Skip to main content

Intuitions in Ethics

  • Michael D. Bayles (a1)

Philosophers, like ordinary people, are likely to retain practices long after the conditions which justified them have disappeared. At a recent philosophical convention, subtle arguments concerning abortion appealed to intuitions about exceedingly odd cases and allegedly widely agreed upon intuitions (that I doubted were shared by many reflective people). Such appeals to intuitions, especially about particular cases, are quite common among philosophers. Yet, during this century the traditional theoretical bases for such appeals to intuitions have generally been abandoned. New theoretical bases have been developed, but they are of dubious soundness, and even if sound, do not support the appeals to intuitions so commonly made in applied ethics. Perhaps critics of such appeals to intuitions have failed to capture the bit of good sense that is likely to underlie a widespread practice among intelligent and reflective people that seems to outlive its justification.

Hide All

1 In his book, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930),Ross W. D.frequently cites both of them, and in the Preface he acknowledges his great debt to Moore (vi).

2 Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics (7th ed.; London: Macmillan, 1907), xvi–xvii, xix.

3 Moore G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 15, 9–10.

4 Ross, The Right and the Good, 20 n. 29.

5 Ibid., 30–31.

6 Ibid., 17.

7 See, for instance, ibid., 34–35. Philosophers almost never discuss particular cases with proper names and spatial-temporal referents. They are more accurately said to be specific cases, but in this paper I will use “particular cases” to refer to philosophers' examples.

8 Ross W. D., The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 235, 234.

9 See Johnson W. E., Logic: Part II: Demonstrative Inference: Deductive and Inductive (New York: Dover Publications, 1964, original ed. 1922), chap. 8, especially 192194.

10 Because spatial-temporal relations are considered ethically irrelevant, intuitions of particular acts always have some generality; that is, they are of specific acts. However, much more generality is involved in prima facie duties.

11 Prichard H. A., Moral Obligation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 7.

12 Sidgwick, unlike Ross, does not appear to have thought intuitions of principles guaranteed their truth. See Singer Peter, “Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium”, Monist 58 (1974), 508.

13 Ross, The Right and the Good, 12.

14 Hare R. M., Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 182.

15 Rawls John, “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics”, in Thomson Judith J. and Dworkin Gerald, eds., Ethics (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 4870;John Rawls A.Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 2021, 47–51;Rawls John, “The Independence of Moral Theory”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 48 (19741975), 522; and Rawls John, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory”, Journal of Philosophy 11 (1980), 515572. “Reflective equilibrium” can refer to either a process of reconciling considered judgments or to the product of that process. The context should usually make clear whether the process or product is intended, but sometimes I use “the method of reflective equilibrium” to make clear that the process is meant.

16 Rawls, “The Independence of Moral Theory”, 8; Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism”, 534.

17 Rawls, “Outline of a Decision Procedure”, 48; see also Rawls, “Independence of Moral Theory”, 9.

18 Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism”, 557–560.

19 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 52.

20 See Singer, “Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium”, 493–494.

21 Shaw William H., “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (1980), 127134.

22 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 49.

23 Shaw, “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, 130.

24 For two recent ones, see Brandt Richard B., A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979); Gewirth Alan, Reason and Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

25 Singer, “Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium”, 516. See also Hare, Moral Thinking, 12.

26 Shaw, “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, 131.

27 Ibid., 130.

28 These judgments would meet Rawls's conditions for being considered, namely, being made “in circumstances where the more common excuses and explanations for making a mistake do not obtain”. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 47–48. Nor can intuitionists plausibly argue that people agree at a more general level and simply differ on the facts. Anthropologists have not been able to find any specific norms common to all societies. They can only show that all societies have some norms restricting sexual activity and prohibiting killing some people in some circumstances. There is no agreement on whom it is wrong to kill or to have sexual activity with, that is, the matters of important moral dispute.

29 Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism”, 518.

30 See Shaw, “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, 128.

31 Dworkin Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), especially chaps. 4, 6. It is not surprising because Dworkin developed his view, at least in part, from a consideration of Rawls's.

32 Rawls, “Outline of a Decision Procedure”, 48–49; Rawls, Theory of Justice, 49, 50.

33 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 46, 50; Rawls, “Independence of Moral Theory”, 7.

34 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 50. See also, Shaw, “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, 132, n. 17.

35 Daniels Norman, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics”, Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979), 270273.

36 One reason moral judgments are more like theoretical than observational statements is the irrelevance of spatial-temporal relations so that even judgments about particular cases have some generality.

37 It might be claimed that, at least for policy questions, the costs of change provide a reason for sticking with current practices an d considered judgments and thus placing the burden of proof on people advocating change. But this confuses reasons for thinking that the current policy is correct or good with reasons for thinking that it ought not be changed. There might be a better policy, but it would not be worth the cost of change. Moreover, the reason does not apply to controversies over new matters concerning which there is no policy, such as “test tube” babies, and many issues in applied ethics concern such issues.

38 Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism”, 564, 569.

39 Shaw, “Intuition and Moral Philosophy”, 132.

40 Maclntyre Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1981), 67.

41 See, for example, Hume David, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge L. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), bk. 2, pt. 3, § 3, 416. The sense in which desires can be irrational is highly controversial. I am inclined to the view that desires are irrational if people with full information who used logic and facts would not have them. See Bayles Michael D., Reproductive Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 4; and Brandt, Theory of the Good and Right, chap. 6.

42 Moore, Principia Ethica, 187–188.

43 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 44, 45.

44 Hutcheson Joseph C. Jr, “The Judgment Intuitive”, in Law and Philosophy, ed. Kent Edward Allen (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970). 407419.

45 For elaboration, see Hare R. M., “The Argument from Received Opinion”, in Essays on Philosophical Method (London: Macmillan & Co., 1971), 128ff.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 6 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 86 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.