“Intuitions”, or: is moral philosophy a science?

You’ve got yours, I’ve got mine. They differ. As we saw yesterday, on moral issues as fundamental but seemingly simple as whether it’s better to act from a sense of duty or compassion, my friend instinctively took a position the polar opposite of mine.

I guess this is another major source of skepticism about morality (also discussed yesterday here). Bertrand Russell certainly writes as if the primary difference between morality and science is that the latter has a common point of reference and source of evidence according to which disputes can be settled. Theories are tested by observations, and this way we get to the truth of the matter. Can anyone seriously claim the same process occurs in moral philosophy?

Ever since Plato, really, moral philosophy has proceeded as if it is like science. The ‘game’ we play is to propose a theory – an analysis, a definition – of what right and wrong mean. And then we ‘test’ it by looking, yes, at our intuitions in various examples. So consider how in Republic Book I, Socrates asks his interlocutors what justice is, and Polemarchus proposes the theory that it is just to respect property rights, thereby giving each man what is his due.

There’s the theory. Now for the testing. Socrates offers an apparent counterexample: what if a man were to lend you his axe, only to then become senile and demand it back? Would it be just to return such a weapon to a man in a murderous state? If this strikes you as absurd, as it evidently did Plato, then you can take it that Polemarchus’ theory has been refuted by intuition.

This is how we proceed. We propose theories, face counterexamples and modify the original theory accordingly. The aim is to reach an analysis of a term where it fits and coheres with all our deep judgements about what is right and wrong. When we achieve that, it is often assumed that we have reached the truth.

The concerns arise once we begin to reflect on what these intuitions – often murky, varying in intensity, frequently conflicting not only between persons but within one perspective – could possibly be. They certainly don’t seem to be anything like perceptions – observations of the material world. We don’t physically see examples of morality. So what are they?

The optimistic, and some might judge laughable answer, is that intuitions, including moral ones, give us a direct insight into reality transcending the material world. So what if the faculty is unreliable? Sometimes perception is deceptive and misleading, but that doesn’t make us doubt the faculty’s reliability as a whole. Similarly, why doubt that when intuition works, it reveals truths?

Perhaps the easiest way to understand why some people are convinced by this position is to compare our theory about maths and logic. When we grasp these abstract truths, what is happening? Again, few would claim we perceive logical relations and numbers with our eyes. And yet we seem to be justified in thinking we have knowledge of maths and logic just as we have faith in science. If anything, we have more faith in these matters. They seem securer, more fundamental.

But what’s the source, if not intuition? We just seem to grasp these things through mental reflection, independent of experience. And few are naturally skeptical about intuition in these cases. So why be skeptical about intuitions concerning morality?

The answer, perhaps, takes us full circle: unlike intuitions about logic and maths, moral disagreement is pervasive. Thoughts on abortion are split almost fifty-fifty, but you don’t get people debating whether 1 + 2 = 3. And, again as discussed yesterday, unlike the universality of mathematical belief, the socio-cultural contextualism inherent to moral belief is exactly what we would expect if intuitions in fact were reflections of our upbringing and environment, destroying their evidential claims entirely.

Of course, one could say this is to exaggerate the extent to which there are moral disagreements. Perhaps focusing on contentious issues like abortion and stressing social diversity is like discrediting science by invoking the lack of consensus amongst physicists on the virtues of string theory. Do we not have some basic moral intuitions where it is plausible to say they are universal, and we thus have no good reason to doubt they are analogous to mathematical intuitions rather than side-effects of social biases? How about the belief that the mindless torturing of a baby for sadistic pleasure is wrong, period?

In a real sense, I think the direction you take in meta-ethics will come down to how much moral agreement you think there is in the world.


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