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Two kinds of ethics?

In his 1979 A Theory of the Good and the Right Richard Brandt writes:

Historically philosophers have tried to answer the traditional questions about the good and the right in basically two ways. (Sometimes the two have been combined.) The first way is to rephrase these questions in terminology sufficiently clear and precise for one to answer them by some mode of scientific or observational procedure, or at least by some clearly stateable and familiar mode of reasoning. One of them uses this procedure (kind of reasoning) to find answers, sometimes surprising, to the stated questions. (…)

The second tradition, which I shall call ‘intuitionism’, can take quite different forms. Roughly the idea is that we already have presumably well-justified opinions about the answers to the several traditional questions, although these opinions need to be systematised and hence, in some cases, revised to some degree. However, the idea is not first to frame our questions clearly and then go out to find answers, letting the chips fall where they may; but rather that we roughly already know most of the answers, and if we want to know more precisely what our questions are, the best way to find out is by looking at the principles we already know, and seeing what construction of the questions is consistent with the truth or acceptability of these principles.

In 1996 Peter Unger in his Living High and Letting Die puts forward a similar view:

Given the facility with which wealthy Western nations can reduce child mortality rates in developing countries, we should reject the view that it is not wrong to do nothing to lessen distant suffering as this view strongly conflicts with the truth about morality. This is the minority position known as Liberationism, first espoused by Peter Singer, according to which moral intuitions derive from sources far removed from basic moral values. Thus, moral intuitions (of the sort that it is acceptable not to alleviate distant suffering) not only fail to reflect those values but also often point in the opposite direction. This position contrasts with the majority view known as Preservationism, according to which our moral intuitions about particular cases reflect our basic moral values, and thus ground the claim that it is permissible not to lessen distant suffering.

Then in 2000 Jeff McMahan takes up the idea:

According to this [non-intuition-based – TH] approach, if our concern is to understand the morality of abortion, our first task must be to discover the correct moral theory. Moral inquiry is initially and primarily theoretical; only at the end of this theoretical inquiry is it possible to address moral problems such as abortion competently, bringing the theory to bear and extracting from it the knowledge we initially sought. This general approach therefore contrasts with the first approach I sketched, according to which moral inquiry begins with problems and cases and our intuitions about them, seeks principles that unify and explain the intuitions, and proceeds through adjustment and modification of both the principles and intuitions until consistency and harmony are achieved. On this approach, a moral theory in which we are entitled to have confidence is something that we can hope to have only near the end of the process of inquiry into problems of substantive morality.

Let us refer to the two broadly defined patterns of moral inquiry that I have sketched as the Intuitive Approach and the Theoretical Approach. Both are richly represented in the history of moral philosophy. The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is an admirable exemplar of the Intuitive Approach, while Hobbes and Kant exemplify the Theoretical Approach. Each of the latter begins with a conception of the nature of morality that he believes dictates a particular method for arriving at moral judgments about particular problems and cases. In recent years, most philosophers working on problems of practical ethics have largely followed the Intuitive Approach, but the Theoretical Approach also has many distinguished recent exponents, among them Richard Hare, Richard Brandt, and an assortment of theorists in the contractualist and consequentialist traditions.

Brandt, Unger and McMahan are not presenting exactly the same theory here, but they definitely agree on one thing: some philosophers believe intuitions are good evidence for theories in ethics, and some don’t. Consequently, some philosophers rely on intuitions (or at least on intuitions about particular cases, as opposed to intuitions about abstract principles) as evidence for their theories, and some don’t.

This kind of methodological dualism might seem quite appealing. One reason is, I think, it allows us to reconcile the widespread view that philosophers use intuitions as evidence with the fact that philosophers often arrive at counterintuitive conclusions. Unger mentions Singer’s claim that you should give all the money you earn away to charity after satisfying your most basic needs the cheapest way possible. This means no restaurant meals, no holiday trips, no Netflix subscription – everything should go to organisations that alleviate hunger and poverty. Unger himself defends a similar view. But there are many other theories in contemporary ethics that sound equally, or even more, implausible. Consider David Benatar arguing it’s always immoral to procreate. Or J. L. Mackie arguing nothing is morally good or bad. Or Jonathan Dancy arguing there are no valid moral principles. Or Michael Tooley arguing killing newborn babies is basically fine. Or Howard Cohen arguing children should have exactly the same rights as adults. Or Derk Pereboom arguing nobody is ever morally responsible for anything. Or James Rachels arguing there’s no moral difference between killing and letting die. Or A. J. Simmons arguing there’s no obligation to obey any law of one’s polity. The list goes on. Perhaps all those philosophers are utilising the non-intuition-based method, and that’s what allows them to openly dismiss intuitions. Other philosophers try to account for our intuitions with their theories, and that’s why their conclusions are less outlandish. This way dualists can have their intuition-cake and eat it too.

But are they right? I don’t think they are. To see why, note that if dualism is true, either ethicists are generally aware of the fact there are two kinds of ethics, or they aren’t. If they are, we would expect some sort of institutional divide, similar to the one we have between analytic and continental philosophy. Intuition-based ethics would have separate ethics journals, separate ethics conferences etc. After all, if you’re trying to address the problem of, say, global poverty by explaining intuitions that have to do with global poverty, and another philosopher addresses the same problem, but she doesn’t care about intuitions, then there’s little point arguing, or otherwise interacting with her. It’d be a bit like a football team trying to play a rugby team, each sticking to the rules of its own game. But there is no institutional divide, so it seems we can rule this option out.

If, on the other hand, philosophers are unaware of the fact there are two kinds of ethics, we would expect the advocates of counterintuitive claims to be accused of failing to do their job properly. Someone like Singer would constantly hear something like “Hey, your conclusion is clearly wrong because it conflicts with intuitions!”. The problem is this never happens, as far as I can tell.

To this dualists could reply it’s wrong to assume that counterintuitive claims must belong to the non-intuition-based kind of ethics in the first place. This is what’s actually suggested by McMahan:

Philosophers who accept that moral intuitions have a presumptive epistemic authority (…) have consequently been driven by the demand for consistency to defend quite heterodox and indeed counterintuitive conclusions, such as that infanticide can be permissible in a variety of circumstances, that each person in wealthy societies ought to give the bulk of his or her wealth to people in impoverished societies, and so on.

This, however, seems to imply that philosophers are pretty stupid. They know they’re supposed to rely on intuitions, and yet they end up dismissing intuitions apparently without realising they’re dismissing intuitions. Here McMahan’s reply might be that philosophers aren’t stupid, they’re just sometimes forced to sacrifice some intuitions in order to preserve others. So maybe that’s the solution and dualism can be saved? Again, I don’t think it can, but that’s a topic for another post.

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