PHILOSOPHY

THE JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY

VOL. XLVI, No. 175. JANUARY 1971

ETHICAL INTUITIONISM II

J. R. Lucas

South. So we have agreed to bury intuitionism.1 Well, I dare say it is right. But we ought to bury some of the grave-diggers too. Some of the things that Ross said are no doubt wrong, or at least misleading: but they are a lot less wrong than most of the things said since the war.

East. You mean you want to resurrect all that stuff about unanalysable non-natural qualities which we intuit by means of a mysterious moral sense?

South. No. Nor was it maintained by all the intuitionists. Ross2 makes it quite clear that he does not regard our moral intuitions as analogous to sense-experience. Refutations of intuitionism which assume that it represents moral statements as reports of observations,3 though possibly fair against Moore, fail to make out any case against Ross.

East. You want a revival of Ross, then?

South. Together with my friend, North. To my mind, they give a truer account of moral thought than either the emotivists, or the imperativists, or the various analysts, who pointed out their mistakes.

East. What were their mistakes?

South. Too great reliance on perceptual metaphors; too little readiness to consider further possibilities of argument, Paradoxically, the former stems from over-much respect for ordinary language. We do talk about seeing what we ought to do, feeling moral obligations, having moral insight. It is partly that anything we appreciate quickly and without hesitation we tend to describe as though it were a perception; we see solutions of mathematical problems, perceive the longing in a man's eyes, feel the style of an author, although these are all abilities as much as faculties, developed by instruction, practice and experience. Ordinary language expresses how solving a mathematical problem or acting morally in a simple situation seems to us, as a matter of psychological experience, and does not observe any epistemological scruples about the exclusive status of sense-experience. Indeed, I question if there is any such thing as pure sense-experience uncontaminated by thought or interpretation. To see is to understand. Theeye is part of the brain, and what we perceive are not sensa or sense-data but potential cues for action.4 The perceptual metaphor is barely a metaphor at all.

East. I do not want to deny that we sometimes talk about seeing where our duty lies or feeling an obligation or hearing the voice of conscience: but these perceptual verbs are, I insist, not to be taken literally. The trouble with the intuitionists is that they do take them literally, and pretend to give an account of how we come to hold moral views, when in fact they have done nothing more than re-state the facts in a misleading fashion.

South. But if we are to ban all non-literal uses of perceptual words, we must give up many terms of intellectual discourse: (eidos), species, aspect, sense, comprehend, these and many other of the words we use in the theory of knowledge are metaphorical in origin. I suppose it is because man's pre-eminence over the other animals lies in his possession of excellent eyes and of hands that most of our terms for the intellect are visual or manipulative metaphors. If you forbid all use of metaphors, you will have yourself to stop talking of "holding moral views".

East. I do not want to ban all non-literal uses of perceptual words, only to recognise them as non- literal.

South. Intuitionists would do as much. They all emphasize that our apprehension (to use a favourite word of theirs) of moral characteristics is not like our apprehension of sensory qualities. At the very worst, it is compared with a seeing that, `that this three-sided figure, in virtue of being three-sided, must have three angles',5 and even that comparison is only with respect to the immediacy of the two apprehensions.

East. They do not recognize the importance of the non-literalness of their perceptual metaphors. For all their qualifications, they talk as if learning a moral truth was like learning that Henry VIII had six wives or that Alpha Centauri was 4.33 light years away.6

South. In some ways it is, and in some ways it is not. It is like them, at least so the intuitionists claim, and I want to agree with them, in being a case of learning something objective, something which can be true or false, and not just a matter of inculcating a subjective attitude. It is unlike them in much the same way as history is unlike astronomy, and both are unlike abstract algebra. And this, indeed, is one of the faults of the intuitionists, that they fail to appreciate the many different types of discourse, and the different types of truth appropriate to each. The intuitionists were wrong here; they were too ready to assimilate apprehension of moral obligations to visual sense- experience or geometrical insights: but they were less wrong than their successors who assimilated moral utterances to ejaculations, injunctions or avowals.

