This paper will focus on my conception of the nature of morality, which I call intuitionism. My conception is inspired in large part by earlier intuitionists (Moore, Ross, and Prichard), though I do not claim they would all agree exactly with everything I say.
These earlier intuitionists were rather brief and did not give much attention to objections against their views (for instance, Prichard's entire consideration of objections to his view can be found in one paragraph plus a footnote). So what I intend to do below, by way of contributing to intuitionist theory, is, first, to systematically state the tenets of intuitionism; second, explain what leads me, and ought to lead other people, to believe each of them; and third, most importantly, respond to the main, obvious objections to the theory.
Intuitionism is mainly a second-order theory, that is, a theory about what morality is and how we know about it (if we do), rather than a theory stating directly what we should do. First- order intuitionist theories tend to be bland and perhaps unsatisfying, if they even deserve to be called "theories", for reasons that become clear once the second-order view is explained.
Since we have this moral language and we frequently at least believe various things to be right or wrong, it would seem prima facie that there are such things as moral values. In order to understand why meta-ethics is interesting and what the numerous competing meta-ethical theories are trying to accomplish, one has to see what is problematic in the relation of morality as such to 'descriptive' (i.e., the rest of) reality. The puzzle has both a metaphysical and an epistemological aspect.
The metaphysical problem is fitting moral values into the scientific world-view. In the twentieth century, while most of us philosophers consider ourselves adherents of a 'scientific world-view', we think that science teaches us that the world is composed out of physical particles (maybe fields too) in physical space-time, which obey certain laws of nature. Our world was generated out of the Big Bang (probably), and we were created through spontaneous natural evolution. To this view of the world, moral values seem 'queer'; they are utterly unlike anything else in the world, they have a non-physical existence, we have no way to account for how they were created or how they could influence the course of events; if they are supposed to have causal powers, then they must produce violations of natural law; and if they don't, then a serious epistemological problem arises.
I have tried to give this supposed problem a faithful and forceful presentation, in spite of the fact that I personally see little in it, and would find it difficult to elaborate it any further.
The epistemological problem is linked, in that it too, I think, has roots in 'the scientific world-view'. (By "the scientific world-view" I mean to refer to a certain world-view that is widely supposed to be scientific, not one that is actually scientific.) This is the problem of how, even if there are moral values, we can possibly know of them. For, in the first place, we cannot directly perceive them (nor can we know them by memory or introspection, the other modes of direct empirical knowledge). In the way that we can just see redness, feel heat, or hear sounds, we cannot see, smell, hear, etc., rightness. In the second place, most of the (interesting) moral principles we have are not merely true by definition, so cannot be verified by analysis of concepts. Third, as the popular wisdom has it, no purely descriptive facts can ever entail a normative proposition, so we cannot deduce moral principles from perceptual evidence. And fourth, we cannot infer them inductively from perceptual data either, at least according to traditional theories of induction.
About this last point one could elaborate considerably, given the numerous theories of induction in existence, but to be brief: inductive inference in conformity with 'the uniformity principle' ("the course of nature is uniform"), or anything at all like it, could only take one from descriptive premises to other descriptive conclusions. Since we can never perceive a moral value in a particular case in the first place, it would not be possible to obtain a moral conclusion by any sort of generalization on particular observations. Nor is it easy to see how a moral conclusion could arise by inference to the best explanation either. The claim that something is good or evil hardly seems ever to be an explanation of why we are seeing what we are seeing. The only way I can imagine an attempted inference to the best explanation going would be to explain some human behavior by reference to our moral beliefs, which in turn are explained by actual moral values. But that, of course, presupposes that we have another, independent means of identifying moral values, which is just the problem. It could not be the case that everybody, in general, acquires his knowledge about morality solely by inferring it from other people's manifestations of moral knowledge.
More generally, since moral principles are supposed to be necessary truths and inductive conclusions are generally supposed to be metaphysically contingent, a moral conclusion just couldn't result from induction.
So now the problem is this: We cannot acquire knowledge of morality through perception, induction, deduction, or conceptual analysis. Yet these are the only means of knowledge we have (at least, so the popular philosophical wisdom dictates). So where are these moral judgements of ours coming from?
Moral intuitionism, as I conceive it, comprises the following several claims (some of which are obvious; some more controver- sial).
