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Ethical intuitionism


Ethical intuitionism refers to a core of related moral theories, influential in Britain already in the 1700s, but coming to especial prominence in the work of G.E. Moore, H.A. Pritchard and W. D. Ross in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Somewhat confusingly, however, the label 'ethical intuitionism' has had at least two distinct contemporary uses. Firstly, 'intuitionism' between the 1860s and 1920s was another name for unranked pluralism, the doctrine that there is a plurality of moral principles none of which is more basic than any other. In this respect, intuitionism is a normative ethical theory contrasted with versions of monism-the view that there is only one basic moral principle-such as utilitarianism, and Kantianism. Intuitionism in this sense is nowadays distinguished as methodological intuitionism.

Secondly, and primarily, intuitionism in ethics refers to a cluster of theories about how moral agents come to know which things are good, or which actions are right and wrong. This view may be distinguished as epistemological intuitionism, a theory of the way in which ethical propositions come to be grasped or known. The relationship between these doctrines is primarily historical: important intuitionist thinkers such as H.A. Pritchard and W.D. Ross embraced both methodological and epistemological intuitionism.

Historical overview

While elements of intuitionism are present in ancient ethical philosophy, it was in the seventeenth century, in the work of the Cambridge Platonists, such as Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) and Henry More (1614-1687), and the Moral Sense Theorists such as the Earl of Shaftsbury (1671- 1713) and Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), that it was developed into a distinctive doctrine. Notable intuitionists, in the eighteenth century, are Joseph Butler (1692 -1752), Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and Richard Price; in the nineteenth century, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), and in the twentieth, G.E. Moore (1873-1958), H.A. Pritchard (1871-1947) culminating in W.D. Ross's (1877-1971) The Right and the Good. Intuitionism fell out of favor by the 1960s but has undergone some revival in the closing decades years of the twentieth century. Robert Audi, John McDowell, and Jonathan Dancy, are notable contemporary philosophers who defend versions of intuitionism.

Two senses of intuitionism

In the twentieth century, the term 'intuitionism' has had two main uses. Firstly, from the 1860s to 1920s it was a name for an ethical theory defined by a commitment to pluralism, or more particularly, unranked pluralism. Intuitionism in this sense is usually distinguished as methodological intuitionism. Pluralism is the doctrine that there is a plurality of moral principles, and unranked pluralism adds the additional claim that none of these moral principles are more basic than any other. Methodological intuitionism stands in contrast, then, with forms of monism-the view that there is only one basic moral principle-notably utilitarianism, and Kantianism, and varieties of ranked pluralism, which hold that some duties are more important than others. In illustration, a Kantian would argue that duties of promise keeping, and a duty to help other people, are grounded in a more basic principle, the categorical imperative. A ranked pluralist would argue that there are several different moral duties, which are not grounded in any fundamental principle, but may add that a duty not to harm others is more important than keeping one's promises. By contrast, methodological intuitionists would argue that there are several distinct moral principles but that none of these is more important than any other.

The second and primary usage of “intuitionism” is to refer to a doctrine in moral epistemology concerning how agents come to know or justifiably believe moral judgments such as that 'torture is wrong' or that 'virtue is good'. Intuitionism in this sense is a theory about how ethical beliefs acquire their justification. More specifically, it says that we can know that certain things are good or actions are right by intuition. Coming to know something by intuition is to apprehend it directly, and not on the basis of some reasoning process.

Since intuitionism assumes that we are capable of moral knowledge, it is to be contrasted with forms of moral scepticism, such as emotivism, which deny this. It is also to be contrasted with coherentism, which denies that moral knowledge is intuitive, rather than inferred from other things already known. In illustration, an intuitionist might hold that the judgment that one ought to keep one's promises is something that is intuitively known to be true; in contrast, an emotivist would regard this judgment as an expression of feeling, and hence not something that could be true or false; lastly, coherentists would argue that this principle is known by inference from other principles which are themselves not intuitively known.

