Intuitionist Ethics 

Also called "Moral/Ethical Intuitionism".  Lumped into this category are three groups of theories that share only the property of relying on the moral intuition of the individual making the ethical judgments.  As such, it is a formalized version of Subjectivist Ethics.  At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of moral value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.(1)

Moral Intuitionism is divided into three related sub-classes of ethical theory:

Authoritative Command Ethics.

This category includes all those Command based moral codes that do not rely on God for their authority.  For example, the commands, aphorisms, and epigrams of Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Chairman Mao Zedong (his Little Red Book), Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), and so forth, fall into this category.  These various "Authorities" have pronounced moral rules whose only justification is their own intuition that they know best.  ("Father Knows Best! Trust Me!")  The standard argument justifying Authoritative Command Ethics is "Because I say so!"  Their moral authority exists only because followers grant them that authority.  So the standard argument against Authoritative Command Ethics is "Who made you God!"  In other words, if you are not willing to grant the relevant "Authority" the required moral authority, that "Authority" has no recourse except violence to enforce its edicts.

 Rational Intuitionism

The rationalist version of ethical intuitionism models ethical intuitions on a priori, non-empirically-based intuitions of truths, such as basic truths of mathematics.(2)  The problems with Rational Intuitionism stem from aspects of the metaphysics entailed by the belief that morality is similar to mathematics.  I will deal with that below.

Moral Sense Theory

Moral sense theory (also known as "Sentimentalism") typically holds that distinctions between morality and immorality are discovered by our emotional responses to our experiences.  Moral Sense Theory posits that we have a "moral sense" that provides information in a way analogous to other senses, such as hearing in the perception of sounds. It is thus contrasted with the way in which Rational Intuitionism posits that we acquire a priori, non-empirical knowledge, such as mathematical knowledge.  People with a properly functioning moral sense, it is argued, get a clear impression of wrongness when they see (or perhaps even imagine) someone being tortured, for example.  However, even though the wrongness is "visible" to the moral sense, it is very difficult to describe the features of the situation that account for the wrongness.

An Ethical Naturalist holds that rightness and wrongness are nothing more than discernable combinations of natural properties, as revealed by our standard five senses.  The moral sense theorist disagrees, and claims that only an agent with a moral sense can observe natural properties and through them discover the moral properties of the situation.  She sees a conceptual gap between natural facts and moral evaluations.  There can be no valid arguments in which purely descriptive/factual premises entail a prescriptive/evaluative conclusion.  Both G.E. Moore and David Hume held moral sense theories of morality.  Hence Moore's "Naturalist Fallacy" (you can't explain moral properties in terms of natural properties), and Hume's "Is-Ought Problem" (you can't infer an ought from an is).

The problems with the sense theory are the same problems with rational intuitionism, and stem from the metaphysics entailed by the belief that moral properties are non-natural properties discernable only to a moral sense.  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has developed a series of arguments that purport to defeat the notion of Moral Intuitionism, called "The Empirical Defeat Argument".(3)  It is based on the premise that Moral Intuitionism requires moral beliefs to be justified based on the perception of a moral sense.  Analogous to our perceptual beliefs being justified based on the perception of our regular senses.  In the case of Rational Intuitionism, the moral sense involved is the intellectual ability to recognize "intuitively obvious" moral truths.  In the case of Authoritative Command intuitionism, the moral sense involved is the ability to discern moral truths in a manner carefully unspecified.  Sinnot-Armstrong's argument is that the empirical evidence clearly shows that our moral sense (assuming it exists) is sufficiently faulty that we cannot justify believing its reports.  Analogously, if we discovered that none of the things we thought we saw were actually there (according to our other senses, and the reports of other witnesses) we would be unjustified in believing the sensory reports of our eyes, without additional support from other sources.

The four aspects to Sinnott-Armstrong's argument are:-

Partiality:  "Because people's moral beliefs affect their self-interest so often in so many ways, at least indirectly, and because people are so bad at telling when their own beliefs are partial, there is a presumption that moral beliefs are partial" (3b, p. 197).  He is assuming, of course, that self-interest is not correlated with moral truth.

Bias:  "Moral beliefs that vary in response to factors that do not affect truth -- such as wording and belief context -- cannot reliably track the truth" (3c, p. 54).  Psychologists have identified various cognitive illusions and framing effects that influence moral belief -- see for example The Trolly Problem.(4)

Emotions:  "[M]any moral judgments result from emotions that cloud judgment" (3a, p. 352).  This is basically a summarization of Hume's argument that the "passions" (Hume's word) are the basis of motivations.

Disagreement:  "[I]f we know that many moral intuitions are unreliable because others hold conflicting intuitions, then we are not justified in trusting a particular moral intuition without some reason to believe that it is one of the reliable ones" (3a, p. 350).  Empirical evidence demonstrates that there is considerable disagreement between people on various moral issues.

In a critique of The Empirical Defeat Argument, Nathan Ballantyne and Joshua Thurow have argued(5) that Sinnott-Armstrong's argument fails because it ignores the possibility of a second level defeater.  They suggest that in a situation where B is an initial belief arrived at intuitively, and there is an event D that defeats B, and if an additional event F occurs that defeats D, then the initial intuitive belief B is still intuitively justified.  But their argument may be good for a single intuitive belief B and a single defeater D.  But it fails to refute Sinnott-Armstrong's attack on intuitionism, because he outlines four generic arguments that suggest that all intuitive moral beliefs are unjustified.  His attack argues that because all intuitive moral beliefs suffer from same the four defeaters, none of the intuitive moral beliefs are reliably formed.  Hence, even if there is an event F defeating some defeater D for some particular intuitive moral belief B, one still cannot accept B as justified because the empirical evidence demonstrates that the intuitive moral belief forming process is sufficiently unreliable that holding a belief in any of the "seemings" reported by the moral sense is unjustified, regardless of some event F.

