The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)

Chapter 4. Intuitionism


By Intuitionism is usually understood the theory that actions are pronounced right or wrong a priori without reference to their consequences. According to one view it is supposed that Conscience, or whatever else the moral faculty may be called, pronounces on the morality of particular courses of conduct at the moment of action. This form of the doctrine has been styled by Professor Sidgwick unphilosophical Intuitionism, while he gives the name philosophical Intuitionism to the doctrine that what is intuitively judged to be right or wrong is always some general rule of conduct, from which the morality or immorality of this or that particular course of action must be deduced. According to the first view, Conscience is an ever-present dictator issuing detailed injunctions to meet particular cases as they arise: according to the second, Conscience is a legislator, whose enactments have to be applied to particular cases by the same intellectual process as is employed by a judge in administering an act of Parliament[65]. Intuitionists may further be divided into two classes according to the view which they take as to the nature of the faculty by which these a priori judgements are pronounced. By some Intuitionists this faculty is supposed to be Reason, by others a Moral Sense. But the nature of the faculty involved in our moral judgements is one which can best be discussed when we have answered the easier preliminary question--Do we in practice, or can we reasonably, pronounce actions to be right or wrong without regard to their consequences, in so far as such consequences can be foreseen?(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 1)

The belief described as unphilosophical Intuitionism in its wildest form is one which can hardly claim serious refutation. If it is supposed that the injunctions of the moral faculty are so wholly arbitrary that they proceed upon no general or rational principle whatever, if it is supposed that I may to-day in one set of circumstances feel bound by an inexplicable impulse within me to act in one way, while to-morrow I may be directed or direct myself to act differently under circumstances in no way distinguishable from the former, then moral judgements are reduced to an arbitrary caprice which is scarcely compatible with the belief in any objective standard of duty; for it will hardly be denied that, if right and wrong are not the same for the same individual on different but precisely similar occasions, they can still less be the same for different persons, and all idea of an objective moral law disappears. It may of course be alleged that the circumstances of no two acts are precisely alike, but they may certainly be alike in all relevant respects. If it be said that Conscience will vary its judgement in accordance with the circumstances of the case, and that other men's Consciences in proportion to their enlightenment will always pronounce the same judgements under similar circumstances, there must be some rule or principle by which it must be possible to distinguish between circumstances which do and circumstances which do not alter our duty, however little this rule or principle may be present in an abstract form to the moral consciousness of the individual. Granted, therefore, that the moral judgements may as a matter of psychological fact reveal themselves first and most clearly in particular cases (just as we pronounce judgements about particular spaces and distances long before we have consciously put geometrical principles into the form of general axioms), it must still, it would seem, be possible by analysis of our particular moral judgements to discover the general principles upon which they proceed. Analytical thought and philosophical language may be inadequate for the accurate expression of the delicate shades and gradations of circumstance upon which, in complicated cases, our moral judgements actually depend; but some approximation to this, some rough rules or principles of ethical judgement, ought, one would think, to be capable of being elicted from a wide comparative array of one's own and other people's actual judgements. If this be denied, moral instruction must be treated as absolutely impossible. Now it may be quite true that in many ways example is better than precept, not only on account of its emotional effect but even on account of the intellectual illumination supplied by a good man's conduct in presence of varying practical difficulties. It is true that the contemplation in actual fact or in recorded history of a good life may suggest ideals which no mere system of precepts, abstracted from particular applications, can adequately embody. A general rule is often best embodied in a concrete, typical case. The parable of the Good Samaritan has taught the true meaning of Charity more clearly as well as more persuasively than any direct precept that could be culled from the writings of Seneca or even from the Sermon on the Mount. But still there is a consensus among reasonable men that moral instruction of some kind--however vague, general, and inadequate to the complexities of actual life--is possible, desirable, and necessary. We do not say to a child who asks whether he may pick a flower in somebody else's garden, My good child, that depends entirely upon the circumstances of the particular case: to lay down any general rule on the subject would be a piece of unwarrantable dogmatism on my part: consult your own Conscience, as each case arises, and all will be well. On the contrary, we say at once: You must not pick the flower: because that would be stealing, and stealing is wrong. Make any reserves you please as to the inadequacy of the rule, its want of definiteness, its inability to meet many problems of life, the necessity for exceptions and the like; yet it must be admitted that if there be any one point about Morality as to which there is a consensus alike among all plain men and nearly all Philosophers[66] it is surely this--that general rules of conduct do exist. Morality cannot be reduced to copy-book headings, but copy-book headings we do and must have. Now, in proportion as all this is admitted, unphilosophical Intuitionism tends to pass into the philosophical variety of the Intuitionist creed and may be subjected to the same criticism.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 2)

