Ethical Intuitionism, part 1

I read Michael Huemer’s book Ethical Intuitionism at Bryan Caplan’s suggestion. Before reading it I thought that Ethical Intuitionism seemed an unlikely position and that Bryan and Michael seemed like smart guys, so I hoped I might be persuaded to significantly change my mind. I still believe both of the premises, but did not get as far as changing my mind, so here I’ll report back on some of my reasons. I actually read it a while ago, and am reconstructing some of this post from memories and scribbles in margins, so apologies if this causes any inaccurate criticism.

Ethical intuitionism is the position that there exist real, irreducible, moral properties, and that these can be known about through intuition. i.e. some things are ‘good’ or ‘right’ independent of anyone’s feelings or preferences, and you can learn about this through finding such ideas in your head. I found Huemer’s case for it well written, thought provoking, and for the most part valid. However I thought it had some problems, and was overall not compelling.

Huemer divides metaethics as into five types of theories then argues against non-cognitivism, relativism, nihilism, and naturalism. The last theory standing is intuitionism, which Humer goes on to defend from the criticisms it has been attacked with before. Note that these metaethical theories are both theories of what ethics is and theories of how we can know about it.


The first problem is related to intuitionism being primarily a theory of how we can know about ethics (through intuitions), while being hazier on what exactly ethics is, in terms of anything else. It’s something real that we can learn about through our intuitions. It is normative. If the theory contained any more concrete specification of the nature of ethics or how it got there, I think it would become more obviously subject to the same criticisms made of other metaethical theories. For instance, this is one of Huemer’s criticisms of subjectivism:

Fourth, consider the question, why do I approve of the things I approve of? If there is some reason why I approve of things, then it would seem that that reason, and not the mere fact of my approval, explains why they are good. If I approve of x because of some feature that makes it desirable, admirable, etc.,  in some respect, then x’s desirability (etc.) would be an evaluative fact existing prior to my approval. On the other hand, if I approve of x for no reason, or for some reason that does not show x to be desirable (etc.) in any respect, then my approval is merely arbitrary. And why would someone’s arbitrarily approving of something render that something good?

This argument does not seem specific to subjectivism. Take any purported source of morality S. If there is some reason for S justifying what it does, one could similarly say that that reason, and not the mere fact of being allowed by S, explains why they are good. And if S has no reason, then it is arbitrary. And why would arbitrarily being allowed by S render something good?

If we were clearer on the origins of goodness in the intuitionist account, doesn’t it fall prey to one side or the other of the same argument? This argument appears to rule out all sources of goodness.

Perhaps the difference with the intuitionist account here is that it is ok for it to be arbitrary, because while goodness is arbitrary, it isn’t caused by some other arbitrary thing. You can answer ‘why would arbitrarily being good render something good?’, by pointing out that this is logically necessary, whereas on the other accounts you are seeking to equate two things that are not already identical.

On the intuitionist account you are also trying to equate two non-identical things I think – I have merely labeled them ambiguously above. On the one hand, you have ‘goodness’ which is a property you receive statements about via your intuition, and on the other you have ‘goodness’ which implies you should do certain things. If these were not distinguishable, there would be no debate. But it could still be that the goodness which means you should do certain things is primary, and causes the goodness which you observe. Then the former goodness would be arbitrary, but nothing else arbitrary would ‘make’ good things good.

So perhaps the argument for intuitionism is that arbitrariness alone is ok, but it is not ok for a thing to be caused by other arbitrary things. Or perhaps only moral things shouldn’t be caused by other arbitrary things? Or only goodness? I’m not sure how these things work, but this seems very arbitrary, and I have no distinguished way to decide which things should be arbitrary and which things principled.


Huemer argues that we should not disregard ‘intuitions’ as vague, untrustworthy, or unscientific. He points out that most of our thoughts and beliefs are built out of intuitions at some level. Our scientific beliefs rest on reasoning that is ultimately justified by a bunch of stuff turning up in our heads – visual perceptions, logical rules, senses of explanatory satisfaction – and us feeling a strong inclination to trust it.