I have discussed this issue at length elsewhere and do not wish to repeat myself (at least not very much), so I will just review briefly two general reasons for this opinion. First, and most importantly, I think it is essential to our common sense conception of morality. When we contemplate or discuss moral issues, we normally experience ourselves as exploring a subject, debating matters of substance, and trying to make the correct judgements about them. Nor do we think that our obligations (etc.) depend on our or anyone's beliefs about them. We do not, for example, think that one way to solve all the world's problems would be for everybody to get together and agree not to consider anything bad anymore. We don't think, for instance, that one way to eliminate all oppression would be for a sufficient number of people to say, "There's no oppression." Therefore, we think that the evil (and of course the same would be true of good) exists independently of what observers say or think. And I think that one always ought to assume that things are the way they appear, until they can be proven otherwise.
Second, moral objectivism (like objectivism in general) seems to be entailed by the law of excluded middle and the correspondence theory of truth, along with a couple of what seem equally obvious observations about morality:
(1) There are moral propositions.
(2) So they are each either true or false. (by law of excluded middle) (3) And it's not that they're all false. Surely it is true, rather than false, that Josef Stalin's activities were bad. (Although some communists would disagree, we needn't take their view seriously, and moreover, even they would admit some moral judgement, such as, "Stalin was good.")
(4) So some moral judgements correspond to reality. (from 2,3, and the correspondence theory of truth)
(5) So moral values are part of reality. (which is objectivism)
I don't know if a typical subjectivist would try denying (3), but if so, then to resolve the dispute, what we have to do is weigh the plausibility of the most plausible moral judgement there is (since he claims it is false) against the plausibility of whatever argument he produces (assuming he has one). For instance, suppose that the most plausible moral judgement you can think of is "It is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it;" and suppose that the subjectivist claims that this is not true; and suppose he claims it on the basis that the existence of moral values is incompatible with logical positivism. Then what we have to ask is: Which do we find more plausible, that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it, or that logical positivism is true?
This is just an example of the sort of difficulty the subjectivist or skeptic will get into, which convinces me that no argument against objectivism could possibly discharge its burden.
This is just to affirm what we have already said above. Moral knowledge, if there is any, can't be empirical because, first, moral values are not perceptible; second, moral propositions are generally necessary, whereas empirical knowledge is generally contingent; and third, it doesn't seem possible to construct any kind of inductive arguments for moral conclusions.
Now, of course there is an empirical element to most moral judgements. For instance, it is in part empirically that I know that Stalin's activities were bad. I didn't know a priori that Stalin had millions of people executed. But that that sort of activity is bad is an a priori judgement.
Similarly, of course there are analytic moral judgements -- for instance, "Goodness is good." But the point is that most moral judgements -- the ones that people bother talking about, such as "People have a right to life" -- are synthetic. Since all this is generally admitted, there is no need to elaborate. The next three claims clarify the notion of 'intuition':
I base this claim on the fact that it is the only alternative to two other views which I each reject. The first would be that moral knowledge is implanted in us innately. I deny this because it's hard to believe that newborn infants have a conception of morality, and, moreover, I introspectively observe myself to form new moral judgements and change moral judgements spontaneously all the time.
Also, I do not believe that innate knowledge is in general possible. Traditional a priorists usually seem to assume that if nature implants a bunch of (true) beliefs into us, then these ought to be considered knowledge. But once we stop to ask, we know that's not sufficient for knowledge. If I acquire a belief by a hypnotic suggestion, then, even if the belief is true -- and we can add, if we like, that the hypnotist is always careful to only implant true beliefs into me -- that belief does not represent something that I know, because I am not justified in believing it. And innate moral beliefs seem to me to be no different. They would be things that we were caused to believe but had no reason to believe. And what reason is there for thinking that, if our genes (or whatever) were to implant some moral beliefs into us, they would be the true ones?
Finally, the number and variety of moral judgements we can make about different things and situations convinces me that it must be a general faculty that we exercise and not merely the consequences of a few pre-given principles. The innateness of moral knowledge would only be plausible, I think, if there were a fairly small number of principles that we based the rest of our judgements on. But in spite of the fact that moral philosophers have tried for the past two thousand years to list such a set of principles, no one has succeeded, and every comprehensive moral theory that has ever been articulated -- except intuitionism -- is subject to well-known counter-examples -- that is, cases in which the moral verdicts it delivers are markedly counter- intuitive. This shows at least that none of these theories does justice to our moral consciousness.
Note that I, of course, admit the faculty of moral judgement to be natural and innate; what I deny is that moral knowledge is innate. By analogy: no one claims that perceptual knowledge is innate; yet of course we admit that the capacity for perception (especially, sense organs) is natural and innate.