In addition to the Empirical Defeat Argument of Sinnott-Armstrong, moral intuitionism must also address the problems presented by the metaphysical positions entailed by it.  What distinguishes Ethical Intuitionism is its non-natural realism.  Intuitionists maintain that knowledge of moral right and wrong comes through an ethical sense in a manner similar to perceptual seemings.  Now if this moral knowledge could be gleaned from run of the mill natural properties of the kind studied by empirical science, then a moral sense would not be required.  Intuitionists therefore maintain the moral properties that are discerned (either by perceptual seemings, or intellectual graspings) by the ethical sense are not natural properties.  By this theory, then, natural facts can be known by purely empirical means, whereas non-natural moral facts cannot be known in this way.  Moral facts involve an essentially non-natural element.

On first examination, the Intuitionists seem right.  Empirical investigation tells us many things about the world.  But on first blush, it does not appear that it is able to tell us whether certain acts are right or wrong, good or bad.  Empirical science can tell us all sorts of things about the process of, and consequences of, torturing the cat.  But there does not seem to be anything about the scientific information available on the act of torturing the cat that would justify our judging the act to be wrong.  It just seems as if the moral fact that torturing the cat is wrong is different from the empirical facts of the matter.

G.E. Moore's "Open Question Argument"(6) exploits this intuition.  Moore argued that if there is some analysis of "good" in terms of some collection of natural properties (say F), then the question "Is it true that F is good?" would be a meaningless tautology.  But for any suggested F, it appears to remain a meaningful open question of whether it is true that F is good.  Therefore, the concept of moral goodness cannot be analysed as a collection of natural properties.  Therefore moral goodness must be a non-natural property.

Because moral properties are thus beyond the realm of empirical science, we must position Intuitiionist Ethics on the spectrum of a Personal versus Social conception of ethics based only on the kinds of ethical judgments intuitied by people.  Based on the available evidence, Intuitionist Ethics must be categorized as a Social conception of morality.  Although that may be more because judgment based on personal self-interest are ruled by observers as not moral judgments at all.  "Moral judgments" therefore are any judgments that fly in the face of self-interest.  Hence, the Social conception of morality may be more in the mind of the observers, than in the mind of the Intuitionists.

Flaws in Intuitionist Ethics

Moore's Open Question might have great intuitive appeal, but it can be argued that it is just an example of poor induction.  Proponents of the argument only consider a very few crude naturalistic definitions of goodness, and conclude from that sparse evidence that all possible naturalistic definitions of goodness will similarly fail the test.

Consider a much more complex example from evolutionary genetics.  "Inclusive fitness" is a tightly defined term in population genetics having to do with the average effect on an individual organism's direct and indirect (via identical copies of the trait in related individuals) reproductive success, of a particular genetic or behavioral trait.  "Reciprocal Altruism" is also a tightly defined term in population genetics having to do with altruistic acts performed with an expectation of repayment.  So, following Moore, it would seem that "Is reciprocal altruism positive for inclusive fitness?" is an open question.  But the nature of the definitions of these two concepts, it is analytically true that reciprocal altruism is positive for inclusive fitness.  So the question is in fact not an open one.  All that Moore's open question argument demonstrates is that if moral properties do indeed consist of a collection of natural properties, then that relationship will be complex and non-obvious.

The other problem that non-natural properties have is that they would be very "queer", to use the label provided by J.L. Mackie.(7)  The non-natural property of "goodness" would have to be invisible (by definition) to the empirical sciences, and yet have an effect on our definitely natural brains, in that moral non-natural properties are inherently motivational.  To sense that some act is "good" is to acknowledge a motivation to engage in that act.  No natural property has this inherently motivational consequence.  It is through this assumption that moral non-natural properties are inherently motivating that Intuitionists respond to the challenge "Why be Moral"?  And yet it is problematic how a non-natural property exerts this motivational force.  Non-natural properties must have some "queer" causal powers -- "queer" because the causality involved is unlike anything we have encountered in the empirical realm.

Since, despite these objections, most people, most of the time, do seem to "intuit" what is generally believed to be the morally proper choices, there has to be another explanation than the Intuitionist's moral sense perceiving non-natural moral properties.  And the most popular response to this situation is the assumption that our moral conscience is but a trained set of socially indoctrinated responses.  And this is Social Convention Ethics.


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(1)   Wikipedia contributors; "Ethical Intuitionism" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<>.

(2)   Wikipedia contributors;  "Ethical Intuitionism" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<>.

(3a)   Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter;  "Moral Intuitionism Meets Moral Psychology," in Metaethics After Moore, Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons eds., Oxford University Press, New York, New York 2006, pp. 339-365.

(3b)   Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter;  Moral Skepticisms, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 2006.

(3c)   Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter;  "Framing Moral Intuitions," in Moral Psychology, Vol. 2, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.,2008. pp. 47--76.]

(4)     Wikipedia contributors;  "Trolley Problem" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<>.

(5)     Ballantyne, Nathan & Thurow, Joshua;  "Moral Intuitionism Defeated?" in American Philosophical Quarterly. Vol 50, Num 4 (October 2013). URL=<>.

(6)     Moore, G. E.;  Principia Ethica, Baldwin, T. (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (1903) 1993.  Sect 13.

(7)     Mackie, J.L.;  Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin Books, London, England. 1990. ISBN 0-14-013558-8.