At first sighting, Intuitionism appears to offer a basis for ethics immune to the criticisms of other ethical theories, such as Utilitarianism and Natural Law – both of which are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. However, upon closer inspection Intuitionism appears to abandon the ethical premises of the other theories and yet replace it with nothing. Alasdair MacIntyre said, ‘Twentieth century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions, but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone wrong with an argument.’ I will examine to what extent this is true.

The main advantage of Intuitionism is that it is a simple philosophy – good is indefinable. Moore said that ‘good’ was like ‘yellow’, in that it cannot be broken down any further – ‘yellow’ can’t be described in any other way than to say it is ‘yellow’. A ‘horse’, on the other hand, could be described as brown, large, an animal and so on. This means that Intuitionism is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, that is deriving an ‘is’ from an ‘ought’ Utilitarianism is guilty of this, as it attempts to define goodness as the greatest pleasure or the most happiness when such a definition is not possible. Utilitarians are confusing the property of goodness with some other non-moral property that good things happen to possess. Such a theory is also victim to the open question – in this case, ‘Why is pleasure good?’ Intuitionism is not prey to such criticism. Instead, G. E. Moore believed that moral judgements were non-empirical – they are just ‘brute facts.’

However, intuitionists fail to explain where this moral sense that we all have comes from. While it is the view of some that it comes from God, such a belief is then open to the Euthypro dilemma, ‘Is something good because God wills it or does God will it because it is good?’ G. E. Moore was not this kind of intuitionist, but in failing to point to an origin for his morality G. J. Warnock accused him of only offering a confession of bewilderment when trying to explain how intuition worked. Raphael, meanwhile, argued that Intuitionism was limited. For a start, there appears to be disagreement amongst intuitionists as to what their moral principles are – if they are self-evident then surely everyone should be in agreement. Equally problematic is the fact that sometimes these principles may be in conflict with each other. If a mad axe-men comes to my house, demanding to know whether my family are inside then the principle that commands me to tell the truth will be in conflict with the principle that states that I should preserve human life. In a similar vein, as Intuitionism is a pluralist theory it is unclear which of the moral principles should take precedence. This is not a problem for utilitarians, who know that the right action is always the one that causes ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’

In`tu*i"tion*ism (?), n.

Same as Intuitionalism.


© Webster 1913.

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