Morality for the World We Live In: Moral Intuitions


There’s a toddler drowning in a paddling pool.  You are walking past.  Which would you do?

a) Pull the toddler out of the water and call for help?

b) Take out your phone and video the drowning death of the toddler to put on the net?

You have probably never heard this story before but you know right away that you ought to do a).  You are probably shocked by the idea of doing b).

Your reaction is immediate and instinctive.  You do not think through a moral theory.  And if a theory said that it was OK to do b), you would count that as a reason against the theory.   Your moral intuition is that it would be wrong to follow the course of action outlined in b).

You have lots of moral intuitions.

You share some of your intuitions with others worldwide.  I have told stories like this one to classes with students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  What is interesting is that, when asked, they often all instantly answer in the same way.  All.  Instantly.

How do moral intuitions work?  They probably work like other intuitions.  For instance, speakers of Standard English have intuitions about when it is correct to use sentences in the passive instead of the active voice.  Their intuition is that they should use the passive when they believe that some information is unknown to their audience and using the passive enables them to put the new information at the end of the sentence in which they convey the information.  But they usually cannot explain why they should use the passive voice in those circumstances.  Similarly, they have moral intuitions that are related to their belief that others are of value even though they cannot explain why they have the intuitions.

People can have different moral opinions because the belief that others are of value is not the only belief that determines someone’s intuitions.  Unless two people agree totally with respect to the other relevant beliefs, they not only can but also probably often will have different moral opinions.  The only differences that count against the foregoing explanation of moral intuitions would be differences that are observable even when people possess all and only the same relevant beliefs.

The normative results of evolutionary intuitionism should be intuitively plausible because norms and intuitions have the same causal basis.  Evolutionary intuitionism is the only theory that explains why we should pay attention to our intuitions.  This is important because all moral theorists rely on “methodological intuitionism,” that is, they rely on their intuitions to tell them whether a moral theory is plausible or not.

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