On Philosophy

December 30, 2006

The Study of Ethical Intuitions

Filed under: Ethics,Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 5:39 pm

Some approach ethics by appealing to our ethical intuitions; we are asked to accept or reject a position based on how well it agrees (or disagrees) with our intuitions. If this is used simply to motivate an investigation into some area perhaps it doesn’t do too much harm. But, if these ethical intuitions are seriously considered as the basis of ethics, then it leads inevitably to some kind of relativism, from the simple fact that people don’t all share the same ethical intuitions. Although people’s intuitions may be fairly homogeneous in a single culture there are no such guarantees in general (for example, at one time many thought slavery was acceptable, while now we know it to be reprehensible).

Of course few who think that our ethical intuitions are a suitable basis for ethics welcome relativism, because in many ways relativism simply indicates that one has made a mistake (when looking for some set of ethical facts to become a relativist is to admit: “I couldn’t find any”). One common defense against relativism is to appeal to some set of core intuitions, which are in principle shared by everyone, as the basis for ethics. If such a core set of intuitions did exist it might form a suitable basis for ethics, and it certainly wouldn’t be relativism. But there is no reason to believe that a core set of intuitions does in fact exist. Even if all human beings shared them there is no guarantee that all rational agents everywhere (aliens, ect) would have them too, and ethics is supposed to apply to them as well. A second problem is that not even all people share a core set of ethical intuitions, there are always a few individuals with an abnormal psychology who won’t have them, no matter what you define them to be. Again, ethics is supposed to cover these people as well, even if they don’t accept it. And if we think that it doesn’t we are back to being relativists. Another option for avoiding relativism, less often used, is to say that ethics is determined by the intuitions of the majority. This fails for three reasons. First it is unmotivated, except by a desire to avoid relativism. Secondly we can’t know what this majority opinion is, since there may be rational agents that we are unaware of. And finally the majority opinion changes over time, meaning that we are still left with a kind of temporal relativism (and we can’t appeal to a majority of all people at all times, as we have no idea what the opinions of future people will be).

But the fact that ethics conducted by studying our ethical intuitions fails to give us what we want from ethics shouldn’t be surprising, since it isn’t really ethics at all. Instead I would contend that conclusions motivated by our ethical intuitions are really a kind of psychology (a very confused kind), as our intuitions are part of our psychological makeup, and thus to study them is to study our psychology. Certainly we can easily transform the conclusions arrived at by such a approach into obviously psychological ones by simply predicating “people think that” before them, and a system of ethics derived from our intuitions would have to be understood as a hypothesis about the unconscious basis of them. And the fact that we are really doing psychology in such an approach explains the problems with relativism highlighted above, because much of psychology really is relative to specific cultures. And, even though there are some psychological characteristics that the vast majority of people from all cultures share, there will always be a few abnormal individuals. This is to be expected in a psychological study, and the fact that what we thought of as ethics demonstrated these features is all the more reason to think of it as a kind of psychology.

I would claim that any philosophical endeavor based in some way on our intuitions is really psychology (ex: knowledge, value), although few fields seem to rely as heavily on them as ethics does, and thus made the best example. And not every philosophical position derived from intuitions must be abandoned; the reasons behind the intuitions might be picked out and defended, allowing the position to be based on those reasons instead.


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