East. That is soft-soaping. An easy acceptance of all analogies gets us nowhere. The point is that there is a crucial difference between history and natural science, which are based ultimately on sense-experience, and moral discourse, which is not.

South. And geometry?

East. That is all right. It is analytic.

South. Scratch a modern philosopher, and you will find a logical positivist. I can quite see that if you embrace the tenets of logical positivism, then you will have to regard moral propositions as pseudo-propositions, because they are neither empirical propositions nor analytic ones. But I do not see why modern philosophers, having dropped the doctrines, should still retain the prejudices of the logical positivists.

East. You do not have to be a logical positivist to think that sense-experience is important, or to fight shy of non-empirical modes of discourse about some special world or order of values, unconnected with the everyday world of sense-experience. I am, if you must classify me, an empiricist, and therefore think there is a crucial difference between empirical discourse which is based on sense-experience, and moral discourse, which is not.

South. But moral judgements are based on sense- experience. I am entirely convinced by Hare's argument, that it would be absurd to say of a particular object that it was good, or of a particular action in a particular situation that it was right, and to deny of an exactly similar object or action that it was good or right also.7

East. But this is not what I mean by `based'. When the chemical analyst concludes that the material submitted for analysis is a salt, he does so because it exhibits the defining properties of a salt.8 It is what is meant by `salt'. Whereas when you say an object is good or an action is right, you do not do so because it exhibits certain defining properties. At least, I hope you do not.

South No; no naturalist 1. But look, you are using `based' in a very special sense. It does not follow from moral statements not being based, in yoursense, on sense-experience, that moral discourse is a special world out of space and time, or that moral knowledge is cut off from practical knowledge.9 All that you have shown is that moral concepts are not based on, in the sense of being definable in terms of, sense-experience; which we knew already.

East. It is important, though. If you say `This act is right because it has P, Q, R', where P, Q, R are empirically ascertainable qualities, how does your `because' function? It cannot, you agree, be a logical `because', that actions that are P, Q, R are by definition right: and it cannot be an empirical `because', as when I say `It will be fine in the morning, because the evening sky is red', for one can observe the fine morning without having noticed the state of the evening sky, whereas you agree with Hare that moral qualities are `seen' as dependent on thefeatures mentioned in the `because' clause. And as my friend West has already said, there is no other way.10

South. Why not?

East. There just is not. Sorry, but there it is.

South. You have not established this at all. Even Aristotle allowed that there were four meanings of the word `because'. You have done nothing to show that there are only two. The logical positivists said there were only two, but in so doing made it impossible for them to prove it.

East. I do not believe that everything the logical positivists believed is false. In particular, I do believe that sense-experience and deductive argument are of crucial importance in the theory of knowledge.

South. I do too; but not that they are of exclusive importance. It seems to me that the attacks on intuitionism demand that they are the only things that count, epistemologically speaking. I can quite see that from a positivist, usually phenomenalist, position, moral experience will indeed seem bogus: but then sense-data have proved to be a somewhat insubstantial and shifting base from which to mount any attack on any other philosophical position. And I can quite see that to a man who believes that deductive logic is the only basis of sound argument, all moral arguments will appear specious, at best only persuasive terms of rhetoric: but then, such a man is going to have to give up arguing in most fields, not only morals.

East. I do not altogether understand.

South. It is often argued against the intuitionists, and others, that it is impossible that answers to practical questions should be deduced or in some other way derived from statements about what is the case, since the conclusion of an argument can contain nothing which is not in the premisses.11 This, of course, is true of deductions and deductive arguments: but it is not true ofnearly all the arguments we actually engage in, and I see no reason to dismiss them all as being bad, or to say that we cannot derive, in some non-deductive way, moral conclusions from non-moral premisses. If arguments cannot lead to something which we did not start with at the outset, they are not much use.

East. It may be implicit in our premisses, without our being aware of it.

South. Even that is not much use.

East. Many of our premisses may not have been stated.

