Ethical intuitionism (also called moral intuitionism) is a family of views in moral epistemology (and, on some definitions, metaphysics).
At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
The view is at its core a foundationalism about moral knowledge – it is the view that some moral truths can be known non-inferentially (i.e., known without one needing to infer them from other truths one believes).
Such an epistemological view implies that there are moral beliefs with propositional contents; so it implies cognitivism.
As such, ethical intuitionism is to be contrasted with coherentist approaches to moral epistemology, such as those that depend on reflective equilibrium (Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, 2012).
Throughout the philosophical literature, the term “ethical intuitionism” is frequently used with significant variation in its sense.
Foundationalism reflects the core commitments of contemporary self-identified ethical intuitionists (Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, 2012; Stratton-Lake, 2014).
Sufficiently and broadly defined, ethical intuitionism can be taken to encompass cognitivist forms of moral sense theory (Stratton-Lake, 2013).
It is usually furthermore taken as essential to ethical intuitionism that there be self-evident or a priori moral knowledge – this counts against considering moral sense theory to be a species of intuitionism.
Ethical intuitionism was first clearly shown in use by the philosopher Francis Hutcheson.
Later ethical intuitionists of influence and note include Henry Sidgwick, G.E. Moore, Harold Arthur Prichard, C.S. Lewis and, most influentially, Robert Audi.
Objections to ethical intuitionism include whether or not there are objective moral values – an assumption which the ethical system is based upon – the question of why many disagree over ethics if they are absolute, and whether Occam’s razor cancels such a theory out entirely.
Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss.
“In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people” (Sahakian, Sahakian 1966, p.37).
Founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, Cyrenaics supported immediate gratification or pleasure – “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Even fleeting desires should be indulged, for fear the opportunity should be forever lost.
There was little to no concern with the future, the present dominating in the pursuit of immediate pleasure.
“Cyrenaic hedonism encouraged the pursuit of enjoyment and indulgence without hesitation, believing pleasure to be the only good” (Sahakian and Sahakian, 1966, p.37).
Epicurean ethics is a hedonist form of virtue ethics.
Epicurus “…presented a sustained argument that pleasure, correctly understood, will coincide with virtue.” (Parry, 2014).
He rejected the extremism of the Cyrenaics, believing some pleasures and indulgences to be detrimental to human beings.
Epicureans observed that indiscriminate indulgence sometimes resulted in negative consequences.
Some experiences were therefore rejected out of hand, and some unpleasant experiences endured in the present to ensure a better life in the future.
To Epicurus, the summum bonum, or greatest good, was prudence, exercised through moderation and caution.
Excessive indulgence can be destructive to pleasure and can even lead to pain.
For example, eating one food too often makes a person lose a taste for it – Eating too much food at once leads to discomfort and ill-health.
Pain and fear were to be avoided – Living was essentially good, barring pain and illness.
Death was not to be feared.
Fear was considered the source of most unhappiness.
Conquering the fear of death would naturally lead to a happier life.
Epicurus reasoned if there were an afterlife and immortality, the fear of death was irrational.
If there was no life after death, then the person would not be alive to suffer, fear or worry – he would be non-existent in death.
It is irrational to fret over circumstances that do not exist, such as one’s state of death in the absence of an afterlife (Sahakian and Sahakian, 1966, p.37–38).
State consequentialism, also known as Mohist consequentialism (Ivanhoe, Norden and William, 2005), is an ethical theory that evaluates the moral worth of an action based on how much it contributes to the basic goods of a state.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Mohist consequentialism, dating back to the 5th century BC, as “a remarkably sophisticated version based on a plurality of intrinsic goods taken as constitutive of human welfare” (Fraser, 2015).
Unlike utilitarianism, which views pleasure as a moral good, “the basic goods in Mohist consequentialist thinking are … order, material wealth, and increase in population” (Loewe and Shaughnessy, 1999).
During Mozi’s era, war and famines were common, and population growth was seen as a moral necessity for a harmonious society.
The “material wealth” of Mohist consequentialism refers to basic needs like shelter and clothing, and the “order” of Mohist consequentialism refers to Mozi’s stance against warfare and violence, which he viewed as pointless and a threat to social stability (Van Norden, 2007).
Stanford sinologist David Shepherd Nivison, in The Cambridge History of Ancient China, writes that the moral goods of Mohism “are interrelated: more basic wealth, then more reproduction; more people, then more production and wealth … if people have plenty, they would be good, filial, kind, and so on unproblematically” (Loewe and Shaughnessy, 1999).
The Mohists believed that morality is based on “promoting the benefit of all under heaven and eliminating harm to all under heaven”.
In contrast to Bentham’s views, state consequentialism is not utilitarian because it is not hedonistic or individualistic.
The importance of outcomes that are good for the community outweigh the importance of individual pleasure and pain (Garfield and Edelglass, 2011).
Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism).
Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence.
This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.
The term “consequentialism” was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” in 1958, to describe what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick (Anscombe, 1958).
Since then, the term has become common in English-language ethical theory.
The defining feature of consequentialist moral theories is the weight given to the consequences in evaluating the rightness and wrongness of actions (Mackie, 1990).
In consequentialist theories, the consequences of an action or rule generally outweigh other considerations.
Apart from this basic outline, there is little else that can be unequivocally said about consequentialism as such. However, there are some questions that many consequentialist theories address:
- What sort of consequences count as good consequences?
- Who is the primary beneficiary of moral action?
- How are the consequences judged and who judges them?
One way to divide various consequentialisms is by the many types of consequences that are taken to matter most, that is, which consequences count as good states of affairs.
According to utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in an increase and positive effect, and the best action is one that results in that effect for the greatest number.
Closely related is eudaimonic consequentialism, according to which a full, flourishing life, which may or may not be the same as enjoying a great deal of pleasure, is the ultimate aim.
Similarly, one might adopt an aesthetic consequentialism, in which the ultimate aim is to produce beauty.
However, one might fix on non-psychological goods as the relevant effect.
Thus, one might pursue an increase in material equality or political liberty instead of something like the more ephemeral “pleasure”.
Other theories adopt a package of several goods, all to be promoted equally.
Whether a particular consequentialist theory focuses on a single good or many, conflicts and tensions between different good states of affairs are to be expected and must be adjudicated.
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the proper course of action is one that maximizes a positive effect, such as “happiness”, “welfare”, or the ability to live according to personal preferences (Baqgini and Fosl, 2007).
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are influential proponents of this school of thought.
In A Fragment on Government Bentham says ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’ and describes this as a fundamental axiom.
In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he talks of ‘the principle of utility’ but later prefers “the greatest happiness principle” (Bentham, 2001; Mill, 1879).
Utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral theory.
This form of utilitarianism holds that the morally correct action is the one that produces the best outcome for all people affected by the action.
John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of utilitarianism, proposed a hierarchy of pleasures, meaning that the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure is more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures (Mill, 1863).
Other noteworthy proponents of utilitarianism are neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of, amongst other works, Practical Ethics.
The major division within utilitarianism is between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.
In act utilitarianism, the principle of utility applies directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice.
The right act is the one that brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results).
In rule utilitarianism, the principle of utility determines the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles).
A rule like promise keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people break promises at will and a world in which promises are binding. Right and wrong are the following or breaking of rules that are sanctioned by their utilitarian value (Cavalier, 2013).
A proposed “middle ground” between these two types is two-level utilitarianism, where rules are applied in ordinary circumstances, but with an allowance to choose actions outside of such rules when unusual situations call for it.