–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Intuition and Morals

by | Jun 9, 2024

I want to say a few things about morality and intuition and the relationship between the two. One is that some variety of what is commonly called “moral intuitionism” must be true; that is, if there are such things as moral obligations and duties, however conceived. If there are – and if theorizing about them is possible – then our moral intuitions – the feelings of obligation and duty that we experience over the course of our daily lives – ultimately provide the measure against which the accounts we give must hold up. In this sense, they play a role, relative to our moral theories, that is analogous to that played by observations, in the context of scientific theorizing. Just as a scientific theory – say, a theory of motion – must stand or fall on how well it accounts for what is observed, so a moral theory must stand or fall on how well it accounts for our feelings of obligation and duty.

A few points, before continuing on this line of thought:

[1] It is irrelevant to the role I am assigning moral intuitions that we may be wrong about a felt obligation or duty, in the sense that it might turn out that we are not obligated to do something for which we previously felt obligated. Analogously, it is irrelevant to the role played by observations in science that we sometimes misperceive things. That an obligation is felt simply means that it is a prima facie duty (to employ a Rossian phrase), but whether it is an actual duty will depend on a full consideration of the circumstances and whether or not other prima facie duties arise that may be overriding, a process that is, of course, fallible.  

[2] There need be no “faculty” of intuition and one need assign no enigmatic qualities to intuitions to speak of them, in the manner that I am. There is nothing mysterious about feeling obligated to do or not to do such and such, and feeling that way requires no mental apparatus above and beyond that which we already recognize.

[3] What is distinctive about moral intuitions is that they are unmediated by any process of theorizing or inference. As H.A. Prichard described it, “[t]he sense of obligation to do, or of the rightness of, an action of a particular kind is absolutely underivative or immediate.” This is not to deny that some process of non-moral thinking or acquisition of non-moral knowledge may engender a sense of obligation in a person – learning of the hyper-incarceration of black people in the United States, for example, may arouse a feeling of obligation on my part to engage in certain sorts of political activity – but simply to say that the sense of obligation that arises is not the result of inferring it from the knowledge acquired, as traditional moral theories suggest.  

[4] That moral intuitions provide the ultimate measure against which the adequacy of a moral theory is determined is but a specific instance of a more general truth, namely that all theoretical inquiry ultimately is arbitrated against the backdrop of intuition, common sense, and ordinary language and experience. Even logic looks to intuitions for its basic conditions of adequacy, as there can be no proof for the logical axioms; no justification beyond their intuitive plausibility. As Stanley Rosen once described the matter in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (1999):

My thesis is not simply that there is an ordinary language, reflective of the common strata of human nature … I also claim that this ordinary language is retained as the basis…of all technical dialects.  It is this basis that serves as the fundamental paradigm for the plausibility or implausibility of theoretical discourse and in particular of philosophical doctrines.  It is not satisfactory to evaluate philosophical doctrines on purely technical or formal grounds because these grounds cannot establish their own validity or authority.

Philosophy is extraordinary speech, but extraordinary speech derives its first and most important level of significance from ordinary experience  or everyday life.

Though purely theoretical concerns may cause us to reject a moral theory, it is much more commonly the result of a clash between the theory and our pre-theoretical moral intuitions, and it is never the case that a moral theory passes muster, solely on the basis of theoretical considerations. 

We reject Kant’s brand of deontology, for example, because his view that moral duties are indefeasible and outcomes are morally irrelevant yields perverse results, such as requiring us to tell the truth, even if doing so yields no benefit and harms an innocent person. (That such results are perverse is an intuition.) We reject consequentialist moral theories like Utilitarianism, in part, because they deny the moral significance of intentions, which routinely causes them to yield counterintuitive results, such as treating cynical, selfish actions as morally equivalent to selfless, altruistic ones, so long as they produce the same outcome.

To the extent that we are inclined to accept theories like these – either in whole or in part – it is due to the fact that they provide a satisfactory reconstruction of our moral intuitions. It is because Utilitarianism can make sense of the intuition that moral rightness and wrongness admit of degrees, for example, and this makes it preferable to Kantian deontology, which cannot. And it is because Ross’s moral philosophy provides a framework through which to understand our intuition that there is value in our relationships with others, beyond that of benefactor to beneficiary, that his theory is preferable to Utilitarianism.

It can only be with a mixture of puzzlement and amusement, then, that we read the following from Peter Singer, in an essay devoted to denying any role for moral intuitions in ethical deliberation. (“Should we Trust our Moral Intuitions?” (2007)) He has just finished describing a study by Joshua Greene, the purpose of which is to explain why we react in disparate ways to Trolley-style cases – for example, why we are willing to pull a switch to divert a train, so that it will kill one person, rather than five, but are unwilling to shove a man in front of a train, to prevent five from dying – when he says the following:

Greene’s work helps us understand where our moral intuitions come from. But the fact that our moral intuitions are universal and part of our human nature does not mean that they are right. On the contrary, these findings should make us more skeptical about relying on our intuitions.

There is, after all, no ethical significance in the fact that one method of harming others has existed for most of our evolutionary history, and the other is relatively new. Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And surely the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions.

Notice how much of the work ‘surely’ is doing here. Singer’s blanket assertion that the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five could be a naked appeal to our intuitions – it certainly looks like one – but in his case, it is almost certainly a product of his Utilitarianism. The trouble, of course, is that the adequacy of Singer’s Utilitarianism is itself a matter of how good of a rational reconstruction the theory offers of our already existing moral intuitions. Far from “not listening” to our intuitions, then, Singer’s entire statement is an exercise in appealing to them – whether directly or indirectly.  

It is quite understandable that Singer would like to banish intuitions from respectable ethical thinking and discourse, as it would seem to be his mission to convince us of any number of very counterintuitive things – that infanticide is morally acceptable and even obligatory, in some cases; that every family barbecue or fishing trip is a moral catastrophe; that sex with dogs, pigs, or cows is perfectly ethical, so long as it consists of “mutually satisfying activities” (this last gem comes from his 2001 essay, “Heavy Petting”) – as part of what look like an effort to affect a kind of wholesale moral revisionism. Singer’s brand of Utilitarianism is what provides the sanction for radical judgments like these, but it is precisely such results that most of us will deem perverse and which will thereby render Utilitarianism unacceptable to us as a moral theory. 

Certainly, moral attitudes and intuitions change over time, given that we change as people, so we should expect that what seems plausible to us, moral theory-wise, may also change over time. But our theories do not and cannot change our moral attitudes and intuitions on their own. For one thing, such changes are not simply a matter of our switching beliefs, but of our changing as people, and our engagement with moral theories is simply at too intellectual – and thus, too superficial – a level for them to have such an effect, and for another, as already indicated, moral theories cannot confirm themselves and must appeal to our moral attitudes and intuitions for their justification.

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