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One of the biggest problems with analytical ethics, as it’s usually practised, is the reliance on “moral intuitions” as data for ethical judgements. “Intuitions” themselves are not the problem, as long as we think of them as Martha Nussbaum does in The Fragility of Goodness, as “prevalent ordinary beliefs,” the relatively commonsense understandings that make up our starting point, like Gadamer’s Vorurteilen (prejudices). We have to start our enquiry where we are, making sense of the beliefs we already have, rejecting some in the light of others.

But contemporary ethicists often go further than this, giving our unreflective “intuitions” a high status they do not deserve. Robert E. Goodin’s Protecting the Vulnerable is one of the worst examples of this pernicious practice. In attempting to make a particular substantive point about promise-keeping, he notes:

Here again, our moral intuitions are likely to vary, depending on which theory we embrace. Those who are not under the sway of any philosophical theory would, however, surely concur with Kronman’s assessment… To prevent us from ‘cooking’ the evidence upon which our choice between rival theories is to be based, however, let us again focus upon law as the formal codification of our community’s standard moral intuitions. (p. 50)

Let’s leave aside Goodin’s curious assumption that pretheoretical “intuitions,” and not theoretically developed judgements, are codified in law. Even if that were the case, it is difficult to see why such “uncooked” pretheoretical judgements would be a good source for normative moral claims. But this is exactly Goodin’s assumption; elsewhere he refers to certain moral intuitions in a particular case as “hopelessly contaminated by the very moral theories which are supposed to be validated by them.” (p. 45)

I could see advantages to Goodin’s method for purely descriptive ethics. If there were normative judgements “uncontaminated” by general moral theories – a questionable assumption – then an anthropologist studying an alien culture might find such judgements valuable data for making sense of this foreign world. But Goodin claims nowhere to be an anthropologist. He is concerned only with his own society, and takes the “uncooked” and “uncontaminated” judgements he finds codified in law as evidence for the normative claims he wants to make to that society (most generally, that we should attend to special responsibilities because of special vulnerability rather than contracts or consent).

This approach seems curiously anti-intellectual. Surely a judgement unaided by theoretical reflection would be of lesser value than one based on such reflection. It would seem that the whole point of theoretical reflection is to make our judgements more thoughtful, more considered, more reflective. If theoretical reflection “cooks” and “contaminates” our judgements to the point that pretheoretical judgements are more valuable than theoretically informed ones, then that reflection — which Goodin nevertheless engages in — seems a waste of time at best.

You could perhaps defend Goodin’s approach by making an analogy between ethics and an empiricist conception of natural science. Our moral intuitions, on this view, would not be presuppositions to be modified, but data to be codified. Moral theories would be based on induction from intuition data, and one would throw out theories that did not fit the data. As far as I can tell, a method like this seems implicit in Goodin’s approach to “uncooked intuition,” which he does not explicitly defend.

But for moral intuitions to function like sense data in this way would require something like the “moral sense” of Shaftesbury and other eighteenth-century British philosophers, a faculty of the mind comparable to sight or touch which is analogously capable of perceiving the moral qualities of actions. The problem is that few today argue for such a “moral sense,” and Goodin himself is not among the few. On his own account, his method is merely to clarify “the shared moral code of a given society,” which “itself may be no more than a negotiated order” (p. 10) — not something directly perceived, “intuited,” by the society’s members. If particular moral judgements are indeed handed down socially (as I agree they are) rather than intuited, surely we should work from them in their existing, theoretically informed forms, and not try to look for some “uncontaminated” root form.

I suspect that Goodin’s approach rests at least in part on the misleading connotations of the term “intuition.” Recall the uses that this term has outside of ethics. As a philosophical term it often means sense perception (as in standard English translations of Kant: “conceptions without intuitions are empty, intuitions without conceptions are blind”). In popular usage it refers to some special faculty of knowing, extra-sensory or an additional sense (as “women’s intuition”). Given these uses, the term “moral intuitions” implies a strong connotation of a “moral sense,” which I think can easily lead one to confusions like Goodin’s. In short, unless you actually accept the kind of moral-sense theory that Goodin (and most people today) do not, let’s have no more talk of “intuitions.” Let’s speak instead of “prevalent ordinary beliefs,” of “considered judgements” – or better yet, as Gadamer does, of “prejudices.”


(This post draws mostly from a paper I submitted to my PhD advisor, Parimal Patil, based on ideas in a class I audited from Niko Kolodny.)