Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. This essay was published, with illustrations, in Volume 4 Issue 1 — June 2015.
I would like to thank Jake Earl, who created the “John” thought experiment. The probing questions of various people, but most definitively of Earl, helped me to better think things through.
Moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions and laws should be based on those moral principles. (Of course to say that “laws should be based on those moral principles” is not to say that every moral principle should automatically be enacted into a law.)
Though everyone I have talked to agrees that moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions, I have heard an intelligent person or two contend that the correctness of such moral intuitions can still be logically proved or disproved (by which I mean, proved by a process of discursive argumentation, if not by formal academic logic) — as if moral inquiries were a hard science like math. More importantly, many people who would not explicitly make this contention nevertheless present their arguments about moral issues as if this were the case. So while some philosopher probably demonstrated centuries ago the impossibility of logically proving the correctness of moral intuitions, the relationship of logic and intuition still deserves to be examined. And I think the insights gained in the process of examining it can lead us toward methods of self-exploration and of discourse that will help reveal moral truths, including moral truths about abortion.
First of all, for moral principles to be based on moral intuitions really means that moral principles are the verbalized form of moral intuitions. Therefore correct moral principles will follow from correct moral intuitions. And if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved, then it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, with no recourse to intuition — since the process of constructing would be the same as the process of proving.
To say that it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, but at the same time to agree that moral intuitions (of which moral principles are the verbalized forms) are pre-logical — as everyone seems to agree — would be contradictory. Nevertheless, as mentioned, some people do present their arguments about moral issues as if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved (that is, as if it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone). So let’s continue to address that contention.
“The correctness of a moral intuition can be logically proved” and “a correct moral principle can be constructed through logic alone” seem to me like two different formulations of the same thing. But in case there’s any doubt, as I continue I’ll address the one I’ve actually heard, the former.
Is there such a thing as a correct moral intuition, and if so, can its correctness be logically proved or disproved? Though I am arguing no to the second question, I will argue yes to the first.
Moral Intuitions and Moral Principles
As an example of a moral principle — a generalized moral principle, but basically a sound one, I feel — let’s use “Thou shalt not kill.” I would say that that principle did not come from God, but rather is based on a pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent. A pre-logical and pre-verbal sense of right or wrong is how I would define a moral intuition. Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, said in an interview that while some moral ideals “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.” Even if Bloom overestimates the role of the genes in the “hardwired” moral senses, and underestimates the role of culture in those moral senses, and overestimates how universal those moral senses are across cultures, it would be safe to say that most of us do have senses of right or wrong that come out of our unconscious in ways we cannot understand. I am calling those senses moral intuitions. (For alternatives to the term “moral intuition,” and for an explanation of “pre-logical” and “pre-verbal,” see the Appendix.)
I would say that the pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent is an example of a correct moral intuition. I call it “correct” in that I think that deference to that intuition is necessary to the psychological health of human beings. I think that humans will sacrifice some of their psychological health (their conscience will trouble them, if you will, and they will carry around guilt, sometimes at a subconscious level) if they go against that intuition. I think that such psychological health could be measured, but let’s call the idea of measuring it just my idea, for now.
If we can accept that we are born with at least the seeds of some moral intuitions in us, then clearly those seeds are in each of us before we begin thinking logically, just as are the emotions of babies. Moral intuitions and emotions develop in us before logic, and continue to function in us pre-logically; science and logic develop in us later. And moral intuitions and emotions are both forms of caring, or “caring about.” Science and logic operate under certain rules, one of which, for both, is a commitment to dispassion. (Even discursive argumentation that is not formal academic logic is committed to dispassion.) So science and logic can tell us, in their different ways, what is, but they cannot tell us the meaning of life or convince us to care about anything. And since they cannot convince us to care, convince us that anything matters, they cannot tell us what should be. Only moral intuitions, which are a form of caring, can tell us what should be – can give us moral principles.
