Search This Blog

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Defense of Ethical Intuitionism--Part One

I have identified myself as holding to the moral theory known as "Ethical Intuitionism." Michael Huemer, in his book Ethical Intuitionism, recognizes three components to this theory:
(i) there are objective moral truths; (ii) we know some of these truths through a kind of immediate, intellectual awareness, or “intuition”; and (iii) our knowledge of moral truths gives us reasons for action independent of our desires.

I have explained in a prior post how that my belief in ethical intuitionism relates to my de-conversion. Essentially, I see the God of the Bible violating a number of ethical principles. If the Bible is accurate in its reports, then the God of the Bible is an unethical being. He is not holy and righteous and he is not worthy of worship. I actually don't think such a God really exists. I think he is the invention of the imagination of ancient peoples. However, if one wants to retain evangelical Christianity, one has to explain how the actions of the God reported in the Bible are ethical inspite of our intuitions to the contrary.

1. What is an intuition?

Huemer writes:
Reasoning sometimes changes how things seem to us. But there is also a way things seem to us prior to reasoning; otherwise, reasoning could not get started. The way things seem prior to reasoning we may call an 'initial appearance'. An initial, intellectual appearance is an 'intuition'. . . . An ethical intuition is an intuition whose content is an evaluative proposition (p. 101).

2. What are some examples of ethical intuitions?

[1] Enjoyment is better than suffering.

[2] If A is better than B and B is better than C, then A is better than C.

[3] It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he did not commit.

[4] Courage, benevolence, and honesty are virtues.

[5] If a person has a right to do something, then no person has a right to forcibly prevent him from doing that thing (p. 102).

Huemer explains:

Prior to entertaining arguments for or against them, each of these propositions seems true. In each case, the appearance is intellectual; you do not perceive that these things are the case with your eyes, ears, etc. And they are evaluative. So the relevant mental states are ethical intuitions (p. 102).

3. What are examples of ethical claims that are not intuitive?

[1] The United States should not have gone to war in Iraq in 2003.

[2] We should privatize Social Security.

[3] Abortion is wrong
(p. 102).

Huemer states: Though these propositions seem true to some, the relevant appearances do not count as 'intuitions' because they depend on other beliefs (p. 102).

4. Aren't ethical intuitions just dervied from our antecedent moral beliefs?

A more sophisticated worry is that what we think of as intuitions may be products of antecedently existing beliefs, perhaps via subconscious inferences. Perhaps 'Enjoyment is better than suffering' only seems true to me because I already believe it, or believe things from which it follows (p. 103).

Huemer gives two reasons for rejecting the idea that ethical intuitions are based on antecedent moral beliefs:

First, the view that intuitions are or are caused by beliefs fails to explain the origin of our moral beliefs. Undoubtedly some moral beliefs are accounted for by inference from other moral beliefs. But since no moral belief can be derived from wholly non-moral premises [Hume's Guillotine], we must start with some moral beliefs that are not inferred from any other beliefs. Where do these starting moral beliefs come from? Do we just adopt them entirely arbitrarily? No; this is not the phenomenology of moral belief. We adopt fundamental moral beliefs because they seem right to us; we don't select them randomly.

Second, moral intuitions are not in general caused by antecedent moral beliefs, since moral intuitions often either conflict with our antecedently held moral theories, or are simply unexplained by them. Here are two famous hypothetical examples from the ethics literature:

Example 1: A doctor in a hospital has five patients who need organ transplants; otherwise, they will die. They all need different organs. He also has one healthy patient, in for a routine checkup, who happens to be compatible with the five. Should the doctor kill the healthy patient and distribute his organs to the other five?

Example 2: A runaway trolley is heading for a fork in the track. If it takes the left fork, it will collide with and kill five people; if it takes the right fork, it will collide with and kill one person. None of the people can be moved out of the way in time. There is a switch that determines which fork the trolley takes. It is presently set to send the trolley to the left. You can flip the switch, sending the trolley to the right instead. Should you flip the switch (p. 103)?