The strongest part of Sidgwick's great work consists in its analysis of common-sense Morality. The loose statements of Intuitionists as to the clearness, certainty, adequacy, and self-evidence of the ordinarily received rules of conduct have never been subjected to so searching, so exhaustive, and so illuminating an examination. That task has been done once for all, and need not in detail be done over again. It will be enough in this place to exhibit in the barest outline the difficulties which this mode of ethical thought has to confront:--(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 3)

(i) Granted the existence of intuitive tendencies to approve action of particular kinds, we may still ask why we should trust to blind unreasoning impulses which refuse to give any rational account of themselves. Granted the existence of such judgements as a matter of psychological fact, whence comes their validity? If it be said they are deliverances of moral Reason, we may ask whether it can be really rational to act without some consideration of consequences? What does rational conduct mean but acting with a clear conception of our ultimate purpose or aim, and taking the means which seem best adapted to attain that end? Look before you leap seems to be one of the clearest of all practical axioms: to act in obedience to every subjective impulse, even if it be prima facie an impulse arising from the higher part of our nature, would seem very like adopting as our maxim Leap before you look. Of course there may be circumstances in which we have to leap after a very hurried and imperfect survey of the situation under penalty of being too late to leap at all, but some looking before leaping is as necessary in the most unexpected and agonizing crisis of the battle-field or the hunting field as in the leisured pomp and circumstances of formal athletic sports.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 4)

(ii) The moral notions which have seemed equally innate, self-evident, and authoritative to those who held them have varied enormously with different races, different ages, different individuals--even with the same individuals at different periods of life. It will be unnecessary to illustrate at length the variations of moral sentiment which have formed the main stock-in-trade of utilitarian writers from the days of John Locke to those of Herbert Spencer. We have been taught to honour our fathers and mothers: there have been races which deemed it a sacred duty to eat them. Average Greek public opinion looked with favour, or at least indulgence, upon acts which are crimes in most civilized modern communities. Pious and educated Puritans could see no harm in kidnapping negroes or shooting Irishmen. The eminent evangelical clergyman John Newton pronounced the hours which he passed in the captain's cabin of a slaver, separated by a plank or two from a squalid mass of human misery of which he was the cause, to have been sweeter hours of divine communion than he had ever elsewhere known. Some virtues seem to be of very late development even among civilized races--religious toleration, for instance, and humanity towards animals. And so on, and so on.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 5)

To beginners in Moral Philosophy these objections to Intuitionism will usually present themselves as the strongest and most unanswerable. In truth perhaps they are the weakest. Neither the slow development of the moral faculty nor its unequal development in different individuals at the same level of social culture forms any objection to the a priori character of moral judgements. We do not doubt either the axioms of Mathematics or the rules of reasoning, because some savage cannot count more than five[67], or because some highly educated classical scholars are incapable of understanding the fifth proposition of Euclid's first book. Some of us will even refuse to allow our belief in the objectivity of aesthetic judgements because a Zulu will hold a picture upside down, because an uneducated bargee will often prefer some gaudy sign-board to an old Master, because the taste which pronounced Queen's College the only really satisfactory piece of Oxford architecture does not commend itself to that of the twentieth century, or because even among the most cultivated art critics of the present day there exist considerable differences of opinion. Intuitionists have no doubt shown a tendency to claim infallibility as well as authority for the moral judgements of the individual: but such a claim is by no means necessary to the extremest view of the arbitrary, unconsequential, isolated character of moral judgements. We may admit the validity of the principles of reasoning and of the axioms of Mathematics, although many men reason badly, and some cannot even count. Men's moral judgements may be intuitive, but they need not be infallible. Self-evident truths are not truths which are evident to everybody. There are degrees of moral illumination just as there are degrees of musical sensibility or of mathematical acuteness. Taken by themselves, the variations of moral judgements form a less serious objection to the intuitional mode of thought than those which follow, although it may be certainly contended that Intuitionism of the cruder kind cannot adequately account for these variations.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 6)