What is the relationship between methodological and epistemological intuitionism? In their historical development, the two doctrines are closely tied up with one another. Notable intuitionists such as H.A. Pritchard and W.D. Ross held both of these doctrines, endorsing unranked pluralism, and the claim that a plurality of basic principles are known through intuition. However, it is possible to deny methodological intuitionism, while sanctioning epistemological intuitionism. Henry Sidgwick is instructive in this regard. He argued that that there is one basic moral principle-the principle of utility-but that this principle is grasped through intuition. So Sidgwick is an epistemological intuitionist but not a methodological intuitionist.

Varieties of epistemological intuitionism

Within this general characterization of intuitionism as a theory of how moral beliefs are acquired and justified, a variety of different forms of intuitionism may be distinguished.

Firstly, varieties of intuitionism may be distinguished from one another in terms of differences in the content of what is intuited. The content of an intuition is roughly “what it is about.” In the case of moral intuition, moral intuitions could be about (amongst other things) values such as goodness and badness, or rightness and obligation. G.E. Moore, for example, holds that goodness and badness are intuited. By contrast, Joseph Butler and H.A Pritchard hold that intuitions are about rightness and wrongness.

Secondly, various forms of intuitionism may be distinguished from one another in terms of the generality of what is intuited. This is a question as to whether intuitive moral knowledge is essentially of general principles or of particular actions and things. For instance, one might intuit the general principle that breaking promises is wrong, or that some particular action would be morally wrong. In this respect, Sidgwick and W.D. Ross argue that general principles are intuited; in Sidgwick's case only one principle, the Principle of Utility; in Ross's several basic and irreducible moral principles that cannot be ranked in terms of priority. Finally, Prichard, Butler and Dancy hold that the rightness of particular actions is intuited, such as, for example, that this action is morally wrong.

Thirdly, various forms of intuitionism may be distinguished from one another in terms of the source of what is intuited. Intuitionists are here divided into two camps: rational intuitionists and perceptual intuitionists. Rational intuitionists hold that some moral judgments are known by means of reason, and are therefore a priori. They are likely to draw an analogy with the way in which mathematical principles are known by intuition. For example, in the following quotation, W.D Ross emphasizes that basic moral principles are self-evident, in a very similar way to which mathematical axioms are self-evident.

That an act qua fulfilling a promise, or qua effecting a just distribution of good… is prima facie right, is self-evident; not in the sense that it is evident from the beginning of our lives, or as soon as we attend to the proposition for the first time, but in the sense that when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention to the proposition it is evident without any need of proof, or evidence beyond itself. It is evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference, is evident… (W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, 1930, 29-30)

In contrast with rational intuitionism, perceptual intuitionism holds that moral intuitions are akin to sense perceptions so that one “sees” that some particular action is wrong. Perceptual intuitionists will tend to emphasize the particularity of the knowledge that is intuited, while rational intuitionists tend to point to general moral truths known by rational insight. The moral sense theories of Shaftsbury, Hutcheson, and Reid, and more recently Pritchard and Maurice Mandelbaum may be classified as perceptual intuitionists.

Fourthly, various forms of intuitionism may be distinguished according to the degree of justification intuition confers on belief. Most classical intuitionists argue that intuition confers enough justification upon belief for it to count as knowledge. So intuiting (e.g.) a moral principle is sufficient for knowing that principle. However, there is nothing in the notion of intuition that requires that it provide certainty or knowledge and some recent thinkers have argued picked up on this, arguing that intuition provides some evidential weight insufficient for knowledge. It is also worth noticing that intuitive evidence in favor a belief does not preclude the possibility of inferential support. So intuition may provide evidence for a given moral principle, but coherence with other beliefs may add to the evidential weight in support of that belief.

Arguments for intuitionism

Epistemological intuitionism is usually understood to be the outcome of a commitment to three theses: (1) moral realism, (2) the autonomy of ethics, and (3) foundationalism.