What does your intuition tell you is the correct action in each case? Remember that your intuition is your initial "gut reaction" before reflection. Does your view of what is the correct action change upon further reflection?

We will examine this in more detail in a future post.


  1. Gut reaction is you shouldn't do either, because you are knowingly taking a life.

    Upon further reflection, I think it depends on your personality somewhat whether you would do those things. I say that because I tend toward fatalism and inaction naturally, so those are factors. The first one I would not do after reflection, I think. The second one seems more urgent, so I could maybe see myself making a quick decision to lessen the harm by making the switch.

    So many factors though-what if the one person on the track was a child? And the others were adults? That would influence me also I think.

  2. ---

    I have disagree with you here, Ken. In a world devoid of God and any supernaturally imbued purpose and meaning, all sentient beings, though they may be qualitatively different, are quantitatively the same.

    But if this is accepted, then how can objective morality be considered true on an intuitive level? When you clean your countertop and decimate millions of bacteria, do you feel a twinge of remorse and regret? When your house was built, and in the process, colonies of ants were displaced, along with the feeding grounds of several other sentient creatues, not to mention the numerous creatures that were killed, did you mourn?

    These questions could be multiplied a thousandfold, and it becomes easy to see that what we consider morality are only those rules which serve to increase OUR happiness and lead to a more advantageous society. And these are certainly the traits that we should expect to be favored by evolution. We have been, for millions of years most likely, a society based creature, and those "intuitions" within in that favor the survival of the society should be favored by evolution.

    Now, it does seem that society is beginning to move towards favoring the ethical treatment of animals (which is a GREAT thing as far as I'm concerned), I don't think it proves that their is some sort of "objective" morality, whatever that might even mean.

    I believe morality is only defined by its instrumental value, and I don't think morality is descriptive of intrinsic value, since what we consider moral in regards to humans is seldom the same case regarding other creatures.

    For example, if your house was overrun with gypies from the countryside, it would "immoral"
    to hire some thug and to walk into your house and exterminate them, but what if your house is overrun by coackroaches? Call the Orkin Man, of course. But in a Godless universe, where there is no quantitative difference between sentient beings, this is a double standard, and flies directly in the face of any espoused "objective" morality.

    Now, when arguing against the Christian conception of God based on a moral argument, all the atheist does (assuming he doesn't believe in objective morality) is assume the Christian point of view (that objective morality exists) and then shows how the charicature of God is inconsistent with such a belief, since this God doesn't live up to any modern concept of objective morality, nor does the God of the Bible line up with several of the disparate moral stances held in Scriptures.

    Thanks for the excellent post, Ken, and I'm glad we finally disagreed on something. :)

  3. ---

    Sorry, I should clarified. What I meant above was that I don't see how it's possible to argue for objective morality based on intuition or cultural norms.

  4. Exploring,

    I don't think we are that far apart. I would use quotation marks when referring to "objective" morality. I am not sure exactly what sense Huemer means it in but I mean it in the following sense: objective in terms of the fact that it is a nearly universal belief. In other words, each one of us are subjects but when all or virtually all subjects agree on something that implies that it must "objectively" true. Does that make sense?

  5. Can I explain "intuition"? This is simply a short cut in rational thinking. Instead of going, A to B to C, you mind skips B and goes straight to C. This is based on previous learned and stored information in the brain.
    I have heard those ethical dilemma questions before.
    The hypocratic oath would prevent me from killing any patient for the benefit of others, but I would flip the switch in the second example. We are often called upon to do the greatest good for the greatest number, even at the expense of a few individual lives. Examples would be giving medications that have potentially lethal side effects in a very few cases, but could save thousands of lives.

  6. ---


    I guess we could really get tied up here in definitions of truth and objectivity, but I think for along time, it was intuitive to believe that the Earth was stationary and the sun moved across the sky, and based on the information available at the time, it was a reasonable conclusion. But, just because virtually all people agreed on this did not make it objective in any strict sense of the word.

