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Moral Theories and Moral Intuitions
John G. Messerly   Apr 21, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

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.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


My own interpretation, and this goes way back to Frege or Wittgenstein, is, sematically, the word “moral” is often interchangable with “ethics, or ethical. However, I take it that “moral,” comes from the human belief that there is a powerful spirit upstairs, and ethical is simply how one treats one’s fellows.

Thus, I note that the Peoples’ Republic of China, or at least translations of the Party’s commands, are often directed at “morals,” as if an atheist state, can order about morals. This is the same bunch of people who committed unintentional homicide, on 40 million of their own people, during The Great Leap Forward, from 1958-62. Similarly, executions, and punishments are rife in the world of Sharia Law, where the Mutawan, in Saudi Arabia, enact fatwas against violaters of Sharia. In this case, the Mutawan, claim Morals from Allah, in the right to do so. In North Korea, it is the government, as it China, which executes judgements upon the “enemies,” of the Kim dynasty.

So my whole point, professor Messerly, is the thought-meaning about morals versus ethics. The first being supernatural, and the second being peer to peer, as in the world of computer networks. Maybe, in nature, we all are evolved to be battling servers, and ethics are a fix to get the servers to handshake and cooperate? I liked Hobbes ideas, and they were the center of the book with this actual title, War What is it Good For,? by Stanford Historian, Ian Morris. The Levithan imposes a better morality that eventually promotes commerce and calm, etc…

To Spud

Philosophers typically use the words morals and ethics interchangeably, although the distinction you make is enlightening. As for Hobbes’ and the social contract, I agree that it explains the recent history of ethics. Morality is something like the rules that rationally self-interested people agree to for mutual benefit. Going further back ethics has its origins in evolution—kin selection, reciprocal altruism, etc.

To Instamatic

I suppose you could say that moral evils are good to the extent they prevent ecological evils. I suppose there can be something good about bad stuff. But the ecological evils you mention follow as much from human folly as from the technology of the industrial age. So I wouldn’t want to go out on that limb with you.

I cannot believe the arrogance of the first commandment which denies human diversity in imagining for themselves - on an individual basis - what is ‘right’ for their innate psychological makeup in comprehending the universe which is denied in that presumptuous declamation. It also admits that there are other deities in this cosmos which this paranoid god fears. Time to put it to bed before it drags us all down to its level.

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