I am an evolutionary intuitionist; I actually only learned the term and theory behind it fairly recently, but I’ve held a similar position for many years. As such, my belief is inscribed within the evolutionary framework, but it is also a drastic departure from any any kind of adaptationism.
Evolutionary intuitionism is a fringe theory insofar as mainstream philosophy is concerned, but intuitionism is a very old idea. I admit that the concept of intuition is inherently suspicious to people of a rational, skeptical bent. It may seem mystical, irrational or lazy.
An intuition is a spontaneous judgment, which is to say that it is not the result of conscious reasoning. Intuitions originate in the evolutionary process as it applies to the human brain. While the brain is an evolved organ like any other, there are no special “modules” or “organs” in the brain which sustain our intuitions, any more than our hands have special modules or organs to grab objects, fine motor skills, form a fist, slap, and so on. Because selection pressures vary enormously depending on the organism’s environment, the name of the game is adaptability.
Some examples of intuitions include intuitions about ethics, intuitions about esthetics, intuitions about logic, intuition about mathematics, and intuitions about perception. All of these lead to various kinds of judgments. They are also the necessary foundation for more specific judgments; without some judgment that is not the result of a prior judgment, we would have nothing on which to ground our assertions. No reasoning would be possible.
For example, most of us are not perceptual skeptics, even though the idea is logically attractive, because we have intuitions about perception, e.g. we assume that things are the way they appear unless we have contrary evidence. Without this or a similar intuition, there is no conscious grounding for our specific judgments about the objects around us, and therefore the “logical” conclusion is that those judgments are somehow wrong or an illusion. But we know they are not wrong or illusions, because we intuitively accept appearances until we are presented with contrary evidence.
Even though intuitions are prior to reasoning, I don’t want to give people the idea that they are axioms. For one thing, axioms cannot be contradicted, but intuitions can be contradicted. There are two ways in which intuitions can be contradicted:
1. Through a real-life conflict with another intuition. We may feel conflicted about a decision for many reasons, and one of those reasons is a conflict between two basic intuitions (e.g. obeying authority v cognitive dissonance or care for others). The way in which we resolve the conflict indicates which intuition seems stronger to us in that context.
2. Through hypotheticals designed to pit two intuitions against each other. Various forms of the trolley problem are often used for this purpose, but there are as many hypotheticals as there are pairings of intuitions. Narratives in general are good at triggering our intuitions, and this is why humans typically teach each other ethics through stories.
While I wrote “intuitions,” I also include more specific judgments made from intuition in these two cases also. For example, the judgment that homosexuality is wrong derives from the respect of certain religious authorities and the rejection of “sexual impurity.” Yet this judgment conflicts with the intuition of fairness. The growing awareness of homosexuality and the hardships of homosexuals has caused a corresponding growing feeling of unfairness in the general population, and people who think the fairness intuition is important will therefore tend to support it against the competing intuitions.
Of course any judgment can be pitted against any other judgment of the same kind in this manner. We do this all the time with perceptual judgments. The Broken Pencil example provides us with such a conflict: first we observe the pencil as bent, and we trust this appearance, then we feel the pencil as whole, and we judge this appearance to be more important as regards to shape than the first.
Jonathan Haidt has identified four categories of ethical intuitions:
1. Harm/care: Not wanting to harm others, caring for others, compassion. The prohibitions against killing and stealing enter in this category.
2. Fairness/reciprocity: Wanting an equal share, fair trades, just outcomes, and so on. This is the origin of egalitarian commitments.
3. In-group loyalty: Following the obligations of in-group membership so that the group can benefit, such as self-sacrifice and ferreting out freeloaders and traitors. Manichean thinking finds its origin in these intuitions.
4. Respect for authority: Following one’s proper place and role in social hierarchies, obeying orders, respecting one’s superiors.
Intuitionism holds that ethical adaptations, being based on evolution, exist on a continuum between us and other primate species. This in itself is a good indication that they are not the result of social conditioning or reasoning.