South. What you are now claiming is that you can throw any argument into deductive form, if you are allowed to add as many premisses as you like. This is trivially true; or else it is procrustean. If you add enough premisses, you can deduce the required conclusions; and any moral argument can be made into a deductive argument by adding a sufficiency of moral major premisses: and if you do not add enough premisses, you can decide that argument was invalid all along; and many arguments used by historians have been faulted because they willnot fit easily into this preconceived scheme. But I fail to see any reason why arguments have to be thrown into deductive form. They can, if one wants them to be; but there is no need for them to be. Sometimes, it will clarify them, but often it obscures their essential form.

East. If an argument is deductively valid, it is valid: if it is not, it is not.

South. If an argument is deductively valid, it is deductively valid: but there are plenty of good arguments which are not in deductive form at all. One can keep the word `valid' for valid deductive arguments if one likes, but if so, there will be plenty of invalid arguments which are meet to be accepted; and it seems to me better to keep the word `valid' for arguments which are to be accepted, and `invalid' for those to be rejected: but this is a verbal matter: the substantial point is that there are many non-deductive arguments which are nevertheless perfectly sound ones, and worthy of acceptance.

East. This will need a lot of arguing for.

South. It has been attempted.12

East. The fundamental difficulty with your moral arguments is the same as with your moral experience, that there is not the wide measure of agreement which is necessary if they are to be accepted as objective or valid. Sense-experience is all right, because almost everyone agrees about whether a thing is red or green, and even colour-blind people can see shapes, as well as some colour differences, perfectly all right. And deductive argument is all right, because if a person does not accept the conclusion of an argument having admitted the truth of the premisses, he thereby shows himself unable to speak correctly the language he is using, and communication breaks down. But there is nothing comparable in moral discourse. Moral disagreements go on for ever.

South. A point that Plato made.13

East. It is fatal for the intuitionists' case. They, and all objectivists, fail to see the importance of moral disagreement. Moral disagreement is a fact of life-it can even cause wars. Subjectivists recognize this. Only to objectivists is the fact surprising.14

South. The fact of moral disagreement argues both ways. It shows that there is no decision-procedure, true: but it also shows that we do not despair of a rational solution of moral disputes-else we would not argue at all, but rely only on force or fraud to bring other people's behaviour propensities in line with what we wanted them to be.

East. I am not sure that so-called moral argument is anything more than that.

South. That would be a new, and much more sceptical, thesis. It does not follow from the lack of a decision-procedure in moral arguments. There are many other disciplines which do not provide knock-down methods for settling all disputes; history for example. We have not settled the question whether Richard III did or did not murder the princes in the tower, but we can argue about it perfectly rationally. Philosophical arguments seldom are decided conclusively, but we continue to argue as rationally as we can. From the fact that we cannot produce knock-down arguments, it does not follow that we cannot produce sound arguments at all. And although some questions are not settled, quite a lot of questions are. Controversies rage for a time, but often end in fairly general agreement, and this is true of controversy on moral issues as well as on those of history or philosophy.

East. This is no defence of intuitionism. It is no more than my friend West was saying.15

South. West allowed that one could give reasons for judgments, but did not like it when North talked of the judgments following from the considerations adduced as reasons. It was partly North's fault. He talked of its following necessarily, and put forward the misleading analogy between the way that moral conclusions follow and the way that geometrical conclusions follow. I do not want to defend this analogy, and I would not myself talk of moral conclusions following necessarily, because people will often take this `necessarily' as a logical necessity, in which case the claim is false; and if it is glossed as being a special `moral' necessity, it will not explain anything. So all I would say is that the conclusion that an action is wrong follows from the fact that it will cause pain, in the absence of counter- considerations, in the same way as even West allows that the fact of causing pain is a reason for an action's being wrong.

East. You are accepting all that business about prima facie rightness.

South. Yes. I find Ross's and Broad's account of this facet of moral thought completely convincing.

East. Then you lay yourself open to the criticisms West levelled at North. I suppose I must go over them again. In the first place, a tendency to be right (for so I construe prima facie rightness), like a probability, is not to be construed as ascribing a certain quality to each individual, but as saying something about the whole class.

