Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moral intuitions

I've been thinking about moral intuitions lately. Many of our normative judgments seems to ultimately be based on our intuitions. We can give and give reasons but all reasons must come to an end. That end point is usually some moral intuition. It's curious that so many of our moral intuitions overlap not just within society but across societies.

However, here, I'd like to point out that many of our moral intuitions may be motivated by forces outside of our consciousness. This insight was realized by Nietzsche and Freud (in some of his philosophical writings which are remarkably good for an amateur philosopher).

The subconscious may have its own forces which motivate and produce intuitions in us and because these motives are not subject to the light of consciousness, we may not be aware of their moral legitimacy. They may have flaws, things we would not want to follow through on. They may even be considered immoral if we realize what they are. I made remarks in another post along these lines though there, I did not mention the subconscious. But the subconscious may provide the conceptual resources to really express what I was trying to get at.

Some of our judgments may be based off of intuitions that though ostensibly on the surface noble, may actually be a form of a masked subconscious forces that are not. What if, say, we find out that our demand for rights of the individual have large components that are simply motivated by self-interest motives?


  1. I've sort of become less impressed with the is/ought problem lately. As Hume pointed out, we can't prove that there are real tables in the world, we just have an instinctive (intuitive?) drive to believe that the things we see are really there. And for tables, that seems to be good enough! Why can't an instinct to believe be good enough for moral facts as well as non-moral facts? It seems to me like the epistemological standards for moral realism are kept much higher than for physical realism. People don't always agree about smells, for example, but if you can get a rough consensus that the milk is turning bad or that murder is wrong, that's a good enough place to start. Theories about why bad milk smells bad or murder is wrong will, of course, be much more difficult to prove than it is to get consensus on an individual case, but that doesn't seem a fatal handicap to the project of ethical theory making.

  2. As someone with rather realist moral intuitions I concur. But what of our metaethical intuitions? I not so worried about some of our most basic first-order intuitions. It's the ones that seem to sometimes conflict or may conflict at some unconscious level that worry me.

  3. OK, true. What I'm talking about only implies that ethics can be done at all, not a whole program for successful meta-ethics.

    One worry that I have is that only really good people will have reliable intuitions when it comes to really hard cases. (I guess this is a basic point of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.) If that's true though, it means jerks like me won't have a lot to contribute to the discussion of really difficult topics other than to point out errors of reasoning.