On moral intuitionism, the problem of clairvoyance?

Moral intuitionism is not an easy philosophical “-ism” to define; there are as many views of moral intuitionism out there as there are people working on it. At its core, there seem to be at least two different versions of intuitionism.  On the one hand, there is metaphysical moral intuitionism (one which discusses the ontological status of mental states behind one’s intuitions responding to moral problems) and epistemic moral intuitionism (one which discusses the justificatory parameters of moral problems).  While we may think that moral intuitionism fails to distinguish between the two problems clearly, the literature suggests something different.

First, a definition. The prevailing view seems to be that moral intuitions are “strong immediate moral beliefs.” Of course, some disagree with this view of moral intuitions. Some believe that the intuitions are metaphysical seemings or dispositions to believe. No matter what definition of intuition one takes up, both (all) comport well with either epistemic or metaphysical moral intuitionism.

As for metaphysical moral intuitionism, one problem the view faces has to do with epistemic access to ephemeral intuitions that are seemingly independent of experience. It’s not abundantly clear how anyone could ever know whether or not their strong immediate belief is a matter of revelation. Suppose someone said, “It’s possible for people to have reliable clairvoyance or unreliable clairvoyance. If their clairvoyance is reliable, then they are justified in trusting it. So, being a “matter of reliable clairvoyance” is a reason for claiming that genuine clairvoyant intuitions are justified.” The view overlooks the question of how one comes to know that the clairvoyant intuitions are reliable. The presumption is that they are, and that, since they are reliable, the reliability is reason enough for claiming that genuine clairvoyant intuitions are justified.

Perhaps what favors such a view is the past success of one’s strong immediate moral beliefs. When the clairvoyant moral intuitionist has been called upon to employ her intuitions in response to some cases, intuitions had in response were the morally correct ones. (Of course, the issue is how to judge whether a moral intuition is morally correct or incorrect, independent of an act’s short- or long-term side effects. What might have been judged morally appropriate at one time immediately following the decision may be deemed morally inappropriate after it has been discovered many generations hence that acting on one’s moral intuitions has led to seriously catastrophic consequences.) Without some independent criterion, it’s difficult to know whether one’s intuition is clairvoyant or delusional.

From this, we can derive that we cannot know whether our moral intuitions are clairvoyant or delusional. In fact, it seems orthogonal to the debate over metaphysical moral intuitionism. Remember that metaphysical moral intuitionism contends with the ontological status of mental states behind one’s intuitions, i.e., behind one’s strong immediate moral beliefs. To recommend that we can undermine such a position by pointing out that we haven’t got a reliable way of knowing how we form strong immediate moral beliefs seems to beg the question against the metaphysical view. On such a view, either we accept that there are strong immediate moral beliefs or we don’t accept it. If we fail to accept that moral intuitions exist, then we haven’t got any reason to explore their nature any further. They don’t exist, and we can move forward. If we accept that moral intuitions exist, then we can either claim that our knowing about them is reliable or not. If our understanding of moral intuitions is unreliable, then we didn’t really have an understanding of them in the first place. We end up in the same position as one who denies that moral intuitions exist. If our understanding of moral intuitions is reliable, then we just go about the world using these intuitions in response to thought experiments involving moral cases.

The so-called problem of clairvoyance is really no problem at all for someone who endorses metaphysical moral intuitionism. But someone who endorses its close cousin, epistemic moral intuitionism, the problem is very troubling indeed, as that seems to be the only hang up we might have between reliable and unreliable moral knowledge through intuitions.

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One thought on “On moral intuitionism, the problem of clairvoyance?

  1. and my own form of intuitionism holds only that some moral beliefs are rendered prima facie justified by intuitions. Thus, no problem for intuitionism is generated by citing examples of moral principles that rest on reasoning, nor by citing moral principles that are less than 100 per cent certain. Nor does intuitionism assert ‘the irrelevance of argument’ in general.

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