Some misunderstandings about intuitions.

Ethical intuitionists hold that our ethical judgments are founded upon a priori, spontaneous judgments, which we call intuitions, simply because that’s the term that’s been used in academia for a long time. This is somewhat confusing, since people commonly use the term “intuition” to designate various other things. Many people think they’re addressing intuitionism, but they are talking about some common meaning of “intuition,” not the technical meaning.

First, let me again point out the wide scope of intuitions that humans possess. We come with a great deal of a priori intuitions. If Chomsky is right, and I see no reason to posit that he is not, we already have a basic universal grammar in our brains ready for words to plug into it. We also have a wide range of ethical intuitions, logical intuitions, esthetic intuitions, and so on. Just the basic concept of a number, like the number 1, is extremely complex from a logical standpoint. I will use a number of such intuitions to demonstrate that the meanings I will examine here are flawed.

1. “The intuition” is a special faculty.

This is the epistemic concept of the intuition as a way to figure things out more rapidly, that comes from experience and talent, a sort of alternative way of knowing which does not rely on detailed lines of reasoning or judgment. The intuition is a faculty which is developed and trained. I see nothing wrong in such a belief. In fact, it makes sense that someone with a lot of experience would be able to make shorthand judgments about certain situations, or perhaps subconsciously detect things that are askew.

However, it has nothing to do with intuitions in the technical sense. Intuitions are not developed by one’s experience or talent, and they are not an alternative way of knowing. They are a priori judgments, meaning that they are not the result of any sort of personal process. Intuitions have nothing to do with the faculty of intuition, although I have no complaints if someone wants to use the term in that context.

2. Intuitions are “common sense.”

“Common sense” is a vague term. As the quote goes (attributed to Horace Greeley), common sense is very uncommon, meaning that what is common sense to one person may very well not be for another. If we are talking about what is common sense in a society, well, that too changes over time. Intuitions do not change over time or from person to person, because they exist independently of the influence of culture or personality. Our culture or personality may lead us to make judgments which contradict our intuitions.

For example, we have an ethical intuition that it is wrong to harm innocent people. A person indoctrinated or brainwashed in a religion or cult, for example, may be induced to do things which are absolutely contrary to our intuitions (i.e. soldiers killing innocent people), and people who live in societies which support those religions or cults may thought-stop those intuitions through some widespread rationalization (i.e. we have to kill them because they’re subhuman in some way and do not deserve to be called innocent).

To give another example, we have a psychological intuition that enjoyment is preferable to suffering. However, we will readily undergo some temporary suffering if we think it will lower our suffering in the long run (such as going to the dentist). We would still rather not go to the dentist, but make the intellectual judgment that this bit of suffering now is better than a potentially great deal of suffering later.

My point here is that culture and personality do not change the intuition, although they do change how we act. What we call “common sense” is merely the belief that certain judgments are widely accepted and are therefore of superior quality. But intuitions, formulated in words, may be very unpopular, for various reasons. For example, we are all born with fairness intuitions, but it so happens that, thanks to neo-liberalism amongst other reasons, fairness as a concept is not universally revered, or even liked. It is “common sense” in many places that it’s perfectly all right to condemn people to imprisonment or death based on their worth in a capitalist society. This goes against our fairness intuitions, but is a result of the fact that we are indoctrinated to believe that capitalism is the best economic system and that there are no viable alternatives. The argument, basically, is that the absence of viable alternatives means that there’s no point in objecting to it.

3. Intuitions are propositions.

Even amongst people who are consciously talking about intuitions in the technical sense, there is a confusion that stems from the belief that an intuition is a proposition, which therefore can be rational or irrational, true or false. This confusion is understandable. After all, we formulate an intuition in the form of a sentence, such as “helping people in need is a good thing,” and sentences are propositions, which can be rational or irrational, true or false.

But this is a limitation of the way we communicate. Actual intuitions are not propositions. There are no literal propositions engraved in our brains or sculpted out of neurons. You can’t slice a brain, look at it in a microscope and find the actual words “helping people in need is a good thing.” Intuitions are judgments, not propositions. We may feel that helping people in need is a good thing, even if we can’t formulate that proposition. In fact, babies do judge that helping people in need is a good thing, as demonstrated by the fact that they help people find objects in experiments, even if babies cannot formulate any proposition at all. If intuitions were propositions, then it would make no sense for babies to have them, and yet they certainly do.