    When I think of objective, I think in the same sense that the sun is stationary (relative to the Earth, though it is moving as well) and that the Earth moves around the Sun, whether or not we think this the case. I think of objective morality in the same sense. For example, is it wrong to rape a woman whether we think so or not? (just to assure you all, I am vehemently against such an act, and would do anything in my power to stop a rape if I were witnessing an attempt).

    The question is, why do I oppose rape, and why does anyone do such a thing? That's a tougher question, but I think these are ingrained in us based on our evolutionary history, and I haven't yet seen an argument that shows that morality is objective in any meaningful sense, only that is enforced because of its instrumental value based on our collective desires and ambitions.

    I hope I was clear, and please let me know where you disagree with my viewpoint.

    Thanks Ken!

  7. Exploring,

    With the foundational theory of epistemology that I am espousing, there are defeaters. In other words, one may conclude based on evidence later that our intuitions are wrong. However, it seems to me that moral intuitions are different than other intuitions. The idea of geocentricity was based on observation. I am not sure it was really an intuition.

  8. ---


    Is it possible that moral intuitions can be based on observation? For example, there are often times instances where we find out after having habitually performed some action that it is harming others, all the while unbeknownst to us. Is it possilbe that morality followed this line deep in our evolutionary past? (Steven Pinker has some data suggesting that in millenia past, nearly 60% of deaths of humans were at the hands of another human, whereas now, that number is down under 3%; is it possible that murder was perceived to be wrong over time, because we began to notice how disadvantageous it was for a stable society and general survival?)

    Also, you have pointed out in earlier posts about Evangelicals defending slavery that some theologians didn't consider Africans to be of the same "human status" as white men. I think this divide is increased the farther we go back in time, as we knew less about science and biology, and so therefore what was considered moral was only applicable to a certain group you considered to be human just like you.

    To me, all this seems highly subjective. Also, how does ethical intuitionism deal with the problem that most people, historically and today, don't have the same intuitions toward all sentient creatures, despite the fact that there is no quantitative difference between humans and all other sentient creatures?

    Thanks Ken, for the response.

  9. Exploring,

    Those are some good questions. I tend to think that our moral intuitions or instincts have evolved over time. It seems our strongest instinct is personal survival, then survival or defense of our family, clan and tribe. No doubt people of other tribes were considered of lesser value. These notions have definitely evolved although we still see traces of it in racism and ethnocentrism.

    The thing about ethical intuitionism is that it says there are a few "objective" intuitions and then moral decisions beyond those are made by inference from those "given" moral standards. So its not saying that every moral decision is an intuition but it is saying there a few that are.

  10. The Jesuits already beat your examples (1 and 2) to death. You can't really be espousing Jesuitism, can you?

    The proposed "ethical intuitions" 1-4 are easily shown to be false, empirically.

  11. The examples are from Huemer's book. Has nothing to do with Jesuitism.

    Then, please show empirical evidence that they are false.

  12. Intuition sounds something we would find in a baby even right from the start and nearly in its first breaths,like breathing and hunger.

    I dont see morals as intution it seems to me its more like a common sense that we learn and gets passed on from generation to generation.We could always learn all these ideas again and again, through trial and error and experience ourselves,but having them passed on from generation to generation, only means we can then better tune all this knowledge in our own lifetime.Rather than each and everyone of us always needing to start right back from a beginning each time, so instead we get to build on and finely tune, what has already been learned and passed on to us.

    Rather than being a matter of intuition, im my opinion i think it might be more about what i would call a natural common sense or calculative thought pattern, due to our genetically comparable brain waves.

    And as such certain morals such as the moral of blatant murder for instance can then easily be thought objective ,because it just dont matter what anyone personally think or who he is or where he live .The simple common sense fact still remains eaxctly the same no matter what .If murder was ever thought moral, then it only becomes self destructive and so totally self defeating in the end.Because people can only ever murder each other for so long as atleast on male and one female still exists,because otherwise after that in the end with only one person existing. It only ever would have spelled our total extinction as a result.

    It didnt matter whether it was in China or the USA or even South Africa, blatant murder didnt stand a chance, of ever really being considdered by any sane person as being so moral.

