against intuitionism


still in Indianapolis at the Kettering Foundation

retreat. Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:


moral philosophers appeal to intuitions as the test of an argument’s validity.

At the same time, they presume that our moral judgments should conform to clear,

general rules or principles. An important function of modern moral philosophy

is to improve our intuitions by making them more clear, general, and consistent.


methodology can be attacked on two fronts. From one side, those who admire the

rich, complex, and ambiguous vocabulary that has evolved within our culture over

time may resist the effort to reform traditional moral reasoning in this particular


As J.L. Austin wrote: "Our common stock of words embodies all

the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and all the connexions they have

found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations." Thus there is

a lot of wisdom contained in the vague and morally indeterminate vocabulary that

ordinary language gives us. Words like "love" introduce complex and

not entirely predictable penumbra of allusions, implications, and connotations.

Barely conscious images of concrete events from history, literature, and our personal

lives may flit through our heads when someone uses words. Everyone may recall

a somewhat different set of such images, sometimes with contrary moral implications.

This array of sometimes inconsistent references is problematic if we prize clarity.

Hence moral theorists attempt to excise overly vague terms or to stipulate clear

meanings. But the complexity and vagueness of words is beneficial (rather than

problematic) if human beings have embodied in their language real family resemblances

and real ambiguities. There really are curries, and it would reduce our understanding

of food to ban the word "curry" for vagueness or to define it arbitrarily.

Likewise, there really is "love," and it would impoverish our grasp

of moral issues to try to reason without this concept or to define it in such

a way that it shed its complex and ambiguous connotations, some of which derive

from profound works of poetry, drama, and fiction.

The methods of modern

philosophy can be attacked on another flank, too. Instead of saying that philosophers

are too eager to improve our intuitions, we could say that they respect intuitions

too much. For classical pagans and medieval Christians alike, the test

of a moral judgment was not intuition; it was whether the judgment was consistent

with the end or purpose of human life. However, modern moral philosophers deny

that there is a knowable telos for human beings. Philosophers (as Alasdair

MacIntyre argues) are therefore thrown back on intuition as the test of truth.

Even moral realists, who believe that there is a moral truth independent of human

knowledge, must still rely on our intuitions as the best evidence of truth. But

this is something of a scandal, because no one thinks that intuitions are reliable.

It is unlikely that we were built with internal meters that accurately measure