Monday, December 12, 2005

intuitions?

I'll start us off with a meaty topic.

I am often baffled by the heavy reliance on intuitions in ethics. An unnamed professor in class (let's call him Shmoriarty) recently said "it's all we have!" Yet this concerns me. I understand that we all have intuitions that affect our opinions on ethical matters, but why should an intuition JUSTIFY an ethical conclusion?

I have seen philosophers scoff at ethical relativism, yet defend their intuitions as sensible justification for moral beliefs. It seems to me that intuitionism (and lesser degrees of the reliance on intuitions) boils down to relativism pretty quickly unless we think that everyone has the same intuitions. A brief look back at history (slavery, subjugation of women) informs us that intuitions about a lot of things have changed over time. Why should one's current intuitions have such a sturdy claim on our morals? Shouldn't we all be willing to say that I have intuition X, but in light of argument Y it appears intuition X could be false?

I don't think I am arguing that ethics can be done without a single reference to an intuition (though I suspect it might be possible). I'm wondering what the proper role for intuitions should be. Assuming full blown intuitionism is mistaken, most ethicists rely on intuitions far more than I am comfortable with.

What say the newly assembled BG bloggers?

(webmaster addition)Relevant Articles:
Moral Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

37 comments:

  1. First, I think you're right to be concerned with the large role being played by intuitions in ethical theory. It seems to me that ethics could perhaps be done without any appeal to our intuitions, or at least without appealing to them as normative forces.

    Your post points to two distinct problems. First, there is the problem of the ubiquity of our intuitions. I think that many would argue that their appeal to intuitions in moral philosophy is in the hopes of discovering either than most (or all) agree with them or that there is someone else who can shed new inuitive light on the situation, eventually leading to agreement. The second problem is that, even if an agreement were to be reached, we would still be left with that old "is-ought" gap. Even if every single person in the world believed that, say, rape was wrong, why would this have any force as a moral law? It would simply be a fact that everyone believed it, but if someone were to be born who believed otherwise, why should the unanimity of our belief affect their convictions?

    Obviously, these are not questions I will attempt to fully address here, especially as I suspect that our intuitions are neither ubiquitous nor have normative force. In fact, I suspect that a large number of arguments over inuitions boil down to disagreements of linguistic intuitions rather than moral ones. But that is for another time.

    I would like to briefly address the question of whether or not ethics could conceivably be done without moral intuitions. I think that many who wish to escape intuitions look to consequentialism, which, though I think it is ultimately the best option, is still somewhat problematic. First, consequentialists, while they may avoid questions of the "right" cannot avoid questions of the "good." Unless one can say "this is a good [or bad] consequence," consequentialism goes nowhere. I think, however, that this can be dealt with, at least for political theory, with an appeal to something less mystical than our intuitions. One might say, for example, that the purpose of a government* is to impartially protect the interests of each of its consitutents. This would make the "good" simply those cases where those interests are protected. One might say, for instance, that, rather than being morally wrong, murder cannot be tolerated because its consequence is a state in which the state has failed to prevent a harm on one of it's constituents by another. This is very rough, but you get the idea.

    The real trouble for getting away from our intuitions, I think, is that of "moral mathematics." For example, does impartiality mean that the state should save ten people rather than one or save the one if that one is "valuable" enough in some sense? It would seem that this question might be unanswerable without looking to our intuitions (though I submit that these may be linguistic intuitions rather than moral ones).

    Anyway, I have rambled on enough. I look forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.

    *I realize that this (minimal) definition of government is quite controversial. I would hope that this is not an intuitive position, however; I think that such an idea of goverment should flow naturally from our reasons for having one in the first place, namely to protect us and to formalize our communitarian (in the non-philosophical sense) instincts. Again, I submit this only as a possible answer, and accept that I have in no way argued this position here.

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  2. First off, I have an intuition that the comment on any blog post should be shorter than the blog post itself...

    I agree, Arthur, that intuitions are open for revision by appeal to something else. Maybe principle.

    Still, I think intuitions catch something important. I guess it depends on what you think an intuition is, exactly. I kind of think it's a general sense of what most people, [in a given culture/context?] generally think is right in a particular circumstance.

    Since I'm (mostly) a conventionalist about ethics, I'm happy with this, and like the use of intuitions. They nail down some set of prejudices that we can use to inform our expectations, and help guide us in the decision-making process.

    Of course intuitions are subject to change, as are, in my opinion, all moral guidelines and dictates (that doesn't mean they will change, or that they won't stay the same, just that they are subject to change, and might).

    I think of morals like I think of language. Both are conventional, both change, both have "right" and "wrong" in the proper context, both are influenced by other languages/morals, and so on.

    We have intuitions about language just like we have intuitions about morality. Those intuitions, however, depend on context. French speakers aren't going to have intuitions about English, unless the languages overlap in some significant sense, or have other interesting things in common. (Like grammar, say.)

    And just as language changes over time depending on use and other things, so, too, do morals change over time depending on some set of things. Like use. Custom. Convention.

    At any rate, all of this is to say that I think intuitions are perfectly acceptable things. Call them the sixth sense, or something, if you'd like.

    Okay, now I had better read what Faraci had to say about this. Since I just skipped what he wrote to say my piece.

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  3. Peter, it sounds like you've embraced the ethical relativist position, then. A) is this accurate? and B) does this worry you?

    If it doesn't worry you, I suppose we've got a topic for the next post.