(iii) Even when a certain intuition is actually found in all or most men of a certain race and age, the moral rule which it enjoins usually turns out upon examination to be incapable of exact definition. All, or nearly all, detailed moral rules have some exceptions, except indeed when the rule laid down tacitly excludes such exceptional cases. The rule Thou shalt do no murder presents itself no doubt at first sight as a moral rule admitting of no exception; but that is only because murder means killing except under those exceptional circumstances under which it is right to kill. Now, even where there seems to be the fullest agreement, at least among men of developed moral nature, as to the main rules, it is frequently found to disappear as soon as we come to discuss the exceptions; while even the same individual will often find that at this point his intuitions become indistinct or fail him altogether. And in practice it will nearly always turn out that the exception has been introduced from some consideration of consequences. Those who are most positive in maintaining a particular moral rule to be of self-evident and universal obligation independently of consequences, will generally shrink from applying it in certain extreme cases. Set forth to the Intuitionist in sufficient detail the appalling consequences of applying his rule, pile up the agony sufficiently, and there will almost always come a point at which he begins to be doubtful as to whether the rule applies, and a further point at which he is certain that it does not. Thou shalt do no murder; but most men will admit that there are exceptional cases in which killing is no murder, and perhaps a very large majority would be got to declare that their intuitions were clear in excepting self-defence, war or at least lawful war, and judicial execution. But ask at what point killing in self-defence becomes lawful, what constitutes war or what constitutes lawful war, for what offences we may lawfully inflict death, at what point it becomes the duty of the individual to refuse to take part in an unrighteous campaign or to carry out an iniquitous sentence--and we find ourselves once again in a chaos of uncertainties. And observe exactly the point of the uncertainty: the uncertainty lies exactly in this--that no clear intuitions are forthcoming as to the exact moment at which it begins to be legitimate to take account of consequences. Thou shalt not kill except in self-defence, or by judicial sentence. So much may perhaps be pronounced self-evident without reference to consequences. But if the established government absolutely refuses to protect person, property, or Morality, shall we never reach a state of anarchy such as will warrant the intervention of an extra-legal committee of public safety or vigilance association, and the summary execution of its sentences? If only the foreseen consequences are bad enough, no one but an advocate of absolute non-resistance will fail to relax his severity, and the advocate of unlimited non-resistance is certainly not in a position to claim any general consensus in his favour. Now, if there be any point at which an apparent intuition has to give way before clearly foreseen ill consequences, how can we logically say that it can ever be right to exclude consideration of consequences? We must at least examine the probable consequences of an act sufficiently to feel reasonably sure that it will have none of those extreme results which, it is admitted, would have the effect of suspending the moral rule upon which it is proposed to act. The only people who have really carried out the doctrine that apparently self-evident moral rules cannot be modified by the consequences, however socially disastrous, of disobeying them to anything like its logical results, are those who (like Count Leo Tolstoi) preach the doctrine of unlimited submission to force, unlimited giving to mendicants and the like. And here common-sense Intuitionism decidedly declines to follow.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 7)

(iv) The above considerations may probably lead on to the reflection that after all some reference to consequences is really included in every moral rule. Indeed, you cannot really distinguish an act from its present or foreseeable consequences. The consequences, in so far as they can be foreseen, are actually part of the act. You cannot carry out any rule whatever without some consideration of consequences. You cannot obey the rule of Benevolence without asking whether giving money in the street really is Benevolence; and that depends upon whether it will actually have the effect of doing ultimate good to those to whom you give and others who may be affected by the expectation of similar assistance which your act creates. You cannot obey the command Thou shalt not kill without considering whether the trigger that you pull will actually discharge a bullet, how far the bullet is likely to travel, what it will meet with on the way, and (if it is likely to hit any one) whether that person is on the point of shooting somebody else, or is a peaceable and inoffensive fellow-citizen. What would be the meaning of asking whether drunkenness would be wrong if it did not make a man incoherent in his talk, irrational in his judgements, unsteady in his gait, and irresponsible in his behaviour? Drunkenness taken apart from all its consequences would not be drunkenness. Once admit that consequences must be considered at all, and it is arbitrary to stop at any particular point in the calculus of social effects. You are not really in a position to pronounce upon the morality of the act until you have the completest view that circumstances enable you to take of the whole train of events which will be started by your contemplated volition. Until you have formed that estimate of consequences, you do not really know what you are doing: at any point in the vast orbit of changes which spreads from every human action, like the widening ripple that radiates from a stone dropped in smooth water, it is always theoretically possible that some circumstances may be discovered which may remove the case from the category to which your moral rule refers.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 8)

