientific!” In fact when I was discussing God and morality with philosopher Arif Ahmad on the Unbelievable radio show a while back, he remarked that he just didn’t know what to make of moral intuitionism because he wasn’t altogether sure what these “intuition” things really are. Are they, he mused, just beliefs without evidence?
Obviously those who have little time for intuitions might not be the best source for a sympathetic explanation of what they are. So what are they? Intuitionism is by no means a monolith, but while there is divergence over what gives rise to the kind of intuitions that matter here, there is more agreement over what these experiences or phenomena called “intuitions” are. They are beliefs that we hold and which we cannot just stop holding, but which we did not reach via a process of reasoning from other beliefs or from evidence.
According to Matt Bedke:
Roughly, an ethical intuition that p is a kind of seeming state constituted by a consideration whether p, attended by positive phenomenological qualities that count as evidence for p, and so a reason to believe that p.1
Now what on earth are “positive phenomenological qualities”? It’s actually fairly hard to explain in everyday language. How, to use the example of sense perception again, do you describe the act of seeing? You can say that it is the experience of…. but you can’t say “of seeing,” because then the definition becomes circular. What you experience are phenomenological qualities. These are the bits and pieces of a phenomenon that impresses itself upon you without your applying any effort. You find yourself experiencing these things. So it is with ethical intuitions. It is an experienced phenomenon as opposed to the will to believe something. Zamzow and Nichols capture the idea nicely, saying that “intuitions are to philosophy as observations are to empirical science.”2
All right, so if this is roughly what intuitions are, how do we get them? What is it that could give rise to these experiences, and whatever it is, do we have any reason to trust what it does? Do we have an intuition organ, just as we have sense organs? Not according to intuitionists – but here is where their paths diverge. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong points out:
moral intuitionists … disagree about which features of these moral beliefs make them (and not the others) justified non-inferentially. There are four main answers. The first theory (reliabilism) claims that the noninferentially justified moral beliefs are justified simply by the fact that the process leading to the belief is reliable. The second answer (experientialism) is that they are justified because they are based on some kind of experience that is separate from belief and, hence, cannot provide premises for any inference. The third position (reflectionism) is that some moral beliefs are non-inferentially justified because they are based on reflection that includes beliefs, but the moral beliefs are not inferred from those other beliefs. The fourth version (contextualism) claims that some moral beliefs do not need inferential confirmation because of the social background of the beliefs.3
This is only meant as an overview rather than an attempt to address issues that arise once we get below the surface, but right here is where those issues would arise. Now of course, an intuitionist might believe that all of the above processes do play out at one time or another, but typically they pick one, draw a line in the sand and defend it against all others. It’s pretty obvious, for example, that an experience might be had because of a reliable, truth aimed process of experience production (this fulfilling option one), and that experience might be the subject of reflection together with a bunch of beliefs (thus fulfilling option three). But my own view is that if the experience is formative for belief, that belief can only really be justified (or more strongly, warranted) if the process that produced the experience with belief forming tendencies is a process with the proper function of bringing about certain belief states, and if that process is indeed functioning properly. An example put into very crude and very abbreviated terms would be like this: Our brain was made to do certain things, including forming the belief that dishonesty is generally not a good thing, and so when working properly it produces an experientially negative reaction to dishonesty. As I said, that’s stated in simple and crude terms, but it gives the right general impression. It also opens up a can of worms about whether such an experience forming process could be both truth aimed and properly functioning without certain controversial beliefs being true (many of which are specifically religious beliefs), but that would take us off topic.
Two further points of clarification:
It’s worth nothing that moral intuitionism only claims that some beliefs are justifiably held, and even known to be true, on the basis of intuition – In other words, that intuitions, when brought about the right way, can serve as a sufficient condition for a moral claim being believed or known to be true. Nothing here requires that the claim in question could not possibly, under any circumstances, be inferred from other known truths and so known by another method. Analogies can help us to see this distinction. Imagine that you see a green wall with a big red spot painted in the middle of it. You are justified in holding this belief based on immediate experience and you don’t have to infer that there’s a red spot there. You see it and so you believe it, and in fact you know it’s there. The fact that you see it (assuming that your senses are working reliably) gives you sufficient warrant to believe it. But suppose you can’t see the spot because you don’t have eyes. Suppose you’re a member of an alien species whose sense organs can pick up data about light radiation and they can interpret that data in the way that one interprets mathematical data (a somewhat laborious process to be sure, but quick perception of one’s physical environment isn’t a very important skill on the planet these beings come from). Were you one of these beings, you could draw the inference that there was a red circle on the wall after gathering data, analysing it and making an inference. In fact even if you were a regular human being reading this sort of data as it was broadcast remotely from a radiation sensing device sitting near the wall, you could make the same sort of inference. So the fact that a belief is one that can be intuitively justified certainly doesn’t require that there is no other way to justify it (nor, of course, does it suggest that there are other ways to justify it). Some intuitionists wouldn’t be happy with this thought. For example, G. E. Moore thought that moral truths could not be argued for. But intuitionism doesn’t require this, and Moore’s reasons for thinking this had more to do with his non-naturalistic views on what moral facts are, which is a whole other kettle of fish.
It is also worth noting that if intuitionism is broadly right, it doesn’t follow that having an intuition makes a belief therefore correct, warranted or unassailable. We hold to a range of beliefs as basic or non-inferred, beliefs of a sort which can, under the right circumstances, warrant a belief, but which can in some cases be mistaken, unwarranted and which can be subject to serious critique. The most obvious such belief is belief formed on the basis of sense perception. We immediately form beliefs on the basis of sense perception, but we accept that there are a range of reasons where this sort of belief formation can in principle go wrong. Maybe our eyes are wearing out in old age or our hearing is getting weaker. Maybe we’ve been drinking too much or taking hallucinogenic drugs. Maybe we’re not in particularly helpful circumstances to use sense perception (e.g. maybe it’s very dark or noisy). The point is, we aren’t infallible in forming beliefs based on perception, and yet we realise that this doesn’t show that we can’t correctly form warranted beliefs based on sense perception. At most it shows that we can’t always do so, so this is not a good reason to give up our belief that sense perception does give us dependable beliefs. The same is true of those who accept intuitionism. They are not committed to the view that intuitions cannot be critiqued on the basis of evidence or that intuitions are always reliable, much less infallible. Nothing in this admission is a good reason to give up on intuitionism.
So there you have it: A crash course in ethical intutionism.
- Matthew Bedke, “Ethical Intuitions: What They Are, What They Are Not, and How They Justify,” American Philosophical Quarterly 45:3 (2008), 253.
- Jennifer Zamzow and Shaun Nichols, “Variations in Ethical Intuitions,” Forthcoming in Philosophical Issues.
- Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Moral Skepticisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 186.