Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Question: What about Moral Intuitions?

Question: I'm having some issues when discussing objective morality. My conviction, of course, is that there are moral facts. There are things that are really good and things that are really evil. We have an obligation to do the good and to avoid evil.

Unfortunately, it seems that I have to appeal to intuitions when trying to support this view. Like I've said to you before, many people I talk to just don't consider that evidence. Yes, we all have strong intuitions about good and bad, but that doesn't mean there's some extrasomatic fact of the matter. I'm wondering what would be considered evidence for objective moral values and duties if this doesn't work.
I can sympathize with some of your frustration, having even only recently dealt with the doubt of moral intuitions. No, I did not doubt that objective moral values existed, nor did I doubt that I was justified in knowing so through my intuitions. But up until recently, I didn’t really have anything to say when people complained that it was “only” intuition.
The problem, at least I think, is that people are misconstruing what is meant by “intuition.” They’re using a colloquial version of “intuition” whereby one is appealing to his “gut feeling,” or how strongly he believes something is true, or something mystical guiding him into truth with a feeling of peace, or some other sixth sense type of “knowledge.” For a relevant analogy as to why this is not a correct way to look at terms, see the use of “theory” in academic vs. colloquial language.

When we speak of intuition, we don’t mean that at all! We mean “rational intuition,” or the way that I know “if p, then q; p; therefore, q” is true. Notice no appeal to logic can work here, for we would be presupposing logic in order to show that logic is true. But no serious epistemologist takes this to be an intractable problem; no one thinks we are being irrational for insisting logical inference is true (and knowable). The same thing holds for sensory perception. William Alston has shown (quite convincingly) that any problems with knowing an immediate religious perception of God as veridical attend sensory perception as well, and all attempts at justifying sensory perception external to itself fail.[1]

The same holds for intuitions. Since intuitions are not only justifiable but necessary to the epistemological enterprise, it simply is nonsensical to rule out moral intuitions simply because they are intuitions. Something stronger must be there; the objector must either have an overriding defeater (something in virtue of which the intuition cannot be true) or an undercutter (something in virtue of which the intuition is probably not true or is stripped of its warrant). Essentially, the only defeater I can think of is that God does not exist (provided the objector accepts that God is the only or most likely only source of objective moral values). Whatever undercutter there is needs to be held stronger than the intuition. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of non-psychopathic people intuit objective moral values very very strongly indeed.

It is at this point someone may object that this intuition is really just an appeal to emotion, fancied up for argument’s sake. It is to that I respond twofold: first, simply because something entails an emotion, even a very strong one, does not make it false, or unreliable (or even more likely to be unreliable). In fact, it makes more sense, all things considered, that we have strong emotional reactions to fundamental issues of morality, if they exist. Second, how do they know my intuition is really just emotion? Simply because they think their intuition in this case is purely emotional, why should it follow that my faculties have similarly failed me?

Finally, in case someone still has doubts about the reliability of intuitions, imagine some skeptic claiming, “yes, but how do I know I am here, and not just a brain in a vat? Simply because I see everything around me doesn’t mean I and those things are actually here,” or “We all believe we can see. But really, we just think we do. It doesn’t mean there’s actually some fact of the matter about sight,” or “Of course it appears as though logic is truth-discerning inference, but that’s simply circular, and there’s no way to know that there is a fact of the matter about logic and its truth.” How silly!

While all, in a very strict sense, are true, it wouldn’t follow that we are being irrational for accepting the truth claims in question. In fact, it would follow that the super-skeptic was being irrational for rejecting the claims in every instance. Something very important follows from this. It follows that not only can one be justified in appealing to intuitions in order to know something, but that one can be unjustified in ignoring those intuitions in knowing something.

Notice what we have not done, as many (most?) objectors think. We have not appealed to intuitions in order to show objective morality is true. Instead, we have appealed to the fact that nearly everyone strongly intuits objective moral values to know they are true. Thus, in the absence of an overriding defeater or a strong enough undercutter (which moral skepticism is not) the objector is not only justified in believing in objective moral values, but unjustified in withholding such belief.

To the last part of your question: I don’t really know what other evidence would show them there are such moral values without being non-useful. For instance, if you were to show that an ontological argument along the lines of Anselm’s or Plantinga’s succeeds, then you could argue it is metaphysically greater to be the source of objective moral values (assuming they are at least possible) than not, and hence they exist. But I suspect people who are interested in rejecting objective moral values do not do so because they are eager to embrace Anselm or Plantinga in this regard.

                [1] William Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

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1 comment:

  1. A great quote from Alston, (71):

    "I will be working with the concept of a subject S's being justified in believing that p, rather than with the concept of S's justifying a belief. That is, I will be concerned with the state or condition of being justified in holding a certain belief, rather than with the activity of justifying a belief. . . . Unless I am justified in many beliefs without arguing for them, there is precious little I justifiably believe."


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