Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Moral Intuition

We usually judge moral theories with our intuition. We see what a moral theory says about a hypothetical scenario and see if that agrees with our intuition. People arguing for a particular moral theory frequently give examples of situations in which that moral theory gives an answer that most people's intuitions agree with. People arguing against a particular moral theory frequently give examples of situations in which that moral theory gives an answer the most people's intuitions disagree with.

But a lot of times the examples used are very unlikely situations. That's not a problem for the moral theory. A good moral theory should work in any situation, likely or unlikely. But it is a problem for our intuition.

Intuition is only useful in circumstances it evolved in.

Consider physics. Humans have pretty good intuition with regards to running, jumping, throwing and other things we've been doing for millions of years. But outside our relatively limited experience, our intuition is virtually useless. There's nothing intuitive about general relativity or quantum mechanics.

Which is why I don't think hypothetical problems like the Trolley Problem are useful in determining what makes a good moral theory (though they can be useful in helping us examine our intuitions). Because such hypothetical scenarios rarely reflect our normal experience, so our intuitions don't necessarily apply.

So then, the question is, if we can't trust our moral intuition, then how should we judge a moral theory?


  1. Morality is subjective, and the majority rules.

  2. I personally agree with the majority of first world citizens today that slavery is amoral. However, there have been many "moral" cases made for slavery throughout history. I don't think a society can sustain a practice that is mainly viewed as amoral for a long period of time. Slavery reached particular brutality in the American South and Caribbean and was soon after demolished.

    I think it's interesting that you used an example to try to clarify the moral argument, when you previously stated you objection to using one example and intuitive reactions to the example to guide a moral argument.

  3. I didn't mean to imply that moral intuitions shouldn't be used to judge moral theories. Only that they shouldn't be trusted in unlikely hypotheticals.

    I think moral intuitions are more trustworthy in everyday situations, and moral theories should give intuitive answers in those situations.