In his Evolutionary Intuitionism, Brian Zamulinski sketches an intuitionist system based on two premises:
* I am essentially of objective and independent intrinsic value throughout my existence (and so are other human beings). This he labels value*, to distinguish it from mere value.
* We should first seek to preserve ourselves from significant injury, then preserve our kin from significant injury, then preserve our friends and other people with whom we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships from injury. This he calls desire-dependence.
From this he derives a number of moral principles, including: (all of these are direct quotes)
1. We have a prima facie obligation to minimize the loss of what we are committed to take to be of value*.
2. We have a prima facie obligation to minimize damage that makes it more probable that someone else with a foundational attitude will die.
3. No one has a commitment to increase the number of potential moral beneficiaries. Possibly existing others simply do not come into the question.
4. We may be committed to co-operating with others… if two people could do more by co-operating than they could accomplish by acting independently… It follows that we have obligations to establish institutions that minimize the loss of what we are committed to take to be of value*.
5. If one must choose between saving a friend from drowning and saving a stranger, one must save one’s friend.
6. It is always permissible to intervene in causal processes that would otherwise result in significant injury to oneself or in one’s death. Intervention to secure self-preservation is permissible no matter whether it causes the deaths of villainous aggressors, innocent aggressors, innocent threats, or those simply caught up in the causal processes.
7. It is not morally permissible for someone to kill others in order to save his own life unless they are aggressors, threats, or those caught up in causal processes that pose a threat to him.
8a. No one is committed to suffer significant injury at the hands of villainous aggressors or to suffer it in order to preserve innocent aggressors or innocent threats or those caught up in causal processes that endanger him. If need be, he is free to preserve himself.
8b. Others acting on his behalf do not have the same liberty. Although they are free to kill villainous aggressors if need be and circumstances warrant… they are almost never free to bring about the deaths of the innocent or to cause significant harm to them.
9. A person may interfere in causal processes that would harm his family or friends, but he may not kill people who do not threaten him or who are not caught up in causal processes that threaten them even though doing so would benefit them.
10. No one is obligated to suffer significant injury.
11. Everyone is obligated to avoid sacrificing another against the other’s will if the sacrifice would involve significant injury.
12. Beneficiaries of a sacrifice are committed not to countenance the sacrifice of another for their sake… [S}ince knowingly failing to disrupt an involuntary sacrificial arrangement when one could disrupt it constitutes consent, everyone is obligated to disrupt involuntary sacrificial arrangements.
13. Like suicide, acting towards [self-sacrificial ends] is permissible… [A] person who intends to sacrifice himself is free to withdraw his consent at any time up to the point of no return.
14. All have an obligation to prevent situations in which people sacrifice themselves from arising and to discourage self-sacrifice, because all are obligated to minimize damage to and destruction of other possessors. Indeed, assistance would be permissible only when the sacrificial volunteer was actually in the process of sacrificing himself.
15. Suppose that in pursuit of non-moral objectives in ordinary circumstances someone is willing to do things that have one chance in ten thousand of causing his death. He would be inconsistent if he was unwilling to do things just as risky to save the life of another, say.
16. It is always wrong to intentionally inflict even insignificant mental or physical injury on another unless doing so is necessary to prevent a loss of value*.
17. [W]hen there is a choice between acting in a way that involves treating some people as worth less than others and acting in a way that does not do so, we are committed to act in the latter way, even if no particular injury results… All are worthy of equal respect.
18. The only adequate moral justification for a privilege would be one that showed that the privilege is necessary to minimize the loss of what we are committed to take to be of value*.
19. Everything else being equal, it is no more important to satisfy the desires of one person than it is to satisfy the desires of another… Thus, we have a prima facie obligation to reform or abolish customs or institutions that promote unequal status, unequal treatment, or exploitation.
20. Equality trumps economics. The economic costs of achieving equality are morally bearable unless they increase the probability of the deaths of some possessors of foundational attitudes. The currency of morality is human lives, human well-being, and human dignity. Other currencies are subordinate to it.
