The Argument From Disagreement (and moral vs. non-moral facts, realism and intuitionism)

Earlier today I posted an entry on how ethical dilemmas and moral disagreements can be caused by disagreement on the non-moral facts of a case, such that moral disagreements aren’t by themselves reasons to doubt the objectivity of morality, as the moral anti-realist holds; now seems a good time to explore the ways in which the “argument from disagreement” is honed by the anti-intuitionist moral realist against the intuitionist moral realist regarding disagreement on moral facts.

Ethical Intuitionism and Self-Evident Beliefs
The intuitionist posits that there is an “is/ought gap”, meaning that an evaluative conclusion cannot be derived from all non-evaluative premises, and as we do have moral knowledge – the “derived moral conclusions” just mentioned – it must be the case that there are basic moral beliefs that are known without being deduced from non-moral premises. These noninferential basic moral beliefs are the famed “self-evident” beliefs that figure as the grounding for the intuitionist’s foundationalist moral epistemology.

A self-evident belief is a belief that one is justified in believing to be true in understanding the belief. Brad Hooker puts this point well in noting that, “to believe a proposition because of its self-evidence, we must understand what we are believing, and this understanding must be the basis of the belief. Understanding a self-evident proposition provides justification for believing it” (“Intuitions and Moral Theorizing”, page 164, in Ethical Intuitionism ed. Philip Stratton-Lake). In other words, once one understands what the truth of a belief would entail, it is intellectually apparent whether that belief is true or false.

Anti-Intuitionists and Moral Disagreement
Intuitionism fell out of favor with the rise of logical positivism, and remained unpopular in the following period of empiricism and naturalism, due to many philosophers confusing “self-evident” for “obviously true”. This was not entirely unfair, as some early intuitionists, including Locke and Clarke, held that moral intuitions are indefeasible and infallible. Later intuitionists thought no such thing; Moore, Ross, Ewing, and Sidgwick thought an intuition could turn out to be wrong.

Still, intuitionism faces skepticism from critics who challenge the notion of self-evidence by appealing to the fact that philosophers have disagreed on what moral duties are self-evident – a version of the argument from disagreement. The difficulty arises when, if we grant that one group of intuitionistic philosophers is correct, say the Rossian pluralists, how do we explain the error of intuitionistic philosophers who came to utilitarian conclusions, such as Moore and Sidgwick? Berys Gaut puts this objection quite well in writing that,

“The self-evidence view does not have a plausible theory of error […] It cannot trace such failures to failures to conduct long chains of deductive reasoning correctly, or to appreciate subtleties in one’s moral experience correctly, for in so far as one grasps the self-evidence of these propositions, one does not rely on long chains of reasoning or an appeal to experience, but simply on reflection on the nature of the propositions considered in themselves. If one holds that a proposition is self-evident, one automatically restricts the sources of errors that may mislead thinkers about it” (“Justifying Moral Pluralism”, page 144 in Ethical Intuitionism ed. Philip Stratton-Lake”.

This is an interesting objection because there are two ideas being put forward, the first not being a good objection and the second being powerful. The first point is that the intuitionist must explain how if, as the intuitionist says, a person knows a proposition to be true in their understanding the proposition, is it possible for a person to seemingly understand what we say to be a self-evident belief and not think that belief self-evident. But this confuses the intuitionist’s position as entailing that the self-evidence of a belief is itself self-evident; a second-order belief that the intuitionist need not posit.

The second, and better, objection is that if two intuitionists disagree on basic self-evident beliefs it is difficult to say who is correct, as both intuitionists can, it seems, claim the same amount of certainty for their beliefs. Given this, it might seem there is no hope of resolving the matter. However, Robert Audi and Phillip Stratton-Lake have convincingly argued that there is epistemic overdetermination, such that once we see a belief as self-evidently true we can begin to see that it is possible to make inferential arguments for the truth of the belief. These inferential arguments do not override the justification for a self-evident belief, but given a disagreement over two conflicting self-evident beliefs we can be justified in being more certain of one than another if that belief coheres better with other beliefs.

While I think this response is satisfactory, it does not completely address how errors arise with our intuitions. Tentatively, a weaker version of self-evidence might be more plausible and offer some explanation for how errors occur. Recall that intuitionism is the view that once one understands what the truth of a belief would entail, it is intellectually apparent whether that belief is true or false. This is what I will call “strong” intuitionism, as a weak version would hold that once one understands a belief, it is intellectually apparent what would have to be true and what would have to be false in order for that belief to be true, but it is not obvious, in virtue of fully understanding the belief that what would have to be true for the belief to be true is in fact true. This weak version allows for the possibility of understanding a belief without being certain of its truth. There will be convergence on basic moral propositions that are simple enough that one can intellectually see what would have to be true and false for the belief to be true and see that these facts are the case. By contrast, where beliefs intersect with other uncertain beliefs error might arise due to overconfidence in those uncertain beliefs that are taken for granted. Thus, “weak” intuitionism, as I have outlined it here, accommodates Gaut’s objection.

The argument from disagreement has been wielded by moral anti-realists against moral realists, and by anti-intuitionists against intuitionists. Both defenders have the tools to ward off such futile attacks. It is worth noting that a common response to anti-realists is that there might be agreement about the moral facts and disagreement about the non-moral facts in order for there to be an objective morality for persons to disagree about (this was the general line of the argument that I took in the other post). The debate between intuitionists and anti-intuitionists should make quite plain that it is possible for there to be an objective fact of the matter in ethics even when there is disagreement about the moral facts.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on February 28, 2014 - 3:00 pm

    Interesting. As you know, I think we have strong intuitive “self evident” beliefs, but that those beliefs vary among individuals, which I suppose would make me a weak intuitionist. (I’ve noticed that I’m almost never a “strong”-ist on anything.)

    The problem is that if we do examine an intuition, and on examination conclude that it isn’t right, how are we evaluating that intuition? What measuring stick are we using? I think it’s other intuitions or instincts. If we question each intuition or instinct up the chain, it might appear that we never run into a foundational one. But I think this is an illusion, since we are rationalizing animals, and will find a rationale for any foundational intuition or desire that we have, without even realizing that we are doing it.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on March 2, 2014 - 12:49 pm

      Excellent points. I do see some intuitionistic epistemology in your view, for sure, and I think you are right in it’s being of the weak variety I’ve mentioned here. As I’ve suggested, it is “weak” only in name, one could just as well call it “moderate intuitionism”.

      You are certainly correct that if we decide a self-evident belief is erroneous it is because of the other intuitions that we have, and this might lead us to a coherentistic reflective equilibrium — the idea that there are no self-evident truths, a belief is justified if it is coherent with our other beliefs. Indeed, this concern has lead some moral realists away from an intuitionism towards coherentism. But this only need be the case if there are no self-evident/foundational beliefs, and as you note, it appears likely that there are such beliefs. So, the intuitionist can employ a coherentist approach of inference to the best explanation for evaluation when suspicious of a certain belief, but for the most part, the intuitionist can reason about foundational beliefs without having to rely on a faulty epistemology. Still, as you note, we may not recognize these foundational beliefs, and move towards a coherentist model. Coherentism, I think, is not a very reliable epistemological view, so we should keep searching for undeniable foundation beliefs. Thanks for your comments on this interesting subject.

      • #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on March 2, 2014 - 1:22 pm

        Thank you. I almost always learn something from our interactions. This time it was that the concept I described above had a name: coherentism.

  1. Review of “Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations” | ausomeawestin

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