Friday, May 9, 2008

Intuitionist Expectation of Morality

Recently, I have begun to delve into moral skepticism of Bernard Williams, and revisited the par excellence critique of morality in Nietzsche. The thought that morality shouldn't be construed as impartial for everyone's interest, universally applicable to all involved, overriding and content-specifiable has been striking a tenor with me, as of late. Particularly, I am suspicious of the content-specifiability of morality. A goal of moral theorizing is often thought that such theorizing can provide content for action-guidance. However, I am thinking this level of content-specifiability is untenable since the reason why moral principles have such wide scope follows from their generality. Generality gets you universality, and some content--yet, it cannot secure such an exactitude as to prevent moral disagreement. This is what I want to get to in this post, no matter how sloppy of an attempt I'll make.

An argument against intuitionism in ethics proceeds as follows. If everyone has access to the same self-evident intuitions, then moral knowledge would be consistent, and no disagreement of morality, nor its expression in principles would occur. Disagreement does, however, happen. Therefore, there are no self-evident moral principles or intuitions. If there were, then disagreement would never, if ever, occur.

While the disagreement objection follows from intuitionism if such a position claims certainty about a class of self-evident intuitions and principles, it is unclear that when we say that there is a moral fact of the matter in this situation, such a normative observation of a situation involves the level of certainty built into the disagreement objection. Moreover, intuitions in Ross are seen as defeasible and prima facie justified. There can be other more pressing considerations that once critical reflection is underway those considerations reveal how false our initial intuitions may be. For instance, I am a bank teller and see a dirty dingy man coming to my line. I call over the bank manager, and ask him to call over the security guard because he has a gun slightly showing above his hip. However, when the man comes over, I see a badge pressed underneath a shirt, and the police officer reveals his ending a shift requiring him to go undercover. My initial reflective judgments, intuitions so called, was wrong, and I owe him an apology for possibly embarrassing him in front of other customers.

The point is that moral knowledge is not certain as any other realm. The push for content-specifiability is a result of philosophy taking as its influence the emulation of the natural sciences in which the phenomena encountered can be quantified in explanation. A level of precision in handling objects of empirical study is available unlike the precision available to our conceptual analysis of morality. I think this is a problem, and secondly, content-specifiability is made problematic given that normative theories no longer justify the structure of values in the form of monism. Generally speaking, moral theorizing has become somewhat more sensitive to the context of morality and often construes the role of ethical principles and values in the form of a pluralism over a monism. I adopt this move as an appropriate characterization of morality.

I want to end this meandering thread on the fact that if I am accepting intuitionism in the form of W. D. Ross, then I must, like any intuitionist, give a response to the disagreement objection. In order to do this, I introduce a distinction between two levels of the moral epistemic scenario. First, our intuitions are reports of the morally relevant facts that pertain to our situation, and what centrally is at dispute with respect to the duty in a situation. I think here our intuitions gives us an understanding of what moral principles to apply. In Ross, however, one goes straight from seeing the morally relevant fact and this gets us the interpretation of the principles as it applies to the situation. I disagree. At the other end of the givenness of any moral situation, there stands the question of interpretation of applicability. The disagreement follows from interpretation of the intuitions, not simply from differing intuitions (which is still possible, I admit). Thus, I see a morally epistemic scenario as following three basic steps:

(1) Morally understanding the moral fact of the matter as it is given and pertains to the moral situation

(2) The framing of our intuitions of what is given to what pertains in the moral situation

(3) Deciding on how best to apply the framed intuitions in the moral situation.

I think (3) is a better source or culprit of disagreement more often than the difference in the content of our moral intuitions. I am not claiming that interpretation in application is the only source of disagreement. What I am claiming is that defenders of Ross never seem to consider this as a possible source of disagreement since the disagreement objection takes as its sole target our intuitions and not the interpretations of those intuitions to the particular cases in which such generality applies.

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