21. We have an obligation to use minimal force [in self-defense].
22. It is wrong to sacrifice some in order to prevent greater wrongdoing by others, for the same reasons that it is wrong to sacrifice them in other circumstances.
23. Capital punishment is not forbidden in all circumstances but any lesser sanction that would deter to the same extent would be preferable.
24. Killing human shields is sometimes permissible… provided that the only way of preventing the attack involves destroying the human shield. We must not reach the conclusion that there is no alternative too quickly, and we must try every other way we reasonably can before acting in a way that results in the shield’s death.
I do intend to examine many of these principles in later entries. For now I will merely point out that I think both schemes are generally compatible, although Zamulinski’s is more workable.
In this entry I am concentrating on ethical intuitions, but there is no significant difference between ethical intuitions and other kinds of intuitions. Ethics is in the same exact position as perception: unless we accept intuitions as our starting point, there seems to be no way to construct anything logical; in the case of ethics specifically, the is-ought gap closes the door to any further reasoning. But since we do have ethical intuitions, the is-ought gap is irrelevant; our judgments are not derived from any statement of fact, but from more judgments. There is no reason or need to add statements of fact to the equation.
The issue of universality
This brings us to the thorny issue in ethics, and the main argument used against any kind of realist ethics, universality. Opponents of intuitionism may argue that intuitions are not universal, and that they are therefore unreliable, that if we can reasonably disagree then the intuitionist position collapses into relativism.
But this is exactly what we should expect if our intuitions come from evolution. As I mentioned, evolution does not select for specific behaviors, or even behavior patterns, but for the capacity to excel in the wide variety of environments that an organism may encounter. This is why our brain has evolved to operate under the principles of plasticity and adaptability. Intuitions cannot be the same for all, because we don’t operate under the same environments. If our intuitions were all the same and had the same importance to everyone, then intuitionism would be definitely falsified.
Most intuitionists are realists, but intuitionism is not inherently realist or relativist; one can be an intuitionist and a relativist. I believe ethical judgments tell us something about reality, and that a statement such as “it is wrong to torture babies” is objectively, verifiably true and extremely important (yet babies have been tortured, which indicates that the judgment and its importance are not universal). The verification of such a statement lies in our ethical intuitions; we naturally judge that inflicting pain on innocent people is wrong, and babies are innocent (of course religious beliefs can conflict with this).
Disagreements do not prove that ethics is relativist any more than disagreements about evolution prove that biology is relativist. There is a fact of the matter to discover and we can provide evidence for our statements about it. We can also disprove each other’s statements and arrive at a further understanding.
For example, there are capitalists who believe that the intuition that stealing is wrong leads them to the conclusion that taxation is wrong. This of course is simply factually wrong: as I’ve discussed before,
and therefore it is unjust to demand more than an equal part of society’s production. Given this, “stealing is wrong” no longer justifies “taxation is wrong”; in fact, it may justify something that is somewhat opposite, such as “receiving an uneven share of resources is wrong.”
One must not fall into the fallacy of declaring all ethical judgments to be intuitions, in the same way that evolutionary psychology assumes all behavior is adaptative. Some beliefs held for religious or political reasons may be very strongly emotionally held, but that doesn’t make them intuitions. The best proof of this is that when a Christian becomes an atheist, most of these supposed intuitions (such as the disgust at homosexuals or abortion) dissipate almost automatically as a side-effect.
We know Haidt’s four categories are probably intuitions because they exist in all societies and have obvious evolutionary roots in primate socialization. Ultimately only a scientific study of the evidence can tell us whether something is an actual intuition or not. But, most of the time, whether something is an intuition or not does not really matter, so we can treat our judgments in the same way.
Objections to evolutionary intuitionism
Isn’t intuitionism just an appeal to emotions?
There are two problems with this sort of questions. The first is that we know emotions are necessary for sound judgment in the first place; people who suffer from ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage are unable to process emotions and suffer from a decision-making deficit.
