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Intuition as a Basic Source of Moral Knowledge

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The idea that intuition plays a basic role in moral knowledge and moral philosophy probably began in the eighteenth century. British philosophers such as Anthony Shaftsbury, Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and later David Hume talk about a “moral sense” that they place in John Locke’s theory of knowledge in terms of Lockean reflexive perceptions, while Richard Price seeks a faculty by which we obtain our ideas of right and wrong. In the twentieth century intuitionism in moral philosophy was revived by the works of G. E. Moore, H. A. Prichard, and W. D. Ross. These philosophers reject Kantian deontological ethics and utilitarianism insisting that intuition is the only source of moral knowledge. Recently, there is a renewed interest in intuition by philosophers doing meta-philosophy by reflecting on what philosophers do, and why they disagree. In this essay we plan to take some of this recent literature on intuition and apply it to moral philosophy. We will proceed by (1) defining a conception of intuition, (2) answering some skeptical challenges, (3) delimiting its target, and (4) arguing that intuition is often a source of moral knowledge.

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  1. 1.

    Someone might contend that Plato thinks we can have an intuition of the Form of the Good. But few would hold that Plato is an ethical intuitionist. According to William K. Frankena, Aristotle says there is no criterion or rule for determining the mean. “One can only tell this in each particular case by some kind of intuition, moral sense, or taste for excellence.” Frankena, W. K. (1965). Three historical philosophies of education (p. 33). Chicago: Scott, Foresman. This suggests that Aristotle may be the first to broach some conception of intuition that he thinks of as a kind of perception. We owe this point to Allan Casebier.

  2. 2.

    Sprague, E. (1967). Moral sense. In P. Edwards (Ed.), The encyclopedia of philosophy (Vol. 5, pp. 385–387). New York: Macmillan. By looking into his mind Locke thinks that all knowledge consists of perceptions, that we derive by one of two routes, sensation or reflection. The proponents of moral sense account for our knowledge of what is right and wrong in terms of what Locke thinks of as reflexive perceptions.

  3. 3.

    Sprague, E. (1967). In The Encyclopedia of philosophy (Vol. 6, pp. 449–451). New York: Macmillan; Richard Price. We mention Price separately because he comes close to our conception of intuition as a kind of perception.

  4. 4.

    Price, R. (1757). A review of the principal questions of morals. In R. B. Brandt (Ed.), Value and obligation: Systematic readings in ethics (p. 334). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, & World.

  5. 5.

    Price R., Ibid., p. 335.

  6. 6.

    Gopnik, A., & Scwitzgebel, E. (1998). Whose concepts are they, anyway? The role of philosophical intuition in empirical psychology. In M. R. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry (p. 77). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

  7. 7.

    Prichard, H. A. (1912). Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake? (Mind, 21). In S. M. Cahn & P. Markie (Eds.), Ethics: History, theory, and contemporary issues (2002, 2nd ed., p. 471). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  8. 8.

    Prichard, H. A., Ibid., p. 476.

  9. 9.

    Ross, W. D. (1930). The right and the good. In S. M. Cahn & P. Markie (Eds.), Ethics: history, theory, and contemporary Issues (2002, p. 479). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  10. 10.

    Bealer, G. (1998). Intuition and the autonomy of philosophy. In M. R. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry (p. 207). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

  11. 11.

    Bealer, G., Ibid. We here register a doubt whether there are any such intuitions that cannot be otherwise. We think that all intuitions are highly fallible.

  12. 12.

    Goldman, A., & Pust, J. (1998). Philosophical theory and intuitional evidence. In M. R. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry (p.179). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

  13. 13.

    Hare, R. M. (1997). Sorting out ethics (p. 84). Oxford: Clarendon.

  14. 14.

    To clarify, the sense of “immediate” used here is noninferential. An intuition is immediate if it is not based on reasoning or inference.

  15. 15.

    We do not deny that intuitions in specific situations are often stimulated by the application of a moral rule or principle. This is a psychological question, and it surely happens. If a moral agent has been inculcated with moral rules, they can apply them to a given situation. However, we think there is a distinction between intuiting what is right in a given situation, and intuiting the prima facie plausibility of a moral principle, such as “You ought to be kind to others.” The latter constitutes a different target for our intuitions. This point came out of a question raised by Jerold Clack.

  16. 16.

    We are assuming we do not have to characterize or analyze what it is to be in a “particular case,” “situation,” or “circumstance” except by example.

  17. 17.

    We owe this point to a referee.

  18. 18.

    We will shortly indicate that such taking in can be the work of unconscious inferences. This is due to recent work in empirical psychology.

  19. 19.

    The reader may notice the relation between this conception of perception and William P. Alston’s conception of nonsensory perception in his Perceiving God: The epistemology of religious experience (1991; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press). Alston does not take this to be a part of the ordinary use of “perceive.”

  20. 20.

    Brandt, R. B. (1961). Value and obligation: Systematic readings in ethics (p. 329). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, & World. See also Brandt, R. B. (1959). Ethical theory (pp. 189–202). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

  21. 21.

    Horowitz, T. (1998). Philosophical intuitions and psychological theory. In M. R. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry (pp. 143–160). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Horowitz shows that in cases of alleged philosophical thought experiments involving moral judgments based on intuition there is actually some kind of probabilistic reasoning or decision procedure going on in the subjects albeit unconsciously.

  22. 22.

    Hauser, M. D. (2006). Moral minds. New York: Harper Collins. Hauser provides ample empirical evidence in this book to show it is reasonable to think that our moral intuitions are grounded in our biological make up, and that moral intuitions are common to all human beings.

  23. 23.

    Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam.

  24. 24.

