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July 23, 2003

against intuitionism

I'm still in Indianapolis at the Kettering Foundation retreat. Meanwhile, here's something I've been thinking about lately:

Most moral philosophers appeal to intuitions as the test of an argument's validity. At the same time, they presume that our moral judgments should conform to clear, general rules or principles. An important function of modern moral philosophy is to improve our intuitions by making them more clear, general, and consistent.

This methodology can be attacked on two fronts. From one side, those who admire the rich, complex, and ambiguous vocabulary that has evolved within our culture over time may resist the effort to reform traditional moral reasoning in this particular way.

As J.L. Austin wrote: "Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and all the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations." Thus there is a lot of wisdom contained in the vague and morally indeterminate vocabulary that ordinary language gives us. Words like "love" introduce complex and not entirely predictable penumbra of allusions, implications, and connotations. Barely conscious images of concrete events from history, literature, and our personal lives may flit through our heads when someone uses words. Everyone may recall a somewhat different set of such images, sometimes with contrary moral implications. This array of sometimes inconsistent references is problematic if we prize clarity. Hence moral theorists attempt to excise overly vague terms or to stipulate clear meanings. But the complexity and vagueness of words is beneficial (rather than problematic) if human beings have embodied in their language real family resemblances and real ambiguities. There really are curries, and it would reduce our understanding of food to ban the word "curry" for vagueness or to define it arbitrarily. Likewise, there really is "love," and it would impoverish our grasp of moral issues to try to reason without this concept or to define it in such a way that it shed its complex and ambiguous connotations, some of which derive from profound works of poetry, drama, and fiction.

The methods of modern philosophy can be attacked on another flank, too. Instead of saying that philosophers are too eager to improve our intuitions, we could say that they respect intuitions too much. For classical pagans and medieval Christians alike, the test of a moral judgment was not intuition; it was whether the judgment was consistent with the end or purpose of human life. However, modern moral philosophers deny that there is a knowable telos for human beings. Philosophers (as Alasdair MacIntyre argues) are therefore thrown back on intuition as the test of truth. Even moral realists, who believe that there is a moral truth independent of human knowledge, must still rely on our intuitions as the best evidence of truth. But this is something of a scandal, because no one thinks that intuitions are reliable. It is unlikely that we were built with internal meters that accurately measure morality.

July 23, 2003 3:36 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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