The Intuitive Gardener: The Epistemic Status of Moral Intuitions

Jan Horský


The aim of this paper is to investigate the epistemic status of moral intuitions. Empirical research stemming from moral psychology points to the conclusion that we frequently make use of moral intuitions in moral judgment. More to the point, we make an appeal to intuitions as an evidence not only as laymen but also as moral philosophers – i.e. if some normative theory has counter-intuitive consequences, we take it as its defect and vice versa. In this paper I try to answer the question whether this practice of appealing to moral intuitions as evidence is justified – is moral intuition a reliable epistemic source? First, I will draw on a related debate of epistemic intuitions, introduce so called restrictionist challenge and make clear on what grounds I choose to focus on its moral counterpart. In next section I will present what I am convinced to be the strongest line of attack on epistemic reliability of moral intuitions – the argument from intuitional instability. In the good old days we were constantly amazed by ethnographers and anthropologists bringing to us reports of massive differences between us Westerners and inhabitants of exotic destinations. Today, it is mainly moral psychologists and experimental philosophers who amaze us even more by uncovering large amount of variability in intuitions, this time however not only between civilized and indigenous people but even in the heart of our own culture. I will devise a simple typology of intuitional instability and present what now is a rather large dataset documenting this unfortunate feature of moral intuitions. On these grounds, I will conclude that moral intuitions are unable to reach epistemic standards to which we are used to hold other epistemic sources (e.g. sense perception) and this makes moral intuitions unfit to fulfil its supposed evidentiary role. I will end with some preliminary notes on using moral intuitions rather as a motivational source and I will argue that, in fact, it is moral intuitions that should be tested by its concordance with preferred normative theory, not the other way around.


moral intuitions, epistemic status, intuitive instability, x-phi, metaphilosophy, methodology of philosophy

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