The second problem is that emotions are involved in intuitions, but they are not the same thing. Suppose I feel fear at the idea that someone I know committed murder, for example. The fear is not the intuition, but rather the physiological expression of the intuition that we should not harm others. My judgment that my acquaintance was wrong is motivated by, but is not justified by, the fear. Intuition exists prior to emotional response.
Doesn’t intuitionism imply that ethics cannot change?
No. Obviously ethics do change and intuitionism explains this by pointing out the fact that intuitions can be disproven or made less relevant to specific issues. I have already mentioned the example of homosexuality, but all changes in ethics can basically be described as shifting importances of some intuitions against others (generally, lessening of the importance of in-group and authoritarian intuitions, and strengthening of the importance of fairness and anti-harm intuitions).
Furthermore, some people fall into the trap of believing that an intuitive judgment must automatically be valid, and that therefore ethics should never change. Actually, intuitionism and argumentative theory (the position that reasoning is a social activity and serves to bolster one’s determined beliefs) both tell us that people are really good rationalizing the result of intuition or other unconscious processes, but that this rationalization doesn’t really prove anything.
Take the incest taboo, for example. People feel revulsion at the idea of incest, but if you ask them why they are against it, they will present you with ad hoc nonsense. One rationalization is that incest produces genetic defects in children, but incestuous relations do not have to produce children. Another rationalization is that seeking mates from other tribes cemented relations between tribes, but this obviously does not apply to present Western societies.
The incest taboo can be seen as invalid by contrast with other intuitions: it contradicts our fairness intuition, that relationships between consenting adults should be all treated equally, and our harm intuition, because forcing people apart when they love each other is harmful to them. To blindly follow the incest taboo at the expense of these other intuitions is as imbecilic as seeing a pencil in water as bent and refusing to touch it to disprove that perception.
Finally, notions of what is harmful, what is fair, what hierarchies exist and which authorities one should follow, change when the culture changes, so our interpretations of our intuitions will always change as well.
Aren’t intuitions the opposite of logic?
Care must be taken not to confuse the popular meaning of intuition (an unjustified judgment based on the unconscious processing of repeated exposure to stimuli) with the philosophical meaning of intuition (an unjustified judgment that exists a priori). The former is popularly seen as being the opposite or counterpart of logic. The latter is nothing of the sort; in fact, no logical thinking could exist without logical intuitions.
The laws of logic help us reason in a valid manner, and intuitions provide the starting points for us to reason from.
What does ethical intuitionism say about how we should act?
Intuitionism is not, properly speaking, an ethical theory but a meta-ethical theory, that is to say, it tells us what ethics is about, where it comes from, how we derive ethical principles, and so on. So it doesn’t tell us how we should act, which principles to adopt, or which social values are most important.
What it can tell us, however, is how to hone our ethical intuitions and arrive at a better understanding of right and wrong. We can do so by constantly re-evaluating the importance we give to various intuitions by pitting them against each other, either in real life or in hypothetical situations. Following argumentative theory, we should also consider other people’s ethical positions and debate them to the best of our abilities.
Doesn’t your social constructivist position contradict intuitionism?
This may be a more personal question, but I wanted to pre-empt it so my position can be as clear as possible.
Social constructivism is the position that we make decisions based on the incentives and roles imposed on us by the society we live in. But social conditioning does not act in a vacuum: it acts upon things like our intuitions, as well as our beliefs, feelings, values, and so on.
One political ideology may appeal to your sense of fairness, another on your loyalty to your “country.” A superior at work may use your status-awareness for eir own ends. In all these cases, social conditioning can appeal to our intuitions, as they can appeal to our beliefs, feelings, and so on. Social conditioning provides the context in which intuitions exist (e.g. circumscribing what harm means, what fairness is, what hierarchies and statuses exist), and intuitions provide content for social conditioning to operate upon.
Can intuitionism be shown to be true? Is there any empirical evidence for it as opposed to any other meta-ethical position?
