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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ethical Intuitionism--The Intuition that it is Wrong to Kill

In the comments section of several posts I have identified myself as holding to a form of "ethical intuitionism." Michael Huemer, in his book, Ethical Intuitionism sees three points in the 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 don't intend to defend the theory in this post in terms of analytical arguments but rather to illustrate the truth of the theory from the practical cases of soldiers who have difficulty killing.

S.L.A. Marshall (1900 – 1977) was a chief U.S. Army combat historian during World War II and the Korean War. He wrote:

It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual--the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat--still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from the responsibility. Though it is improbable that he may ever analyze his own feelings so searchingly as to know what is stopping his own hand, his hand is nonetheless stopped At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing (Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, 1947, p. 79).

Contrary to depictions in most movies many soldiers have difficulty actually killing another human being and when they do kill a person, they often feel guilty. I think this illustrates the truth of ethical intuitionism. Even though one may be able to defend rationally that the killing was justified, one may still feel intuitively that it was wrong.

I think that most men will not kill (apart from the instinct of self-defense) unless they feel that a higher authority has authorized it, whether that authority be their country or their god. They need something to justify in their minds going against what their intuition tells them. Men are especially haunted by killing innocents or non-combatants.

The following documentary is powerful. I highly suggest you take the 25 minutes to watch it. I personally have several family members who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan and who are suffering some of the pain that is discussed in this film.

By the way, I am not interested in discussing the politics of the war. There are other forums for that. I am interested in the moral aspects and how individual soldiers deal with violating their intuition that its wrong to kill another human being.

The film is entitled: Soldiers of Conscience and I am posting only part one as it is the part that is most relevant to my discussion of "ethical intuitionism."


  1. Maybe that is why some doctors go to great lengths to keep dying people alive by artificial means, when it is obviously not in the patient's best interest, even if he or she is in great pain or struggling to breath.

  2. Dr. Pulliam, have you read any of Erik Weilenberg? He is also an intuitionist and has fleshed out aspects of their theory that Heumer didn't (and vice-versa)

  3. If by "objective moral truths", we mean, "morals that are innately endowed via evolution and can be objectively measured", I agree with the theory. I guess dogs have "objective morals" and apes do, too.

  4. eightbitlegend,

    No I haven't but I must put him on my list. So much to read and so little time :)

  5. J.S.,

    I havent studied this in detail but I do believe there is some evidence that chimps for example display some innate sense of morality.

    See this article: Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

  6. @Ken - I know about that study and others. It's a topic I've studied quite a bit.

    I wasn't being sarcastic -- I was pointing out that our "innate sense of morals" is an evolutionary adaptation which can easily be measured objectively.

    I find it strange that people always want to talk about "moral theories", since we don't need any theories. We can just measure what people do and think.