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Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses:
- Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts about value,
- Ethical non-naturalism, the view that these evaluative facts cannot be reduced to natural facts, and
- The thesis that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, which forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
The notion of intuition and the Moral SenseEdit
Some intuitionists characterize "intuitions" as a species of beliefs, beliefs which are self-evident in the sense that they are justified simply by virtue of one's understanding of the proposition believed.
Others characterize "intuitions" as a distinct kind of mental state, in which something seems to one to be the case (whether one believes it or not) as a result of intellectual reflection. All ethical intuitionists agree in characterizing intuitions as cognitive mental states that do not depend on observation or inference.
In early Intuitionist writing, moral intuitions were described as though they were produced by some independent sixth sense, called the "Moral Sense" - Allegedly, we apprehend rightness with our moral sense just as we apprehend colors with our visual sense. This was unsatisfactory, as we have no independent evidence there is such a sixth sense. If the moral sense were truly an independent sixth sense, why can we not sense the wrongness of an gross injustice that happens just out of sight? A better account became necessary.
Analogy between perceiving moral and aesthetic truths Edit
Beauty is something we see in some faces, artworks and landscapes. We can also hear it in some pieces of music. We clearly do not need an independent aesthetic sense faculty to perceive beauty in the world. Our ordinary five senses are quite enough to observe it, though merely observing something beautiful is not by itself enough to appreciate its beauty. Suppose we give a name to this ability to appreciate the beauty in things we see: let’s call it the aesthetic sense. This aesthetic sense does not come automatically to all people with perfect vision and hearing, so it is fair to describe it as something extra, something not wholly reducible to vision and hearing.
As the aesthetic sense informs us about what is beautiful, we can understand the moral sense as informing us of what is good. People with a functioning moral sense get a clear impression of wrongness when they see puppies being kicked. However, though the wrongness is obvious, we may find it very difficult to list the features of the scene which account for the wrongness. We can figure out what features something needs to satisfy in order to be pudding; can likewise find the recipe for wrongness? We discover wrongness through observing natural properties with our five senses. Can we list the necessary and sufficient conditions such that any action which satisfies these conditions is wrong? The Ethical Naturalist thinks that in principle, we can: For naturalists, rightness and wrongness are nothing more than certain combinations of natural, non-evaluative properties. Since we can in principle build mechanical detectors for all these natural properties, the Ethical Naturalist thinks wrongness is something that a machine could eventually detect. The Intuitionist disagrees: They see a wide conceptual gap between natural facts and evaluations. There seem to be no valid arguments in which purely descriptive/factual premises entail a prescriptive/evaluative conclusion. Intuitionists claim that only an agent with a moral sense can observe natural properties and through them discover the moral properties of the situation. Without the moral sense, you might see and hear all the colors and yelps, but the moral properties would remain hidden, and there would be in principle no way to ever discover them (unless someone else with a moral sense told you).
For this reason, Intuitionists believe the interpretive moral sense is indispensable if we are to learn anything about moral truths.
Objections to Ethical Intuitionism Edit
- Are there really objective moral values?
Many people think that beauty is subjective, because it’s only in the eye of the beholder. They would claim there are really no objective facts about what is and is not beautiful, only facts about what people prefer. Because of the close analogies between the moral and the aesthetic sense, parity of reasoning suggests that we should see the difference between right and wrong as also being merely in the eye of the beholder. Though intuitionists insist on the analogy, they equally insist that the facts about right and wrong are perfectly objective. How can they have it both ways?
The problem is made worse by the fact that there is so much widespread and apparently irresolveable disagreement about moral values. Why do these not get settled though the careful use of the moral sense? There are no long disputes about whether some object is green – these would be quickly settled if we just invited the disputing parties to look. Why does the moral sense not settle moral disagreements in a similarly simple way?
- Occam’s Razor
Finally, let’s consider the evidence we have for the existence of the moral sense: It is undeniable that some things “feel” right and wrong. But do these feelings really give us evidence that we are detecting an objective feature of the world, rightness and wrongness. When we feel queasy, we don’t postulate the existence of some independent feature of the world, Queas, which our queasy feelings supposedly detect. So why should feelings of deep injustice lead us to postulate some independent feature of the world called “wrongness”? The principle of Occam’s Razor requires us to postulate only those entities which are necessary to best explain our observations. The existence of queas and wrongness are not necessary to explain our queasy and resentful feelings. Thus we should say there is no such thing as wrongness, perhaps to pursue a program like Emotivism to account for meanings of our sentences about wrongness.
Ethical Intuitionism was popular in the early twentieth century, particularly among British analytic philosophers.
H.A. Prichard gave an early defense of the view in his (1912) "Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?", wherein he contended that moral philosophy rested chiefly on the desire to provide arguments starting from non-normative premises for the principles of obligation that we pre-philosophically accept, such as the principle that one ought to keep one's promises or that one ought not to steal. This is a mistake, Prichard argued, both because it is impossible to derive any statement about what one ought to do from statements not concerning obligation (even statements about what is good), and because there is no need to do so since common sense principles of moral obligation are self-evident.
Prichard influenced G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica (1903) argued famously that goodness was an indefinable, non-natural property of which we had intuitive awareness. Moore originated the term "the naturalistic fallacy" to refer to the (alleged) error of confusing goodness with some natural property, and he deployed the Open Question Argument to show why this was an error. Unlike Prichard, Moore thought that one could derive principles of obligation from propositions about what is good; Moore believed that what one ought to do is always determined by what will produce the most good.
Ethical intuitionism suffered a dramatic fall from favor by the middle of the century, probably due in part to the influence of logical positivism, in part to the rising popularity of naturalism in philosophy, and in part to philosophical objections based on the phenomenon of widespread moral disagreement.
Some recent work suggests the view may be enjoying a resurgence of interest in academic philosophy.
Further reading Edit
Following are some important works by ethical intuitionists.
- G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1903).
- W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930).
- Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
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