Review of “Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations”

Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations

Ethical-Intuitionism-9780198250999I tend to shy away from anthologies, as such collections often bring together essays not in proper dialogue (as opposed to an author’s dialogue with himself throughout the course of his book); this collection is an exception, most likely due to the narrow focus on a epistemological view in morality. In fact, I think it appropriate to say that the book is entirely about the concept of “self-evidence”, no doubt the central tenet of intuitionism. Thus, Philip Stratton-Lake, as editor, has truly succeeded in creating a focused presentation (and what I crave, dialogue) on the concept and consequences of “self-evidence”.

Still, there is much diversity in the ideas presented, and I daresay that some of the essays were fantastically exciting. Most of the essays begin with an in-depth overview of the ideas of a historically significant intuitionist or period of intuitionism and then proceed with comments and criticism. Surprisingly, little attention is paid to G.E. Moore, with the bulk of attention directed towards Sidgwick and Ross. This direction should be embraced though, as many anthologies are dedicated to the evaluation of Moore’s intuitionism.

One minor shortcoming of the collection is that while two of the essays critique particularism, there are no essays in favor of it, despite the fact that two of the contributors are the most famous proponents of particularism. Though I lean towards generalism, I think that a defense of particularism should have been included for a good balance in the ideas presented; to me, the generalism/particularism debate is one of the most interesting in contemporary metaethics.

Brief Overview of Contributions:
Introduction, by Philip Stratton-Lake
Stratton-Lake’s introduction is an important essay in it’s own right, arguing against Moore and Ross that moral properties are complex non-natural properties rather than simple non-natural properties (click here for a more detailed presentation of the argument). This introduction also provides a good overview of “self-evidence” in epistemology, and the historical context and development of intuitionism.

“Prospects for a Value-Based Intuitionism”, by Robert Audi
In a fantastic essay, Audi attempts to improve on Ross’s intuitionism by grounding it with values. More specifically, Ross thought that our moral duties are self-evident and thus, true in virtue of themselves, not metaphysical values that make them so. Audi attempts to ground these duties in the value of human dignity positing that this move allows for an improved decision procedure.

“Sidgwick and Intuitionism”, by Roger Crisp
Crisp goes into great detail on Sidgwick’s views of intuitionism, and concludes that while Sidgwick is correct about much of what he writes, he is incorrect in pursuing a science of ethics, as this would require a monistic principle that justifies an action before it is taken. Crisp contends that moral justification comes after the action and is pluralistic rather than monistic.

“An Unconnected Heap of Duties”, by David McNaughton
McNaughton attempts to defend Ross’s view from the objection that it is unsystematic, and why the objection that Ross fails to show that some duties are weightier than others is not problematic. On the first objection, McNaughton posits that the intuitionistic pluralist does not think there is an infinite amount of moral reasons, rather, there is just more than one, such that pluralism is no less systematic than utilitarianism in attempting to explain the moral realm. On the second objection, McNaughton argues that it is true that Ross cannot account for one duty being weightier than another, but points out that the concept of “distinctiveness” meets the intellectual demands that led to the postulation of weightier duties. See my entry, here, for why McNaughton’s attempt fails.

“The Three Phases of Intuitionism”, by Thomas Baldwin
Baldwin carefully reviews Sidgwick’s position on intuitionism, agreeing with and going further than him in critiquing particularism, but arguing for an intuitionism based in common-sense, or the lay persons’ take on morality rather than the abstracting philosophers’.

“Pleasure and Reflection in Ross’s Intuitionism”, by Philip Stratton-Lake
Stratton-Lake makes the case that self-evidence is fallible, and though it is non-inferential knowledge, once we see the self-evidence of a proposition we can look for coherence with other beliefs and thus utilize inferential reasoning through inferences to the best explanation. He does this to respond to the objection that the intuitionist cannot hope to convince a person who doubts what the intuitionist takes to be self-evident. To show that reasons can be given for self-evident beliefs Stratton-Lake shows how Ross’s view, and thus arguments, changed for self-evident beliefs about the value of pleasure. I’d say this essay was the highlight of the book.

“Justifying Moral Pluralism”, by Berys Gaut
Gaut argues that because the concept of self-evidence is problematic, intuitionism should be rejected. Nevertheless, pluralism is still defensible through other epistemological means. Gaut argues for a biology based natural law theory (though he doesn’t recognize its basis in natural law theory) similar to Aquinas’. See here for my response to Gaut’s objection to self-evidence. I’ll note here that Gaut’s positive theory falls short of capturing the normativity of ethics.

