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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Audi. 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:

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