Intuition and Morals
by Daniel A. Kaufman
The main moral conviction of the plain man seem to me to be, not opinions which it is for philosophy to prove or disprove, but knowledge from the start.
–W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good
I want to say a few things about morality and intuition and the relationship between the two. One of them is that some variety of what is commonly called “moral intuitionism” must be true … or at least, it must be true, if there really are such things as moral obligations and duties, something about which I remain unsure. But if there are – and if theorizing about them is possible – then our moral intuitions – the feelings of obligation and duty that we experience over the course of our daily lives – ultimately provide the measure against which the accounts we give must hold up. In this sense, they play a role, relative to our moral theories, that is analogous to that played by observations, in the context of scientific theorizing. Just as a scientific theory – say, a theory of motion – must stand or fall on how well it accounts for what is observed, so a moral theory must stand or fall on how well it accounts for our feelings of obligation and duty.
A few points, before continuing on this line of thought:
- It is irrelevant to the role I am assigning moral intuitions that we may be wrong about a felt obligation or duty, in the sense that it might turn out that we are not actually obligated to do something for which we previously felt obligated. (Analogously, it is irrelevant to the role played by observations in science that we sometimes misperceive things.) That an obligation is felt simply means that it is a prima facie duty (to employ a Rossian phrase), but whether it is an actual duty will depend on a full consideration of the circumstances and whether or not other prima facie duties arise that may be overriding, a process that is, of course, fallible.
- There need be no faculty of intuition and one need assign no enigmatic qualities to intuitions to speak of them, in the manner that I am. There is nothing mysterious about feeling obligated to do or not to do such and such, and feeling that way requires no mental apparatus above and beyond that which we already recognize.
- What is distinctive about moral intuitions is that they are unmediated by any process of theorizing or inference. As H.A. Prichard described it, “[t]he sense of obligation to do, or of the rightness of, an action of a particular kind is absolutely underivative or immediate.” This is not to deny that some process of non-moral thinking or acquisition of non-moral knowledge may engender a sense of obligation in a person – learning of American hyper-incarceration of its citizens, for example, may arouse a feeling of obligation on my part to engage in certain sorts of political activity – but is simply to say that the sense of obligation that arises is not the result of inferring it from the knowledge acquired, as traditional moral theories suggest.
- That moral intuitions provide the ultimate measure against which the adequacy of a moral theory is determined is but a specific instance of a more general truth, namely that all theoretical inquiry ultimately is arbitrated against a background of intuition, common sense, and ordinary language and experience. (Even logic looks to intuitions for its basic conditions of adequacy, as there can be no proofs for the logical axioms – no justification beyond their intuitive plausibility.)
Though purely theoretical concerns may cause us to reject a moral theory, it is much more commonly the result of a clash between the theory and our moral intuitions, and it is never the case that a moral theory passes muster, solely on the basis of theoretical considerations.
We may reject Kant’s brand of deontology, for example, because his view that moral duties are indefeasible and outcomes morally irrelevant yields perverse results, such as requiring us to tell the truth, even if doing so yields no benefit and harms an innocent person. We may reject consequentialist moral theories in part, because they deny the moral significance of intentions, which yields counterintuitive results, such as treating cynical, selfish actions as morally equivalent to selfless, altruistic ones, so long as they produce the same outcome.
To the extent that we are inclined to accept moral theories – either in whole or in part – it is because they provide a satisfactory reconstruction of our moral intuitions. It is because Utilitarianism can make sense of the intuition that moral rightness and wrongness admit of degrees, for example, that makes it preferable on this front to Kantian deontology, which cannot. It is because Ross’s moral philosophy provides a framework in which to understand our intuition that there is value in our relationships with others, beyond that of benefactor to beneficiary, that his theory is preferable, on this front, to Utilitarianism.
It can only be with a mixture of puzzlement and amusement, then, that we read the following from Peter Singer, in an article devoted to denying that moral intuitions play a legitimate role in ethical practice. He has just finished describing a study by Joshua Greene, the purpose of which is to explain why we react in disparate ways to Trolley-style cases – why we are willing to pull a switch to divert a train, so that it will kill one person, rather than five, for example, but are unwilling to shove a man in front of a train, to prevent five from dying – when he says the following:
Greene’s work helps us understand where our moral intuitions come from. But the fact that our moral intuitions are universal and part of our human nature does not mean that they are right. On the contrary, these findings should make us more skeptical about relying on our intuitions.
There is, after all, no ethical significance in the fact that one method of harming others has existed for most of our evolutionary history, and the other is relatively new. Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And surely the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions.
Notice how much of the work ‘surely’ is doing here. Singer’s blanket assertion that the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five could be a naked appeal to our intuitions – it certainly looks like one – but in his case, it is almost certainly a product of his Utilitarianism. The trouble, of course, is that the adequacy of Singer’s Utilitarianism itself is a matter of how good of a rational reconstruction the theory offers of our already existing moral intuitions. Far from “not listening” to our intuitions, then, Singer’s statement is an exercise in appealing to them – whether directly or indirectly.
It is quite understandable that Singer would like to banish intuitions from respectable ethical thinking and discourse, as it would seem to be his mission to convince us of any number of very counterintuitive things – that infanticide is morally acceptable and even obligatory, in some cases; that every family barbecue or fishing trip with grandpa is a moral catastrophe; that sex with dogs, pigs, or cows is perfectly ethical, so long as it consists of “mutually satisfying activities” – as part of what look like an effort to effect a kind of wholesale moral revisionism. Singer’s brand of Utilitarianism is what provides the sanction for radical judgments like these, but it is precisely such results that most of us will deem perverse and which will thereby render Utilitarianism unacceptable to us as a moral theory.
Certainly, moral attitudes and intuitions change, given that we change, as people, so we should expect that what seems plausible to us, moral theory-wise, may also change. But moral theories do not and cannot change our moral attitudes and intuitions on their own. For one thing, such changes are not simply a matter of our switching beliefs, but of our changing as people, and our engagement with moral theories is at too intellectual a level for them to have such an effect, and for another, as already indicated, moral theories cannot confirm themselves, but must appeal to our moral attitudes and intuitions, if they are to get off the ground.
Works Mentioned in Order of Appearance
W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).
H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind, Vol. 21 (1912).
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739).
Peter Singer, “Should We Trust Our Moral Intuitions?” Project Syndicate (2007).
Peter Singer, “Heavy Petting,” Nerve (2001). http://tinyurl.com/dxp2tqe