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Ethical Intuitionism and the Idea of Intrinsic Goodness

Been reading a book I picked up the other day, Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer who teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado (Boulder). As the title suggests, he makes an argument for intuitionism in ethics, a la Moore, despite the fact that this tradition has fallen on hard times since Moore and Sidgwick first began pushing it. After taking apart the current meta-ethical theories that grew up in the shadow of Moore's Principia Ethica, including non-cognitivism (he includes here the expressivism/emotivism of people like Ayer and Stevenson as well as the prescriptivism of Hare), subjectivism (in which he includes, somewhat counter-intuitively, all moral accounts that stand on the idea of some opinion or authority including the idea that our moral views just state our personal preferences, the preferences of our community, the preferences of an "ideal observer" or the preferences of a deity), and nihilism (the position that there are no moral truths at all, just the illusion that there are) he proceeds to make his case for the intuitionist account.

His position rests on a Kantian a priorism that holds that knowledge, even that which we think of as empirical, is grounded in intellectual intuitions such as the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, that time is ordered (one moment follows another and precedes the next) and that things cannot be both red and blue all over and at the same time. He argues that these are indubitable propositions, requiring neither proof nor grounding but, which, themselves, form the ground of other things we know in an empirical sense. Similarly he argues that there are moral intuitions we have such that some things just are "intrinsically" good. The intrinsicness, he finds, in the concepts our words for these "things" represent. He makes the important point that even in logic, no syllogism is valid unless it is understood as such (the implications of the structure of premises is recognized) and that this, too, is a priori though there is no guarantee that we come to see it. To get the validity of any syllogism we have to recognize it and sometimes we do so only by having the connections made explicit though we do implicitly recognize validity when it is there, even if we may not always understand what's going on or the why's of logic.

After establishing the relevance and reality of what he takes to be the a priori he goes on to equate moral intuitions with such a priori knowledge. Relying on a principle he calls "phenomenal conservatism" (the idea that we should take things to be as they appear, absent some additional reason to think they aren't) he argues that the ethical intuitions we have represent a kind of truth unless and until other intuitions conflict with them. He doesn't argue that an ethical intuition is certain, that it can never be wrong, but only that it is prima facie the case absent information to the contrary and should be treated as such. Not every ethical judgment, he hastens to add, is intuited. Some are derived from the basic intuitions we have. But, he avers, the whole ethical superstructure cannot stand unless there is an intuited foundation. "Reason," he writes, "sometimes changes how things seem to us" and that, he argues is no reason to reject the notion that we have some fundamental ethical intuitions that support our moral judgments and claims. He goes on: " . . . there is also the way things seem to us prior to reasoning; otherwise, reasoning could not get started." (p. 101) So what, exactly, is his intuitionist account?

He writes: "An initial intellectual appearance is an 'intuition' . . . An ethical intuition is an intuition of an evaluative proposition." He argues that intuitions are not "just beliefs" but starting points.

. . . since no moral beliefs can be derived from wholly non-moral premises, we must start with some moral beliefs that are not inferred from any other beliefs. Where do these starting moral beliefs come from? Do we just adopt them entirely arbitrarily? No; this is not the phenomenology of moral belief. We adopt fundamental moral beliefs because they seem right to us; we don't select them randomly.
His view amounts to an argument for "direct realism" re: our moral beliefs.
The intuitionist, I contend, should be a direct realist about ethics. He should not say that intuitions function as a kind of evidence from which we do or should infer moral conclusions. He should say that for some moral truths, we need no evidence, since we are directly aware of them, and that awareness takes the form of intuitions; that is intuitions just (partly) constitute our awareness of moral facts.

