On “intuitions”

As my recent post on Jackson’s knowledge argument indicated, contemporary philosophers are often going on about “intuitions.” Sometimes (as with Jackson) the point is to suggest that some argument one wants to rebut rests on nothing more than a disputable intuition. But intuitions are also often appealed to in a positive fashion, as a way to support some claim or other in metaphysics or ethics. Hence we have John Rawls’s well-known appeal to what our “considered intuitions” about justice have to tell us. Hence we have Daniel Dennett’s method in philosophy of mind of appealing to what he calls “intuition pumps” – thought experiments designed to draw out and fortify certain intuitions in defense of a certain line of argument. (By the way, “intuition pumps” are not only the latest thing in philosophical methodology. It seems they are also the latest thing in women’s footwear. Who knew?)

Now, the term “intuition” has a respectable traditional use in philosophy, to connote the mind’s direct grasp of abstract objects or fundamental a priori truths. But that is not the sort of thing that those who appeal to “intuition pumps” or “considered intuitions” in ethics have in mind. As Alan Lacey notes in an entry on intuition in the Ted Honderich edited volume The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “recently… the term ‘intuition’ has been used for pre-philosophical thoughts or feelings, e.g. on morality, which emerge in thought experiments and are then used philosophically.”

This is most regrettable. It gives the impression that ethics and metaphysics are ultimately subjective, which is – certainly from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view) – not at all the case. That is not to say that intuitions in the sense in question have no place at all in philosophy, but their role should be at most heuristic, a pointer to something objective, which alone can serve as a legitimate premise in a philosophical argument and after the discovery of which the “intuitions” can be put to one side.

“But as an A-T philosopher, don’t you think metaphysics and ethics should be in harmony with common sense?” Yes I do, but that does not mean that saying “It just seems commonsensical to me” is how an A-T philosopher thinks metaphysical or ethical claims should be defended. That gets the significance of common sense and intuition all wrong. The A-T philosopher doesn’t say “Such-and-such metaphysical and ethical claims seem intuitive and commonsensical; therefore they must be correct.” Rather, he says: “Such-and-such metaphysical and ethical claims are correct, and can be shown to be so on entirely objective rational grounds; and it is because they are correct that nature has made us in such a way that we tend to regard them as intuitive and commonsensical.”

So, in metaphysics, common sense regards skepticism about the external world as absurd, and the A-T philosopher agrees with common sense. But it is not that its commonsense status shows that realism about the external world is true; rather, the fact that realism about the external world is true is what accounts for its commonsense status. In ethics, common sense regards the direct, intentional killing of an innocent human being as gravely immoral, and the A-T philosopher agrees with common sense. But it is not that its commonsense status shows that such killing is immoral; rather, the fact that it is gravely immoral accounts for our intuitive sense that it is. And so forth. Nature has formed our feelings and intuitions so that they provide us with a rough and ready practical guide to what is true and good. But their intuitive status is a consequence of their being true and good, not the ground of their being true and good.

Moreover, feelings and intuitions are indeed at best only a rough guide, and a very general one. They do not give us much guidance vis-à-vis complex moral situations or difficult metaphysical questions, and they are not infallible even in simple cases. Even the feelings and intuitions nature has put into us are subject to distortion, through habituated vice, social conditioning, and perhaps even genetically influenced psychological deformity. And some feelings and intuitions that seem natural to us are in fact culturally relative. An obvious example would be the way in which foods which are considered by people of some cultures to be unbelievably disgusting and thus “obviously” not meant to be eaten, seem unremarkable or even delightful to people of other cultures.

In the moral sphere, people’s feelings and intuitions about various specific life and death issues – vigilantism, torture in “time bomb” scenarios, “mercy killing,” and so forth – can vary considerably. That is irrelevant from an A-T point of view, since natural law theory – the approach to ethics favored by A-T philosophers -- doesn’t appeal to “intuitions” to settle such questions. We can also all think of a number of sexual practices that at least many people find disgusting, but only some of which are contrary to the natural law. Others, though they may not be to some people’s taste, are (within marriage, anyway) of themselves morally unobjectionable. (I won’t elaborate, and I doubt that I need to.) Contrary to a standard caricature, natural law theory does not regard (some or even most) people’s sense of what is “icky” or “nasty” to be an infallible guide to sexual morality, any more than it is an infallible guide to what sorts of foods we should eat. What is good for us is defined by the ends which nature has set for our various capacities. Our feelings and intuitions can facilitate the realization of those ends but they do not define the ends. Rather, the ends determine the reliability of the feelings and intuitions.

So, to put “intuitions” at the foundations of philosophical inquiry is to put the cart before the horse. Or, to switch metaphors, no serious philosopher – certainly no A-T philosopher – should be caught dead wearing intuition pumps.
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