Intuitionism, Ethical

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Philosophers thought of as intuitionists include Henry Sidgwick, H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross, C. D. Broad, and A. C. Ewing. More recent intuitionists include Derek Parfit, John McDowell, and Thomas Scanlon. Though all but one of these philosophers are British, the expression "British intuitionism" standardly refers only to work done in the first half of the twentieth century by Prichard, Ross, Broad, and Ewing.

What is Intuitionism?

To be an ethical intuitionist is to hold a combination of five views in metaethics, only one of which says anything about intuitions. The first view is the pluralist view that there are many different ways in which an action can get to be right or wrong, good or bad. This is opposed to monism, the view that all moral requirements can be captured in one basic principle. The classic example of monism is John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if and only if, of all available alternatives, it has the best (or least bad) effect on the general happiness.

Note, however, that there are two sorts of monism: monism about the right and monism about the good. Mill's position combines both. He held that there is only one way for an action to get to be right, and only one sort of thing that is good; the only sort of thing that is good is happiness, and the only way for an action to be right is to produce as much of that good as possible. G. E. Moore, by contrast, was a monist about the right and a pluralist about the good; he agreed that a right action is one that produces the most good, but held that there are several different goods, mainly social intercourse and aesthetic appreciation, which cannot be reduced to one. So Moore is not an intuitionist, because he is a monist about the right, though he agreed with the intuitionists on everything else. Intuitionists, by contrast, combine both forms of pluralism. W. D. Ross, for instance, provided a list of goods, as Moore did, but also argued that there are many different moral duties and that they cannot all be reduced to the duty to produce the most good.

The second view is the realist (or "objectivist") view that some ethical or moral judgments are true and others are false; there is truth and there are facts of the matter in ethics. This is opposed to the noncognitivist claim that moral assertions are expressions of attitude (pro or con) rather than of belief; in saying that an action is wrong, one is not trying to characterize correctly some slice of moral reality, but expressing one's opposition to the action, the stance one takes toward it.

The third view is the nonnaturalist view that moral facts are not natural facts; the opposite view is naturalism. A natural fact is one that can be discovered using the methods of the natural sciences. (At least, this is one way of trying to say what it is for a fact to be natural.) There are naturalist and nonnaturalist forms of utilitarianism. The naturalist form holds that rightness is the natural property of increasing general happiness; sociologists are presumably the people best equipped to tell us which actions have that property. Mill, however, held that actions that increase the general happiness have the further property of being right, and he showed no signs of thinking that this further property is natural. (One could however think that to show a moral property to be natural we do not need to find a second, "natural" way of picking it out.) Intuitionists, anyway, think that moral properties and moral facts are irreducibly nonnatural. They tend to argue for this position by pointing out that moral properties and facts are normative, and insisting that nothing normative can also be natural. The most famous way of making this point is Moore's "open question argument": since the question "Is increasing the general happiness being right?" is not the same question as "Is increasing the general happiness increasing the general happiness?", to increase the general happiness cannot be the same thing as to be right.

The fourth view is that the normative status of moral or ethical facts cannot be explained, but also requires no explanation. Normativity is not a mystery. When we say that it matters whether people are free or oppressed, we are saying that something is morally important, or makes a moral difference. Intuitionists think that this "making a moral difference" is a feature that some things have and others do not, but they do not think that the special nature of such features is one that calls for elaborate explanations. In this they are opposed to those nonnaturalists who feel called on to provide such explanationsin particular, they oppose Kantians, whose explanations of the morally important run in terms of some relation to the will of a rational being. Compared to the Kantians, intuitionists are quietists; they do not feel the need to say any more.

The fifth view is the one that talks about intuitions. If there are these distinct, nonnatural, normative facts and features, how do we find out about them? By which aspect of our intellectual or sensory equipment are we rendered capable of discerning when an action is right and when it is not? Intuitionists maintain that we are capable of coming to know basic moral facts directly, in ways that involve no inference from other nonmoral facts. They have to say this, since it seems impossible simply to move by inference from a natural belief to a normative one, given the great difference intuitionists discern between the two. And they have to say that there are basic moral facts, since even if some of our moral beliefs are defended by appeal to others, this process has to stop somewhere. There must, then, be some basic moral beliefs, which if true are beliefs in basic moral facts. How then do we come to recognize those basic moral facts? The intuitionist answer is (supposedly): by a special faculty of moral intuition. Hence the name.