He equates this with the "thesis of the transparency of our perceptions" (that when we perceive something it is that something we are aware of and not merely a mental representation of it because the awareness through perception is clear or transparent, a window through which we see and not a screen on which what is seen is displayed. He argues for moral intuitions as being akin to the grasp we have of universals, i.e., those abstract concepts under which experienced particulars are subsumed. To have such a concept in any area of concern, he maintains we must have consistency, clarity and determinateness in what is being conceived. Inconsistency of application, vagueness and indeterminacy, he thinks, undermine any claim that we have clearly grasped the concept. Having these three features, he says, "puts one in a position to see that [the concept] has certain properties or relationships to other universals you adequately grasp." This, he thinks, applies in the ethical case, too. He says:

All a priori knowledge is, or derives from, knowledge of the properties and relations of universals. . . . we know a priori that all spinsters are unmarried. This derives from our knowledge that spinsterhood contains or implies unmarriedness. We know a priori that purple is a color; this is knowledge of a property of purple. And we know a priori that pleasure is good: this is knowledge of a property of pleasure.

His account of how intuitionism works stands on a claim that some words represent ideas that logically imply something else found in their meanings (because we cannot know the right use of the word without also understanding the implied connections with other words which determine the scope of the concept named). Thus, he concludes, "pleasure" must also imply a property, in line with color words like "purple," and, he suggests, that property which pleasure has is goodness. But this is misleading.

The fact that we know "purple is a color," (known a priori in the way he lays out), does not imply that "this is knowledge of a property of purple," as he puts it, because his use of "property" in this case suggests that purple has a property of being a color whereas, in fact, purple is, itself, a property among others, indeed, it is one particular color property among many. If it has properties they are not the same as being the name of a color or as implying that colors exist.

If color, itself, is considered a property, and purple is a color in this sense, then purple is, itself, a property and this does not, by itself, equate with its having properties in the same sense in which it is one. But his method of formulating the statement that "We know a priori that purple is a color; this is knowledge of a property of purple" conflates knowing of a property called purple with being a property that something called "purple" has.

Purple, of course, may have properties in other senses as in being visible in certain kinds of light, matching certain elements on a color chart and so forth, things we can say about what it is to be called "purple" but in this case knowledge of these things is not "knowledge of a property of purple," as he puts it, but only of how we use the word "purple." He wants to make an analogy from this spurious use of "property" in relation to purple (as something belonging to purple as a color) with "good" as something we take as belonging to pleasure. But because his use of "property" shifts here, the analogy doesn't hold up.

His locution, "knowledge of a property of purple," reads as if he wants to say that purple has the property of color. A better rendering would be just to say that purple is a color property. While we can speak of properties as, themselves, having properties, it's odd to say, as Huemer does here, that "knowing . . . that purple is a color is to know a property of purple." What does he have in mind? Is it to know something belonging to purple or to know a property called "purple"? Purple, after all, is a color and so a property of things that can have color (things with seeable features). How then can knowing that it is a color be to know a property that it possesses?

Here the analogy Huemer wants to make with pleasure, i.e., that a belief (taken for the knowledge) that pleasure is good implies "knowledge of a property of pleasure," meaning a property we call "good" which belongs to pleasure, must collapse. This analogy hinges on a forced and linguistically misleading arrangement of the words in question. If spinsterhood implies unmarriedness, as he rightly notes, and coming to realize this is just to make explicit what is already implicit in the word "spinster," while "purple," when used in its conventional way, as a color (and not a proper) name, implies the idea of colors (which we call "properties"), it doesn't follow that "pleasure," similarly, implies a property called goodness.

First he is assuming by this that goodness is a property of things, which is precisely what is in dispute in the argument over intuitionism. But, second, his analogy suggests that pleasure, in the abstract sense in which it is taken to refer to various specific experiences, can be understood in terms which imply that it has "properties" common to all instances we may call instances of pleasure. Different pleasures, in fact, can be quite different precisely because they're associated with different properties. There is nothing descriptively in common between the pleasure we take from eating a fine piece of chocolate or tasting fine wine, on the one hand, or having good sex or reading an excellent book or making a strong argument, or running a hard race or any number of similar things on the other. All may be pleasurable but in quite different ways. The actual experiences in each case are very different, even if we may take enjoyment from each.

