When you tell people that you’re a moral intuitionist, there is a sort of natural argument that forms in people’s minds, at least people who care about morality at all. This argument consists of equating intuitionism with what I call “naive intuitionism.” I use this term in the same way that people use “naive realism,” a term which refers to the belief that we perceive things exactly as they are. But in reality, perception is mediated by senses and a brain, which filter and interpret sensations. I refer to native intuitionism, therefore, as the belief that the propositions we develop from our moral intuitions are always a direct perception of correct moral principles.
So first, let me point out the fundamental flaw with this argument: being an intuitionist does not mean you must be a naive intuitionist, any more than being a realist means you must be a naive realist. If intuitions are the result of an evolutionary process, which I contend, then we must start from the premise that our moral faculties, like all other biological faculties, are messy. Evolution is a sloppy process of trial and error extended over ages. Because of this generous time frame, it is extremely good at eventually zeroing in on some solution to a specific problem, but it can’t start over. For instance, it can’t look for a more optimal solution if that requires it to backtrack in any way.
It is incontestable that humans are social animals adapted to life in hierarchical communities. Our moral sense is likewise that of a social animal. Not that of a solitary predator, whose calculations are almost solely instrumental (although some stupid humans pretend to imitate such a way of life), but that of a being concerned with the cooperation of others in fulfilling goals. It seems that, from the very first, human communities have fostered cooperation and division of labor. It is little wonder that predatory “moralities” are usually accompanied by a denial of evolution.
Humans interested in understanding how morality works divide intuitions in categories, like fairness, tribalism, and so on. But in our daily lives, these all co-exist and are constantly intertwined in our moral evaluations. They are not meant to be analyzed as separate units, but as facets of a moral system. When taken to extremes, they can lead to extremes of evil:
Fairness can lead to the death penalty, capitalism, and “an eye for an eye.”
Liberty can lead to vulgar individualism, and turning a blind eye to the exploitation or oppression of others.
Loyalty, and respect of authority, can lead to war and genocide.
Sanctity can lead to hatred against innocents for being “impure.”
Note that I said “when taken to extremes.” In their normal context, these intuitions should not lead one to evil. But clearly they can.
Before I continue in this line of reasoning, I want to address one objection that I foresee: some might say that the consequences I listed are the result of false premises. But this doesn’t really tell us anything, since all errors are either the result of false premises or invalid logic. The reality of the situation is that people do make grave mistakes and are often in error, and pointing that fact out does not really illustrate anything. If we could simply never make any mistakes, we wouldn’t need epistemology or morality to begin with, and this whole discussion would never need to happen (Anthropic Argument from Moral Disagreements?).
So the question becomes, how can our moral system, as I call it, get out of whack? Well, I think the answer should be obvious to anyone who understands social constructionism and hierarchical institutions. Institutions have the leverage they need to convince people that their interests are linked to the institution’s flourishing. The individual becomes identified with the nation, the religion, the economic class, the distinctive mores and traditions, the social roles, and so on, and various intuitions are associated with those same things (religion as source of sanctity and purity, government as a fair arbiter and source of liberty, etc). And when that identification is in place, it becomes relatively easy to invoke whatever intuition is needed to get people to do evil things. This is the most commonplace way to corrupt an individual.
It is rather similar to the ways in which quacks exploit our cognitive biases to make us believe in fake remedies or pseudo-science. Cognitive biases are evolved mechanisms by which we can make judgments rapidly and with finite mental resources, but they are insufficient to arrive at conclusions in complex, abstract domains, where most quackeries lie. Most people have no direct experience with medical trials, oncology, physics, or evolutionary theory. Therefore, they must rely on what they know, which is often insufficient to distinguish true claims from false claims, especially when they have been convinced that some quack theory represents some ultimate or transcendent truth. In both cases, we’re talking about natural systems that evolved under simpler social conditions being twisted by more complex structures and systems of thought.
Another good analogy is cults, because cults are just an extreme form of hierarchical institutions. People join cults with good intentions. Once they are convinced that the cult is the only way to save the world, or bring humans to a higher plane of existence, or whatever, they can be persuaded to do anything to further the aims of the cult. Their best interest, and the cult’s best interest, become one and the same.
The solution to the co-optation of our moral system is individualism, the position that one’s values and principles are more important than external obligations (like laws and religious diktats). This is rarely presented as a solution. On the other hand, vulgar individualism, the position that all morality should be purely instrumental (i.e. self-interested) and that the individual should only be concerned with their own well-being and status, is often presented as a solution, especially in this age of capitalism and neo-liberalism. But it’s just another tactic to introvert people and prevent them from looking at social realities. The more obsessed you are about yourself, the less time or energy you have to look at what other people are going through, or look at the reality of your own situation.