There is a part of our minds which cares about things, to which things matter, both emotionally and normatively. (I do not mean here “caring for,” as in “I care for my friend.”) The caring part of our minds cannot use logic, and the logical part cannot care.
Logic cannot even prove to us that right or wrong exists, much less that any action is right or wrong. So of course it cannot prove that the moral intuition that told us how to act is right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Logical thought aimed at setting moral principles is impossible without basing it on something pre-logical.
Logic can be applied to intuitions, but as a dispassionate science, it can only demonstrate the correctness of any moral intuition, if at all, with reference to some already-existing moral intuition. Tracing back in this way, we will eventually come to some moral intuition that was not arrived at through logic. It came out of our unconscious in some way we cannot understand.
Finally, the medium of logic is either words or math, while an intuition is by definition something pre-logical (and pre-verbal and pre-mathematical). Since an intuition is not framed in words or math, words and math cannot completely describe it, much less prove it right or wrong. Logic may lead us close to the door of intuition — with luck very close — but in order to pass through and feel the intuition, feel that something matters, we have to leave logic behind. As mentioned, it is only the intuition that says, “Something matters,” not the logic.
(For further elaboration of this demonstration, see the Appendix.)
We should never say, “I believe in XYZ principle for ABC reasons,” but rather, “I intuit that XYZ principle is correct, and A, B and C are likely the factors that brought me to that intuition.”
The foregoing means that all of us involved on any side of the abortion issue, as with many issues, are out advocating or marching or voting for policies that mean life or death for others, without completely knowing why we are doing so. (This does not mean that we should fail to proceed as best we can, however.)
I recently came across a thought experiment created by Jake Earl that offers an analogy to pregnancy and abortion:
While on a hike one morning in the Appalachian wilderness, John hears the screams of a child coming from the nearby river. He sees the child is clinging to a rock in the middle of the river, and will surely die without his assistance, since nobody else is around to help and John does not have the means to call emergency services. John is a decent swimmer, so he will almost certainly survive the rescue attempt, but there are still risks: the polluted water threatens to worsen John’s health in the near- and long-term, he will likely experience significant pain and discomfort in getting the child out of the river and getting him to safety, and the whole experience might be so traumatic as to send John into depression, and might damage his overall quality of life. Also, even though John is a swimmer, the river is tricky, and he faces a fundamentally unknown risk to his life if he embarks on the mission.
Now, is it obvious that John is morally obligated to do everything in his power to keep the child alive? Perhaps he [is], but I think it is in no way obvious, precisely because common sense tells us that the duty to rescue others is mitigated by certain risk factors.
Now let’s change Earl’s word “morally” to “legally” — is it obvious that John is, or rather under ideal laws should be, legally obligated?
And now suppose there is a pro-lifer, PL. PL feels sincerely that a pregnant woman should be legally prevented from aborting, so long as the woman’s risk of grave loss of well-being appears small. PL feels this deeply, but let’s say that PL’s logical powers are not strong.
A pro-choicer, PC, asks PL: Should John be legally obligated to do everything in his power to keep the child alive?
PL: Maybe not.
PC: Isn’t requiring a pregnant woman to keep her child alive parallel to requiring John to keep the child alive?
PL: I guess so, I don’t know.
PC: Then maybe a pregnant woman shouldn’t be legally required to keep her child alive?
PL: No, I think she should.
PL’s “I guess so” betrays logical inconsistency: at the same time that PL guesses — within the limits of his/her logical abilities — that two situations are morally parallel, s/he holds differing intuitions about the respective moral principles that should apply and be translated into law.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that either intuition — the intuition about legal obligation in pregnancy or the intuition about legal obligation in a situation that seems analogous to pregnancy — is incorrect. Let’s assume they are both correct: we can understand that if they are, PL’s ineptness at debate wouldn’t make either one incorrect.