Usually this prompts the question: if intuitions cannot be true or false, then how can they be reliable ethical (or logical, or esthetic, or whatever) foundations? But asking such a question is like demanding evidence that our sensory apparatus is “true” in order for it to be a reliable foundation for our empirical knowledge. A sensory apparatus, like an intuition, is not the kind of things that is true or false: it’s the kind of thing we’re born with. It must be the foundation because all knowledge exists within an individual which has a specific sensory apparatus and a specific set of intuitions.

Now, it is true that our sensory apparatus can mislead us, because our brain uses certain models of reality which break down in various situations. This is so obvious that no one but the most mendacious of empiricists would even bother disagreeing with that. But this does not mean that “our sensory apparatus is invalid.” Indeed, the way we find out about (and, eventually, compensate for) the breaking down of our models is through more, and better, observations. At best, it means that certain conclusions that we drew from a limited range of inputs were invalid.

4. Intuitions are unexamined premises that come from our upbringing and/or from society.

The correct term for this is socialization. Intuitions do not originate in socialization because anything that originates in socialization, or any other form of human interactions, cannot be a priori. For example, little children are not socialized into understanding grammar, and yet they are able to understand many aspects of grammar before they are able to speak in sentences (and in some simpler cases, before they even speak words). So there’s no socialization there. A baby who helps someone find an object is not doing so because it was taught to be helpful, as it is too young to understand the very concept.

5. Intuitions are adaptations which exist to promote evolutionary success.

Sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and other quacks, have attempted to give various “scientific” explanations for human behavior, including ethics, esthetics, and psychology. These attempts have been shown to be, on the whole, unscientific pap which serves the purpose of rationalizing reactionary politics. In general, we should be extremely dubious of ANY supposed explanation of human behavior through evolutionary adaptation.

Ethics is a good example. In his book Evolutionary Intuitionism, Brian Zamulinski points out that our deep conviction that people who saved Jews during WW2 were acting heroically flies in the face of all evolutionary processes. Neither direct self-interest, nor Hamilton’s Rule, nor reciprocal altrism, can explain this judgment. The only plausible conclusion is that ethics is an evolutionary by-product of some other adaptation, not an adaptation in itself. Likewise, a lot of adaptationist explanations for female sexual attraction have been handily debunked (facial symmetry has nothing to do with health, hip size has no bearing on childbirth, men’s self-reported attraction to women does not correspond to peak fertility ages, breast size has nothing to do with breastfeeding abilities, etc). So far I have seen no evidence that any commonly recognized intuition has any basis in evolutionary adaptation. It is possible, but it needs to be proven. And with the track record of adaptationists so far, I’d say the evidence would have to be absolutely beyond a resonable doubt.


I don’t want to give the impression that we cannot be mistaken about what is or is not an intuition. Can people mislabel “intuition” something that is really a proposition, “common sense,” or an unexamined premise? Sure. I think it’s sometimes done to make an argument look stronger. If you call a piece of evidence an intuition that we all share, instead of a simple belief or unsupported premise, then you give your argument more weight than it should have. And there is a temptation to label our common sense beliefs as intuitive, simply because so many people would agree with such a statement.

So how can we tell if something is an intuition? There are many ways, but to me the most credible is to rely on the studies done on the various areas. For example, on ethical intuitions, I rely on Jonathan Haidt’s study on the foundations of morality. On some other issues, I will rely on well-known conclusions by people who study child development. Because intuitionism is a disreputable field, widely rejected in modern philosophy, there isn’t really a comprehensive field that you can refer to immediately. This is unfortunate, and that’s also why it’s important to be careful and not throw intuitions about nilly-willy. But on the other hand, it’s also important to understand what it is, exactly, and how it differs from the common conceptions I’ve listed above.

One thought on “Some misunderstandings about intuitions.

  1. […] bias is the main ethical error. An intuitionist answers Matt Slick re: atheist morality. Some misunderstandings about intuitions. Equating intuitionism with “naive intuitionism.” Intuitionism as used by […]

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