Against Moral Intuitionism

Against Moral Intuitionism January 27, 2011

In the series of posts I began on Sunday and which has continued through this morning, I have developed and defended my naturalistic approach to understanding value as a realist.  James Gray, despite being a moral realist, has balked at much in my attempts to do this and it has become increasingly clear that the reason for this is is that his brand of moral realism is a moral intuitionism, which diverges in both methods and aims from those of moral naturalism.

So, in this post, I will briefly reply to his clearest statement of his moral intuitionist bases for disagreeing with me.  The reasons he articulates here are the real root cause of his symptomatic complaints I have already dealt with (in order) here, here, here, and here.  He articulates his essential intuitionist counter in reply to my insistence that “goodness” is not a “basic” term but one which must be defined in simpler terms if it is to have any claim to objective truth:

The view that goodness can be a simple property is highly intuitive

Not to me, it’s not.  There are some intuitions (like those of mathematics, logic or fundamental categories like possibility or causation, etc.) which one can appeal to as basic and a priori.  But goodness is not one of them.  No rational being can very long seriously doubt mathematics or logic or causation, etc.  But many people can be and have been persuaded that goodness is not a property of things but rather of people’s attitudes towards them.  The very existence of anti-realists about the existence of good means that moral realists cannot just appeal to a “highly intuitive” notion that goodness is a simple property.

The existence of real goodness is a fact which must be demonstrated to be believed, just as much as the existence of God would need to be demonstrated if it is to be believed.  The vast majority of humans claim an “intuition” of God, but it is not enough to make it even probably true.  We can and must do much better with respect to good, for goodness’s sake.

We unavoidably think in terms of goodness and badness.  No anti-realist is able to consistently live according to his judgment that the terms good and bad refer to no real facts about the world (unless said anti-realist has a genuine break with reason altogether).  We inevitably think in value terms.  But this does not mean these values are not explicable in terms of other properties of things.

And encouraging people to look for “goodness” is a simple property (rather than as a distinguishable, unique, and in some ways simple “experience”) is only encouraging them if they do not share that strange intuition of it which you have to instead draw the conclusion that there is just no objective truth to goodness.  If goodness cannot, given its concept, be an objectively observable natural property or a natural relationship among properties (which is my view), then they are likely to wind up emotivists or error theorists or some other form of subjectivists or anti-realist relativists.  (And MacIntrye in After Virtue makes a strong case that this is precisely what happened in the 20th Century, Moore’s moral intuitionism led dialectically straight to emotivism).

I do think there is a specific experience and category in our minds for the genus “goodness” which we naturally separate from the specific species of goodness.  I think in every day language we intelligibly talk about goodness as a more general category from pleasure, usefulness, preferential attitudes, effectiveness, etc.  And for practical purposes this is not usually problematic as long as we do not confuse goodness for something which can exist apart from the specific species of goodness.  As I wrote on page 318 of my dissertation (On Deriving and Defending an Axiology of the Will to Power):

“Goodness” is no more capable of independent existence from particular species of good things than “primate” can exist without lemurs, monkeys, apes, humans, and other particular species that comprise the group.

And, further, I would say that since effectiveness is the necessary and sufficient component of all the other species of good, I would say it is not just a specific species of goodness but what the genus itself ultimately is translatable to being.  Backing up, let’s start over reading James’s paragraph, which I had to interrupt midway through its first sentence, so we can now get its full sense:

The view that goodness can be a simple property is highly intuitive and supports the view that esoteric Aristotelian teleology is not necessary for everyone to understand morality. They understand morality prior to Aristotelianism. I suppose that Aristotelian ethics could be implied by our moral beliefs, but I am not yet convinced of that.

I am not arguing the absurd notion that unless people have a clear, adequate, and explicit philosophical account of what goodness really is, that they cannot effectively use the word or understand its meaning in practical contexts.  Most people would find both our accounts of goodness esoteric, simply because they involve problematizing something people use rather than understand abstractly.  Philosophy is inherently esoteric sounding to people.  So are the rules of grammar and syntax.  Yet, functionally people use participles and gerunds and conjugate verbs fluently.  And they use the word “good” fluently too.

But clarifying investigations into truths about our implicit grammatical structures by linguistics, and about our true semantic and axiological structures by metaphysicians and ethicists is still highly valuable.  In the case of ethicists, we need far clearer and more systematic understandings of genuine value if we are to give truthful advice about difficult moral dilemmas and if we are to improve the moral misunderstandings and prejudices which come most naturally to our own particular culture and period in history.  We need more than just the layman’s working practical understanding of goodness, we need a truthful, rationally grounded, clarifying, objective theory.

Three, what do you mean by being “basic?” If you mean self-evident, yes it might be. That is what Robert Audi argues. If pleasure is good because of the concept of pleasure that the word refers to, then it is a conceptual truth. We might be able to then prove that it is “good” in the sense of having intrinsic value.

Four, natural laws make happiness (or pleasure at least) good because natural laws make pleasure and the conceptual meaning of pleasure entails that it is experienced as good. As a moral realist I take that experience also entailing pleasure to be “intrinsically good.”

To say that good is self-evident goodness is just empty tautology.  To say it is philosophically (and not merely practically) “self-evident” that pleasure is good is more emptiness without a definition of goodness.  On a practical level, speaking and thinking in shorthand, of course w can say “pleasure is obviously good”.  But to explain what makes it good and in what ways it is good—especially when, again practically, there are clear cases in which it is not good in a shorthand way—requires a clear account of what goodness is (one much better than a “simple property” which tells us nothing) and what pleasure’s goodness is (which goes beyond inferring from the fact we like it so much that this makes it “self-evidently” good by itself in a decisive objective sense).

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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