PL may not be very smart, but then no human being’s logical power is infinite. It’s quite possible that there is some subtle disanalogy between the John situation and the pregnancy situation, such that PL’s intuitions about both situations are correct; yet even if Judith Thomson, Don Marquis and Aristotle were all combined into one, they would not be able to figure out what that disanalogy was. That inability would not mean that PL’s intuitions were incorrect.
It might also be that PL’s moral intuitions about many other situations are incorrect, yet his/her intuitions about the John situation and about pregnancy are correct.
Three smart philosophical minds all rolled into one might not be able to figure out what the disanalogy is. It might be that all the logical power of the human race (which is pretty puny in absolute terms, after all) may never be able to figure out what that disanalogy is (or more likely, there is a combination of disanalogies working in different directions to result in shifting the intuitive balance one way or another). And yet PL’s John intuition and pregnancy intuition are both correct.
If all the logical power of the human race cannot figure out what the disanalogy is, then there is only one way to arrive at both correct intuitions – the direct intuitive way, not requiring logic – and there is no foolproof way to convince anyone who holds incorrect intuitions that PL’s intuitions are both correct, though in fact they are both correct. (As we are assuming here.)
I mentioned earlier, “Logic may lead us close to the door of intuition, with luck very close, but in order to pass through we have to leave logic behind.” Trying with his/her logic to compare the situation of pregnancy (in which PL feels that a pregnant woman should normally be obliged to accept the degree of risk necessary to “help” her unborn child), with the “John” situation above (in which PL feels that a hiker should not normally be obliged to take a risk to help a child), PL could not immediately find any morally relevant difference. The “John” analogy did not radically change PL’s intuition about pregnancy, but it may have nudged PL in the direction of a different intuition. If two people have differing intuitions about situation A, but one of them posits a somewhat similar situation B and another somewhat similar situation C which elicit in him the same intuition he had about A, and the other person agrees with the first person’s intuition about B and C, then the logic of the similarities/parallels may lead the second person close to the door of the same intuition on A as the first person. But that logic cannot take the second person through the door into a pre-logical realm. And if there is no situation very similar to A, then such comparison of situations may not even lead that second person very close to that particular door.
A corollary to the above would be: Everyone in the world might be logically convinced of the validity of an intuition — say PL’s intuition, on which the principle “a pregnant woman should, in many cases, be legally prevented from aborting” is based — yet the intuition could nevertheless (due to the finite nature of our logical power) be incorrect.
I think it would be true to say that you could arrive at a correct moral principle through intuition alone, without logic, but you could not arrive at a correct moral principle through logic that is not based on intuition. What causes most people to say that the kidnapped person is not obliged to lend their body to the violinist? It is not logic, but simply a direct moral intuition about that particular situation. We do not need to be told a story about a trombone player in order to have the intuition that we have about the violinist. This shows the primacy, in moral investigations, of direct intuition about a specific situation. We do not need to be told a story about a violinist in order to have a basic intuition about pregnancy.
Logic and analogies do seem to resonate somehow in our unconscious minds whence intuitions come, but by definition we do not experience what the unconscious is thinking. As PL’s example showed us, the unconscious may disagree with the best of a person’s conscious logic. It could even be that the unconscious is employing a superior logical power, but we don’t know.
In “De Facto Guardian and Abortion,” Steve Wagner, Timothy Brahm, et. al. find their pre-logical moral intuitions that Mary should be legally obligated to feed the child; then they proceed, in a section called “Making Sense of Our Intuitions,” to cogitate logically about the morally-relevant factors and to develop some taxonomy, “de facto guardian.” I am grateful for what they have done in this essay and agree with them on most of their conclusions; neither do I have an issue with this particular section. But I would like to explore the rationale for this section: If there were no plausible logical way to “make sense of their intuitions,” would that mean that the intuitions were wrong? If there were a way, but no logical power on earth could find that way, would that mean that the intuitions were wrong? If there were a way, but these particular individuals could not find the way, should they moderate the degree of their conviction about the matter? And is there ever really any need for intuition – could these authors, for instance, have come to the same moral principles through logic alone?
