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Moral Theories and Moral Intuitions

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, April 21, 2016.)

Moral theories often conflict with our moral intuitions; they are often counter-intuitive. Explanations, theories, or beliefs are counter-intuitive if they violate our ordinary, common-sense view. For example, it’s counter-intuitive to suppose that physical reality is illusory, although there is no way to demonstrate this isn’t the case. Similarly, it’s counter-intuitive to suppose the keyboard upon which I type is moving, although the keyboard, earth, solar system, galaxy, and entire universe move! This demonstrates that non-moral intuitions are often mistaken.

Surely our moral intuitions are sometimes wrong too. To see this point, consider some moral beliefs and practices once thought to be consistent with our moral intuitions: human slavery; the inferiority of women; human sacrifice; debtor’s prisons; dueling; torture; witch burning; etc. Since most of us now believe these practices are wrong, we must admit that our former moral intuitions were mistaken. But isn’t it possible that many of our present moral intuitions will be rejected in the future? For instance, can we not imagine that in the future meat-eating or solitary confinement will be thought barbaric? And if we reject a present intuition at some later date, then they aren’t sacrosanct now.
Thus the mere fact that a theory violates our moral intuitions isn’t necessarily a reason to reject the theory; we might reject our intuitions instead. How do we resolve the dispute between the two? One of the ways of resolving the dispute between moral intuitions and moral theories is to achieve what contemporary philosophers call reflective equilibrium, which calls for a balance between moral intuitions and theories. If a theory radically contradicts our moral intuitions, then the theory should probably be rejected. On the other hand, id the theory has a number of explanatory advantages and only slightly challenges our moral intuition, then the intuition should probably be rejected.

But most classic moral theories aren’t generally counter-intuitive. In fact, they are classic because they explain so much of our ordinary moral consciousness. Nonetheless, since no theory is perfect, almost any proposed moral theory generates some counter-intuitive results. Perhaps this reveals to each of us, that we don’t have a privileged moral status. If our moral status were privileged, then we could measure any proposed theory against it. But we will assume that our moral status and intuitions aren’t privileged. They don’t provide unique insight into moral truth. If our moral status were privileged this investigation would be irrelevant, since we would already possess moral truth. We reject this claim.

The same issue applies when we turn from explaining morality to justifying it. Contemporary philosophers offer three basic kinds of justification for morality. Some, following Plato and Hobbes, argue that morality is based in self-interest. Others, following Hume and Mill, suggest that morality rests upon some sentiments, emotions, or sympathies we happen to have. Others, following Kant, insist that morality is grounded in reason. In addition to these philosophical justifications, some metaphysicians and theologians maintain that the source of morality rests in the metaphysical order. Whatever our moral intuitions about moral justification, we assume that these intuitions aren’t privileged.

What is Philosophical Ethics?

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong, in human conduct. It asks: What is the good? What should I do? What is a good life? Is morality objective or subjective? Is it absolute or relative? Why should I be moral? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Where does morality come from? What, if anything, provides the ultimate justification for morality? Should one emphasize duty, happiness, or pleasure in moral judgments? Traditionally, ethicists sought to give general advice on how to live a good and happy life, but contemporary philosophers have increasingly moved to more abstract and theoretical questions. While some contemporary philosophers have voiced alarm at this trend, many contemporary ethicists still ask esoteric questions.

We may conveniently divide contemporary philosophical ethics into at least four parts. Meta-ethics conducts an analysis of moral concepts, ethical justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes ethical behavior among various people and in various cultures. (Social scientists now do most of this work.) Normative ethics contemplates the norms, standards, or criteria that serve as theories or principles for ethical behavior. Applied ethics applies normative theories to particular ethical problems like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, sexuality etc. Some areas of applied ethics have become their own sub-specialties like medical, environmental, business, or computer ethics.

The Difference Between the Moral and the Legal

It’s especially important to differentiate morality and law, inasmuch as discussion of the moral and legal often conflate. On the one hand, the two differ since we believe some legal acts to be immoral, and some laws to be unjust. And even if the law didn’t  prohibit murder, stealing, and the like, we would probably still consider them wrong. This suggests that the two aren’t co-extensive. On the other hand, the two are connected because the law embodies many moral precepts. Legal prohibitions incorporate most of our ordinary moral rules such as those against lying, killing, cheating, raping, and stealing. This suggests there is a some connection between the moral and the legal.

Though it’s possible to have morality without law, or law without morality, the two usually go together. Therefore, we suggest that law codifies morality. In other words, the law formulates the culture’s morality into legal codes. Again, not every legal code refers to a moral issue, but most laws do have some moral significance. Though a connection between the moral and legal exists, they clearly aren’t the same things.

While a thing’s illegality may give us a reason not to do the thing, this is a prudential rather than moral reason. In other words, if we are afraid to steal because we might get caught, then we fear punishment, not immorality. Nevertheless, we might offer moral reasons to abide by the law. We could say that we owe it to the state to abide by their laws and that civil disobedience undermines both the moral fabric and our tacit agreement with the state. This was essentially Socrates’ argument against escaping from Athens before his impending execution. But in general, legal arguments aren’t applicable to ethical discussion. Ethicists generally discuss morality not legality, as will we.