    Its objective through use of our calculative thought and common sense,there is no need of it being supernatural or really even any real need for emotion.

    Babies dont need to know that murders not moral by intution innately, like hunger and breathing is.Because through the trial and error method its something that can always be worked out and passed on by our calculative thought patterns.

  13. I agree Anonymous. Morality is mostly learned behaviour. Very young babies have no morals. Yes, they cry when other babies cry or cry when there mothers cry becuase it makes them feel insecure. Not because they a re feeling altruistic.
    Other than obeying the laws of the land and the golden rule, I thnk that morality is mostly subjective-not objective.

  14. I think that even infants have some moral inuitions. See the work being done by Paul Bloom. They seem to know some things are right and some are wrong.

    I am not saying that all ethical matters are intuitive. I am saying that a few are and these serve as the foundation upon which to make other ethical decisions.


  15. Then, please show empirical evidence that they are false.

    Let's just take #2, for example. It looks as if no reasonable person could argue with such a statement, since it's purely logical. But behavioral economists have proven time and time again that judgement of preferences is not transitive. Daniel Gilbert at Harvard did the first empirical experiments, and others have verified in multiple contexts.

    Basically, it is not the case that if someone says that A is better than B, and B is better than C, that A would be better than C. When people are put in this situation, they often say that C is better than A. This happens all the time. In the face of the evidence, it's essentially insane to expect people to behave as if their beliefs about good are transitive.

    This is the fatal flaw in Huemer's approach. He constructs these sentences that people process as language, and which are practically tautological, and then claims it "evidence" when people process the language logically. The problem is that people's actual behavior doesn't match what appears to be "logical" according to these sentences. It simply doesn't.

    FWIW, this is a topic I've spent years studying. I've learned a lot about PST from this blog, but I'm not convinced that you've done enough study to even begin to have a defensible humanist morality. You seem smarter than Alonzo by a long shot, though.


  16. I agree Anonymous. Morality is mostly learned behaviour. Very young babies have no morals. Yes, they cry when other babies cry or cry when there mothers cry becuase it makes them feel insecure. Not because they are feeling altruistic.

    I'm sorry, but this is just wrong. Our evolution has endowed us with a great deal of innate moral impulses, including altruism. Current thought in evolutionary biology suggests that altruism may even be the central driver of our evolution, via sexual selection, much as the peacock's feathers are to the peafowl.

    There are experiments showing that babies prefer people who exhibit altruism, and there are, of course, instinctive moral attitudes that arise after puberty. For example, if a man sees another man making love to his wife, the first impulse is to smash in the other man's head with a rock. If a woman sees a starving baby at the side of the road, she feeds it. These are not learned behaviors; they are deeply instinctive.

  17. Clare yes babies cry and i think your right its an insecurity thing!.Which fits in well with reasons for us having the golden rule thing,its why we would learn to want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

    Ken i think Paul Bloom is correct Humans do have empathy which maybe also is a type of inate inuition.But i still do think empathy is really also more of a learned thing too,yes its inate in us, but we still also do have to learn it through our own vulnerability of being born.

    Otherwise if empathy really was something that is kind of a fully formed inate moral within us all at birth,well then even some really smart babies maybe might have been able to simply decide when not to go crying while mummys to busy for a moment.

    That empathy parts inately built into us by our survival mode being that of a group of Social Beings, a group that will also survive best by learning how to best cooperate.

    D’Souza just forgets the breeding benefit side of our use of chivalry, when wondering why somebody might give there seat away in a bus,social groups just wont be happy with any antisocial type behaviour. So even humans giving bloods not extraordinary.At times we will even put ourslves in grave danger,just to try and save others .But still thats because its either a choice of simply chosing to help others, or risk later trying living with yourself and others knowing you had never even bothered trying to help somebody when it was needed.An antisocial behaviour.

    It doesnt suprise me babies prefer people who exhibit altruism.And any mans jealous nature of watching his woman friends antics, has heaps to do with pride hormones and a need to try to compete and feel wanted.