In Evolutionary Intuitionism, Brian Zamulinski identifies three threads of empirical evidence that prove the validity of (evolutionary) intuitionism:
If there are foundational attitudes and if they are part of the foundation of human morality, we can make at least three major empirical predictions. First, every human society will have a moral code. Second, people will rationalize reflexively. And third there will be a correlation between being a rationalizing moral agent and being able to carry out long-term projects as successfully as human beings normally do.
According to the first prediction, morality will be universal: there will be no human society or culture that does not include moral agents who make moral judgments and who appear to be influenced by the judgments they make. Given evolutionary intuitionism, the reasons for this are as follows. As already argued, possessors of foundational attitudes were fitter than non-possessors and became a larger and larger proportion of the human population…
According to the second prediction, people will sometimes rationalize reflexively, because acting consistently with one’s foundational attitude can be disadvantageous in certain circumstances… The alternative is to maintain consistency by believing falsely about the nature of one’s acts. By doing so, one can act inconsistently with one’s foundational attitude but reduce the risk of losing the benefits it provides. Since there will be situations in which this is a profitable course of action and since people are capable of rationalizing for their own benefit, we will observe instances in which people rationalize reflexively.
The third prediction is that there will be a correlation between being a rationalizing moral agent and having the normal human capacity to carry out projects that are in the agent’s long-term interest. As we have seen, foundational attitudes originated because they improved an agent’s ability to carry out projects that were in his long-term interest. Morality is a by-product of this adaptation…
Psychopaths throw away opportunities by indulging in debauches or by switching to some other goal. This behavior is consistent with the development of other, stronger and incompatible desires such that attempts to satisfy them disrupts the efforts of psychopaths to secure their long-term interests. Psychopaths do sometimes try to achieve goals that are in their long-term interests, but they lack the ability to do so that ordinary people possess.
Evolutionary Intuitionism, p62-63
These three arguments demonstrate that intuitionism is true in ways that other moral theories cannot be. Only intuitionism predicts that moral codes will be universal: if moral subjectivism, noncognitivism or nihilism are correct, we should not expect moral codes to form at all, let alone for their existence to be universal. Reflexive rationalization only makes sense if there are intuitions for people to measure their behavior against. If someone believes that morality was derived from their desires or were just expression of emotions, then there would be no reason for them to rationalize their own actions.
The third argument supports evolutionary intuitionism specifically, but it also disproves other moral theories: if morality was the result of desires or external factors, then there would be no particular reason why psychopaths should be so different from the rest of us.
If intuitionism is true, then how could we possibly resolve ethical disagreements?
In Ethical Intuitionism, Michael Huemer identifies three means by which disagreements may be resolved:
1. Appeal to intuitions.
2. Criticisms of biases.
3. Criticisms of moral intuitions based on other intuitions.
Of these three means, 2 is by far the most important, because most ethical errors are the result of religious, political, or other ideological bias.
Of course, this does not mean that disagreements actually will get resolved. But that’s also true of factual disagreements. Most Creationists have adopted this position because of religious bias, which is demonstrated by the fact that deconverted Christians usually stop being Creationists as well. And yet it is extremely difficult to settle such disagreements even when one has all the evidence at hand.
It is common for people who propose ethical theories to back down from them when a conclusion flowing from that theory is very counter-intuitive. For example, people who promote absolute property rights will shy away from the flagpole scenario; anyone who dared to agree with such an argument would rightly be seen as crazy, even though it is a logical consequence of absolute property rights. This seems to me as an implicit agreement with intuitionism.
This is not to say that what is counter-intuitive is always wrong, but rather that non-intuitionist attempts at ethical theories eventually have to rely on intuitionism, because intuitions are the foundation of all ethical judgments. Christians do it, voluntaryists do it, nihilists do it.
More basically, we must all accept logical and empirical intuitions to even argue, and anyone who claims otherwise is committing a performative contradiction.
For more on ethical intuitionism and evolutionary intuitionism, also see the blog Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity, which was mainly about ethical intuitionism (unfortunately the author is now deceased), and Brian Zamulinski’s web site.