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Entries in Ethical Intuitionism (2)


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. . . .

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A Matter of Ethics

Updated on November 7, 2013 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Considers some possibilities in finding justifications for the validity of our moral claims. If the basis of such claims cannot be justified in some bottom line way, can the claims we base on them be argued for at all?

I once tried unsuccessfully to argue that moral claims are based on the general principle of self-improvement and that self-improvement takes many forms and that how we understand it will determine the nature of the moral judgments we make . . . in the final analysis there is only one really reliable form of self-improvement [I argued] because all other options are too limited in scope to truly represent real improvement of the self . . . because, I thought, the self was rather like Kant's transcendental subject, clothed in our experiences, memories, beliefs, etc., and the point was to act in ways that most aligned with this purest core of our being. Alas, for me, the argument could not even withstand my own scrutiny of it.

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