Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Intuitions and Ethics

I can't seem to hate conservative philosophers. If anything, they are my favorite type of conservatives, reflective and willing to engage in philosophical debate. In this post, Edward Feser takes issue with Dennett's intuition pumps and groups them together with moral intuition from ethics. It is the latter that concern me here. In this post, I show they are completely different from each other, and likewise do not represent the same methodology. He says,
But intuitions are also often appealed to in a positive fashion, as a way to support some claim or other in metaphysics or ethics. Hence we have John Rawls’s well-known appeal to what our “considered intuitions” about justice have to tell us. 

The two are entirely distinct since the intuition use, or appeals to intuition in ethics. His specific claim is what such a grouping cannot achieve objective understanding of morality. In his words,
As Alan Lacey notes in an entry on intuition in the Ted Honderich edited volume The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “recently… the term ‘intuition’ has been used for pre-philosophical thoughts or feelings, e.g. on morality, which emerge in thought experiments and are then used philosophically.”
This is most regrettable. It gives the impression that ethics and metaphysics are ultimately subjective, which is – certainly from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view) – not at all the case.
Primarily, I feel that when I claim a normative judgment is intuitive, I mean -- like Ross -- there is a self-evident truth that a mature and experienced person can accept. There is some moral claim about the situation we face, and that's what is normatively at issue for us. For the Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher, it is then only that the intuitions are about what morally face us, and it should also be noted that intuition used in the Rossian way doesn't refer to incorrigible pieces of knowledge either. The fact that we are bearers of intuitions about a pre-philosophical experience doesn't immediately infer that they are unreliably subjective either. It's just part of the overall explanation of our moral epistemology as to how we come to know what is moral and immoral. For Ross, our intuitions are left open to critical reflection and can be modified since they are prima facie justified only. To me, this sounds like Ross can account for the openness of practical wisdom requiring experience and maturity that an A-T would find plausible. To further push this thought, Ross was also an Aristotle scholar and translator of Aristotle's works. This is why I do not think that Ross demands much theoretical precision and realized that openness about moral matters requires humility when dealing with ethical matters--all the while using the word intuition. 

Moreover, Rawls appeals to gaining reflective equilibrium between our accepted moral intuitions and the principles we use to justify our notions of justice is not wrong. It is not a flagrant irresponsible attitude to try and gain coherence between the principles we think morality is undergirded by and the beliefs we have. An A-T philosopher would always start with the respected opinions of his day, and then evaluate whether they are true or false. That's just an Aristotelian modus operandi. Moreover, Aristotle does not overthrow tradition in much the same way that the word intuition comes to be used in the early Oxbridge ethicists. For Sidgwick thought that moral theory should also explain our common-sense moral beliefs, which are part of our tradition. This belief is shared by Ross as well. 

What might be suspect is coherence as a way to decide moral matters. It can seem very self-serving, even after someone has read Rawls, and Rawls is without the openness that Ross shares with Aristotle's phronesis. However, that is a post for another time. If I were to summarize, I would say that the modern use of thought experiments and intuition come from early ordinary language philosophers who thought meaning independent of our confusion in much the same way Feser thinks natural law theory provides rational grounds to accept the truth of a claim on apart from us. It is irresponsible to group together Rawls as an ethicist and Dennett's use of intuition pumps simply because it is the same word without paying attention the actual historic usage of the word itself. Where better to start than Rossian intuitionism? 

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