    Unger, P. (1996). Living high and letting die: Our illusion of innocence (pp. 9, 31–33). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  25. 25.

    Bolender’s account of moral intuitions owes a debt to Jerry Fodor’s treatment of modularity in Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

  26. 26.

    Bolender, J. (2001). A two-tiered cognitive architecture for moral reasoning. Biology and Philosophy, 16, pp. 335–348.

  27. 27.

    Bolender, J. (2003).The geneology of moral modules. Minds and Machines, 13, pp. 233–255.

  28. 28.

    Brandt, R. B. (1961). Ethical theory (p. 192). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. It should be noted here that we follow Brandt and others in distinguishing between genuine intuitions and apparent intuitions.

  29. 29.

    Hare, R. M. (1997). Sorting out ethics (p. 88). Oxford: Clarendon.

  30. 30.

    We owe this point to a referee.

  31. 31.

    Neither Hare’s, nor any other current moral epistemology, has solved ethical problems such as the problem of abortion, the problem of capital punishment, the problem of whether human beings should eat meat, and myriad others.

  32. 32.

    The distinction we just made between intuition and judgment applies here as well.

  33. 33.

    Hare, R. M., op. cit., p. 89.

  34. 34.

    Goldman, A. I. (2007). Philosophical intuitions: Their target, their source, and their epistemic status (forthcoming). In C. Beyer & A. Burn (Eds.), Grazer philosophische studien, special issue “Philosophical Knowledge – Its possibility and scope (p. 7). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

  35. 35.

    Alston, W. P. (1993). The reliability of sense perception. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

  36. 36.

    Granoff, J. (2005). Peace and security. In J. A. Boss (Ed.), Analyzing moral issues (3rd ed., pp. 696–699). New York: McGraw-Hill.

  37. 37.

    We assume that most nonphilosophers do not explicitly reason morally the way that some philosophers construe moral reasoning in their ethical theories. Of course, this is an empirical question, but we think that ordinary folks often have moral intuitions, and that their intuitive judgments are often true.

    These anthropological facts are factual descriptions of agreements in moral values among different cultures. This does not commit us to holding that the moral intuitions of individuals of another culture are moral facts. Although we think there are moral truths, and moral truths are moral facts, we do not think this is the place to launch on a theory of what constitutes a moral fact. We are only pointing out that it is a anthropological fact that almost all cultures have some prohibitions against murder. We do not have to say what “facts” are or what makes them “moral” facts.

  38. 38.

    It should be pointed out that the anthropological facts alluded to in the discussion of Granoff do not fit into these three categories. We do not intend for these targets to be exhaustive. We thank a referee for pointing this out.

  39. 39.

    Moore, G. E. (1962). Principia ethica. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. We assume that a nonnatural property of goodness is an abstraction. Moore never makes it clear what he means by a “nonnatural property.” But he does say it is not part of the subject matter of natural science or psychology.

  40. 40.

    Goldman, A. I., op. cit., pp. 9, 10.

  41. 41.

    Ross, W. D. (1930). The right and the good. In S. M. Cahn & P. Markie (Eds.), Ethics: History, theory, and contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 477–493).Oxford: Oxford University Press. Quotations will be taken from the selection in Cahn and Markie.

  42. 42.

    Sosa, E. (1998). Minimal intuition. In M. R. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry (p. 259). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefied.

  43. 43.

    Ziff, P. (1972). Understanding understanding. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

  44. 44.

    Moravscik, J. (1992). Plato and platonism (pp. 17–19). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

  45. 45.

    Ross, W. D., op. cit., p. 484.

  46. 46.

    We also do not think that it is a necessary truth that if a person P has an intuition that act A is right in situation S that it is obvious that P should do A in S. Intuition does not entail obviousness. Nor is the notion of obviousness clear (or obvious).

  47. 47.

    Goldman, A. I., op. cit., p. 18.

  48. 48.

    See our earlier discussion of Unger’s work, where he emphasizes the potential ignorance and biases of relying on intuitions as a cautionary note here.

  49. 49.

    It should be pointed out that the sciences reject most observation as unreliable. That is why scientists rely so heavily on scientific instruments and controlled conditions such as one finds in laboratories. Otherwise, instead of requesting such large grants, scientists could just gaze out their office windows and make observations. Scientific theories are based on careful observations that are reliable, as seen in their ability to predict with precision. The point is that observation is very reliable when it is selectively guided by reason. A similar point can be made about moral intuitions. We owe this paragraph to a referee.

  50. 50.

    It should be pointed out that Goldman claims he is not giving an account of (the reliability of) intuition in general. So, he may agree with us about moral intuitions. We are simply using his construal of the targets of intuition as personal psychological concepts to throw light on the concept of moral rightness as being often or frequently true in many moral situations.

  51. 51.

    We owe this reminder to a referee.

  52. 52.

    This problem is a descendant of David Hume’s challenge to find a rational justification for inductive inferences. The problem has spread to all modes of belief acquisition.

  53. 53.

    We want to make it clear that we are not defending intuitionism as the only source of moral knowledge or the sole ethical theory. We approve of Kantian deontological ethical theory, social contract theory, and utilitarianism. We also endorse virtue ethics and the ethics of caring. Moral reasoning may be more important than relying solely on intuition. However, philosophical theories of moral reasoning may not be feasible for the nonphilosopher or the man in the street to employ over moral intuitions.

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Correspondence to Thomas W. Smythe.

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Smythe, T.W., Evans, T.G. Intuition as a Basic Source of Moral Knowledge. Philosophia 35, 233–247 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-007-9070-z

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  • Intuition
  • Moral knowledge
  • Nonsensory perception