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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

A Case for Intuition

Posted by Nath at 6:07 AM
If human beings can reason objectively about mathematics and natural science, why can't we apply the same sort of logic to questions about ethics and morality? It's a question I've heard from time to time, most recently (though not in those words) in Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

It is strange that we treat something as important as morality as little more than aesthetic preference. Why can't moral scientists come up with hypotheses, experiments and so on, the way physicists do? Imagine how easy it would be to work together on the world's problems if we could only agree that (say) genocide is bad, the way we agree that F = ma.

The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious way to determine what really is objectively moral. This is not a problem for most theists, of course – they can just do whatever their deities say (and, when their gods contradict themselves, they can do whatever seems most convenient). Atheists, such as Harris, have to come up with their own criteria for morality. For instance, one might decide (more or less as Harris did) that any action that increases the net happiness of human beings is objectively moral.

This sort of approach brings its own problems. Why is human happiness moral? How do you measure happiness? Is everybody's happiness equally valuable? I'm not aware of any universal answer to these questions. It seems to me that moral objectivism is really the same thing as moral subjectivism, except that objectivists' subjective opinions are one level further removed from their moral beliefs.

I think that morality comes from within us. It is partly genetic – behaviour that made humans more likely to survive probably appeals to you as 'good'. It is partly environmental – the more resilient of your ancestors' beliefs are passed on to you by parents, teachers, sitcoms and Christmas specials. (A different sort of evolution is going on here – natural selection of beliefs instead of organisms.)

We may not be consciously aware of our moral beliefs; they are mostly instinctive. For instance, when you see someone committing murder, or eating marmite, you simply feel that something is wrong. This feeling sets in before you start trying to justify it. Consider the following (hypothetical) headline:


If you are not psychopathic, you probably found this headline at least slightly distressing. Is that because you believe that these actions (murder, marmite consumption) reduce the net human level of happiness? No; it is because DEAR GOD THAT GUY COMMITTED MURDER AND/OR ATE MARMITE AUGH.

When people try to formalize their ethical beliefs, perhaps they are simply trying to rationalize their existing intuitive beliefs about right and wrong. Perhaps making people happy feels right. If so, you might claim that increasing human happiness is the ultimate moral imperative. You might then make all your moral decisions based on this assumption.

What you've really done here, assuming you are a moral objectivist, is base your actions on a statement which in turn is based on your opinion. You differ from a subjectivist only in that a subjectivist skips the middle step; in other words, subjectivists base their actions directly on their moral opinions, rather than pausing to create a so-called objective justification.

Disclaimer: I'm not claiming that reason has no part to play in moral decision-making. Consider the following thought experiment, borrowed from Terminator 2. A scientist invents something that is used (against his intentions) to kill a large number of innocent people. You are given the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist (who has really done nothing wrong). Killing an innocent scientist would undoubtedly feel wrong – more wrong, perhaps, than leaving countless equally blameless people to die. However, most people would agree that in this specific case, the needs of the many...
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