Moral realism is the meta-ethical doctrine that there are objective moral facts. A moral realist may hold that it is (or could be) a fact that torture is wrong, even if everyone in the world came to believe the opposite. He or she claims that there are true and false moral propositions, and the truth of these propositions is not dependant on people's opinions, or attitudes.

The autonomy of ethics is the thesis that moral properties cannot be explained in terms of natural properties. Moral properties are normative (or evaluative) and include notions such as right, wrong, ought, good, bad, virtuous and vicious. Natural properties are descriptive, including such things as being pleasant, being painful, being desired (rather than desirable), or hated (rather than hateful). Normative properties provide reasons that recommend or disapprove actions or states of affairs, whereas natural properties merely report states of affairs. For example, it is one thing to say that smoking is wrong, and quite another to say that it causes lung disease. The former is an evaluation of a certain habit of action whereas the latter is a description of a causal outcome of this habit.

Intuitionists hold that ethics is autonomous, and so that it cannot be entirely explained in terms of natural properties. This makes them non-naturalists about ethics. One important argument for moral non-naturalism is G.E. Moore's "open question argument," which says that any attempted definition of a moral property such as goodness in terms of natural properties is bound to fail. For example, suppose someone defined goodness, a normative property, in terms of “being desired,” a descriptive property. Now consider the claim that war is desired. Moore's point is that it would make perfect sense to retort “it may be desired, but is it good?.” Since this question makes sense, 'desired' does not mean 'good'. Consider that it makes no sense to ask whether Charles is unmarried upon learning that he is a bachelor because bachelor does mean unmarried man.

Foundationalism is an epistemological theory about the structure of justification. It says that not all beliefs rest upon other beliefs for their justification. For example, if someone's belief that p depends on q, which in turn depends on r, the question arises as to where this relation of support comes to an end. A foundationalist thinks that if this chain of support did not come to an end somewhere, then the entire chain of belief lacks justification because one cannot know an infinite number of truths. So he concludes that there must be some beliefs that are not justified by their relationship to other beliefs, but are directly and immediately justified. These are the foundational beliefs that support the system. In the context of moral philosophy, foundationalism says that we know certain derivative moral truths only because we know basic truths. Basic moral truths are foundational and support the higher level beliefs that depend on them. They are known by intuition.

Moral realism, the autonomy of ethics, and foundationalism, lead to intuitionism as follows. Moral realism says that ethical propositions are factual. The autonomy of ethics says that they cannot be entirely reduced to natural propositions. If there are indeed moral facts, then according to foundationalism they must depend on some basic moral facts. These basic beliefs must have direct justification, that is, be known directly-by intuition-and not by inference from any other moral belief. For example, we know, that lying is normally wrong. Suppose that the reason that lying is wrong is because it brings about harm. Then the wrongness of lying is justified by inferring it from a more basic moral principle. But this chain of justifications cannot go on forever (by foundationalism), and can never ultimately eliminate moral propositions (by the autonomy of ethics). Therefore, there are some moral facts known directly, that is, by intuition.

Objections to intuitionism

One common objection against intuitionism is that if moral principles were known directly by intuition, then there would not be so much moral disagreement. But since there is a substantial amount of disagreement, the argument goes, it follows that moral principles are not known by intuition.

Intuitionists have given two different responses to this type of argument. W.D. Ross gestures toward both responses:

… The diversity of opinion on moral questions is found not to rest on disagreement about fundamental moral principles, but partly on differences in the circumstances of different societies, and partly on the different views which people hold, not on moral questions but on questions of fact. (W.D. Ross, The Foundations of Ethics, 1939, 18)

Ross's first point is that a good deal of moral diversity is not so much due to disagreements about moral principles, but due to differences in people's circumstances. For example, in a society in which there is no formal legal system it may be morally right for an individual to take vengeance upon a murderer. But in a society which has provisions for the state administration of justice, taking retribution by one's own hand may be morally wrong. So the rightness and wrongness of an action can depend on non-moral factors such as whether there are sophisticated mechanisms of civil justice in place.

