Robert L. Frazier ( )

Robert L. Frazier


To intuit something is to apprehend it directly, without recourse to reasoning processes such as deduction or induction. Intuitionism in ethics proposes that we have a capacity for intuition and that some of the facts or properties that we intuit are irreducibly ethical. Traditionally, intuitionism also advances the important thesis that beliefs arising from intuition have direct justification. This means that such beliefs do not need to be justified by appeal to other beliefs or facts because the proposition believed is either self-evident or can have justification without being supported by evidence. So, while intuitionism in ethics is about the apprehension of ethical facts or properties, traditional intuitionism is principally a view about how ethical beliefs are justified: those arising from intuition have direct justification.

Note that `intuition' can refer to the thing intuited as well as the process of intuiting. Also, somewhat confusingly, intuitionism is sometimes identified with pluralism, the view that there is a plurality of fundamental ethical properties or principles. This identification probably occurs because pluralists often accept the epistemological version of intuitionism.

1 The Motivation for Intuitionism
2 Varieties of Intuitionism
3 Why Not Intuitionism?

The Motivation for Intuitionism

Traditional intuitionism in ethics is not so much an attempt to establish that we have justification for ethical beliefs as it is an attempt to explain how ethical beliefs get their justification. That some ethical beliefs have justification is taken as a datum to be explained.

The form this explanation takes seems to be determined by an explicit or implicit commitment to three views: moral realism, the autonomy of ethics and foundationalism in the theory of knowledge. Moral realism requires that there are ethical facts or properties that are in some way objective or mind independent, although the exact nature of the objectivity or mind independence is controversial (see MORAL REALISM). That ethics is autonomous means that ethical facts cannot be `reduced' to, or fully explained in terms of, non-ethical ones (see AUTONOMY OF ETHICS). For example, this would preclude something's goodness being analysable in terms of someone's desire for it. We can express this as the view that ethical facts or properties are irreducibly ethical. Foundationalism is a general theory about the justification of beliefs, asserting that all justification has as a foundation beliefs that have direct justification. Non-foundational beliefs must rely for their ultimate justification on beliefs that have direct justification (see FOUNDATIONALISM).

If it is accepted that we sometimes have justification for ethical beliefs and the explanation of their justification has to be consistent with these three views, then traditional intuitionism is almost inevitably the result. However, it should be noted that some modern philosophers hold that some ethical facts or properties must be directly apprehended (intuited), but reject foundationalism and the view that beliefs arising from intuition have direct justification (e.g., J. Dancy). In what follows I shall focus on traditional intuitionism.

The reasoning from these views (moral realism, the autonomy of ethics, and foundationalism) to traditional intuitionism proceeds in the following way. The combination of moral realism and the autonomy of ethics ensures that ethical beliefs are about irreducibly ethical facts or properties and, thus, that ethical beliefs are irreducibly ethical. According to foundationalism, justification of beliefs about these irreducibly ethical facts or properties has as a foundation beliefs that have direct justification (i.e., they are self-evident or need no evidence). Irreducibly ethical beliefs cannot have non-ethical beliefs as their foundation. For if they could, the contents of the ethical beliefs would have to be so intimately related to the contents of the foundational non-ethical beliefs as to be inconsistent with the autonomy of ethics. For example, if beliefs about desires provide the foundation for beliefs about goodness, then desiring and goodness would have to be intimately related. So, for any ethical beliefs to have justification, there must be some ethical beliefs that have direct justification and arise from direct apprehension (intuition). (If the foundational beliefs could arise from indirect apprehension, they could also be indirectly justified.)

Adding the `datum' that we do sometimes have justification for ethical beliefs, we can conclude that some of our ethical beliefs arise from intuition and have direct justification. This is traditional intuitionism in ethics.

Varieties of Intuitionism

Although elements of intuitionism have always had a place in ethical debate (see PLATO; PLATONISTS), it was only in the seventeenth century that it became a distinctive view (see HISTORY OF ETHICS; CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS). More accurately, it became the distinctive core of a group of views, which has been developed in different ways.

For a start, in developing this core, we can ask what intuitions are about. For example, are they about rightness and wrongness (as according to H. A. PRITCHARD and Joseph BUTLER), goodness and badness (G. E. MOORE) or defeasible moral reasons for performing and not performing actions (W. D. ROSS)? Is what we intuit general and abstract (Richard PRICE and, perhaps, Ross) or concrete and particular (Prichard and Butler)? For example, if intuitions are about the rightness of actions, would we intuit that it is morally right to perform any action of a certain general type or would we intuit that a particular act we are contemplating is morally right?

Since justification comes in degrees, there can be divergent views about the degree of justification conferred on beliefs arising from intuition. Although intuition has usually been taken to confer justification at least sufficient for knowledge, it could be held to confer any degree of justification from certainty (which guarantees truth) to a mere presumption in favor of the fact intuited (see FOUNDATIONALISM). If complete justification is not conferred on a belief by intuition, then, of course, it may acquire additional justification on other grounds, such as the degree to which it coheres with other beliefs. Also, intuitionists can take different sides on the externalism--internalism question about justification. Typically, internalists say that there has to be an awareness of the features that give a belief justification, while externalists deny this (see THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE). Intuitionists who are internalists might say, for example, that a belief arising from intuition has justification only if the believer holds it to be indubitable (impossible not to believe) or, alternatively, merely difficult not to believe. On the other hand, externalists deny that such psychological features are required for the justification of beliefs arising from intuition.