The second alternative to knowledge acquired by a faculty would be that there is no moral knowledge. But this would be very implausible in view of the first point we made above (objectivism). I don't know of anyone who has thought that moral values are objective but we don't know anything about them. This view would, again, run contrary to our common sense conception of morality -- surely we know whether mass murder is good or bad. Notice that skepticism here would imply not only that we don't know it's bad, but that we don't know whether or not it's good -- so it might be good. Some skeptics might try to avoid this consequence by denying that there is any goodness (hence denying objectivism, that is), but, as we are here considering the epistemological problem, it's hard to see how they could defend their knowing that claim. That is: if the problem that is raised is how we could have synthetic, a priori knowledge of normative ethics, I suppose it is equally problematic how we could have synthetic, a priori knowledge of meta-ethics, and the claim that there is no good or evil in the world is of this nature. A consistent skeptic should deny he knows whether there are any objective values, besides not knowing what things are good if there are any, and for the same reasons -- so, again, there might be goodness, and it might, for all we know, be that Hitler, Stalin, and Ghengis Khan were the best men in history. After all, values are imperceptible. I leave it to the reader to judge whether he thinks this is the case.
Moral intuition is not supposed to be a special, quasi- perceptual faculty, a sixth sense, nor a kind of feeling. Moral intuition is an exercise of reason. I note that I also believe in mathematical intuitions, metaphysical intuitions, psychological intuitions, and even physical intuitions -- and that all of these are exercises of reason in the same sense, and differ from one another and from ethical intuition simply in the subject matter to which intuition is applied. Since it will make some people feel better to reflect that moral intuition is not unusual but is just like several other uses of our intellect, I will list examples of these.
As mathematical intuitions, take "1+1=2" and "the shortest path between any two points is a straight line". As a metaphysical intuition, "The number of planets in the solar system is a contingent matter." As a psychological intuition, "Other things being equal, conscious beings will want to avoid pain." As physical intuitions, try "Forces cause motion" and "Physical causes are local; there is no action at a distance." Finally, as a moral intuition, consider "Torturing people just for the fun of it is wrong." In listing these as intuitions, I don't claim that all of them are true; intuitions are fallible, just as perceptual experiences, inductive and deductive arguments, and even conceptual analyses are -- just as everything that human beings do is. The second physical intuition (no action at a distance) isn't true, but I list it because a lot of people have it anyway. (But the others are true.)
Now usually when I try telling people examples of intuitive facts, especially intuitive moral facts, they try to argue that the propositions are really not true for some technical reason. For instance, if I say that pleasure is generally good, they will say no it's not, because sadistic pleasure (pleasure taken from harming others) isn't good. I don't think anyone can make that sort of objection to my claim that torturing people for the fun of it is wrong. But in case they do, I will say that this sort of objection misses the point. Since in giving his counter- example, the objector must rely on a moral assessment of his own (e.g., sadistic pleasure is bad), he thereby demonstrates his capacity of moral intuition, just as surely as if he had assented to my original example. He then demonstrates the intuition that his case is in fact a counter-example -- for if he didn't have such an intuition, how could he know what sort of case to bring up?
My reasons for holding moral judgement to be rational are two. First, this coheres with my introspective experience. When I consider a moral question I, at least, try to make a rational judgement. And I think I sometimes succeed.
Second, only thus do I think our moral principles (that is, the principles we actually hold) would have any authority (which means, only so could they actually be moral). To explain why, I have to discuss the concept of 'rationality'. There are some people, perhaps most people, who talk as if they thought they had a clear concept of rationality, such that it's clear that it's different from morality, and such that it's at best problematic whether it is always moral to be rational or rational to be moral. Perhaps this only confesses my own stupidity, but I have no idea what these people think rationality is, nor what they mean by "morality". And if I were to be in one of these situations in which reason and morality conflict -- or if I were told I was in one (since I could never recognize it for myself, not knowing what such a situation was) -- I would have no idea what to do. Suppose I have a choice between act A and act B, and God tells me that it's moral to do act A, but it would be irrational. The rational thing is B, but unfortunately, B is also immoral. I think I would be justified in demanding, with some perturbance, "So what are you saying? Which one should I do, A or B?" To further illustrate my confusion, in the hope that perhaps someone who is less confused can help me, I'll mention one of the philosophers who thinks his concepts of rationality and morality are different and that it is very doubtful whether they are coextensive. Samuel Scheffler in his Human Morality considers the question of whether morality is 'overriding' or not -- a question whose meaning is far from obvious to me. He says that the question is whether it is always rational to be moral -- so in other words, is it possible for rationality and morality to conflict? And the understanding is that if they can conflict, then morality is not overriding. Otherwise, it is. And this confuses me, because I don't understand why this would be a test of morality's being overriding, rather than a test of whether rationality is overriding. And to anybody who is similarly perplexed, I suggest the source of the perplexity is that a contradictory situation is made the test of a tautological proposition. "Overriding" just means "should always be followed". "Moral" means "should be done". So the question is, in short, whether we should always do what we should do. That's the tautology that is to be tested. The test for it is to ask whether there could be situation in which in which we both should and yet should not do a particular action -- i.e., the action was both moral and yet irrational. If there is, then we conclude morality is not overriding, i.e., sometimes you shouldn't do what you should do. I guess this is a valid deduction.