The opinion on this that I expressed above is “you could arrive at a correct moral principle through intuition alone, without logic, but you could not arrive at a correct moral principle through logic that is not based on intuition.” Logic can nudge me toward a certain moral intuition, correct or incorrect, but that moral intuition I have found is pre-logical and pre-verbal. It cannot be said that I have simply come to a logical conclusion.
The Practical Implications: Deeper Dialogues
Now let us see whether all my academic moral philosophy has any practical importance, particularly for the abortion debate. The origins of correct moral principles, or (if the idea of moral absolutes is not accepted) at least valuable moral principles, and the role of logic in the development of such principles, are certainly at the foundation of moral philosophy. But apart from academic moral philosophy, do the views I have stated, even if they are correct, matter?
Moral principles certainly have practical implications — in the case of the abortion issue, such principles, as translated into law or even simply as influential social norms, determine every day whether unborn babies will live and whether their mothers will have to accept unwished-for changes in their lives. So moral principles have practical implications, and I think that my views above have some practical implications as well that will help us determine the best moral principles. Some of the practical implications:
1. It is well-known that people tailor their logic to their intuitions to a large extent, and I think that much of this occurs unconsciously. If people will begin to think that neither are intuitions always disrespectable, nor is logic (on moral issues) sacred, they will become more motivated to look within at their intuitions and to try to grasp what those intuitions are and how those intuitions interact with their more conscious mental processes; the workings of their minds will become clearer to them. “Know thyself.” We are all out advocating policies that mean life or death for others, without completely knowing why we are doing so; I don’t think it is possible to know completely, but it is possible to know better, and moreover I think that the process of contemplating their existing intuitions will gradually lead people toward the most correct intuitions that reside within them.
2. If we become aware that our exploration of thought experiments, etc., is an exercise in experimenting with logic to help us find a moral intuition already existing in our unconscious – rather than an exercise in deriving a moral intuition or moral principle through logic itself – this also will motivate us to look within at our intuitions, that is, to assign a higher priority than before to the kind of contemplative approach that can move us most directly toward the deep-seated intuition.
We should not abandon our logical debates, but we should not imagine them (as we may sometimes, consciously or unconsciously) to be a process of fitting together logical jigsaw pieces to produce a case that will be finally satisfying to the left brain. We should remember always that analogies and other rational arguments function, rather, like the explosives used in surface mining. They pulverize the surface of our minds. The logic triggers mental activity that is not logical, and we get to pre-logical intuitions beneath the surface that we may not have expected. The approach may be logical in nature, but we should not expect it to achieve a result of the same nature.
3. If the representatives of both sides on any issue — say a pro-lifer and a pro-choicer on the abortion issue — can agree that the debate is really a matter of one intuition versus another, I think that this will work in two ways. On the one hand, each of the two will admit to himself that his intuition comes out of his unconscious in ways he cannot understand, and this should produce greater humility about those intuitions — not a direct weakening of the two people’s intuitions in the intuition area of their brains/minds, but rather greater humility in the pride/humility area of their brains/minds. This will reduce the ego clutter and make changes of intuition easier. Yet on the other hand, the debaters will develop greater trust in their intuitions relative to their logic, recognizing that, for better or worse, there cannot be any moral truth unsupported by intuition.
4. I think that people’s egos are more wrapped up with their logical powers than with their intuitions. If people come to realize that that which involves their egos — logic — will not ultimately prove anything or bring a discussion about a moral issue to any final conclusion, then each party in a debate might become emotionally less defensive about their logical powers, leading them to relax their egos. This also would very much reduce the clutter in their thinking processes.
5. I referred above to “looking within at their intuitions.” I would like to see a discussion between the parties on both sides of any issue — say between a pro-choicer and a pro-lifer — that begins with each party examining their own intuitions and related feelings (feelings being not exactly the same as intuitions). How does the thought of an unborn child dying in an abortion make me feel? Do I feel the pain in my body? If not, where does that feeling come from? Is it necessarily valid? How do I know it’s valid?