The word "pleasure" typically denotes a state of positive satisfaction with some phenomenon we encounter in the world. This may be scientifically describable as certain chemicals being activated in the brain or certain parts of the brain being excited by the stimuli, although there may not even be much commonality at this level of neurological activity among the different pleasures experienced. The word "pleasure," itself, does not seem to denote any particular type of thing in the way "spinster" denotes people with certain characteristics or "purple" denotes a certain range of colors on the visual spectrum which we see in a certain way. Pleasure is many different states and what is in common between them is the tendency of organisms such as ourselves to want and pursue such experiences, even if, as experiences, they are susceptible to many different descriptions.

The idea that pleasure is good remains an open question in G. E. Moore's sense, despite Huemer's effort, whether or not we do happen to think that in most cases pleasure is a desirable state in which to be. Indeed, there are any number of examples where we may doubt pleasure's goodness. We may think this or that particular pleasure or type of pleasure bad if it leads to bad consequences (pleasure in drinking whiskey may lead to drunkenness, pleasure in sex may lead us to forget other important things or to cause anguish for another, pleasure in food may lead us to health problems and so forth). While we may generally agree that it is better to have pleasure than pain and that pleasure is something we prefer, all else being equal, none of these considerations implies that pleasure has the property of being good because the very concept of goodness cannot be conceptually attached to pleasure as Huemer wants to argue. It's not intrinsic to the notion of pleasure in the same way unmarriedness is to spinsterhood or being a color is to the the things we call "purple." If there are cases where pleasure isn't good then it is incorrect to say that "pleasure has the property of being good."

What then can we make of the idea, which seems to inform Huemer's position, that we often do think pleasure is good and believe that we are justified in thinking this? If it doesn't imply that pleasure has a property of being good just as "purple" (when used to name a color) implies a color property (called "purple") then what is implied about "pleasure" and "good"? An alternative way to understand this involves a different account of "good" than the one Huemer gives. It dispenses with the idea that "good," because it appears to name something, in fact picks out a property which can be connected with things like pleasure. There's no question that we often use the word "good" in a valuational way and that, when we do so, we mean to identify whatever we ascribe the word to as something worth having. What then is at work here, if not the ascription of a property as Huemer thinks?

Perhaps it's better to see the term "good" as serving a different function in our discourse than as naming an unseen feature akin to seen features like colors? When we speak of anything as being good what we seem to be saying of it is that it's something to be chosen under suitable circumstances. "Good" seems to serve to specify the relative position of things so ascribed in relation to a valuer or to others who may, as targets of ascriptive statements about what is good, be potential valuers.

If I tell you something is good, what I mean is that there are reasons for you to take it up, choose it, seek to acquire it, etc., etc. My use of the term "good" serves to signal to you (or to myself in cases of private evaluative discourse, as often happens when we struggle with the choices before us) that I can offer you reasons to choose it. "Good" is thus a marker word, a term that alerts you to my belief that there are reasons to do, acquire or pursue the thing in question. That's why, when we speak of something as being good, we are always open to further challenges by others, i.e., to being asked why we think it so.

When we can't offer reasons, the suggestion that the thing is good hangs empty, as if in mid-air, for our interlocutors. Such an assertion of goodness, for which I can give no reasons, leaves my listener perplexed, at best, and finally unmoved. But when I can give reasons, and they are understood and accepted by another, then the ascription of goodness is seen as meaningful. It's understood and, if agreed with, acted upon by the other.

This account of evaluative words, like "good," demands no assumption of an intuited "property" on the intuitionist model because it does not suppose that "good" stands for any particular thing or element, not even for a universal, as in the connections suggested by the concepts we can understand and make use of, as Huemer proposes. Rather it shows how "good" works as a proxy for other things we have to say, as a stand-in for an indeterminate array of reasons we can marshal in support of our usage. And so it is as a signal notifiying our listeners that there is more to say in the matter and that we are prepared to say it, that "good" takes its linguistic significance. This view doesn't necessarily demolish the possibility that intuitionism is the best account for understanding moral judgment, but it does undermine an intuitionism like Huemer's which hinges on a mistaken idea that "good" stands for a property in the same way "color" does.

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