No doubt in practice it is often imperative that we should act without this elaborate investigation: but the very enquiry how long ought I to deliberate before I act? is precisely one of those questions upon which it is impossible to discover any intuitive rule containing no reference to the probable consequences--the consequences, that is to say, on the one hand of deliberating too much, and on the other of not deliberating enough. If there are cases in which our moral consciousness clearly bids us do something or other at once without thinking of consequences, it will be found that these cases are precisely those in which excessive deliberation would be likely to lead to harmful results. To stay and reflect upon all the consequences which might be expected to flow from obeying or resisting the impulse to plunge into the water after a drowning man would very rapidly place the former alternative out of the question; to encourage the habit of prolonged deliberation in such cases would be to make gallant attempts at rescues few, and successful rescues fewer. It is therefore considered enough to justify the attempt that a man knows he is a good swimmer, that the sea is not exceptionally rough, and that it is not certain that the attempt will fail. Three are, of course, scores of cases in which it is right to act on short deliberation: but it will probably be found, on analysis, that it is some consequence of allowing people to deliberate upon which the judgement is ultimately based. It is a commonplace of utilitarian Ethics that many things must be avoided altogether which might in exceptional cases have good effects just because exceptions, if admitted at all, would have a tendency to become too numerous[68].(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 9)

(v) Still more obviously does the existence of contradictory moral intuitions compel an appeal to consequences. When the duty of Benevolence collides with the duty of Veracity, or the claim of one individual to immediate relief with the duty of doing what is best for society on the whole, how shall we determine which rule is to take precedence? It is no use to say with Dr. Martineau Act in obedience to the highest motive[69]; for it is impossible to pronounce one motive higher than another in the abstract, without reference to circumstances. If I were to pronounce Veracity invariably a higher motive than Benevolence, I could never tell a lie or employ a detective to tell one for me, to avoid the extremest social disaster. If, one the other hand, I pronounce Benevolence higher than Veracity and every other possible motive, I have practically adopted the utilitarian principle, and Veracity would have always to give way to Benevolence, whenever there was the slightest collision between them. But neither solution of the problem seems to satisfy the demands of our moral consciousness. The first view strikes us as too rigorous, the last as too lax. What our actual moral judgement seems to say is, that in such collisions it is the amount of the unveracity or the amount of the inhumanity that will have to determine which rule is to give way. And this cannot be ascertained without a calculation of consequences. If once it be admitted that under any possible combination of circumstances I may tell a lie (however strongly one may feel the practical inexpediency of entering upon such a calculation in all ordinary cases), I must still feel bound to examine the circumstances sufficiently to be pretty sure that there is no probability of this turning out to be one of those extreme or exceptional cases in which the lie would be warranted. In general, of course, this hasty survey of the consequences is so instantaneously performed as to escape notice altogether. A truthful man acts at once on the general rule unless he detects something in the circumstances which seems to call for further consideration.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 10)

(vi) While the foregoing objections may be urged against many of the alleged intuitions to which intuitional Moralists appeal, there are some which do submit to the tests which have been found fatal to the claim for absolute and final validity on the part of the rest. The axioms of Prudence, Rational Benevolence, and Equity do possess the clearness and definiteness and freedom from self-contradiction which other alleged intuitions so conspicuously lack. It does on reflection strike us as self-evident that I ought to promote my own good on the whole (where no one else's good is affected), that I ought to regard a larger good for society in general as of more intrinsic value than a smaller good, and that one man's good is (other things being equal) of as much intrinsic value as any other man's. But these axioms, so far from throwing any doubt upon the truth of Utilitarianism, are precisely the maxims upon which Utilitarianism itself is founded for those who attempt to base the duty of promoting pleasure upon its intrinsic rightness or reasonableness. In the acceptance of those maxims as genuine moral axioms, Sidgwick has, as we have seen, laid the foundations for a reconciliation between Intuitionism and Utilitarianism. But the acceptance of these axioms does not make in favour of the kind of Intuitionism which it is the object of this chapter to examine; for these are precisely the axioms upon which Utilitarianism itself is based. Such intuitions do not forbid us--on the contrary they expressly require and compel us--to attend to the consequences of actions, and to make our judgement about them depend upon their tendency to promote a universal good.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 ¶ 11)

