Intuitions in Moral Reasoning

One of the most common objections to hedonism (except the objection that assumes that another specific moral theory is the correct one, and therefore hedonism must be false) is that it leads to conclusions (recommendations for action) that are very unattractive to our moral feelings, or intuitions.

It has been claimed, for instance, that if there existed an “experience-machine” – in essence a sort of Matrix-like device that isolated you from the outside world – which would give you all the pleasurable experiences that you wanted, we would have the intuition that it is wrong to get into it (because, at least according to Robert Nozick, we want our experiences to be “authentic”). And since the hedonist, presumably, would claim that we should live our lives in this machine, then hedonism must be wrong.

Of course, the hedonist could easily claim that it is hard to see a realistic scenario where it would be right to go into the machine permanently. But leaving such empirical matters aside, can it really be the case that an ethical theory can be falsified simply because some people intuitively feel that certain applications of the theory is wrong? Are there any ethical theories who would survive such a test? Presumably, all ethical theories have applications that at least some people find intuitively unattractive.

To make sense, ethical reasoning sometimes has to challenge our  intuitions (which are usually reflections of the prejudices of our cultural surroundings). It may feel appalling to me to kill a human being; but what if I can save the lives of ten (or twenty, or a hundred) people by killing one person? It is not obvious here that moral intuition has to take precedence over ethical theory.

There is, of course, a choice to be made here. You can turn your back on ethics and simply do what your intuition tells you to do in every situation. But if you stick with ethics it seems you have to leave your intuitions behind, except for the intuitions that are needed to ground a theory (a hedonist, for instance, need the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad to get the theory started). And if you choose the latter course, then your opponent should be entitled to treat your intuitive objections as foundational to your own theory. If, like in the example above, you claim that a hedonist recommendation violates the intuition that authenticity in life is important, then you should be able to show how the intuition of authenticity is foundational to your own theory, and that an ethical theory can be built upon it. Because in order for an ethical discussion to be fruitful, ethical theories should only have to compete with other theories, not with piecemeal moral intuitions.

I sometimes think of this as a “time out” view of ethical discussion. In some sports, teams are allowed to take one time out per game. The same should apply to ethical debates. If you raise an intuitive objection then you should make sure that it is a foundational intuition, because you won’t be able to raise any more intuitive objections. A libertarian, for instance, could legitimately raise the objection that you cannot kill one to save ten, because it is intuitively wrong to use force against anyone. This won’t cause any problems because this intuition is the foundation of the whole libertarian theory (at least in its standard form). It might cause problems if you, for instance, reject a utilitarian application because it seems “disgusting” to you. Could you really build an alternative ethical theory from the foundation of disgust?

Why allow for only one time out? Could we not have several different foundational intuitions? This kind of pluralism (as opposed to monism) can work, provided that your pluralistic theory doesn’t give you contradictory advice in a specific situation, because an ethical theory that simultaneously tells you to do A and not-A is not really of much use. Alternatively, you can place your foundational intuitions in a hierarchy; but that is also difficult, because it seems that you would need a kind a meta-theory to justify the ranking in question. And that meta-theory would, in fact, be the (monistic) foundation of your ethical theory.

The kind of “deductive” ethical reasoning I am adhering to is nothing really strange, at least if you look at many classical works in the field. The last few decades, however, something called reflective equilibrium has taken over as the most preferred method in ethics (and political theory). This method claims that we should go back and forth between our theories and our moral intuitions, sometimes revising our theory, sometimes our intuitions – without any clear instructions how they should be reconciled. Needless to say, moral views arrived at through reflective equilibrium can be hard to falsify.


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