Ethical Intuitionism and Empirically Inferred Naturalism

Ethical intuitionism is simply the view that moral truths are justified by intuition sans inference from other beliefs.  Opposed to ethical intuitionism is empirically inferred ethical naturalism, which maintains moral truths can be known by means a posteriori.  In the following paper, I will explore what four philosophers hold on this question of metaethics, two of which will be ethical intuitionist, while the other two are ethical naturalists.  I fall on the side of the ethical intuitionists and will argue that such a position is more attractive than empirically inferred ethical naturalism because the latter cannot even get off the ground in ethics, so to speak, while the former at least can.

This paper initially will give a brief account of both competing theories, starting with a basic overview of ethical intuitionism and then moving on to the view that moral knowledge can be known by inference, specifically of an empirical nature.  It should be noted there is a rationalist version of this position, but this paper will mainly reference the empirical variety as it implies an ethical naturalism that is more at odds against ethical intuitionism than the rationalist species.  Although ethical intuitionism does not entail non-naturalism, most ethical intuitionists are ethical non-naturalists.  Therefore, that is stance that will be explored here.  After both positions are unpacked, I will offer my reasoning as to why I believe ethical intuitionism to be superior to an empirically and naturalistic justification theory for morality.  Lastly, I will try to offer rebuttals to some possible criticisms to my arguments and ethical intuitionism in general.

Moral Intuitionism

In order to understand ethical intuitionism, one must first understand what is an intuition.  Simply, an intuition is knowing a proposition without reliance on observation or reason.  In other words, the truth of A is knowable at first glance and does not require concentrated thought or scientific experiments to ascertain its truth-value.  Prominent ethical intuitionist Michael Huemer likens an intuition to “intellectual appearance.”[1]  In a moral context, knowledge can be obtained without a priori or a posteriori inference.  A priori means by reason alone, while a posteriori means by experience.  Huemer describes moral intuition thusly:

            an intuition that p is a state of its seeming to one that p that is not dependent on inference from other beliefs and that results from thinking about p, as opposed to perceiving, remembering, or introspecting. A moral intuition is an intuition whose content is an evaluative proposition.[2]

Some examples of moral intuitions include statements like “pain is better than pleasure” or “inflicting pain for fun is awful.”

I would contend there are both rationalist and empirical formulations of ethical intuitionism.  These are contrasted from moral rationalism and empiricism as they start from intuition devoid of inference, while moral rationalism and empiricism infer moral truth from other beliefs.  The rationalists obviously appeal to a priori intuition, while the empiricists, true to their ideology, rely on a posteriori means.  For rationalism, one intuits instead of infers the truth of moral principles like “one has a duty to keep promises” in much the same way as one understands fundamental mathematical truths like 2+2=4.  Empiricists, on the other hand, appeal to a moral sense, which flags something as moral or reprehensible.  Moral sense is comparable to a sixth aesthetic sense.  An aesthetic sense is not utilized for perceiving a sunset as the eyes do that job, but rather it informs us that pattern of the solar rays illuminating the clouds and the splotches of color are beautiful.  Ethical intuitionist Robert Audi, although a rationalist intuitionist, argues it is akin to reading a poor simile in a poem.[3]  In moral sense’s case, it informs someone who is witnessing puppies being beaten is wrong.

Whatever variety moral intuitionism comes in, it strongly implies cognitivism and therefore moral realism.  Cognitivism is the position that moral statements are propositions or sentences that are capable of being true or false.   Moral realism entails presupposes cognitivism and adds that the truth-value of moral statements is independent of opinion.  For example, the moral statement “torturing babies for fun is wrong,” according to moral realism, is an objective feature of the world regardless what people think about it.

Moral intuitionism also presupposes foundationalism, which is the view that knowledge is based on a core or foundational belief that acts as a cornerstone that all other knowledge is built upon.  Huemer contends “there is also a way things seem to us prior to reasoning; otherwise, reasoning could not get started.”[4]  Huemer and other moral intuitionists place intuition as the cornerstone or precondition to this reasoning.  It is from the intuition behind “don’t torture innocents” that we build towards the more complex moral belief like “cruelty to animals is wrong.”

Another important feature of moral intuitionists is that justification for foundational moral truths comes from their self-evidence.  A proposition is self-evident when it is known to be true once one understands the concept and hence requires no further justification beyond its apprehension.  Moral statements like “pleasure is better than pain” requires no proof because once the concepts of “pleasure,” “better” and “pain” are understood, it becomes intuitively true.  However, this does not mean all moral truths are self-evident.  As a foundational theory, moral intuitionism maintains that some just some moral truths are self-evident.  Therefore, the basic truths can be used to reason to other moral conclusions.

Intuition itself is can be justified prima facie, or at first glance unless counter evidence proves otherwise. Intuition is not necessary to justify one’s moral intuitions either both in theory and moral agency.  According to Audi, “The possession of first-order knowledge does not imply second-order knowledge that one has it.”[5]  Audi also claims this also applies to moral propositions:

            It is first-order moral propositions, such as the view there is a prima facie             duty to keep promises, and not the second-order thesis that such principals are self-evident, which are the fundamental thing we must be able to know intuitively if intuitionism is to succeed.[6]

Moral Empiricism/Naturalism

Starkly opposed to ethical intuitionism is an empirically based ethical naturalism.   It is on the opposite end of the moral justification theory spectrum from ethical intuitionism.  Therefore, it also shares some similarities with ethical intuitionism.

Like ethical intuitionism, moral empiricism/naturalism is both a cognitivist and moral realist position.  It holds moral statements are propositions and there is at least one moral truth in the world, and it is not dependent upon opinion.  Where it differs is that it holds moral knowledge is inferred, rather than intuited, by forms a posteriori such as observation, experience or the scientific method.

Often, moral empiricists are also ethical naturalists.  They feel moral properties are reducible to natural properties, or essentially they are the same thing.  As Peter Singer writes, “Morality is a natural phenomenon.”[7]  Concepts like “goodness” are sometimes thought to be accessible via the scientific method.  More often, “goodness” is equated with happiness, pleasure, survivability or anything is observable.

The term natural is loaded as to what it actually means and there are too many variations to be discussed here.  David Copp acknowledges the difficulty and brings up four metaphysical and one epistemic conception of it: “descriptive characters or factual qualities,” “the causal order,” “the spacio-temporal manifold,” “material or physical world” and “the world studied by the sciences.”[8]   Copp settles on the natural world being what is empirically accessible in the sense that the ethical naturalist “denies that any synthetic propositions about their instantiations [moral properties] are strongly a priori.”[9]  “Strongly a priori” refers to propositions that do not permit empirical evidence against them.  Copp rejects the empirical world as equivalent to the scientific one and that natural properties “must be properties that figure into scientific theory.”[10]

According to many ethical naturalists, science does have a part to play in morality.  For example, it can explain the origin of it.  Singer argues evolutionary biology has shed light on this issue.[11]  Due to selection pressures in populations, the group rewarded behavior that was conducive to the survival of the group as a whole.  Singer mentions modern primates reciprocating the grooming of each other as an example.[12] Members who behaved selfishly, however, would be ostracized from the group and hence not allowed to reproduce.  Over time, these genes that facilitated behavior not beneficial to group survival would be weeded out, and future populations would be genetically conditioned to perpetuate behavior that instead benefitted the group.  This coded behavior is what became morality.

Singer also contends science reveals how we make moral decisions.  He refers to mostly experiments involving brain scans and response times to ethical dilemmas.[13]  Lastly, Singer suggests that science indirectly has normative applications in that they make us less reliant on intuition acting as a normative authority.[14]

G.E. Moore, the Naturalistic Fallacy and Open Question Arguments

David Hume famously gave ethics the is/ought distinction.  One cannot derive an ought from an is.  In more philosophical jargon, one cannot derive a prescriptive or evaluative fact from a descriptive one.  An example of this would be concluding it is morally permissible to download music without paying for it because everyone does it.  The thought that online music piracy is acceptable is the evaluative fact fallaciously taken from the descriptive fact of everyone does it.  The number of people downloading music illegally has no bearing on whether such an action is wrong or right.  I believe empirically justified ethical naturalism is guilty of a similar faulty inference.

G.E. Moore felt the same way and argued that ethical naturalism commits what has been called the naturalistic fallacy.  There are multiple usages, but Moore contended that adopting a moral claim by appealing to a definition of the term “good” as some natural property like pleasant, more evolved or conducive to survival was an error in reasoning.[15]  In Humean terms, natural properties are is-statements or descriptions, while defining them as “good” is an ought.  Calling pleasantness or conducive to survival “good” is erroneously deriving an ought from an is.  More commonly this error is popularly used in appeals to nature like vegetarianism is natural; therefore it is good.  Moore was more concerned with the semantics and metaphysics of ethics, but the same principle applies as it does to empirically grounded ethical naturalism.

Empiricism is as an epistemology that gives descriptions about the physical world.  Given Moore’s application of the Humean is/ought problem, empiricism has no normative power, ability to make prescriptions or value judgments.  It is the same underlying idea behind the well-known J.L. Mackie’s “queerness” argument.  Given scientific naturalism, Mackie found moral qualities “queer,” and therefore he developed the moral skepticism theory of error theory.

Although Copp attempts to distance himself from Mackie’s scientific naturalism by his revised definition of ethical naturalism, it still falls prey to failing to bridge the is/ought gap.  I also find his definition lacking as science is the most widely used empirical enterprise we have.  I also feel the natural world is better characterized as an amalgamation of what he calls “descriptive characters or factual qualities,” “the spacio-temporal manifold,” “the material or physical world,” and “a world studied by the sciences,” which presupposes a “causal order” or a “uniformity of nature” within its inquiry.  Individually, Copp is right to think they do not fully capture what is natural, but together, I feel they are much more accurate.  Even if I do grant his definition, empiricism of any sort describes what is and not what ought be.  It is akin to attempting to weigh something with a yardstick.

Similar to the naturalistic fallacy is an open question argument.  It also points out a botched attempt to cross the is/ought gap.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes thusly:

            Consider any proposed naturalistic analysis N of a moral predicate M. The             Open Question Argument maintains that it will always be possible for  someone competent with moral discourse without conceptual confusion to  grant that something is N but still wonder whether it is really M. Whether  goodness is co-instantiated with any natural property or set of natural properties is in this sense always a conceptually open question.[16]

In other words, if someone claims the horse is good, it is still unclear what is actually good about the horse.  Are the cells of the horse good?  The molecules?  What about the quarks comprising the atoms of the molecules?  Maybe the horse is the good and people are good because they are like the horse.  But that cannot be correct because the horse is only four years old, and to say the good is four years old is absurd.  The questions never become “closed” because the naturalist cannot give a good referent for what the good is as he or she has misidentified what is natural as good.  The naturalist can go on to every object in the universe ad infinitum and still not be able to identify what the good is.

Singer’s argument is susceptible to this charge or at the very least, he flirts with giving science to much credence in ethics.  His evolutionary account of the origin of morality essentially equates morality as behavior that promotes survival in a society.  However, this leaves the door wide open for open question arguments such as “is survival good?” or “why ought we survive?”.  I will grant survivability seems correlated with morality, but I would not dare go beyond such a claim.  At the most, evolutionary theory tells us when we started to behave morally.  It does not identify what the good is.  Moreover, the experiments Singer cites explaining ethical decision-making are correspondingly limited.  All they demonstrate is this part of the brain activates here or chemical A reacts with chemical B while thinking about whether one should flip a switch to divert a trolley to hit one person instead of five.  They are merely descriptions and offer no normative answers to ethical questions.  Once one posits they do, they are culpable for deriving an ought from an is.

Therefore, if any work is to be done in ethics, it must start from non-natural premises, as endeavoring otherwise is the philosophical equivalent of putting a square peg in a round hole.  This leaves just rationalism and intuitionism as potential justification theories.

Rationalism seems problematic, as intuition is a precondition for reason to work.  It also appears intuition is used early on in childhood before strong reasoning skills are developed.  Often, the first sentences a child utters, “That’s not fair!”  A child intuits some concept of rightness and fairness while lacking the cognitive capacity to justify “That’s not fair!” by the Kantian categorical imperative or the principle of universalizability.

Ethical intuitionism, I think, is better suited to empirically inferred ethical naturalism because at least it can investigate morality.  It does not attempt to take prescriptive and evaluative facts from descriptive ones.  The position does have to answer some questions, and I will attempt to offer a rebuttal to some common objections to it, but at least it can put its foot in the ethical door, while ethical naturalism, by means empirical, cannot.

Possible Objections

The empirically justified ethical naturalist could try to bridge the is/ought gap, and in fact, many have tried.  None, from what I know, have succeeded.  A common response is something akin to a Kantian hypothetical imperative: I hunger; therefore, I ought to eat something.  Or, in a game of chess, the opposing player has moved his and queen and put my king in check, and hence, I ought to move it.  These fail because they avoid the whole normative issue.  Again, they are equating satisfying biological need or survival as what is good.  As previously established, there is no reason to hold such an identity relationship as true.

Perhaps a better route the empirical naturalist can take would be rooted in Aristotellian ethics.  In other words, the good is somehow related to a thing’s ergon or function.  Being good is the proper realization and utilization of that function.  For instance, a knife’s function is to cut through matter, and this is empirically demonstrable via the senses.  When it executes such a function, it is being a good knife.  If humanity’s ergon can be empirically identified, empiricism would have some weight in normative topics.  It, however, is unclear what humanity’s ergon is, and even if it was discovered empirically, ergon implies teleology.  The knife has a purpose or reason for it being the way it is.  Such an idea is toxic to naturalism because there is no purpose or reason for the way things are according to naturalism.  It appears unlikely teleology can be reconciled with a naturalistic metaphysics.

As for intuitionism itself, one of the common objections questions the reliability of intuition to justify moral beliefs.  Intuitionism maintains we have to start somewhere when investigating moral claims.  We cannot go on forever.  There must be a foundation.  This objection also seems self-defeating if it was applied to all of epistemology.  As Huemer argues:

            Then we need positive reasons for trusting sense perception, memory,    introspection, even reason itself. The result is global skepticism. Nothing can  be accepted until we first give a positive reason for trusting that kind of  belief. But we cannot give such a reason without relying on sense perception, memory, introspection, reason–or in general, on some source. Hence, we shall never be able to trust anything. Of course, this means we also could not trust the reasoning of this paragraph.[17]

Another common problem of a similar tune is thought to be ethical intuitionism is dogmatic or intuition is indefeasible.  What happens when two people disagree between their intuitions?  It would appear intuitionism collapses into moral relativism because there is a clear way to determine whose intuitions are correct.   This criticism seems to come from the idea self-evidence somehow implies an inflexible foundation boldly posited.

I, however, cannot see why these claims would be the case.  Ethical intuitionism holds that some moral truths are self-evident and not all.  Likewise, I do not contend that all intuitions must be infallible.  I, like Huemer,[18] hold just some happen to be.  Intuitions are justified prima facie and hence can be revised.  Intuitions can be indefeasible, however one’s justification for an intuition is defeasible.  Huemer mentions how if he sees a glass on the table, he is justified there is a glass on the table unless he finds his “hand passing through it, and if a dozen other people in the room say there is no glass there, I may decide there wasn’t a glass there after all.”[19]  Audi also writes such a mistake is possible with even a priori necessary truths if “our ‘proof’ is shown to be defective.”[20]  Therefore, when two people disagree on whether their intuitions are right, relativism does not necessarily follow.  One’s justification could be incorrect.  Lastly, I feel the objection about intuitional disagreement stabs at whether mental states should be empirically verifiable to decide whose is correct, but this seems like a category error.  My mental awareness of my mental states is certain as Descartes argued.  Unless, I have positive grounds to doubt my intuition, it is not unreasonable to accept them otherwise such restrictive reasoning leads to skepticism.

Works Cited

Audi, Robert. “Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 1. no. 1 (1998): 15-44.

Copp, David. “Why Naturalism?.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 6. no. 2 (2003): 179-200.

Huemer, Michael. Palgrave Macmillan, “Moral Knowledge.”

Ridge, Michael. “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Last modified February 1, 2001. Accessed May 3, 2012.

Singer, Peter. “Ethics and Intuitions.” The Journal of Ethics. 9. no. 3/4 (2005): 331-352.

[1] Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: §5.1,
[2] Ibid., §5.2.
[3] Robert Audi, “Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment,” in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1998: 19,
[4] Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: §5.2,
[5] Robert Audi, “Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment,” in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1998: 18,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Peter Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions,” in The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, 2005: 337,
[8] David Copp, “Why Naturalism?,” in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2002: 183-185,
[9] Ibid., 189.
[10] Ibid., 185.
[11] Peter Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions,” in The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, 2005: 337,
[12] Ibid., 336.
[13] Peter Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions,” in The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, 2005: 337-342,
[14] Ibid., 349.
[15] Michael Ridge, “Moral Non-Naturalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified February 1, 2010,
[16] Michael Ridge, “Moral Non-Naturalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified February 1, 2010,
[17] Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: §5.4,
[18] Ibid., §5.3.
[19] Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: §5.3,
[20] Robert Audi, “Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment,” in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1998: 19,

11 thoughts on “Ethical Intuitionism and Empirically Inferred Naturalism

  1. I think the moral code of people (and dogs, and rats) is based on their evolved utilitarian responses, similar to pain/pleasure. We don’t like doing certain things which harm our survival or damage social cohesion (and we call these things ‘wrong’), and vice versa. Depending on our species or situation, our ideas of right and wrong shift (though perhaps not a lot, within ‘humanity’).

    1. Thanks for commenting,

      Yes, the emotivism you’re suggesting seems to be the response that follows from the “good” being irreducible to natural properties. I’d have to study up on it to write a post about it though. I would say I don’t agree with it as I’m obviously a realist and cognitivist, and emotivism is a non-cognitivist position.

  2. I am a moral realist and tend to write a book on this after my book on the (lack of) free will. The ethical system I propose is a descriptive ethic based on inherent values of conscious structures and our understanding of what leads to certain types of values (ie. negative, bad vs positive, good). The ethic is entirely descriptive, and only prescribed to those that care about being ethical (care about the reduction of inherent negatives for example) in the form of an IF/OUGHT. The important part about the is/ought problem, I would argue, is where we place it within our system of ethics. It is not about trying to bypass the gap, but clarifying where it should reside.

    Take care,

    1. Thanks ‘Trick,

      I would be interested in seeing your argument for where the is/ought gap should be in ethics.

      I don’t see how an ethical system can hold any normative value if only those who desire to be ethical are the only ones prescribed to it. To me, that seems like a flavor of relativism if I’m understanding you correctly. It would also seem it would lack normative weight. I guess that’s why I got to read the book then.

      1. Not to get into too much detail, but I can assure you it certainly is not a flavor of relativism. In fact, it is an argument against relativism, since the ethic itself is descriptive (the value of what we should label an ethic resides in the world as a structure and our understanding of what leads to such structures). I would suggest that no ethical system can be prescribed to those that do not want to or will not be ethical, but those that do not, in fact, are acting unethically (since the ethic is descriptive and can be described to them) – regardless of the fact that they do not.


  3. I am slightly confused. I call myself an ethical intuitionist but I also believe ethics is the product of evolution. I don’t see any contradiction in saying that evolution provided us with our a priori ethical intuitions… am I missing something?

    1. I think probably the fault lies with me. I wrote this paper more than a year ago, but I think my point was ethical a priori intuitions seems to be the only way to know what the good is. A posteriori methods, I argue via Hume and Moore, can’t account for the good, which seems crucial to any formulation of moral realism. Reading my paper again, I realize I think I don’t do a good job arguing this line of reasoning.

      Ethics might be the product of evolution, but that claim is different than saying “evolution provided us with our a priori ethical intuitions” or our epistemic ethical faculties.

        1. Ethics is a broad field. In philosophy alone, there are three branches: metaethics, normative ethics and practical ethics. My paper focuses in on metaethics, specifically moral ontology and moral epistemology. These areas are similar and overlap, yet I think I confuse and blur the two together in this paper.

          I’m interpreting–perhaps incorrectly?–the claim, “ethics (morality) is the product of evolution” as a question of moral ontology, while “evolution provides us with our a priori ethical intuitions” falls within the purview of moral epistemology.

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