Ethics without Intuitions
(This is more a class handout than a paper draft.)
To save time and to focus the discussion on ethics, I have to act as if I’m merely assuming some things about
epistemology, things that I really think I could argue for from scratch instead. First, I suppose that if one aims for true
theories, one should favor the “simpler” of two theories that “capture” the same “data”. I suppose one’s “data” include
certain introspective beliefs about one’s own mental states, and maybe certain perceptual beliefs about one’s environment.
I suppose a theory “captures” data beliefs if it explains or necessitates or renders probable the truth (or at least the
existence) of these data beliefs. And I suppose one theory is simpler than another primarily if it contains fewer basic
beliefs and concepts (simplicity of structure, or “plainness”), and secondarily if it posits fewer things (simplicity of
reference, or “frugality”). I’ll call this the core of the “scientific method”: if two theories capture the same data, the
simpler is the better. If we hear a thud in the hall, it’s a better-because-simpler first guess that a person dropped a book
than that 17 people dropped 17 booklets simultaneously.
These epistemic “assumptions” are evaluations, beliefs about which candidate beliefs one
these are all
evaluations, evaluations made true in part by our basic aim for truth and rationality. (If you don’t
care about truth and rationality, feel free to use some other method.) My question here is about whether and how one can
evaluations, evaluative beliefs that are true
no matter what
aims are in place. That’s the stuff of
How to do without ethical “intuitions”
Famously, ethicists try to mimic the scientific method, by using “ethical intuitions” (instead of perceptions and
introspections) as data, and then trying to capture the data with the simplest ethical theory. Equally famously, these ethical
intuitions seem to vary from theorist to theorist and theory to theory, in a way that makes them seem prejudiced by the
very theories they are used to evaluate. This naturally suggests that the whole ethical “reflective equilibrium” process is a
big circular cheat, and no ethical beliefs deserve the status of data, so we can’t apply the scientific method to ethics.
I want to think a little harder about what happens if there are no data relevant to justifying categorical evaluative
beliefs, no special role for ethical “intuitions”. Even if so, surprisingly, we aren’t just stuck as far as the scientific method
is concerned. If no candidate ethical theories capture any data, they are all in effect
data, and the
scientific method tells us to break such ties by favoring the simpler of two theories. I think we can get interestingly far by
thinking about simplicity in the ethical realm, without giving any role to ethical intuitions.
Immediately (but as always, provisionally), simplicity favors “universalist” evaluative beliefs over “particularist”