Then each party would try to describe those intuitions and physical-emotional feelings to the other party. A pro-lifer might say: “It pains me here [pointing probably to the chest region] to think of my innocent little unborn sister or brother, just beginning their life, being ripped apart.” A pro-choicer might say on the other hand: “It pains me here [also pointing to somewhere in the chest region] to think of my pregnant sister, already under such a burden, being told what she can or cannot do within her body.” (Using “sisters” and “brothers” in a spiritual or humanistic sense.)
(“Appeals to emotion” have a bad name. Appeals to emotion can be manipulative, but I think that an expression of one’s genuine emotion is likely to better represent one’s moral intuition than an attempt to represent it logically.)
Then the two proceed to discuss the violinist, the Cabin in the Blizzard, the “John” thought experiment, etc., at each point reporting “This makes me feel such-and-such deep inside.” If the two wish, they can logically examine the relative extents of all the analogies and disanalogies of the thought experiments as well.
At the end, each will again examine and report their direct intuition about pregnancy itself — not about any analogy with pregnancy, but about pregnancy itself. Perhaps their intuition will have changed, or will be on a slow road toward change. Each party will admit to the other, “I don’t completely know why this is my conviction.”
Through a better understanding of the roles of intuition and logic in moral investigations, I think that those participating in any discussion will be able more quickly to identify the differences in intuition that separate them, and think also that each person will better realize that she cannot fully explain the origins of her own intuitions, even to herself. Moral philosophy becomes irrelevant if separated from applied psychology. I think that following the above guidelines, some of the more cerebral “moral principles” people have will fall away immediately.
The Evolution of Intuitions
In the build-up to the abolition of slavery in the US, many people intuited that slavery was wrong; but the fact that slavery was ultimately abolished doesn’t mean that it was ever proved logically to be wrong. The abolitionist intuition was not proven; it prevailed. There is now a consensus, which I agree with, that slavery is wrong — that what prevailed, in other words, was the correct intuition — but even today, if someone were to advance a logical argument saying that slavery is right, that argument could not be conclusively defeated on its own terms. What our moral intuitions regarding slavery have undergone has been a process of evolution, and our moral intuitions regarding abortion will undergo the same. The question of the morality of slavery is ultimately intractable to a logical approach, and so are questions of the morality of abortion and of abortion law.
Though I don’t know if he would agree with me about the limited role of logic, I will quote Paul Bloom again: “Good moral ideas can spread through the world in much the same way that good scientific ideas can, and once they are established, people marvel that they could ever have thought differently.”
Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape presents an argument — which I am open to with a few exceptions — that the neuroscience of the future could measure the well-being of a population, and see how that well-being responds to variations in the moral principles of the population, accurately enough to determine scientifically which moral principles are best. This all presupposes a consequentialist definition of “best,” which I’m open to, but in any case the reality of this approach lies too far in the future to be useful to us now. For now we can only try to find our best moral intuitions.
Someone on the pro-choice side will likely say that my arguments, coming as they do from a pro-lifer, confess to a weakness of logic on the pro-life side. Fine. Such an assertion would not diminish the power of any good logic or good intuitions on any side.
Appendix A: Some further thoughts, added June 2016, on the above LMJ essay –
Apart from the comments in the Leave a Reply section below, some readers have responded to “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” on other websites or on Facebook.
A few of them have questioned the term “moral intuition;” one would have preferred “moral seeming,” and another would have preferred “moral sense,” either of which is acceptable to me.
Some have asked about “pre-logical” and “pre-verbal”. One wrote: I am not sure what you mean by “moral intuitions . . . develop in us before logic, and continue to function in us pre-logically . . .”
