Can Ethical Intuitionism Be Defended?

with 4 comments

Robert Audi defines ethical intuitionism as “the view that we can have, in the light of appropriate reflection (my emphasis!) on the content of moral judgments and moral principles, intuitive (hence non-referential) justification for holding them”. He proposes a Kantian (!!!!!) version of ethical intuitionism and attacks the common conception of intuitionism (the infallibilist, immoderately rationalist, “special faculty” view) [see his article Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics].

Now, according to Audi, there are 4 characteristics of intuitions:

a) noninferentiality / ungroundability (what is intuitively known cannot be (evidentially) grounded in premises)

b) firmness (an intuition must be a moderately firm cognition; a mere inclination to believe is not an intuition)

c) the comprehension requirement (intuitions must be formed in the light of an adequate understanding of their propositional objects; before one can apprehend even a self-evident moral truth, one must get precisely that true proposition before one’s mind)

d) relative pretheoreticality (intuitions are pretheoretical relative to the issue in question: they are neither evidentially dependent on theories nor themselves theoretical hypotheses) (this doesn’t entail that intuition has a complete independence of theory: an intuition may be defeated in the light of theoretical results incompatible with its truth, so this is a sort of a negative epistemic dependence of intuition on theory)

While (a) and (d) seem prima facie reasonable, how can we circumscribe the scope of (b) [a “moderately firm” cognition] and (c) [an “adequate” understanding of an intuition’s propositional object]? Audi says nothing about these problems.

But there is more. Audi asks himself: if noninferential and pretheoretical, to what extent intuitions represent rationality? He answers the question by making a distinction between conclusions of inference (judgments premised on propositions one has noted as evidence) and conclusions of reflection (judgments “which are more like a response to viewing a painting or seeing an expressive face than to propositionally represented information”). He strongly denies the possible critique that “conclusions of reflections” are still based on inference – but unconvincingly to me.

And here comes the strangest thing. He makes a distinction between 2 types of self-evident propositions: (a) immediately self-evident (those self-evident propositions that are readily understood by normal adults; they are obvious, and there are degrees of obviousness); (b) mediately self-evident (those self-evident propositions understood by normal adults only through reflection (my emphasis) on the sorts of case they concern). He thinks that moral principles for intuitionism are mediately self-evident, and further, that „once we appreciate that the kind of self-evidence to which intuitionism is committed is only mediate, we can allow that intuitive moral principles, even if they are self-evident, are knowable through premises as well as by reflection on their content”.

So my question is this: if this is true, then why do we need intuitionism? If we can know moral principles „through premises” (this would be a wonderful thing, because we could logically prove which moral principle is true and which is not), then why do we need intuitionism anymore?

It seems to me that, in this case, intuitionism is superfluous – just as God is superfluous if we claim that we can scientifically explain everything, but nevertheless God exists (see a very nice parable in Anthony Flew, Theology and Falsification).

Just an aside: I think ethical intuitionism CAN be defended – the best leading authors in this field are, in my opinion, Michael Huemer – you can download (on line and free of charge) a part of his book Ethical Intuitionism – and Pekka Vayrynen. The latter wrote the best defense of ethical intuitionism I ever read, in his article Some Good and Bad News for Ethical Intuitionism. I will try to post here soon a synopsis of this article.

Written by Andrei Stavilă

Martie 17, 2008 la 1:01 pm

4 Răspunsuri

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  1. „mediately self-evident”

    this is an oxymoron … or did I have too much coffee ?

    Emil Per

    Martie 17, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  2. Well, that was somehow my point. But for Audi the difference is this:
    1) The proposition „It is morally wrong to torture little children just for fun” is „immediately self-evident” (anyone can „see” this).
    2) But here’s an example of „mediately self-evident” propositions. I take this example, again, from Audi:
    „There is a sense in which an intuition can be a conclusion formed though rational inquiry. Consider listening to someone complain about a task done by a coworker, where one has been asked to determine whether the work was adequate. In a way that is impersonal and ably documented, Timothy criticizes the work of Abby. One might judge, from his credible statements of deficiencies in her work, that it was shoddy. This is a response to evidential propositions. Now imagine being asked a different question: whether there might be some bias in the critique. One might now recall his narration in one’s mind’s eye and year, and from a global, intuitive sense of Timothy’s intonations, word choices, selections of deficiencies, and omission of certain merits, judge that he is jealous of her. This is a response to an overall impression. Let us call the first judgment – that the work is shoddy – a conclusion of inference: it is premised on propositions one had noted as evidence. Call the second judgment conclusion of reflection: it emerges from thinking about the overall pattern of Timothy’s critique in the context of his relation to Abby as a coworker, but not from one or more evidential premises. It is more like a response to viewing a painting or seeing an expressive face than to propositionally represented information”.
    So what we have here is a distinction between conclusions which are the result of an argument and conclusions which are the result of a (quick and difuse) reflection on the whole situation. The first conclusion is derived from premises; the second is an intuition.
    But notice that this latter intuition is not „immediate” in the sense the first one (about torturing children) is. We first have to reflect on the situation, and only after that we can say whether Timothy’s judgment was biased or not. So this intuition is mediate. And because intuitions are propositions which are self-evident, then we can say that this intuition is a mediated self-evident proposition. It is mediated by reflection.
    Now this is Audi’s view. But Audi still did not convince me that a mediated self-evident proposition is not, in fact, a disguised conclusion of inference .


    Martie 17, 2008 at 6:06 pm

  3. So this fellow says that intuition is inference based on non-verbal reasoning, which is still oximoronic … or just moronic.

    I can feel your pain … some 10 years ago I had to endure reading a pompous moron called Agamben, and a bit later had to live through classes on Carlyle (oh … the pain, the pain … ) … because of that, now I make a living writing accounting and asset management software, and I think I have a lot more fun 😛 .

    Emil Per

    Martie 20, 2008 at 12:07 pm

  4. I fully understand you – sometimes I have more fun writing articles for newspapers… But sometimes I really enjoy reading ethics and political philosophy – this is why I’m still in the business… yet.


    Martie 23, 2008 at 1:28 am

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