Of course, Scheffler may deny this is what he means. But his best explanation of what he means by "rational" is "optimal from the standpoint of reason". Since "optimal" is a synonym for "best" or "most correct", and I don't see what "from the standpoint of reason" adds to this (could something be X and yet not be X from the standpoint of reason?), I fail to see how this means anything different from "should be done". And so I fail to see how it means anything different from "moral".
I have so far failed to distinguish rational action from rational thought, which is something philosophers usually do. But I just implied that 'rational action' is the same as action that should be done. Actually, I think there is a slight difference. I suppose that "rational action" means action that it's rational to think should be done. (This is pretty clearly not, though, the difference that the people have in mind who question whether morality is always rational.) This is different since it is sometimes (but not normally) rational to think what is not the case. So now let's consider what rational thought is, and what's so good about it. I think one has to notice the following facts in order to have the concept of rationality.
First of all, people can acquire beliefs in various different ways. We can, for example, form beliefs by accepting generalizations in accordance with 'the Uniformity Principle'. We could also accept beliefs in accordance with the non- uniformity principle ("The future will be different from the past.") Or we could pick beliefs out of a hat. Or believe whatever we hear on television. Et cetera. Although each of these examples presupposes some prior beliefs of ours (e.g., about the existence of the hat or the television), that's not essential. We must get our initial beliefs by some method or other.
Second, some of these ways of getting beliefs have more of a tendency to lead to the truth than others. Some methods of belief-acquisition tend to result in false beliefs, and, although there may be no method that always leads to the truth, some methods tend to result in true beliefs.
Third, we can exercise a certain amount of control over how we are forming beliefs. It is up to us, for example, whether we believe whatever we hear on television, and we can choose to suspend judgement rather than accept conclusions according to a certain method.
Fourth, beliefs aim at truth, rather than error. When we make judgements, we are trying form true beliefs. Moreover, it is objectively good that we have true beliefs, for obvious reasons, and especially in the field of ethics. If we know what the right thing is, we are much more likely to do it than we are if we think it is not right.
Finally, vaguely speaking, most possible beliefs are false, and most possible ways of acquiring beliefs are unreliable (tend to lead to false beliefs). For instance, if there are ten different, incompatible comprehensive ethical theories (and this is certainly estimating conservatively), then we know that at least nine of them are false. So if we pick beliefs at random, they will almost all be false.
As a result of all this, we arrive at the conclusion that we need some method(s) of forming beliefs that is systematically directed at the truth -- in other words, a method such that, in general, when you use it you will probably acquire a true belief rather than a false one. For if we don't apply such a method, then we will probably have false beliefs, and we don't want that. Now it could be doubted whether there are any such methods, but since it is not my task to refute skepticism in this paper, I assume that there are, and that we can recognize them. I suppose, of course, that we can recognize them intuitively. And the sum total of the ways of forming beliefs that we intuitively recognize as leading to the truth we call "rationality" or "rational thought".
Now some people seem to conceive of rationality otherwise, perhaps as a following of a certain set of seemingly arbitrary rules, such that it's possible to doubt whether rationality is the best way to discover the truth. For instance, I suppose there are still religious people who think that faith or some other method of acquiring beliefs is superior to reason, and that rationality is deceptive. These people, I would say, simply lack the concept of reason or of rationality; they do not understand what it is. They still have some of the intuitions the rest of us have about what is or isn't rational, but they fail to recognize the significance of these.
In other words, when I have the intuition that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it, I do not base my belief that it is wrong on anything else whatever. The fact that torture is wrong is self-evident and is not based on any argument or any further evidence.