Comments on These Views

The form of monism that intuitionists targeted most eagerly would now be called consequentialism: the view that actions are made right or wrong by the value of their consequences. Intuitionists tended to argue against this view by appeal to example. Ross (1930, 1939), for instance, said that when I keep my promises, my thoughts are not normally on the future, on the good that I will achieve by doing what I once promised to do, but on the past, on the fact that I did promise to do it. That is my reason for doing it, and it is my having promised to do it that makes the action my duty. More generally, Ross thought that actions can become duties in various ways, only some of which have anything to do with consequences. One can have duties that derive from one's role as a neighbor, or as a teacher, or as a friend, and these duties are not necessarily related to making things go better. In fact, they are not grounded in thoughts about what is better or worse, in considerations of value, at all. At this point Ross is expressing a deontological stance; and indeed intuitionists are standardly deontologists.

Historically speaking, intuitionists tended not to argue for the view that there is truth in ethics; they more or less assumed it. They were familiar with the idea that to express a moral opinion involves expressing an attitude or feeling, but Ross wrote, "What we express when we call an object good is our attitude towards it, but what we mean is something about the object itself and not about our attitude towards it" (1939, p. 255).

Nonnaturalism arouses extreme passions in some quarters. The real pressure behind naturalism is the sense that there cannot be two distinct realms: the familiar natural realm investigated by physics and a much less familiar normative realm learned about in quite other ways. If there really are such properties as right and wrong, good and bad, they must be properties that natural objects such as people and actions can have (and of course physical objects too can be good or bad, of course, though not morally so). But surely natural objects can have only natural properties, and so the normative properties must somehow be natural. To claim anything else is to commit oneself to the existence of some most peculiar features, quite unlike, and utterly unconnectable to, any natural features. To this the intuitionists reply that there is a connection; it is because of their natural features that objects come to have, or to lack, normative ones. This "because of" is not a causal "because," of course. Actions are not caused to be wrong by their natural features; they are made wrong by them. Put another way, the natural features are the reasons why an action is wrong, the reasons for not doing it. The question then focuses on this notion of a reason, which is itself not a natural notion but a normative one. Intuitionists would say that nobody can do without this notion, and that it is not possible to think of "being a reason for" as a natural relation.

This focus on what it is for one thing to be a reason for an action gives the intuitionists something to say against the Kantians. Is it possible to think that the relation of "being a reason for" is one that can be, and needs to be explained (whether in natural terms or, as the Kantians would urge, in nonnatural terms)? Intuitionists have more recently tended to say that the basic notion here is that of favoring; a fact is a reason for an action if it favors doing that action. But there is, they say, very little that can be said about this notion of favoring, even though it is one with which we are all familiar.

Finally, with respect to intuitions, we need first to decide what sorts of facts are basic moral facts. Henry Sidgwick (1874) thought that the utilitarian principle was a basic moral fact. For him, a basic moral fact is a universal principle, then, and he held that such principles are self-evident, meaning that one has only to consider them in order to recognize their truth. W. D. Ross held that what we know first is that a certain feature counts in favor of (or is a reason for doing) a particular action, and that we work from this to the recognition of a general "prima facie" duty by a process of "intuitive induction." In Ross's view, then, what we are capable of directly recognizing is that one thing is a reason for another, and that is not a matter of drawing inferences. This seems to commit him to the view that we know these things by intuition (though he never explicitly said as much). The question is, What else could one say about our ability to recognize reasons?

See also Metaethics; Moore, G. E.; Objectivity in Ethics; Ross, William David.


Dancy, Jonathan. "From Intuitionism to Emotivism." In The Cambridge History of Philosophy, 18701945, edited by Thomas Baldwin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ewing, A. C. Ethics. London: English Universities Press, 1953.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

Prichard, H. A. Moral Writings. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.

Ross, W. D. The Foundations of Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.

Scanlon, Thomas M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1874.

Jonathan Dancy (2005)