I replied: “Let me take just the ‘function’ part, and skip the ‘develop’ part. Suppose you see an innocent person being tortured in front of you, perhaps by a serial torturer-killer. A number of things will happen before (pre-) you start thinking about it logically and verbally: You will feel disgust (which if put in words would be ‘How gross to see that child’s fingernails being ripped out’). Fear: ‘I don’t want that guy to do that to me.’ Maybe anger. Annnd . . . a sense of right or wrong, in this case wrong. All these things are pre-logical and pre-verbal, and the last is your pre-logical, pre-verbal moral intuition.”
Some readers also had difficulty with “caring,” as in “The caring part of our minds cannot use logic, and the logical part cannot care.” Some readers have misunderstood “caring” here as “caring for,” as in “I care for my friend.” But I mean “caring about;” that is, I mean that things matter to me. (I have now edited that passage in the essay above.) I wrote to one reader:
“First let’s distinguish between moral intuitions and emotion. Suppose that tomorrow morning I read in the news that half a million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to die of starvation within a month. And suppose that on that same morning I drop my cell phone and it breaks. I may be more upset about the cell phone than about the starvation. That upsetness is an example of feeling/emotion.
“But if you tell me, ‘Your cell phone can be saved or the half million people can be saved, you have to decide,’ an inner voice will tell me that the half million people should be saved, and I will follow that voice. That voice is my moral intuition about that particular situation.
“But (until we think of a better word than ‘caring’) I am saying ‘moral intuitions and emotions are both forms of caring. Science and logic operate under certain rules, one of which, for both, is a commitment to dispassion,’ because both my moral intuitions and my emotions make me feel that something matters. An emotion may make me feel that something is ‘unpleasant.’ A moral intuition may make me feel that something is ‘wrong.’ Either way, it matters, I care. Whereas when I’m using the scientific or logical part of my mind, the things I am thinking about do not matter.”
Moral philosophy operates on the basis of all kinds of inputs from all fields, including psychology. Much of “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” is about psychological realities as I see them. I would request readers to think of the above paragraphs in this appendix, and much of what now follows, as pure psychology, which I’ll try to tie in with moral philosophy later. Some readers did not understand my epistemological point about the limitations of logic and discursive argumentation. What now follows is a reply of mine (slightly adapted) to one reader:
Suppose you are trying to convince me that abortion, at least in cases other than rape cases, is wrong. Suppose we have been debating for days with all kinds of analogies (logic) and science and statistics. Then you point out to me something I never thought of before: that when a couple have sex, they know not only that that may create a baby, but that if it does, it will create a baby that is in a unique dependent condition. You have used some logic, or at least dispassionate discursive argumentation.
A moment later or a month later I am thinking about that and I feel a shift in my mind. For the first time I have a moral intuition (or moral seeming, or moral sense) which if verbalized would be “Abortion is wrong.”
Now, I may think “That moral intuition PROBABLY stems from the thing about the unique dependent condition.” But since my moral intuition, my should-shouldn’t sense, is itself pre-logical (if I am confronted with a specific proposed abortion, I will feel “This is wrong” before [pre-] I start thinking about it logically and verbally), I don’t know for sure what the provenance of that moral intuition was. Ultimately it came out of my unconscious in some way I can’t completely understand. It might actually have resulted from taking LSD or from a bump on the head, not from your logic about dependency.
For me, it’s like I have two little men operating in the conscious level of my mind. One little man N (for intuition) operates at a pre-verbal level. Like a newborn baby, he has no vocabulary. But he has a gut sense, or intuition, about the morality of abortion. That sense is not an emotion. (I no doubt have some more little men in me emoting about abortion, but let’s ignore them for now.) That intuition, if it were to be expressed in words, would be the words “This is wrong,” and I would then have a moral principle, “Abortion is wrong.” But for now (considering only man N), I just have a pre-verbal moral intuition. I have no clue as to the provenance of that intuition. Presumably it is coming out of my unconscious. Yet that intuition is real knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, and, I am arguing, it is the only real knowledge possible for me of what is right and what is wrong. The only real knowledge possible for me of what is right and what is wrong is a pre-logical intuition whose provenance, rational or otherwise, I cannot understand.