As far as I can tell, this claim follows from the
proposition that there is moral knowledge, just as some
analogous, more general claim follows from the premise that there
is any knowledge at all. For if we know some particular thing,
then there are only three possibilities as regards its
(a) it is infinitely regressive. That is, there is a reason for
it, and a reason for the reason, and then a reason for that, and
so on indefinitely.
(b) it is circular. That is, it is based on some chain of reasoning in which something ultimately is supposed to (directly or indirectly) justify itself.
(c) it is foundational. That is, the item of knowledge itself is, or is based upon, a fact that is known directly and without any argument or reason given.
And I take it that (a) and (b) are absurd. Since we have already decided that there is moral knowledge, and these are the only three logical possibilities, moral knowledge is justified foundationally, just as all kinds of knowledge are.
Now it could be maintained in spite of this that moral judgements are based upon non-moral judgements, so that no moral judgement itself is immediate. Few philosophers would claim this, since we are familiar with 'Hume's law' and 'the naturalistic fallacy,' but I would not object to it. If someone wants to say that I can derive the (value) judgement that Hitler was an evil man from the (descriptive) fact (inter alia) that he had eleven million people killed, I do not disagree. In fact, contrary to the popular wisdom, I think that is a perfectly valid deduction. The inference, "Hitler had 11 million people killed; therefore, he was an evil man," is certainly not some kind of simple logical error, such as would merit the name "the naturalistic fallacy." Nevertheless, there do seem to be value judgements which can't be said to be based on any descriptive judgements, including the example I keep using: when one considers the proposition that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it, one has the sense that it is correct -- and as strong a sense of this, I think, as we have of any fact. My claim, then, is simple: this sense itself constitutes knowledge of the fact that it is wrong to torture people sadistically, and it is not based upon, nor does it need to be, any further fact.
I said before that first-order intuitionist ethics tends to be rather bland. This is because moral intuition is held to be a capacity or faculty rather than a body of doctrine; so learning to be moral requires a skill in its exercise, rather than a body of propositional knowledge.
A typical intuitionist, myself included, will affirm that, other things being equal, people should keep their promises, tell the truth, avoid hurting each other, bring about happiness, and do all the other things that we would ordinarily consider obviously right. Thus, there are many different things we should do. Most moral theories involve isolating just one or two of them, but, I say, all of the things that we intuitively consider to be right are prima facie (that is, unless and until some special contrary reason be given) right. In the event that some values come into conflict with each other in a particular case, as happens all too often, what we have to do is weigh them against each other in our minds, to see which we find the stronger obligation in the circumstances. There isn't any general formula, or algorithm, for this (at least not as far as I know), but it requires a direct exercise of the intuitive faculty in each case.
The most popular objection to intuitionism, which is usually considered to be decisive, goes like this: "What about disagree- ment?" This single phrase seems to be sufficient for most people to convey an obvious and compelling difficulty; yet the import of it is far from obvious to me. Surely the argument is elliptical. So let me try to spell it out explicitly and in more detail before responding.
There are really at least two different arguments from disagreement, and it's not immediately clear, when people make the disagreement objection, which they mean. It's not clear whether they are complaining that if intuitionism is true, then there will be disagreements, which intuitionism gives no way of resolving, and that's bad; or they are saying that if intuitionism were true, then there would not be disagreements, but there are. So let's consider these separately.
To some extent this is true. Individuals have different degrees of intelligence, education and experience, bias, motivation for finding the truth, and attention and time spent on any given issue; and all of these factors affect their ability to form a correct judgement. This almost immediately implies that they are going to periodically come to different conclusions. Furthermore, human judgement in general is inherently fallible.
If two people have divergent intuitive judgements, then I recommend they try resolving the dispute by appeal to still further intuitions. For instance, if I am disagreeing with a utilitarian, then I might try pointing out to him some consequences of utilitarianism that he might not have noticed, and that I expect him to find counter-intuitive. If we are disagreeing about some more specific issue, I can try describing thought-experiments in which I expect us to have the same intuitions, and then point out to him the analogy to the case about which we were disagreeing. Finally, I can always test the internal consistency of his belief system, and try to show him how some moral intuition of his conflicts with another principle that he believes. It's worth noting that all of this is exactly what moral philosophers actually do, and, as far as I know, it's all they do; and it makes perfect sense in an intuitionist framework.