I think this is a good and correct point. However I don’t think it supports his position. On this conceptualization of things, non-intuitionists also reach their ethical judgements based on intuitions. They just take into account a much wider array of intuitions, and build more complicated inferential structures out of them, instead of relying solely on intuitions that directly speak of normativity.  For instance, they have intuitions about causality, and logical inference, and their perceptions, and people. And these intuitions often cause them to accept the claim that people evolved. And they have further intuitions about how disembodied moral truths might behave which make it hard for them to imagine how these would affect the evolution of humans. And they infer that such moral truths do not explain their observed mental characteristics, based on more intuitions about inference and likely states of affairs. And people do this because they find such methods more intuitive than the isolated moral intuitions.

So it seems to me that Huemer needs an argument not for intuitions, but for using very direct, isolated intuitions instead of indirect chains of them. And arguments for this more direct intuitionism seem hard to come by. At the outset, it seems to undermine itself, as it is clearly not what most people find intuitive, and so appears to need support from more complicated constructions of intuitions, if it is to become popular. However this is not a very fatal undermining. Also, indirect inferences from many intuitions woven together have been very fruitful in non-moral arenas, though whether better than direct intuitions is debatable.

In sum, Huemer makes a good case that everything is made of intuitions, but this doesn’t seem to normatively support using short chains of intuitions over the longer, more complex chains that persuade us for instance that if there was an ethical reality out there, there is no reason it would interfere with our evolution such as to instill knowledge of it in our minds.


One might argue that Huemer often begged the question, for instance claiming that other ethical theories are wrong because the ethical consequences are contrary to our ethical intuitions. This is perhaps an unsympathetic interpretation – usually he just says something like ‘but X is obviously not good’ – however, I’m not sure how better to interpret this. Since all thoughts can be categorized as intuitions, it would be hard not to use some sort of intuitions to support an intuitionist conclusion. However given the restatement of his position as a narrower ‘direct intuitionism’, it would be nice to at least not use just those kinds of direct intuitions as the measure.


The issues of how evolved creatures would come to know of moral truths, or how moral truths would have any physical effect on the world at all, seem like big problems with intuitionism to me. Huemer addresses them briefly, but doesn’t go into enough depth to satisfactorily resolve these problems I think.  I mean to write about this issue in another post.

So in sum, ethical intuitionism seems subject to similar criticisms as other metaethical theories, but avoids them by being nonspecific or begging the question. ‘What do my intuitions say?’ seems like an unfair criterion for correct ethical choices in a contest between intuitionism and other theories. The arguments for intuitions being broadly important and trustworthy do not support this thesis of intuitionism, which is about relying on isolated immediate intuitions over more indirect constructions of intuitions. A vague case can be made for moral intuitions evolving, but I doubt it works in detail, though I have also not yet detailed any argument for this.

2 responses to “Ethical Intuitionism, part 1

  1. Although I haven’t read it (due to its rather extreme prolixity), Eliezer Yudkowsky’s morality “sequence” has struck me as intuitionist (or, as you say, direct intuitionist). Mainly from comments by others, I’ve gather his view is that morality is what our moral intuitions dictate. Do you agree?

    Why should or moral intuitions be sacrosanct? Yudkowsky’s answer, I’ve gathered, is that we have no choice in the matter. This isn’t a satisfactory answer in the moral realist framework I think he aspires to, but it would have a sort of pragmatic validity if only we had the same moral intuitions, which is what I gather he assumes.

    Conflicting fundamental moral intuitions is what I think impugns moral intuitionism the most at a practical level–although I agree it succumbs to Moore’s argument meta-ethically. Intuitionists seem to think that we are hardwired to have one morality, which may be “true” only in the sense of being unavoidable. (Bryan Caplan seems to be some kind of secular spiritualist, so I don’t know if talk of hardwiring makes sense to him.) But although there seem to be universal moral tendencies, the are not only vague but, more significantly, they conflict. Thus, on Robin Hanson’s account, we have forager and farmer morality. On the psychological account I favor, Fiske’s role-relations theory, there are at least four basic schemata, each with different dictates, which may be recruited to moralize social relations. (See my “The habit theory of morality, moral influence, and moral evolution,” [ ]with links, regarding Fiske.)

    • “Do you agree?”

      I’m not sure of Eliezer’s moral views. I don’t think that ‘what our direct intuitions dictate’ constitutes either what we refer to as ‘morality’, nor what we should do, though it seems somewhat close to the former.


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