The other little man L (for logic) has a vocabulary and can say things like “Killing innocent human beings is wrong. An unborn baby is an innocent human being. Therefore killing unborn babies is wrong.” But that little man is operating dispassionately, and though he is applying logic to the situation, he himself is incapable of feeling “should” or “shouldn’t” and thus cannot have real knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.
L can understand N, but only in a theoretical way. N can’t directly understand L at all. (IF L’s logic sinks into my unconscious and is in fact instrumental in the origin of N’s newfound moral intuition, then we can say that N has indirectly understood L. But I don’t really know if that has happened in me or not.) So we cannot say that N’s moral sense came from L’s logic.
Getting back to my original epiphany that abortion is wrong: Let’s suppose that my newfound moral intuition (the domain of man N) underlying the moral principle “Abortion is wrong” is a correct moral intuition. If its provenance was a rational method at all, that rational method unfolded in my unconscious (man N did not gain that intuition from man L, whom he can’t understand). I don’t really know what that method was. Since I don’t really know from what rational method, if any, that moral intuition derived, I can’t be sure that any rational method (employed by man L) in my conscious mind that leads to the principle “Abortion is wrong” is a correct method. It might be the same, correct, method employed in my unconscious mind, or it might be a method containing some fault we haven’t noticed, that came to the correct conclusion “Abortion is wrong” by luck. We neither know that it is the same, correct, method employed in my unconscious mind, nor know that it contributed to my having that moral intuition. And therefore we don’t know whether it could contribute to anyone’s “man N” having that intuition; and since it is only everyone’s man N that represents real moral knowledge, we don’t know whether that rational method establishes the moral principle.
So in terms of moral epistemology, unless we can trust some scripture to provide correct moral principles, the only reliable way for any person to arrive at such a principle is to experience personally a moral intuition that underlies that moral principle. That person will be unable to conclusively demonstrate the correctness of the moral principle or the moral intuition to any other person. But every person is capable of finding that correct moral intuition within themselves. And just as a certain rational method PROBABLY helped nudge me to the correct moral intuition (in the above scenario), rational methods can PROBABLY help nudge others.
I would submit that anyone who attributes their conviction about any moral principle to a rational method, doesn’t really know for sure that that rational method is what accounts for their conviction. Therefore they don’t know whether that rational method could bring anyone to that conviction; therefore they don’t know whether that rational method establishes the moral principle.
Remember that I’m talking mostly psychology here. If you think the psychology is wrong, challenge me on that, but let’s try to agree on the psychology before again bringing in other aspects of moral philosophy.
I think that all this has practical consequences for how we can best dialogue – consequences set out in the above essay under The Practical Implications: Deeper Dialogues.
Appendix B: Some further thoughts, added July 2017, on the above LMJ essay –
An outline of an argument for the view that CORRECT moral intuitions are ultimately the only way to know moral truth:
It seems to me that it is only because of our pre-logical senses, or intuitions, of right and wrong that the words “right” and “wrong” mean anything to us in the first place. When someone says, “It is wrong to do X!” we momentarily have a certain physical and psychic sensation of wrongness (not the same thing as an emotion) that can’t be captured in words or in math. And when someone says, “It is right to do X!” we momentarily have a different physical and psychic sensation that can’t be captured in words or in math. (And when we stop and assess X for ourselves, we end up with some sensation of the rightness or wrongness of X that can’t be captured in words or in math.)
So when I, for my part, say that action X or Y is wrong, I may, and probably do, mean that action X or Y has an objective property of wrongness, but I CERTAINLY mean (or mean as well) that the action should ideally trigger in anyone the sensation of wrongness with which I am experientially familiar. If not for having experienced that sensation, “wrong” would not mean anything to me. Trying to reason out what “wrong” means would be like trying to reason out what “green” means. It might be best to call what it means a kind of qualia.
