IV – Response Two to Naturalism: Moral Intuitionism An intuition about x is the way that x seems to you. Some things seem salty, some seem yellow in color. Some defendants seem guilty. Some proofs seem valid; some apologies, insincere. Some songs seem beautiful, and others seem cheesy. And importantly for our purposes, some actions seem unfair, while others seem obligatory, and still others seem clearly wrong. We can describe all of these “seemings” as various sorts of intuitions. Seemings about flavor and color are sensoryintuitions, because it’s our five senses that make those things seem as they do. But when you look over the other examples above, it’s clear that not all of our intuitions are merely sensory. Sure, in order for someone to seem guilty, it’s important to have seen and heard him, as well as the evidence against him, but his guilt is not literally visible like the brownness of his hair. His seeming guilty is something for which we have reasons, but the feeling we have somehow goes beyond the mere list of our reasons.
Our intuitions sometimes lead us to error. The fabric that seems yellow might turn out to be orange. The man who seems guilty might be innocent. The proof that seems valid might contain a subtle mistake. In general, reality might not be as it seems. Still, if a soup seems salty, that’s some (imperfect) evidence that it really is salty. The fact that a proof seems valid is likewise evidence that it is. Now consider all the feelings you have that certain things are right, certain others are wrong, that you have been treated unfairly by a roommate, that you shouldn’t kick puppies, etc.. Because these describe seemings in the moral category, they are called moral intuitions.
Moral Intuitionists are philosophers who think that these moral intuitions reveal to us what is right and wrong. Unlike Emotivists, Moral Intuitionists do think that there is a fact of the matter about what is right and what is wrong. They are Cognitivists; they think that the left-column normative sentences are either true or false. One such sentence which they think is true: “Kicking puppies to relieve frustration is wrong.” What makes this sentence true, however, is not some natural fact about puppies or about kicking. The fact that it’s wrong to kick puppies is a different fact than any natural (right-column) fact, and it can’t be reduced to a natural fact. G. E. Moore, the author of the Open Question Argument and a key enemy of Ethical Naturalism, was himself a Moral Intuitionist. The theory maintains the strict firewall between natural facts and evaluations, but without Emotivism’s unfortunate refusal to admit that some evaluations may be true.
When we ask Naturalists what makes ethical truths true, they say: The natural facts to which the ethical truths are reducible. However, Moral Intuitionists deny that ethical truths are reducible to natural facts. Yet they insist that they are truths. So what makes them true? Moore’s answer was that what makes normative claims true are “non-natural, ethical facts” that exist in the world. For example, the kicking of a puppy, in addition to all its natural properties, also has the non-natural property of being wrong. This talk of non-natural properties seemed spooky to many people, but Moore thought that we can literally detect these non-natural properties: We do it with what he called the moral sense. Moore postulated that our moral intuitions (seemings) are a tool for detecting the moral realities in the world, much like non-moral intuitions (seemings) are a tool for detecting non-moral realities, like colors of fabrics. In neither case are our tools perfect, but in both cases, they give us at least some insight into reality, both natural and non-natural (moral). It is through the use of the moral sense that we detect which things in the world are right and which are wrong. This presupposes a view according to which there is a moral rightness and wrongness “out there” for us to detect.
Moore initially thought of the moral sense as something analogous to vision, which reveals to us not colors but ethics. There are problems with this analogy, however. If some people could sniff out wrongness with a sixth sense, why can’t they detect which soundproof rooms contain puppy-kicking? Contemporary Moral Intuitionists like Michael Huemer think of the moral sense as providing us rational intuitions – more analogous to “this proof seems valid” than to “this soup seems salty”. But the core point remains. We are often struck with powerful and consistent ethical intuitions. Why not treat these like any other intuitions, which is to say, as reasons for thinking that the wrong-seeming things are wrong?