If none of this works, then perhaps the two individuals have an irresolvable conflict. Unresolved disputes are unfortunate, but a fact of life that philosophers, of all people, ought to be used to. I hardly think the fact that I provide no algorithm for resolving all of them constitutes a refutation of my view, since we know that these disputes in fact exist and have always existed, and since no one has ever been able to produce a method of resolving them. On the contrary, intuitionism explains the existence of unresolvable conflicts. If some view predicts there shouldn't be any disagreement, then, I would say, that view is thereby refuted.
I don't see how this objection is supposed to work against intuitionism, as opposed to any other view. Is there some alternative theory of ethics that does provide a way of resolving all disputes? Should we expect one?
I think the idea behind this version of the argument from disagreement is this: Suppose that moral questions have true answers, and that people are capable of finding out what they are. Then you would expect people to exercise their rational faculty, and thereby come to know the truth. Since people would be more or less coming to the correct conclusions, they would all more or less agree. But yet we know that there is great disagreement. Therefore, we must conclude either that there are no true answers to moral questions, or that people aren't capable of discovering them.
It stuns me, though, that, once again, this is supposed to be an objection against intuitionism in particular, as opposed to any other view. Is there some alternative theory of ethics that is not open to the disagreement objection? I don't think so. For suppose one has a subjectivist theory. Then one has to confront the problem that so many people don't agree with that. If values are subjective, and if we are capable of knowing that, then how come so many people still think values are objective? Wouldn't you expect us to all agree with subjectivism? Similarly, if one is a skeptic, and holds that one cannot know moral truths, then one must answer the question, "Then how come so many people have the sense that they do know moral truths?" There is no escape: whatever one's view is, there are many people who don't agree with it. And I presume that whatever one's view is, one thinks that it is true, and that it's possible to know that. Even a relativist thinks at the least that we can know relativism is true.
So the first thing to note is that if the argument is an objection to anything, it's an objection to everything (including itself, incidentally).
The second thing to say is that the level of disagreement is probably exaggerated. There are some things we agree about and some things we disagree about. People tend to agree that courage, honesty, and compassion are virtues. And we agree that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it. I would be surprised if there was a society in which those things aren't accepted. Whether you are impressed with the divergence or convergence of moral codes all depends on which things you look at.
The third thing to notice is that the state of disagreement is hardly unique to moral philosophy. There is wide disagreement in every area of philosophy, and about religion, history, economics, psychology, cosmology, and the affairs of everyday life. Yet this fact is rarely invoked to demonstrate that it's impossible to have knowledge of any of these subjects, nor to show that they are entirely 'subjective'. If one wants an explanation of such disagreement, I would cite the factors I mentioned before: people have different levels of intelligence, motivation, bias, education, etc. If one wants a remedy, I would say perhaps people need to be more careful than we have usually been in choosing our beliefs, to reflect harder before accepting a proposition, and take more trouble to aprise ourselves of all the alternatives. This is consistent with intuitionism, and if my objector finds it unsatisfactory, I should like to know what other response could be appropriate.
If widespread disagreement shows anything, I think it can only be taken to show that people have been careless and not entirely rational in choosing their beliefs.
The second favorite objection to intuitionism consists in calling all foundational principles "assumptions" and demanding some reason for accepting intuitions. (This is most popular among undergraduates, but more advanced philosophers put it forward in more subtle forms.) If no reason is given, then (the objector concludes) intuitions are merely arbitrary.
The notion that I need some reason for accepting that it's wrong to torture people, that I do not yet know it but require some 'proof' of the proposition, is such a bizarre and artificial assumption that it's difficult for me to guess where it comes from. I think that this objection can only derive from a general, skeptical theory, which says that no fact can be known unless derived from something else -- not, in other words, any problem specific to moral philosophy. Since I have already explained that the existence of knowledge, of any kind, alone implies the existence of unjustified justifiers, and it's not my business to tackle general skepticism here, I won't spend very much time on the argument from assumption. But let me make two short replies.
First, it is possible (to say the least) to doubt the theory which says that all knowledge requires proofs, and this theory itself has no basis. I imagine my objector and myself carrying on a dialogue something like this:
Me: I know that it's wrong to torture people just for the fun of
Skeptic: What's your reason for thinking that?
Me: Isn't it self-evident? Why do I need a reason?
Skeptic: Because if you don't have one, then it's just an arbitrary claim.
Me: How do you know that?
Skeptic: Why, that's self-evident.
Or so I suppose it would have to go, since I have never been given a reason for thinking that I needed a reason for everything.