Now, I may say that failing to kidnap a homeless person and harvest his organs would be wrong because some professor has convinced me intellectually that it is wrong, without really feeling the sensation of wrongness. Nevertheless, I could not meaningfully say that it is wrong unless I had at least felt the sensation of wrongness in some other context. The word “wrong” ultimately means that which will, as an objective fact, trigger that sensation in someone who has sufficient capacity for correct moral intuitions.
Up till this point, we still have not gotten to one statement that I would like to make now: “The triggering of that sensation, that moral intuition, can correctly identify a wrong act.” (And we will never get to the statement “The triggering of that sensation necessarily DOES identify a wrong act,” because not every occurrence of that sensation identifies a wrong act. Sometimes moral intuitions are not perfectly reliable and sometimes people disagree about them.)
The statement “The triggering of that sensation, that moral intuition, can correctly identify a wrong act (or identify moral truth)” would be false if:
1. there is no objective moral truth. I believe many scientists think that there is no objective moral truth, and that we have been equipped with SENSATIONS of moral truth because those sensations have evolutionary adaptive value. This is possible.
2. there is objective moral truth (which I believe for reasons not all of which I will get into here), but no one’s sensations/intuitions about moral truth actually identify moral truths with more than random success. This is also possible, but seems so unlikely to me given that it is only those sensations that make moral truth meaningful to us, that I conclude that if there is objective moral truth, then “The triggering of a sensation of wrongness, a moral intuition, can correctly identify a wrong act (or identify moral truth).”
But is a moral intuition the ONLY way to correctly identify a wrong act? If a moral intuition can in fact correctly identify a wrong act, it does so through a direct apprehension of the wrongness, whereas, since “wrong” is meaningful only as it refers to our pre-logical, pre-rational experience, any process of reasoning about whether an act is wrong may succeed, but to do so it will have to be based on some prior moral intuition about wrongness. Moral intuition at some point cannot be dispensed with.
I said a little earlier that moral intuitions are not perfectly reliable. This is very true, but I think that CORRECT moral intuitions are perfectly reliable. I think that we have to dig for those correct moral intuitions. Thought experiments and logic are very helpful, but I think that meditation and a selfless lifestyle are also necessary. Finding correct moral intuitions is part of a process of developing character. I think that only persons of exceptional character really know right from wrong. There is no easy way.
In the case of the abortion issue, knowing right from wrong may sometimes be still more difficult because some people, though unselfish, have incorrect “ontological intuitions” about the moral status of the unborn. I won’t get further into that here.
All this has profound implications for dialogue. Though much can be accomplished on the intellectual level, I think that for a bedrock conviction of the wrongness of abortion (which I don’t think all pro-lifers have), character development is needed, as well as finding the correct ontological intuition about the unborn.
Appendix C: Some further thoughts, added October 2017, on the above LMJ essay –
Our moral intuitions come out of our unconsciouses in some way we cannot understand. But I observe that when due to new information the consequences that my conscious mind foresees for some action change, I am likely to find in myself a different moral intuition about the action than I had found before. So I feel sure that my unconscious does not overlook the consequences that my conscious mind foresees. 1) It’s possible that my unconscious mind considers only those consequences in deciding what moral intuition to send to my conscious mind. 2) It’s also possible that my unconscious mind considers those consequences and considers in addition consequences that it foresees but my conscious mind doesn’t foresee. (If when I fall asleep I tell myself with enough concentration to wake up at a certain time, I will wake up at that exact time, so my unconscious mind knows things that my conscious mind doesn’t. I don’t think my unconscious mind fails to consider any expectation of consequences that is available to my conscious mind; it considers as much or more.) My unconscious mind may be a utilitarian acting under scenario 1 or scenario 2, or it may in addition take into account principles unrelated to consequences. But at least I feel sure that it doesn’t overlook consequences.
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Some future posts:
Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn
A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature
Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party
The Motivations of Aborting Parents
Why Remorse Comes too Late
The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill
Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation
The Woman as Slave?
Abortion and the Map of the World