Ethical Intuitionism

Ethical Intuitionism (Concepts & Beliefs)

Welcome to our exploration of Ethical Intuitionism, a fascinating branch of moral philosophy that delves into the realm of intuitive ethical beliefs and reasoning. In this article, we will uncover the foundational concepts and beliefs that underpin Ethical Intuitionism, providing you with a deeper understanding of this influential ethical theory.

As a branch of metaethics, Ethical Intuitionism has had a significant impact on moral philosophy, particularly in British intellectual circles from the 18th century until the 1930s. Although it experienced a period of waning popularity, Ethical Intuitionism has re-emerged as a respectable moral theory in recent decades, captivating the attention of contemporary philosophers.

At the heart of Ethical Intuitionism lie two distinct pillars: epistemology and ontology. Intuitionists propose that basic moral propositions are self-evident and that moral properties are non-natural. In the realm of epistemology, they delve into the role of intuition, self-evidence, disagreement, trolley cases, and non-inferential justification. Metaphysically, Ethical Intuitionism examines the existence of indefinable, non-natural properties, the analysis of concepts, and the unique nature of moral properties.

Throughout this article, we will delve deeper into these essential aspects of Ethical Intuitionism, shedding light on its epistemological and metaphysical foundations. We will also explore related concepts such as phenomenal conservatism and ethical intuitions, further enriching our understanding of this intriguing ethical theory.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ethical Intuitionism is a prominent moral theory that emphasizes the role of intuition in ethical reasoning.
  • It has had a significant impact on moral philosophy and experienced a resurgence in recent decades.
  • Intuitionists argue that basic moral propositions are self-evident and that moral properties are non-natural.
  • Epistemological aspects of Ethical Intuitionism focus on the role of intuition, self-evidence, disagreement, and non-inferential justification.
  • Metaphysical considerations center around the existence of indefinable, non-natural properties and the unique nature of moral properties.
  • Phenomenal conservatism provides insights into the role of appearances in justifying beliefs, including ethical intuitions.
  • Ethical intuitions play a crucial role in informing moral beliefs and guiding ethical reasoning.

Intuitionist Epistemology

In ethical intuitionism, the role of intuition in moral knowledge is paramount. Intuitionists believe that basic moral propositions are self-evident, meaning they can be known without the need for any argument or inference. Intuition, in this context, refers to the way we apprehend self-evident truths without relying on external evidence or reasoning.

However, the reliability of moral intuitions can be challenged by disagreements among individuals. Different people may have divergent intuitions about the rightness or wrongness of certain actions, raising questions about the objectivity and universality of moral principles.

To test the reliability of moral intuitions, ethicists often employ trolley cases, thought experiments that present individuals with ethical dilemmas. By examining people’s intuitions about these hypothetical scenarios, researchers can gain insights into the consistency and robustness of moral intuitions.

Intuitionists argue that moral knowledge is non-inferential, meaning it does not require justification through explicit reasoning or argumentation. Instead, moral knowledge is derived directly from self-evident intuitions, bypassing the need for inferential justification.

To illustrate the significance of intuitionist epistemology, imagine a situation where an individual witnesses an act of kindness and immediately recognizes it as morally good. Without engaging in a rational analysis or deliberation, the person intuitively grasps the moral value of the action. This intuitive apprehension is central to intuitionist epistemology.

Key features of Intuitionist Epistemology:

  • Emphasis on the role of intuition in moral knowledge.
  • Basic moral propositions are self-evident and require no argument.
  • Disagreements among individuals can challenge the reliability of moral intuitions.
  • Trolley cases are utilized to test the reliability of moral intuitions.
  • Moral knowledge is non-inferential and does not rely on explicit justification through reasoning.
Ethical Intuitionist Epistemology
Role of Intuition Central in moral knowledge
Self-evident Propositions Foundational without the need for argument
Disagreement Potential challenge to the reliability of moral intuitions
Trolley Cases Used to assess the validity of moral intuitions
Non-Inferential Justification No requirement for explicit reasoning

Intuitionist Metaphysics

Intuitionist metaphysics delves into the nature of moral properties, offering a unique perspective that challenges conventional understanding. According to intuitionism, moral properties are indefinable and non-natural, setting them apart from properties that can be explained within the realm of the natural world.

Intuitionists undertake thorough analyses of concepts and property identity claims, understanding that moral properties cannot be reduced to or equated with other types of properties. This creates a sense of “queerness” or ontological distinctness, highlighting the intrinsic uniqueness of moral properties that make them stand out amidst the fabric of the natural.

To illustrate the intricate nature of intuitionist metaphysics, consider the following table:

Principal Characteristics of Intuitionist Metaphysics
Non-natural properties
Indefinable properties
Analyses of concepts
Ontological distinctness

The Queerness of Moral Properties

Intuitionists emphasize that moral properties possess a certain “queerness” that defies naturalistic explanations. This notion challenges traditional perspectives and invites deeper reflection on the nature of ethical concepts and their relation to the world we inhabit.

Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal conservatism is a foundationalist epistemological view that highlights the significance of appearances in justifying beliefs. According to this view, if an individual perceives something to be true, they have at least some level of justification for believing it, provided there are no defeaters. Appearances refer to the mental states that represent the way things seem to be. They contain propositional contents and can offer self-evident knowledge.

Phenomenal conservatives argue that beliefs based on appearances are prima facie justified, meaning they possess initial and immediate credibility. However, the presence of defeaters can either rebut or undercut these initial justifications, leading to further examination and reassessment of the beliefs.

Justification through Appearances

Within the framework of phenomenal conservatism, appearances play a crucial role in the justification process. When something appears true or evident to an individual, it serves as a starting point for belief justification, forming the foundation upon which subsequent reasoning can be built. This intuitive and self-evident knowledge derived from appearances provides a solid grounding for further exploration and analysis.

The self-evidence of appearances indicates that they require no further justification or reasoning. Instead, they offer immediate insight and serve as a reliable basis for forming beliefs. This foundationalist approach embraces the notion that certain aspects of our conscious experience can provide inherent justification, bypassing the need for external evidence or complex inferential processes.

Phenomenal conservatism recognizes that appearances are not infallible and may be subject to doubts or challenges. Disagreements or conflicting appearances among individuals can raise questions about the reliability of initial justifications. However, the presence of defeaters does not invalidate the role of appearances but rather prompts a critical evaluation and reconsideration of beliefs.

Defeaters and Belief Reassessment

Defeaters in phenomenal conservatism act as factors that can undermine or weaken the initial prima facie justification provided by appearances. They introduce counteracting evidence or considerations that require a reassessment of beliefs. Defeaters can arise from various sources, such as contradictory evidence, logical inconsistencies, or alternative explanations.

The presence of defeaters signals the need to reevaluate the credibility and reliability of the initial justifications provided by appearances. This reevaluation process involves a critical examination of the available evidence, consideration of alternative perspectives, and the potential revision of beliefs based on the strength of competing justifications.

Image: Phenomenal Conservatism

The Role of Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal conservatism offers a nuanced approach to epistemology, highlighting the importance of appearances as fundamental justificatory elements. By recognizing the self-evident nature of appearances and the potential influence of defeaters, this viewpoint encourages a reflective and contextual assessment of beliefs, fostering a more robust and nuanced understanding of knowledge and justification.

Ethical Intuitions

Ethical intuitions play a vital role in moral reasoning, providing individuals with evaluative propositions that shape their moral beliefs and judgments. These intuitions are distinct from other types of intuitions, as they involve intellectual and evaluative mental states that do not rely on inference from other beliefs.

When individuals encounter ethical situations, they often experience a sense of moral seeming, where certain actions or outcomes appear morally right or wrong. These moral seemings are the basis for ethical intuitions, guiding individuals’ initial judgments about moral values and obligations.

Ethical intuitions provide prima facie justification for moral beliefs. They offer a starting point for moral reasoning, allowing individuals to make initial moral judgments based on their intuitive responses to ethical dilemmas. However, it is important to note that ethical intuitions can sometimes conflict with antecedent moral beliefs, highlighting the complexity of moral reasoning.