Second, if we are going to accept that we can know some things directly, and that the mind is competent to make judgements, then I see no reason for treating moral intuition differently from every other form of cognition. When I look down and see two hands attached to me, I accept that I have two hands; and in any normal context, no further proof is required. When I exercise my memory and I have the sense that I went to the supermarket today, I accept that I did go there. Once again, in any normal context, this is accepted as a datum, unless and until it can be disproven. And if somebody says, "The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line," we all have the sense that that is obviously true. Although skeptics will be disposed to doubt all of these, it is obvious that we could not, in general, satisfy the skeptical demand for a proof of the reliability of our means of cognition, as we would have nothing to rely upon in constructing the proof. If then, I say, we are prepared to accept (defeasibly) the data of perception, of memory, and of introspection, then we may just as well accept the data of intuition at face value, unless and until contrary evidence appears. As far as I can see, intuition is in no way different from perception that would justify making it a special target of suspicion, and moral intuition is no different from the rest of the uses of our intuition. And I think the terrain of moral philosophy is poor ground on which to choose to contest general skeptical issues.
The argument from scientism is the one that I brought forward in section I, while exhibiting the 'is-ought' problem. I get the term "scientism" from Peter van Inwagen, whom I might as well quote at length, since I would otherwise say almost exactly the same thing:
Scientism, as I use the word, is a sort of exaggerated respect for science -- that is, for the physical and biological sciences -- and a corresponding disparagement of all other areas of human intellectual endeavour. It hardly need be pointed out that scientism is the primary ideology of our age. It hardly need be pointed out that the illusions scientism engenders are so pervasive and so insidious that it is practically impossible to get anyone who is subject to them to consider the possibility that they might be illusions. (I hope the following disclaimer is unnecessary: if I deprecate scientism, I do not thereby depreciate science. To deny that Caesar is due divine honors is not to belittle his generalship.)
I don't suppose that very many philosophers would expressly admit to basing their views on scientism, but it is all the more important to discuss because it is usually relied on only implicitly.
It would be very difficult to actually argue that the discoveries of modern science show that there is no such subject as ethics. Exactly what experimental result does or could possibly lend support to such a conclusion is hard to say. It ought scarcely to be necessary to observe that the process of discovering a great deal of new information about one subject matter does not, in and of itself, subtract from our knowledge of another subject; the success of one intellectual pursuit does not refute the validity of others; and so, in particular, further discoveries about the nature of physical phenomena do not in and of themselves cast doubt on what we have previously known about other phenomena.
Concerning the question about the causal powers of values, I only believe what I think is common sense. Values don't in and of themselves have physical effects, but our beliefs about them certainly do (because they influence our overt behavior). Nor do I suppose that our beliefs are a result of causal interaction with values. Although some object that we can only know of something if we interact with it, and thus it has causal powers, I suppose that we know about values in the same way that we know about mathematics, or metaphysics. Not many people will be inclined to say that abstract (mathematical and other) objects have causal powers to alter the physical world, nor that we can't know about them. And in case someone is, it can at least be noted, as a counter-example against the 'causal theory of knowledge', that it is possible to have knowledge of the future, which in this case certainly cannot be caused by its object. I know, for example, that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though I of course have not, as yet, interacted with or been influenced by that event.
It therefore appears to me that there's little to the supposed conflict of intuitionism with a scientific world-view, except for a purely emotional-level conflict. Those who are victims of scientism are prejudiced from the start against considering any entities or claims that aren't discussed by natural science, only because it doesn't fit with their attitude. And this, we can only lament, is deeply unscientific of them.
The final objection that I'm going to consider has it that I haven't given a satisfactory ethical theory, and maybe I haven't really given any theory at all, because I haven't given a set of principles or rules by reference to which one would be able to decisively and unambiguously determine in each case what a person should do -- and that's bad. In fact, nothing I have so far said is logically incompatible with any judgement about any particular action.
Let's suppose someone wants to know whether or not it's permissible to have abortions (to take a popular, though theoretically insignificant example). Well, even if he takes to heart every word I've said so far in this paper, he still doesn't have any answer. Either answer is consistent with everything I've said. And so we would find with every controversial moral issue. And isn't resolving such issues what a moral theory is supposed to do?
The objection may go on to assert that to the extent that I fail to give rules for resolving dilemmas (or for anything else either), I must therefore really be saying that in such cases a person should just pick an action arbitrarily, at random. For what other alternative is there?
