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Monday, June 28, 2010

A Defense of Ethical Intuitionism--Part Two

In part one of a defense of Ethical Intuitionism, I discussed what an intuition is, what some examples of intuitionism are, and whether intuitions are just derived from antecedent moral beliefs. I gave two ethical questions from Michael Huemer's book, Ethical Intuitionism:

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)?

I think most people would instinctively answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second. Why is that, since answering "yes" to both questions would end up saving five lives while sacrificing one? Moral philosophers who hold a utilitarian approach to ethics would be inclined to answer "yes" to question 1 even though they admit it seems counter-intuitive. It could be that in the case of question 2, it is inevitable that someone(s) is going to die and that it is better for one to die than five is intuitive. Things might change if the five people on the other track are all adults and the one on the other track is a child. It might also change if one knew the one person and loved that person but the five on the other track were strangers. However, I think in that case a person's instinct is to save his loved one. Many factors could come into play but the point is that whatever decision that is made is made in an instant and is not based on moral reflection. As Huemer says: The point is that no moral theory held prior to considering cases such as those above is likely to afford us an explanation for why the sacrifice should be found unacceptable in example 1 but acceptable in example 2 (p. 103).

1. Are some moral intuitions stronger than others?

Yes, for example, let's change the scenario in example two. On one side of the track is five people and on the other side is no one. Should you flip the switch? I think 100% of people would say "yes." Why? Because to save human life is instinctive. As Huemer writes:
Not all intuitions are equal--some are more credible than others. As the above remarks suggest, one reason for this is that some intuitions are simply stronger, or more clearly seem true, than others. Another reason is that some intuitions are more widely shared than others; other things being equal, an intuition that many disagree with is more likely to be an error than is an intuition that nearly everyone shares. Another reason is that some intuitions have simpler contents than others, and are therefore less prone to error. And there are various reasons why some kinds of intuitions may be more open to bias than others. These facts point to the conclusion that intuitions should not be embraced uncritically, and that conflicting intuitions should be weighed against each other taking into account our best judgments as to their relative levels of reliability (p. 104).

2. Are moral intuitions objective?

It depends on how one defines "objective." If one defines it as, having reality independent of the mind, then, I don't think anything can be known to be truly objective. Since each individual is a subject, and must subjectively experience the physical world, and since the only way we as subjects comprehend anything we experience in the world is via our minds, then how can any knowledge be other than subjective?

However, by sharing their comparable experiences intersubjectively, individuals may gain an increasingly accurate understanding of the world. In this way, many different subjective experiences can come together to form intersubjective ones that are less likely to be prone to individual bias or gaps in knowledge ("Intersubjective verifiability", Wikipedia). Intersubjectivity is a term used in philosophy, psychology and sociology to describe a condition somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, one in which a phenomenon is personally experienced (subjectively) but by more than one subject ("Intersubjectivity," Wikipedia). If virtually everyone agrees in their interpretation of an experience, then there is a high probability that the meaning given to the phenomenon is "objective." That is why, for example, several eyewitnesses who all agree are considered more reliable than one eyewitness. However, the "objectivity " suggested would still be theoretical, since no one can "get outside" of their own mind.

Thus, if virtually everyone agrees that it is wrong to do a particular thing, one can consider it to be virtually an objective moral fact that it is wrong to do the particular thing. Therefore, in that sense of "objective," one can consider moral intuitions to be "objective."

In the next post on this series I will discuss misunderstandings of ethical intuitionism.


  1. Ken, your two choices are not strictly analagous since you don't have the time constraint in the first that you do in the second.

    Obviously, there is a time factor in each, but the second has to be resolved IMMEDIATELY, whereas in the first there is the possibility that other donors may be found.

  2. Dr. P,

    I am sold on intuitionism also. Erik Wielenberg and David Heumer's work seem to fit quite nicely with Quinean Naturalism. I am also a Georgian (but I am from Savannah). Maybe we could start a club :P

  3. "Since each individual is a subject, and must subjectively experience the physical world, and since the only way we as subjects comprehend anything we experience in the world is via our minds, then how can any knowledge be other than subjective?"

    You feel murder being immoral is subjective as in about opinion or judgment.
    I see it as being more of an objective moral matter.Because if murder was said to be moral it would send humanity towards extinction.I think the outcome still remains the same without need of our thought.

  4. Anon,

    It depends on how you define "objective" as I said in the post.