“Intuitionism and Moral Theorizing”, by Brad Hooker
Hooker provides an excellent explication of self-evidence before critiquing particularism. He posits that intuitions can be about the structure of moral theorizing, and not just the evaluative propositions themselves, and these general theoretical intuitions discredit particularism. What is more, there are general evaluative intuitions that we can agree upon and thus discredit particularism.

“Ethical Intuitionism and Ethical Naturalism”, by Nicholas Sturgeon
A Cornell realist, and thus, a naturalist, Sturgeon defends intuitionism from some common objections (none that haven’t been sufficiently debunked before, mind you) before positing his own. Sturgeon’s objection is essentially that intuitionism can fit with naturalism or non-naturalism on moral properties, but if intuitionism is linked with non-naturalism then coherentism becomes impossible. It’s hard to see what this objection accomplishes, as the intuitionist is a foundationalist about morality.

“Knowing What to Do, Seeing What to Do”, by Allan Gibbard
Gibbard argues that Moore’s open-question argument only shows that moral concepts are non-natural, not that moral properties are non-natural, as there might be co-extensiveness of non-natural concept and natural property. Gibbard concedes that we do have intuitions about what to do, but that these intuitions are plans about what naturalistic properties to pursue. As such, we posit one intuition too many when we say that there is an intuition of the natural property and the non-natural concept of ought-ness, such that we have no use for non-naturalism. Of course, one might respond that one posits one layer too many when positing a distinction between natural properties and non-natural concepts, and without that postulation the argument doesn’t go through.

“Prichard on Duty and Ignorance of Fact”, by Jonathan Dancy
Dancy argues, convincingly, against Prichard’s arguments that there is an objective answer to what is right to do, but only a subjective answer about what one ought to do. The central point of Dancy’s essay is that there are objective constraints to what a subject may act and believe at the same time rather than a subjective constraint on a subjects action, given their beliefs.

“Ethical Intuitionism and the Motivation Problem”, by Stephen Darwall
Darwall posits that there is an irresolvable tension between intuitionism and moral motivation, given the truth of judgment internalism. Given the action guiding nature of moral propositions, it seems a person cannot see a moral belief to be true and not be in some way motivated by it. Early intuitionists accepted this and made the analogy that just as a belief aims to fit the world, the will aims to do good action. Darwall posits that this analogy breaks down because though beliefs have the normative, constitutive aim of fitting the world, the substantive aim that follows from it is non-normative – the belief is true or false. The substantive aim of the will, as being concerned with morality, must be normative, so the analogy fails. But why is it a problem that the analogy breaks down here, if it does at all? One might argue that the substantive aim of the will is whether the action really is right or wrong. Nevertheless, all this rides on the truth of judgment internalism, which, I have argued elsewhere, is false; Darwall offers the very same argument against externalism that I critiqued.

“A Wittgensteinian Approach”, by Robert Arrington
Arrington argues that generalized moral platitudes that the intuitionist takes to be self-evident are non-inferential because they are not empirically verifiable, and actually are social constructions that regulate how we use moral terms. A very interesting essay in its providing a compelling theory from the philosophy of language to imply the truth of an error theory, for me, the most plausible of anti-realist positions. Still, Arrington’s argument depends on our inability to provide reasons for why generalized moral platitudes are true. His example is the platitude ‘it is wrong to lie’, and he maintains that he can’t provide a reason why lying is wrong. He apparently assumes that reasons must be non-natural, because he posits reasons why it is wrong to lie that utilize evaluative language, and as he dismisses these as not being reasons he implicitly denies the possibility of non-naturalism. But most intuitionists are non-naturalists, so there is little reason for them to accept his argument.

I recommend the book for its in-depth coverage of “self-evidence” in intuitionism. Bringing these critiques and defenses of “self-evidence” together should provide comfort to the intuitionist, as even the best objections rest on mis-readings of the concept of “self-evidence”. With more dialogue the concept of “self-evidence” might become better understood by skeptics, and with it, their objections might improve, culminating in an acceptable version of ethical intuitionism.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. Weakness of the Will and Particularism (and Dancy, cognitivist internalism, and moral motivation) | ausomeawestin
  2. Wedgwood on Moral Knowledge and Moral Epistemology pt I | ausomeawestin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: