Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An Academic's Intuition and Intuitionism

Intuition is one kind of mysticism common in the USA in our time. Becoming familiar with intuition may help to arm advocates of reason for the long war ahead.

OVERVIEW OF THE SERIES ON INTUITION. The first post in this series on intuition was a book review (June 5, 2012) of The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, by philosophy professor Robert Audi. (Unless specified otherwise, page citations below refer to Audi's book.) That first post introduced the idea of intuition as it has been used by some academics working in the field of ethics, as a branch of philosophy. For cultural contrast, a later post, the third in the series, will present the idea of intuition advocated not by an academic but by an author who writes to a mass audience.

This post, the second in the series, further considers the academic concept of intuition and distinguishes it from intuitionism, which is a theory of intuition -- describing not only what an individual intuition is, but the manner in which individual intuitions relate to each other and to other ideas. The source for this post is Audi's The Good in the Right. This post will cite the views of intuition that Audi, partly a rationalist, has originated or has adopted from earlier intuitionists such as W. D. Ross, an empiricist.

Readers of this post should keep in mind its limitations: (1) The brief notes here are my simplified interpretation of one academic's complex presentation. (2) Academics who advocate intuitionism disagree with each other on many aspects of intuitionism. (3) Academics are only one set of voices speaking in favor of intuition in our culture today. Thus, this post is a sampling.

WHAT IS AN INTUITION? Consider an example of an intuition in the field of ethics. You see a man beating a child with a belt. A thought -- "Beating a child is wrong!" -- appears in your mind. That thought is the product of an intuition. (p. 60) In this case, the thought is a narrow principle, where "principle" means an idea upon which other ideas can stand. (For example, a broader abstraction -- such as the generalization, "Harming others is wrong" -- could stand on multiple narrow principles such as "Beating a child is wrong," "Hurting a parent is wrong," and "Injuring a spouse is wrong.")

The intuitional sequence is simple. You look at a particular social situation, and a thought appears in your mind. (p. 60) In epistemology, this sequence is an instance of epistemological "realism," the view that things outside the mind directly give rise to ideas in the mind.[1] More technically, the "natural properties" of things (the "is" of a child and a belt) somehow give rise to the "moral properties" (the "ought"); and the moral properties -- received by the mind's "moral sensitivity" (pp. 57 and 58) directly produce a narrow moral principle in your mind: "Beating a child is wrong." This sequence is a "reliable belief-generating process" (p. 57). Apparently this is the manner in which intuitionists bridge the "is-ought" gap

DEFINITION. An intuition is a "non-inferential cognition" (p. 8). An intuition, as a product of a "process" that has no steps, is a proposition, that is, a statement, a sentence. An intuition is not an individual concept. (p. 9) An example intuition, from the field of ethics, is this proposition: "Everyone has a duty to keep promises" (p. 43 for the duty of promise-keeping).

REQUIREMENTS. Not every thought that pops into the mind can qualify as an intuition. "One may not ... simply insist that someone has a [moral] duty, or ought to do something, and claim that one 'just sees' it.  ... The intuitionist thesis that some knowledge of what we ought to do is intuitive and non-inferential implies neither that it is not reflective nor that it cannot be supported by argument or refuted by relevant consideration to the contrary," Audi says (pp. 38-39). Intuited knowledge might be supported by or reached independently by "reflection," that is, thinking about the subject and making inferences from other, already acquired knowledge.

For an intuition to actually be an intuition, it must have these characteristics: (1) directness -- an intuition cannot be based on a premise;  (2) firmness -- the intuitionist has a "definite sense that the proposition ... holds [true]"; (3) comprehensiblity -- an intuition must be understandable by appropriately prepared, intelligent observers; and (4) pretheoreticality -- forming or understanding intuitions comes directly from observation and therefore cannot depend on a theory, which is a broad abstraction induced step by step from evidence. (pp. 33-35)

FALLIBILITY. While "firmness" of belief is one characteristic of an intuition, as Audi presents it, he and some other intuitionists do not claim that intuitions are infallible. Intuitions can be mistaken. Audi offers (pp. 8, 9) this analogy: Scientists rely on sense-perceptions of the world as starting points for their scientific conclusions. Scientists know, however, that sense-perceptions -- or our initial understanding of them -- can be mistaken. Seeing a "bent" stick in a pail of water is an example. The same idea, Audi says (p. 8), holds for intuitions. Misunderstanding the facts of a situation can lead to a false intuition -- but it is still an intuition. An intuition can never lead to a false proposition as a result of a defective process of intuition. The reason is that intuition is not a process. There are no steps in any particular intuition. You look and the proposition appears in your mind.

If that is the nature of any particular intuition that arises in observing a moral situation, then in what way do intuitions, once acquired, relate to other knowledge?

WHAT IS INTUITIONISM? The term "intuitionism" names a certain philosophical view, the conviction that intuitions in some form play some role in creating knowledge. At least among some academics, intuitionism is a theory that explains the source of intuitions, the limits of intuitions, and the relationship of intuitions to other elements of knowledge. Intuitionists disagree with each other about the details.

EXAMPLE: AUDI'S INTUITIONISM. In the field of ethics, intuitionism is "the view that at least some basic moral truths are non-inferentially known" (p. 5). The theory of intuitionism described by Audi has three characteristics. (pp. 20, 21, and 40)

First, Audi's intuitionism is pluralistic, which means that the foundation of this ethics is made of a set of narrow, individual moral "principles," like tiles in a floor. In contrast, in other ethical theories, a single broad principle -- such as the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative -- serves as a foundation (or sky hook) from which narrower ethical guidelines can be deduced.

Second, each particular, narrow moral "principle" (such as "Keep your promises") is "grounded" in one of these three sources: (a) an observable action (such as making a promise); (b) an item of knowledge (a bleeding man will die); or (c) an accessible fact (such as the fact that one individual can benefit others).

Third, each narrow, intuited "principle" is "knowable by ordinary moral agents," that is, individuals who are concerned about acting properly.

Audi is a syncretist. He weaves together elements from various sources into one intuitionist theory of ethics. For example, he melds (1) the idea of a set of intuited moral principles (the narrow kind) such as "Keep promises" and "Do no harm to others," with (2) Immanuel Kant's overarching moral rule of the categorical imperative.

TYPES OF INTUITIONISM. There are various theories of intuitionist ethics (and ethics is only one field in which intuitionists work). Some are rationalistic; others are empiricist; and still others (such as Audi's) are a combination of the two. (pp. 2 and 19) Some forms of intuitionism are "contextualist," that is, the intuitions are grounded in the context of a moral situation and arise automatically without inference and without reflection. (p. 59) Some forms of intuitionism are radical; their advocates accept only the intuitions themselves as guides and reject any form of reasoning about them. Other forms of intuitionism are moderate, as with Audi's theory, in which intuitions provide elements of the moral theory but "reasoning" weaves them into wider generalizations or at least connects them with an overarching principle such as the categorical imperative. (pp. 6 and 54)

CONCLUSIONS. On many issues, intuitionists in academia disagree among themselves, but they agree that intuition -- a claim to immediate cognition, from whatever source -- plays or should play some role in our knowledge of what we should do in the world. These intuitionists are commanding a seldom-seen but powerful battalion of soldiers in the war of mysticism against reason.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] For epistemological realism, see and Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 2.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

BkRev: Intuitionist Robert Audi's "The Good in the Right"

This is the first in a series of posts on intuition as one form of mysticism common in our culture today. My plan is simple: examine at least two instances of the advocacy of intuitionism -- one theoretical, formal, and academic (in the best meaning of that word); and one "practical," informal, and designed for a mass market.

The source I will use for a look at a sample theory of intuitionism is: Robert Audi, The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, Princeton University Press, 2004, 244 pages.

I plan three posts. The first, below, will briefly review Audi's book to provide background information for later posts. The second post will briefly characterize intuitionism in one of its many versions, as described by Professor Audi in The Good in the Right. The third post will examine the "practical intuition" advocated by a best-selling author who writes for the mass market not academia.

ROBERT AUDI. The author of The Good in the Right is a professor of philosophy and business ethics at the University of Notre Dame: According to the back cover of his book, he has also been the Editor in Chief of the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. He knows philosophy, as the index of The Good in the Right suggests. He cites major and minor philosophers such as Aquinas, Aristotle, Kant, J. S. Mill, G. E. Moore, Plato, John Rawls, and W. D. Ross; and he draws from numerous modern philosophical scholars such as Lewis White Beck and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Audi's book is thus an appropriate choice for someone who wants to take a first step in seriously studying intuitionism.

Why study the role of intuition as it is used in any particular field? Doing so allows us to see not only an outline of intuitionism itself, but its effects when applied.

Why study intuitionism in the field of ethics in particular? "Appeals to intuitions in resolving moral questions are a pervasive strategy in contemporary ethical discourse," says Audi (p. 24). I would add that ideas are causes of human actions. As a branch of philosophy, ethics provides the concepts and principles that guide all human behavior -- such as an individual's actions in his career, in his relations with friends, and in the sort of political system he supports.

INTENDED AUDIENCE FOR THE BOOK. Audi writes to "nonspecialists," that is, anyone who is seriously interested in ethics but does not work full time in studying or developing ethical theory. One example, perhaps, is the sort of academic who mostly teaches a particular subject outside of philosophy, such as business, but also, part-time, teaches the ethics of that subject. Universities now offer courses in ethics for business students, medical students, and others. Because Audi is aiming at such an audience, he aims to "confine [philosophically] technical matters and some responses to contemporary critics of intuitionism mainly to the notes" (p. x).

AUTHOR'S PURPOSE AND THEME. Audi's overriding purpose is to present a theory of morality that answers all of the major questions a thinker about ethics might ask. To do so, Audi proposes a theory that is a synthesis of elements from other theories.

The theme of the book is that in ethics a syncretistic system of "value-based Kantian intuitionism" (p. 173) answers the main questions we face. Intuitionism is "the view that at least some basic moral truths are non-inferentially known" (p. 5). Audi weaves together three threads: a system of intrinsic values as general guides to action (Chapter 4); the Kantian principle of the categorical imperative as an integrator; and intuitionism as the source of particular ethical principles (Chapters 1 and 2). Audi takes on the task of extracting these three elements from their historical sources, fixing their errors, and then tying them together into one system (Chapter 5).

"Particularly in recent years," Audi writes, "intuitionism has re-emerged as a major position in ethics. Appeals to intuitions in discussing moral questions have long been common -- even if not always so described -- but there has also been renewed exploration of intuitionism as an ethical theory that uses intuitions as data for moral reasoning and makes a basic commitment to the power of intuition as a rational capacity" (p. ix).

Professor Audi's statement above contains key elements of his theme, which is to propose a theory -- a broad, structured abstraction -- of ethics that draws in part from "intuitions as data," as well as from other sources. His theory is syncretistic. It fuses elements of:
(1) Narrow ethical "principles" formed directly from observing situations around us, such as abuse of a child, (as formulated by 20th Century philosopher W. D. Ross).
(2) Values and virtues for guides (as in Aristotle).
(3) An overarching ethical command (Kant's categorical imperative, to treat others as you would expect to be treated).
(4) Systemization, to make all the elements work together.

Audi devotes part of his book to defending intuitionism from its critics, who raise questions such as: Why are there disagreements about morality if moral principles arise self-evidently through intuition? (p. 2)

ORGANIZATION OF THE BOOK. The Introduction identifies the problems that this book answers: In ethics, why has intuitionism become more prominent? Are there answers to the objections that critics of intuitionism have raised? Can intuitionism provide both a comprehensive theory and a practical guide to ethical behavior?

Chapter 1 traces the roots of intuitionism from Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900, English) to G. E. Moore (1873-1958, English), H. A. Prichard (1871-1947, English), and finally W. D. Ross (1877-1971, Scot), who was the creator of "the most prominent intuitionist view throughout most of the twentieth century" (p. 3). Chapter 2 further describes Ross's intuitionism, extends it, and corrects it. Chapter 3 then integrates the corrected Rossian intuitionism with an overarching guideline, the categorical imperative formulated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The provisional result, in Audi's system building, is a Kantian intuitionism. In Chapter 4, Audi takes the next step in system building by integrating the duty-based Kantian intuitionism with "a theory of value that" unifies "all of the moral principles ..., from the ... general categorical imperative  'downward' to quite specific standards of conduct" (p. 3). Last, Chapter 5 reviews Audi's own theory overall.

STYLE. Sentence by sentence, Audi generally writes clearly -- compared to such philosophical obscurantists as Kant, Kierkegaard, and Derrida. Audi helpfully previews and reviews. He defines -- or at least describes -- key ideas, though not always on their first appearance. However, his book requires slow reading. First, he has chosen a difficult approach that attempts to weave together three threads: historical development of intuitionism in ethics, critical analysis of each successive philosopher, and exposition of his own position. Second, he presents no reader aids such as a chronology or a glossary. Third, he often writes sentences that have so many qualifications and neologisms that the main point can be lost. Here is a mild example:

"Despite Ross's in some ways unfortunate analogy between moral principles and elementary logical and mathematical ones, he leaves room for reflective equilibrium to enhance -- or for its unobtainability to reduce or defeat -- justification for an 'intuitive' moral judgment" (p. 66).

For sufficiently motivated readers, however, Robert Audi's The Good in the Right, can be a rewarding first look at the complicated world of intuitionist ethics.

For other reviews of the book, see: