Academic journal article Theological Studies

Intuition and Moral Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Intuition and Moral Theology

Article excerpt

An intuition is "the immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process." A moral intuition is, accordingly, one that apprehends some moral object immediately, without there being any reasoning about it. (1)

ALL PHILOSOPHICAL ENDEAVOR begins with something that is said to be self-evident. A particular enquiry might begin, for instance, with an intuition of being or existence. This intuition can itself be fairly described as knowledge. This being the case, it might be claimed that reasoning is indeed involved in intuition. However, reasoning in the sense of "working something out" is not involved. Progress beyond the intuition in our philosophical endeavors can be made by some form of inference. No inferring is required, however, for the original intuition.

For a number of decades during the 20th century the school of intuitionism attracted a good deal of attention and not a few adherents. Although its popularity has since waned, it is still far from unusual for moral philosophers (and, indeed, moral theologians) to make reference to the importance of intuition in moral decision-making. Take, for instance, the way in which many dismiss Bentham's utilitarianism by pointing to the fact that it leads to conclusions that are counterintuitive. J. L. Mackie, moreover, goes so far as to claim that any objectivist view of values is committed to the central thesis of intuitionism: "Of course the suggestion that moral judgements are made or moral problems solved by just sitting down and having an ethical intuition is a travesty of actual moral thinking. But, however complex the real process, it will require (if it is to yield authoritatively prescriptive conclusions) some input of this distinctive sort, either premisses or forms of argument or both." (2)

As for moral theologians, most seem to take it for granted that intuition plays some role in ethics. John Macquarrie, for instance, is inclined to the opinion that some fundamental moral knowledge is "given with human existence itself." (3) But is that knowledge very general and extremely vague? Or can it offer substantial aid to us in our reflections about particular issues? In what follows I shall attempt to shed some light on this most mysterious sector of inquiry.


While I do not wish to confine my deliberations to the school of thought that came to be known as intuitionism, that would seem to be as good a starting point as any. As G. E. Moore sees things, the fundamental principles of ethics are self-evident. The expression "self evident," he says, indicates that any proposition that is so called "is not an inference from some proposition other than itself. "(4) Now "good," he holds, "is the notion upon which all Ethics depends," (5) and "good" is self-evident, or, if you prefer, it is something we know through intuition. If we say that something is good or, indeed, that something else is bad, we are making "synthetic" propositions, all of which rest on a proposition that cannot be deduced from any other proposition. What is ethically right, for Moore, is what, on the whole, will produce the greatest amount of good. Our duty, then, is "to do what will produce the best effects upon the whole, no matter how bad the effects upon ourselves may be and no matter how much good we ourselves may lose by it." (6) This move into ideal utilitarianism takes us, of course, beyond the realm of the self-evident. Reasoning, or inferring, is needed. Moore himself, however, notes that we do indeed make some immediate judgments that certain acts are either right or wrong. In a psychological sense, he says, we are intuitively certain about what is our duty. Nevertheless, it is not the case that these judgments of ours are self-evident. "It is, indeed, possible that some of our immediate intuitions are true; but since what we intuit, what conscience tells us, is that certain actions will always produce the greatest sum of good possible under the circumstances, it is plain that reasons can be given, which will shew the deliverances of conscience to be true or false. …

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