South. Only if you accept the frequency theory of probability, which involves an excursion into the existence of the actual infinite which I find rather embarrassing. It is ontologically less expensive to construe probability statements as doing precisely what West says they do not do, namely ascribing a certain quality to each member of a certain class.16

East. I do not want to be involved in a discussion of probability.

South. In any case, we do not need theories of probability to be able to understand what is meant by a prima facie case. A prima facie case is one that will hold good, unless there is some further factor that tells the other way. It includes a ceteris paribus clause, and therefore is not logically buttoned up. But provided the ceteris areparibus, the conclusion does follow, and we are saying something quite definite about an individual case.

East. It still remains improper to talk of a conclusion following from empirically ascertainable statements, because it does not follow without qualification. You are always prepared to allow that an action is wrong in spite of some prima facie rightness.

South. Yes, to reverse the example, I would allow that it was right to cause pain in order to preserve health for example, in spite of its being prima facie wrong to cause pain.

East. Then there cannot be any sort of entailment.

South. No. `Entailment' is a logician's word, and I am quite happy to reserve it for the logician's exclusive use; but `follows from' is not a technical term of logic. It is a phrase we use in our ordinary informal assessments of ordinary informal arguments. I do not want perfectly sound moral arguments impugned on the grounds that the conclusion does not follow, when all that is meant is that the conclusion is not entailed by the premisses.

East. I am not sure that `follow from' is used so freely.

South. I am prepared to take my stand on `a reason for'. I would like to use `follow from' as its correlative, but am prepared to make do with phrases like `is supported by'.

East. You are evacuating into vagueness.

South. It is necessarily vague, but not viciously so. The difficulty is that moral argument is essentially a dialogue, whereas formal logic is essentially a monologue. Moral argument is like legal argument, and a great deal of historical and philosophical argument. As Hart shows,17 it is not a matter of necessary and sufficient conditions, but ofpresumption and counter-presumption, prima facie cases and rebuttal of cases, so you cannot lay down the course of argument very precisely in advance of an actual dispute: it all depends on what the other man says. With formal logic, everything is laid down at the outset, and it does not matter who the other man is or what he says; once the premisses have been conceded, everything else follows.

East. That seems to me a desperate expedient. You are no longer saying that the presence of some factor phi, like promise-keeping, makes an action right, but the presence of this feature coupled with the absence of any features which would make it wrong. You are saying that x's having phi and x's having no psi such that x's having psi would be a reason for x's being wrong is itself a reason for x's being right. But it will not do, because you could not establish x's having no psi etc. without first enumerating all those features which would make it wrong to keep a promise; and anyhow you would get into an infinite regress as soon as you started to explain in a similar fashion what you meant by saying that some factor psi was wrong-making.18

South. No, no, no. It is a different you. There is a shift in the burden of proof. I cite the factor phi as a reason for the actions being right; then if you dispute my conclusion, it is for you to point out some further factor psi telling the other way. I do not have to prove that there is no such psi---indeed, an impossible task---but only leave it for you to pick on some such psi if there be any such. If you cannot, then my case stands. If you can produce a psi which seems to count the other way, then of course I have to consider it, and the issue between us is somewhat altered. It may be that our argument will be interminable and will never reach a conclusion. But it does not have to be, and the dialogue need neither lead to infinite regress in theory nor be absurd in practice.

East. Well, that is an interesting theory, which may or may not be true; but it is not intuitionism.

South. I am not an intuitionist. I think that any account of moral judgment should be in terms of Reason, not Perception. Though often, I think, our reasons are hard to articulate, and we ought to be guided by Common Sense, as much as by any articulate set of doctrines. But this is little different from the position that the later intuitionists held. And while I am prepared to criticize them myself, the criticisms which have actually been levelled at them have been largely misdirected.

East. On what points would you be prepared to criticize them? You half-conceded that they did make too much use of perceptual metaphors. What else did you say- --`too little readiness to consider further possibilities of argument'?

South. It is the other side of the same coin. I do not object to the use of perceptual terms; they are often the right words to use. The objection comes when the perceptual analogy is used to block argument. If intuiting moral characteristics was very like seeing visible properties of material objects, then there never could be any argument about morals. But we do argue about morals, and as Ross often admits, our actual apprehension of what is right may be changed on reflection.19 I understand why they wanted to block argument, and sometimes theywere right to do so. But they did it too thoroughly, ruling out all possibility of further argument.

East. How could it ever be right to block argument?

South. Because although you can always ask a further question, you cannot be always asking questions. In any serious argument, both parties have got to agree about some things, as well as disagree about other things; if there is no common ground, there is nothing to start from.

East. Yes.

South. The trouble with moral philosophy has been that it has tried to deal with too many questions at once. It has tried to give both a coherent account of moral thought and an answer to the moral sceptic all in the same breath. This is the cause of Prichard'sdissatisfaction with moral philosophy. He sees that we cannot produce a philosophical proof of the obligatoriness of our obligations, and that unless we were sometimes aware of obligations, we should have no moral consciousness and no moral discourse at all. In much the same way, a historian who had been treated to endless philosophical discussion about whether, and, if so, how, we could have knowledge of the past, might weary of the whole business and protest that we knew perfectly well that there was a past, and that if we had any doubts about the matter, or if we wanted to understand the nature of history, what we needed to do was to engage in actual historical thought, not philosophical discussion about it.

East. I sympathize with the protest.

South. I do, too, in part. What is needed really is to separate out the different levels of argument designed to answer different sorts of question. Unlike Prichard, I think the sceptic can be argued with, perhaps even answered. But this is different from giving a sensible account of the structure of moral, or historical, argument. And while one is doing the latter, one is presupposing that we do have moral obligations or make moral judgments or know some things about the past.

East. I see. You are saying that an analytical philosophy of morals presupposes that moral scepticism is false, just as analytical philosophy of history presupposes that scepticism about the past is false.

South. Yes. The intuitionists were in effect limiting the field of moral philosophy in order to achieve some understanding of one part, namely how most people do and should reflect on moral issues. Hence their insistence on the primacy of moral experience or the moral consciousness as the starting point and touchstone of their enquiry.20 I would say in their defence that although there are other questions, any philosopher who fails to concern himself with this question, has precious little chance of reaching any worthwhile insight into moral discourse.

East. If intuitionism only ruled out certainrather dubious questions, there would be little objection to it. The trouble is that it rules out every question.

South. Not in the later forms of it. Ross makes it quite clear that he does not rule out the possibility of dispute.21

East. He allows disputes in actual cases, where there may be a conflict of prima facie obligations; but he is as dogmatic as the rest of them about our apprehension of the prima facie rightness of certain types of act. It is self-evident, like a mathematical axiom.22 If a person does not agree with you, you are not to argue with him, but damn him as morally blind or wilfully perverse.23 You cannot defend that.

South. If I was arguing with a man, and he did not allow that causing pain was a reason for an action's being wrong, that is, he did not see the relevance of the fact that the action caused pain, I think I should break off the argument with him. Almost all our seriousmoral arguments-on capital punishment, on divorce, on family and professional obligations-are carried on within a context of fairly wide agreement on what considerations are relevant to the issue. The problem is what weight to attach to the various considerations. We cannot carry on one of these arguments with a man who does not see that there is any argument against killing people, or making them unhappy, or neglecting one's family or abandoning one's vocation.

East. You mean that it is quite impossible to query the relevance of an issue which other people have thought to be relevant?

South. No. I think one can, but that if one does, one is changing the whole argument.24 It would cease to be an argument about capital punishment, and would be one instead about the wrongfulness of homicide. The intuitionists were right in seeing that one cannot argue about both issues in the same logical breath, wrong in making one utterly unarguable about in their concentration on the other.

East. You would be prepared to argue any issue.

South. I think I would try. Though I must say that my first reaction to a man who thought that causing pain was prima facie a good thing rather than a bad one would be to send him to a psychologist rather than argue with him.