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 n. 1. It is probable that many Intuitionists would hold a position midway between these extreme views. They would hold that some rules are intuitively discerned to be of absolute obligation, while in other cases the decision must be left to the intuitive judgement of the moment. It may be asked where we are to find examples of the Intuitionist presupposed by the Utilitarian polemics. To a large extent no doubt he is a man of straw set up to be knocked down again. It will generally be found that most of the writers usually associated with the name make larger admissions than the popular exponents or assailants of this view recognize as to the necessity of considering consequences and the paramount duty of promoting the general good properly understood. But it cannot be denied that Bishop Butler (especially in the Dissertation of Virtue) and Reid have approximated to this position. The writer who seems specially to have introduced the term intuition as the note of a School is Richard Price, but that writer's admissions are so simple that he ends by virtually resolving all duties into Benevolence, understood in a non-hedonistic sense, and Justice. His Review of the principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals (1769) I regard as the best work published on Ethics till quite recent times. It contains the gist of the Kantian doctrine without Kant's confusions. In this chapter it must be understood that I am criticizing a type of opinion and not any particular writer.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 n. 2. Some of Mr. Bradley's utterances in Ethical Studies and elsewhere seem to constitute the only exception known to me. This position will be further discussed in the last chapter of this work.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 n. 3. Assuming such to be the fact, as is sometimes alleged, though the truth may be that they have no words or other signs for higher numbers.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 n. 4. It is threefore quite reasonable to hold that some acts may properly be forbidden by Morality, just as others are forbidden by law, because (though often harmless) there is a probable balance of harm in allowing the practice at all. Law forbids my crossing the line except by the bridge (although the practice is quite safe for an able-bodied man in full possession of all his faculties) because my indulging in it has a tendency to encourage imitation in the feeble, the elderly, and the deaf, who are likely to be run over. It is quite reasonable to urge that even moderate gambling ought to be forbidden by public opinion on much the same grounds. Until public opinion has forbidden it, I am not, indeed, at liberty to treat the man who plays whist for sixpences as a moral offender. But, if I think that society would do well to adopt as its rule the total condemnation of gambling, it is my duty under ordinary circumstances to abstain from it myself, and to do what in me lies (short of censoriously condemning individuals who differ from me) to bring about the adoption of this rule. Those who will not under any possible circumstances admit that abusus tollit usum would find it difficult to justify a whole host of accepted moral rules which rest on this principle. The whole social code which restricts the time, place, and circumstances of social intercourse between the sexes is based on this principle. Acts in themselves harmless are forbidden altogether because experience shows that they are liable to lead to bad consequences in some cases.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 1 n. 5. This doctrine is developed in the first part of the second volume of Types of Ethical Theory.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 1. I wish for the present to avoid as far as possible metaphysical discussion, and therefore content myself with saying that by a priori I mean merely that the judgement is immediate--not obtained by inference or deduction from something else in the way in which the Utilitarian supposes his judgements to be deductions from rules got by generalization from experience (though, as I have explained, he always assumes the ultimate major premiss Pleasure is good). That in another sense judgements of value are not independent of experience, I shall hereafter strongly insist, especially in the next chapter.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 2. I speak of course in a rough and relative sense. We could form no judgement upon the worth of an act or a state of mind without some general knowledge of its relation to life as a whole. The illustrations will, I trust, sufficiently explain my meaning.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 3. This point has been well put by Dr. McTaggart. But is a moral criterion, he asks, wanted at all? It might be maintained that it was not. It would only be wanted, it might be said, if we decided our actions by general rules, which we do not. Our moral action depends on particular judgements that A is better than B, which we recognize with comparative immediacy, in the same way that we recognize that one plate is hotter than another, or one picture more beautiful than another. It is on these particular intuitive judgements of value, and not on general rules, that our moral action is based.

This seems to me a dangerus exaggeration of an important truth. It is quite true that, if we did not begin with such judgements, we should have neither morality nor ethics. But it is equally true that we should have neither morality nor ethics if we stopped, where we must begin, with these judgements, and treated them as decisive and closing discussion. For our moral judgements are hopelessly contradictory of one another. (Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, p. 97.)

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 4. It is an extremely difficult question to say how far in such matters Hedonism would be bound to accept the verdict of the persons themselves. For we often deceive ourselves as to the pleasurableness of pleasures not immediately present, even when we have some experience to go upon, and yet such false estimates are causes of further pleasures and pains--pleasures or pains of expectation, imagination, or retrospect--which must themselves come into the calculus.