Justification for ethical intuitions comes from their independence from antecedent moral beliefs. Unlike other forms of reasoning that rely on chains of inference, ethical intuitions are immediate and non-inferential. They provide individuals with a unique form of moral knowledge that is not dependent on logical or empirical justifications.

Furthermore, ethical intuitions serve as a constraint in moral theory, guiding the development and assessment of ethical frameworks. They offer a foundational basis for moral principles and judgments, ensuring that moral theories remain grounded in our intuitive understanding of right and wrong.

Examples of Ethical Intuitions

To illustrate the role of ethical intuitions, let’s consider a couple of examples:

  1. A person witnesses a small child being bullied on the playground. They immediately feel a strong sense of moral wrongness and the intuition that they should intervene to protect the child. This ethical intuition provides the initial justification for their moral belief that it is wrong to allow harm to come to others.
  2. In a business setting, an employee faces a decision where they have the opportunity to deceive a client to secure a sale. However, they experience an ethical intuition that lying is morally wrong, even if it leads to short-term gains. This intuition guides their decision-making process and reinforces their commitment to honesty and integrity.

These examples highlight how ethical intuitions guide our moral judgments and shape our actions. By relying on these intuitions, individuals can navigate complex ethical dilemmas and make morally responsible choices.

Ethical Intuition Characteristics Examples
Immediate and non-inferential Intuitive response to witnessing harm being done to others
Provide prima facie justification Intuition that lying is morally wrong, regardless of the potential benefits
Independent of antecedent beliefs Intuition that fairness is essential, even if it conflicts with personal interests
Constraint in moral theory Intuition that certain actions are fundamentally right or wrong, guiding moral frameworks


Ethical intuitionism, a prominent moral theory in British philosophy, has experienced a resurgence in the late 20th century. This theory emphasizes the role of intuition in ethical reasoning, highlighting the self-evident nature of moral propositions. It delves into both epistemology and metaphysics, exploring the nature of moral properties and their distinctiveness from natural properties.

Phenomenal conservatism provides a valuable framework for understanding the justification of beliefs, including ethical intuitions. The reliance on appearances and the foundational status of self-evidence contribute to the understanding of ethical intuitions as sources of moral knowledge.

Overall, ethical intuitionism offers a unique perspective on moral philosophy, emphasizing the significance of intuition and self-evidence in shaping moral beliefs and guiding ethical reasoning. By integrating epistemology, metaphysics, and the role of appearances, ethical intuitionism contributes to a comprehensive understanding of moral philosophy and its practical applications.


What is Ethical Intuitionism?

Ethical intuitionism is a moral theory that emphasizes the role of intuition in ethical reasoning. It is a prominent force in moral philosophy that focuses on the self-evident nature of moral propositions and the non-natural properties of moral beliefs.

What is intuitionist epistemology?

Intuitionist epistemology is the branch of ethical intuitionism that emphasizes the role of intuition in moral knowledge. It argues that basic moral propositions are self-evident and can be known without the need for reasoning. It also examines topics such as disagreement, trolley cases, and non-inferential justification.

What is intuitionist metaphysics?

Intuitionist metaphysics is the aspect of ethical intuitionism that focuses on the nature of moral properties. It asserts that moral properties are non-natural and cannot be defined in terms of natural properties. It also engages in the analysis of concepts and property identity claims.

What is Phenomenal Conservatism?

Phenomenal conservatism is an epistemological view that emphasizes the role of appearances in justifying beliefs. It states that if something seems true to a person, they have some justification for believing it, unless there are defeaters. Appearances provide self-evident knowledge and can be used to justify ethical intuitions.

What are ethical intuitions?

Ethical intuitions are evaluative mental states that involve moral propositions. They are intellectual and evaluative intuitions that do not depend on inference from other beliefs. Ethical intuitions can provide prima facie justification for moral beliefs and play a vital role in ethical reasoning.

What is the significance of ethical intuitionism in moral philosophy?

Ethical intuitionism offers a unique perspective on moral philosophy, emphasizing the role of intuition and self-evidence. It encompasses aspects of epistemology, metaphysics, and phenomenal conservatism, providing insights into the nature of moral properties, the reliability of moral intuitions, and the justification for ethical beliefs.

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