East. That is the trouble with you intuitionists. If people do not agree with you, you start calling them names or hitting them over the head. instead of arguing with them.

South. Do you in fact argue with sadists? Do you not in fact say that the only policy with them is to break off the argument, (ea chairein)25 and say that they need to be cured, rather than convinced? In the same way, we do not enter into long historical arguments with men who insist that the battle of Waterloo was fought in 1789 or that Lord Curzon was Prime Minister of England in succession to Bonar Law. We do not try to convince them,we just do not admit them to our university.

East. It is too easy a way out. Anybody who does not share the views of a twentieth-century upper-class Englishman is deemed to be unarguable with and not a rational being at all.

South. Yes. It is too easy a way out. That is the trouble with the perceptual analogy, that it is too effective in blocking the questions and argument. The intuitionists were right to block some questions and decline some arguments while they were considering other sorts of argument, wrong to stonewall always. They concentrated too much on the moral consciousness of the best men, and ignored the sort of question that less good men might raise.

East. And received a pretty rude awakening in 1939.

South. True. But now we are too much concerned with how we should argue with bad men, with Nazis or Nietzscheians. This is equally unrealistic. We very seldom actually argue with Nazis,whereas we quite often argue with men whom we would regard as morally good even though they disagreed with us on some point. It is worth examining the conceptual structure of our actual moral thought, and this is what the intuitionists were trying to do, and if their accounts are not proof against misunderstanding, they are not nearly as misleading as is commonly made out.

Merton College,
Oxford



1. P.F.Strawson, `Ethical Intuitionism', Philosophy, 24, 1949, p.31; reprinted in W.Sellars and J.Hospers, eds., Readings in Ethical Theory, New York, 1952, p.258.
2. W.D.Ross, The Right and the Good, Oxford, 1930, pp.40-41.
3. P.H.Nowell-Smith, Ethics, London, 1954, p.38.
4. R.L.Gregory, Eye and Brain, London, 1966.
5. H.A.Prichard, `Does Moral Philosophy rest on a Mistake ?', Mind, 21,1912, p.28; reprinted in H.A.Prichard, Moral Obligation, Oxford, 1949, p.8, and in W.Sellars and J.Hospers, eds., Readings in Ethical Theory, New York, 1952, p.155.
6. P.H.Nowell-Smith, Ethics, p.39.
7. R.M.Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, 1952, Ch.5, 2, pp.80-81.
8. P.F.Strawson, Philosophy, 1949, p.26 (Sellars and Hospers, p.253).
9. Cf. P.H.Nowell-Smith, Ethics, p.48.
10. P.F.Strawson, op. cit., p.27, p.254.
11. P.H.Nowell-Smith, Ethics, p.37.
12. E.g. by David Pole, The Conditions of Rational Enquiry, London, 1961; by Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, London, 1958 and 1969; and by J.R.Lucas, `The Philosophy of the Reasonable Man,' Philosophical Quarterly, 13,1963, pp.97-106.
13. Phaedrus 263a.
14. P.H.Nowell-Sniith, Ethics, p.46.
15. P.F.Strawson, pp.27-8 (pp.254-5).
16. K.R.Popper, `The Propensity Interpretation of Probability', British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, X, 1959/60; D.H.Mellor,`Chance', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Sup., Vol. XLIII, 1969; J.R.Lucas, The Concept of Probability, Oxford, 1970.
17. H.L.A.Hart, `The ascription of Responsibilities and Rights', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XLIX, 1948-49, pp.171-94; reprinted in A.G.N.Flew, cd., Logic and Language, Series I, Oxford, 1951, pp.145-66.
18. P.30 n; pp.256-7, n.5.
19. W.D.Ross, The Right and the Good, pp.40-41.
20. W.D.Ross, The Right and the Good, pp.40-41.
21. W.D.Ross, The Right and the Good, pp.30-31.
22. p.29.
23. P.H.Nowell-Smith, Ethics, pp.46-7.
24. J.R.Lucas, `On Not Worshipping Facts', Philosophical Quarterly, 8, 1958, pp.147- 9.
25. Phaedo 63e.