Michael Horner's Blog

    Are Intuitions for Real?

    Written by Michael Horner

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    Photo by Marco Bellucci

    When we claim to know that torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong because of our direct awareness of the injustice of the behavior, we are justified or warranted in our claim to knowledge, unless or until a defeater of our belief arises.

    I have been making a case for moral knowledge based on the similarity of our moral faculty to our physical sensory faculties and our rational faculty. At this point I want to introduce a philosophical term to describe this experience of direct awareness of reality. The term is intuition. I have avoided the word until now because some people tend to have a pejorative view of the term.

    By intuition though, philosophers do not mean an irrational hunch or some popular notion like when one refers to a ‘woman’s intuition’. Rather as J.P. Moreland & W.L Craig put it in their excellent text, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (p. 422)

    “The philosophical use of intuition does not mean a mere hunch or a prereflective expression of, say, a moral attitude. … a common usage defines an intuition as an immediate, direct awareness or acquaintance with something.

    An intuition is a mode of awareness—sensory, intellectual or otherwise—in which something seems or appears to be directly present to one’s consciousness. For example, one can have a sensory intuition of a table or an intellectual intuition of a conceptual truth, for instance, that 2 + 2 = 4.

    Intuitions are not infallible, but they are prima facie justified. That is, if one carefully reflects on something, and a certain viewpoint intuitively seems to be true, then one is justified in believing that viewpoint in the absence of overriding counterarguments (which will ultimately rely on alternative intuitions). Furthermore, an appeal to intuitions does not rule out the use of additional arguments that add further support to that appeal. … Similarly, an appeal to intuitions in ethics is not a claim to infallibility or a substitute for further arguments.

    In ethics, appeals to intuition occur in four main areas. First, there are specific cases or judgments (e.g., Dr. Jones ought not to lie to the patient in room 10 tomorrow morning). Second, there are moral rules and principles (e.g. promises should be kept, persons ought to be respected). Third, there are general, normative theories (e.g., deontological theories are to be preferred to utilitarian theories or vice versa; … Finally, there are background philosophical or religious factual beliefs (e.g., a Human has a property of intrinsic value). Again, such appeals to intuition claim prima facie justification and do not rule out further argumentation. Appeals to reflective considered intuitions occur throughout one’s intellectual life, and ethics is no exception, … .”

    Empiricist & evidentialist assumptions in our Western culture make it difficult for many of us to warm up to this idea of direct awareness of reality especially in the moral realm. But I have found that despite these assumptions, when specific examples of morally abhorrent behavior arebrought to their attention, most people’s moral intuitions are brought to the surface and they recognize that they do believe in objective moral values and obligations after all.  Still I find a small, but often vocal, minority of students that hear my presentation will continue to doubt that morality can be objective.

    “Have you ever claimed to know something is morally right or wrong based only on your intuition? Can you provide an example or two?”

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