There are also differing views about the nature of the intuitive capacity. It can be taken to be an intellectual capacity (e.g., Price and Moore) or a capacity for something more like perception (e.g., Prichard and Thomas REID). Those who take the intuitive capacity to be intellectual usually hold that the contents of the intuitions are general or abstract principles. Those who take the capacity to be more like perception usually believe that intuitions have particular, concrete contents.

It could be held that we have the capacity for both kinds of intuition, intellectual and perceptual, and each kind gives us foundational beliefs (perhaps, Reid). However, it is more usual to hold that we have the capacity for only one kind of intuition, that its contents (general or particular) are foundational and beliefs of the other kind are indirectly justified, if at all.

If we only have the capacity for intellectual intuition and we intuit general principles, then particular ethical beliefs might be justified by recognizing that some situation involves an instance of the general principle. For instance, if we intuit a general principle like `there is some ethical reason not to do any act that results in harm to anyone', we might recognize that a particular act falls under the principle and conclude that we have an ethical reason not to do it. Alternatively, if the capacity is taken to be perceptual and the intuitions to be about particular situations, then the general principles may be justified by some kind of induction on the particular cases. For example, we might intuit something like `the harm this action would cause gives me an ethical reason not to do it' and use some form of induction to arrive at the general principle.

In any case, it is important to distinguish between the order of justification and the order of discovery. It could be that general principles are discovered through consideration of particular cases, but are justified directly, while the particular beliefs are only justified indirectly, as instances of the general principle or content. For example, we may have to experience a number of instances of lying before we can intuit the general principle that lying is, ceteris paribus, wrong, while we are only justified in believing that a particular instance of lying is, ceteris paribus, wrong, by applying the general principle.

Finally, the capacity for ethical intuition needs grounding in some mechanism. Those who believe that the intuitive capacity is intellectual and the contents of intuition general usually hold that these contents are necessary, synthetic truths, that there are other such truths, such as those of mathematics, and that the same capacity and mechanism is used in apprehending all such truths (Price and Ross). Some who hold that that intuition is particular and similar to perception postulate a `moral sense' (Reid and Prichard). In neither case is the mechanism well understood.

Why Not Intuitionism?

The rejection of intuitionism is usually a consequence of rejecting one or more of the views that motivate it: moral realism, the autonomy of ethics and, in the case of traditional intuitionism, foundationalism. Although each of these views is controversial, the combination of moral realism and the autonomy of ethics is the source of objections to any form of intuitionism in ethics.

Intuitionism, and its commitment to irreducibly ethical facts or properties that we can directly apprehend, is incompatible with a broadly scientific, or naturalistic, picture of the world and how we learn about it. According to this picture, irreducibly ethical facts or properties would have to be occult. They would not be the sort of things that we can have scientific theories about. Matters are only made worse by claiming that we have some faculty that allows us to apprehend directly these irreducibly ethical properties or facts, to say nothing of the claim that beliefs arising from this direct apprehension are directly justified. Since the properties or facts are occult, so too must be the faculty that allows our awareness of them. Since persons would have an occult faculty, we could not have a complete scientific theory about persons. Indeed, the fact that moral realism and the autonomy of ethics lead to the claim that we have a capacity for intuition does not provide support for intuitionism; rather, it gives us ample reason to believe that at least one of the views leading to it must be wrong. Or, so goes the story.

Those who reject intuitionism by rejecting the autonomy of ethics usually argue that ethical properties or facts are actually non-ethical ones, whose apprehension is compatible with the scientific picture of the world (see NATURALISM IN ETHICS). For example, it might be argued that to say that something is morally required is to say that it brings about more pleasure than its alternatives. Note that such views accept moral realism and may accept foundationalism.

Rejecting intuitionism by rejecting moral realism is consistent with accepting the autonomy of ethics. For example, it could be held that what seem to be ethical judgments are actually irreducibly ethical prescriptions, the expression of irreducibly ethical attitudes or the projection of such attitudes. (See ANTIREALISM IN ETHICS.)

Another possibility is to accept that our moral practices and beliefs are committed to intuitionism and that intuitionism's incompatibility with the scientific picture of the world shows that our ethical practices and beliefs involve fundamental error (see J. L. MACKIE).

Intuitionists can adopt any of a number of strategies in responding to the criticism that their view and a scientific picture of the world are not compatible. One is to argue that they are compatible, given a proper understanding of the scientific picture of the world. Another is to say that they are compatible, given a proper understanding of intuition. Still another is to say `so much the worse for the scientific picture'.


References and further reading

Dancy, J. (1983) `Ethical particularism and morally relevant properties', Mind 92: 530-47. (A non-traditional intuitionist who holds that what we intuit is particular and concrete.)

Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, esp. chs V and VI. (Holds that intuitions are general, that the truth of utilitarianism is self-evident and that we can intuit the goodness of some properties.)

Prichard, H.A. (1949) Moral Obligation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Argues that we intuit the rightness of particular actions.)

Ross, W.D. (1930) The Right and the Good, Oxford: Clarendon Press, esp. ch. II.

-- (1939) The Foundations of Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, esp. pp. 79-86 and ch. VIII. (Holds that we intuit general principles about the moral relevance of types of actions.)

Schneewind, J.B. (1990) Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, 2 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Contains descriptions of, and extracts from, many of the early intuitionists, including Richard Cumberland, Samuel Clarke, Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, Richard Price and Thomas Reid.)

Robert L. Frazier