Ross's second point is that diversity of moral opinion can also be explained by differences in beliefs about non-moral facts. In illustration, consider how a belief that it is wrong to eat meat could stem from a metaphysical or religious doctrine of reincarnation rather than a difference in fundamental values. A belief that one's forebears are reincarnated into animals would seem to justify a prohibition on eating meat, but the basic value in question is one which meat-eating cultures share: respect for the life of (e.g.,) souls or persons or family members. The difference in moral belief arises as a result of a factual belief that not everyone endorses, viz. that our family members are reincarnated into animal life. So here there is no disagreement in values but only disagreement in facts.

A second response, one which admits that there are some disagreements that are genuinely about values, is that propositions known by intuition need not be obvious. After all complex mathematical statements may be self evident in that that they are believed once they are understood, but need not be obvious to everyone. Similarly, intuitionists may claim that some people are morally immature or “blind,” or have not considered the matter carefully.

Another common objection to intuitionism is that is presupposes some mysterious faculty for apprehending moral truth. In the case of rational intuitionism, the objection is that it requires a mysterious intuitive faculty that is able to divine the moral truth. In response, intuitionists can maintain that moral principles are known a priori. If this true, the intuition requires nothing more mysterious than a capacity for a priori reasoning. In the case of perceptual intuitionism, the objection is that it requires a mysterious faculty beyond perception, a sixth sense, which somehow hones in on ethical properties. In response, some intuitionists have claimed that intuition requires only an ability to grasp reasons as considerations for actions. Jonathan Dancy suggests that moral facts “are best thought of not as facts perceived but as reasons recognized in the exercise of practical moral judgment” ("Intuitionism." in P. Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics, 418). These issues are the subject of considerable debate. The reader is referred to Audi (2005) for the most sophisticated contemporary treatment.


  • Audi, R. (1996) "'Intuitionism, pluralism, and the foundations of ethics," in W. Sinnott Armstrong and M. Timmons (eds) Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 101-136. ISBN 0195089898
  • Audi, R. (2005) The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069111434X
  • Dancy, J. (1983) "Ethical particularism and morally relevant properties." Mind 92: 530-547.
  • Dancy, J. (1991) "Intuitionism." in P. Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 9780631162117
  • Huemer, M. (2005) Ethical Intuitionism. Palgrave: Macmillan. ISBN 1403989680
  • Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, esp. chaps 5, 6.
  • Prichard, H.A. (1949) Moral Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ross, W.D. (1930) The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press, esp. ch. 2.
  • Ross, W.D. (1939) The Foundations of Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, esp. 79-86 and ch. 8.
  • Schneewind, J.B. (1990) Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2 vols. ISBN 0521802598
  • Sidgwick, H., The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. London: Macmillan, 1907 1967); and in The Works of Henry Sidgwick. ed., J. Slater, Bristol, UK: Thoemmes, 1996. ISBN 1855064731
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, W. "Intuitionism" in L.C. Becker (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Ethics. Vol. I New York: Garland, 1992). ISBN 081530403X
  • Stratton-Lake, P. (2006) Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198250991
  • Strawson, P.F., "Ethical Intuitionism." Philosophy 24 (1949): 23-33.
  • Williams, B., "What does Intuitionism Imply?" in Dancy (e.g.), Human Agency. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

External links

All links retrieved August 15, 2017.

  • Michael Huemer. Ethical Intuitionism. A contemporary defense of the theory. Excerpt from Ethical Intuitionism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Ethics and Metaethics Papers, Michael Huemer's site. Papers defending intuitionism.
  • Henry Sidgwick, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Moral Non-Naturalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

General Philosophy Sources

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Paideia Project Online.
  • Project Gutenberg.