Against this objection, I make three replies. First, once again, it is unclear that there is any alternative to my view that fares better. To take my favorite foil, it is altogether unclear what a utilitarian should say about abortion, capital punishment, or any other controversial issue; for it is entirely obscure whether the allowing of abortions, or putting criminals to death, increases or decreases aggregate happiness. And to take another example, it is still more obscure what a Kantian should say. What is the 'maxim' one acts on in having an abortion -- everybody should have abortions? Does prohibiting abortion treat women as mere means -- or does allowing it treat fetuses as means? And I wouldn't even know where to begin in applying a Platonic or an Aristotelian ethics to the issue. My view, on the other hand, at least has the virtue that it's true. For when people argue over whether or not abortion is permissible, we do not find them comparing utility calculations, or else carefully trying to determine exactly what the maxim behind abortion is, to see whether or not it would be possible to will it to be a universal law. Either of these procedures would strike us as artificial. What we actually do is what the intuitionist says. We consider multiple, different values and try to weigh them against each other. Truly, I can not prescribe any sort of algorithm of moral judgement, and this may be regrettable -- but it also happens to be the way we observe things to be.
Thus, my second reply would be that the fact that intuitionism provides little specific guidance in moral dilemmas just does not in any way imply that it isn't true. And if that's what moral theories are supposed to do, then perhaps moral theories are in general false.
Third, I of course deny that an absence of general rules to follow renders our decisions arbitrary. What I think it means for decisions to be non-arbitrary is that they tend to accord with moral reality, and in my view our moral values will -- at least if conditions are favorable and we acquire them under due, conscientious consideration -- tend to accord with what is really right and good. Thus will they be non-arbitrary. What is needed, then, is a reason for thinking that decisions could only come to accord with the right and/or the good if they also accorded with some rule, other than just the obvious rule "Do what's right." This is also something I have said elsewhere: The assumption behind the plea for rule-following must be that it's not possible to directly discern what is morally good; whereas it is possible to directly see what is a correct following of a rule. For if I ask someone how I am to do what is right, even if he tells me, "Follow rule R" (it doesn't matter what R is), I can always repeat, "And how do I do that?" And even if he manages to give me further rules S and T, I can ask how I am supposed to follow S. It is obvious he cannot give me an indefinite series of rules for following rules, and so he must at some point suppose there is something that I can just directly discern without further need of explanation. Seeing that this must be so if we are capable of doing anything, I do not see the objection to placing that basic capacity right at the beginning -- to supposing, that is, that I can simply discern moral values directly.
In other words, there must be some rules that I can implement directly, that is, without doing it by means of following some further rules. Why, then, may not the rule, "Do what is right" or "Believe what is true" be of this nature? The view that any action must be arbitrary unless it is governed by a rule standing behind it is of a piece with the view that any belief must be arbitrary unless justified by a reason standing behind it. But each is equally quickly reduced to absurdity.
I now want to make a few general, concluding remarks about intuitionism and what's good about it, because I don't think other philosophers have given it its due. Intuitionism does no more than try to affirm common sense. Everybody, when he considers certain types of action, has the sense, the intellectual judgement or 'intuition', that they are right. Some of these judgements strike us prephilosophically as being as obvious as anything is. Intuitionism allows that such judgements are by themselves genuine items of knowledge, that they are exactly what they appear, and are not based on some hidden, unconscious reasonings or other hidden psychological processes. Intuitionism should not require to be proved but is the presumptive position that we should start with, the position of taking our experiences at face value, just as we ordinarily take our perceptions, memories, and other thoughts at face value. Unfortunately, modern-day skepticism -- and not only in philosophy -- is in the habit of assuming that only the strange and counter-intuitive can possibly be right, and accordingly almost every philosopher thinks intuitionism obviously 'implausible'.
I have considered all the objections to intuitionism I could think of off hand. The argument from disagreement is the only serious one, that a professional philosopher should not be embarassed to make. Yet it's rarely made explicit exactly what aspect of intuitionism is under attack, or what the conclusion of the argument is. As far as I can tell, the target of the argument is the idea that human beings are capable of knowing any philosophical truth; and the conclusion is that people are irrational. For it is merely the idea that we have any sort of capacity to know about ethics or other controversial subjects -- and not that this capacity is intuition -- that is important in the argument. And if people were all rational, then one way or another you would expect them to stop arguing -- if not because they all discovered the truth, then because they realized that they couldn't discover the truth. The proponent of the argument from disagreement himself has no explanation of the existence of continued disagreement.
This might sound like a mere tu quoque response, but I am prepared to admit that people are frequently irrational or overly hasty in making moral judgements, especially when religions and personal emotions get involved. The only thing to do about this is resolve to weigh intuitions more carefully -- not to decide henceforth to ignore them wholesale.