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  4. 1) It's not clear to me why the use of intuitions leads to ethical relativism. I suspect such an argument would require an extremely slippery slope. 2) I have no idea what other sort of evidence one might cite other than intuitions. For something to even count as evidence, it would require some degree of intuition. X counts as evidence in favor of theory A, because "insert your favorite intuition or ad hoc theory of the right and good." 3) Intuitions seem to be at the heart of meta-ethical questions, in part because of the emphasis on conceptual analysis. Intuitions are our best--perhaps only--tool for conceptual analysis, and conceptual analysis plays a central role in meta-ethics, which in turn is an effort to create a foundation for a normative theory. 4) I take it "ethical-intuitionism" in the style of Ross or Moore is not what's at issue here.

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  5. What Galen said.

    But, to answer more robustly, I think I am an ethical relativist to some extent, but to what extent I'm not sure. I'm convinced, for instance, that slavery was probably ethically all right at some point in time in some places. I'm not sure where, or when, but I'm not of the school of thought that thinks all slavery everywhere and all times has been and will be unethical. I think it depends.

    But there's a difference between being a relativist within some sub-domain of ethics, and being a relativist whole-hog. So, for instance, I might believe that there are constraints on just what symbol can map onto what object-in-the-world in language. Maybe it's efficiency, maybe it's effectiveness at some task, maybe it's something else. I don't know. At any rate, I doubt that we can just use any word to mean just anything we'd like. That's what I think for morals as well. I guess the constraints there are things like stability, efficiency, and a whole host of other things (which will apply differently in different cases, and may constrain here and there differently).

    In short, I don't have a nifty slogan that captures the whole of morality. And I really doubt that one is forthcoming.

    As for B), both yes and no. I'm uncomfortable because I would prefer to have a nice, clean, and simple answer. I sort of have a non-answer at the moment (but I'm working on it), or, to put it more accurately, I have an answer that depends on lots of things, so it's not easy to put into a nifty slogan. But I'm also comfortable with it. It seems right, and doesn't rely on too many tea leaves at the bottom of the cup.

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  6. I see intuitionism (broadly speaking - a heavy reliance on intuitions - not Ross and Moore) devolving into relativism in the following sense:

    intuitions vary from culture to culture. Culture A justifies their moral code primarily through their intuitions. Culture B does the same. If either culture is presented with an argument against their ethical theory they respond by saying "that sounds very counterintuitive." what is counterintuitive is ignored. There can no longer be meaningful ethical discourse between parties. Of course, not all may see this as unfortunate.

    There are times, I'm suggesting, that philosophers commonly rebut a theory in this manner. It's no secret that I'm a utilitarian, and this is obviously where I'm coming from. Many utilitarian arguments are rebutted precisely this way: "I can see that utility might be maximized by solution y or z, but it seems intuitively wrong." To which I wish to respond, "maybe your intuitions are irrelevent here."

    To Peter:
    This corresponds nicely to what you were saying about relativism and slavery, because this problem of intuitions comes up in Hare's article "what is wrong with slavery?" He argues, like you, that he can think of a scenario in which slavery is justified from a consequentialist perspective. He expects a common objection will be that slavery seems intuitively immoral, to which he basically replies, "to hell with your intuitions, I'm presenting a real argument!" This isn't relativism, though, in his case, merely a consequentialism which can adapt to different circumstances.

    I'd like to hear from a defender of intuitions, what they think the limits are for using their intuitions as justification for an ethical position. What would make you doubt your own intuitions? If they have moral force, to what degree?

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  7. I just realized Hare's article "What is Wrong with Slavery," does not have a question mark at the end, altering slightly the meaning of the title.

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  8. I don't know much about Hare's argument, but your explanation of it immediately brings the following question to mind: On what does Hare base his conclusion that certain circumstances might justify slavery if not on his intuitions concerning what makes a situation better or worse?

    This goes back to what I said earlier with regards to consequentialists; they do not have to worry about defining the "right," but they may still have to worry about defining the "good" and it may be difficult to do this without an appeal to intuition.

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  9. Let me put my cards on the table first: I am a dirty relativist, basically with everything. And I don't think it's a bad thing. I don't see how it's avoidable, and some of my reasons for this are relevant to the current discussion.

    The role of intuitions can certainly sometimes be made to be too much in an ethical discourse, but is all mention of intuitions a bad thing? There are going to be many things that will influence an ethical decision, and to discount intuitions completely just seems like a bad idea. We might get some input for our actions from a utilitarian calculation, and we might get some input from our intuitions (what exactly makes up an intuition and what its nature is is well beyond my knowledge or this discussion). How much weight is put on these factors is going to vary, and to decide which one should have more weight will have to be based on an appeal to some sort of higher law or theory or something. But what is this higher thing? The lack of a justification for anything to be this "higher thing" is one of the main reasons I am an ethical relativist.

    Now, Arthur, you said that what Hare says (I haven't read the article) about slavery is not relativism but "merely a consequentialism which can adapt to different circumstances." How is this not relativism? If slavery can be right or wrong depending on the background conditions, that sounds just like relativism to me. If your claim that it is not relativism is because it is just the result of the utilitarian calculus (or something like it), then I can understand that. But still, the purpose of ethics is to find the right ACTION and if the correctness of actions can vary (relative to culture, time, technology, etc.), why should this not be labeled as relative?

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  10. You criticize one set of intuitions by appeal to another set of intuitions that conflicts with it, or gives greater weight to your position. Intra-moral criticism, not inter-moral criticism.

    Or you say that we have a stronger commitment to this here set of intuitions than to those over there. Or we might say that discarding this here intuition has the following consequences on these other things that we believe, and we won't like those consequences.

    Yeah, and it sort of looks like relativism.

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  11. Arthur wrote:

    "intuitions vary from culture to culture."

    Sure, but to what extent? There may be interesting cases where some "fundamental" intuitions are agreed upon in most, or all cultures. Sort of like the utterance "ta" tends to correlate well with most languages referent for dad.

    "Culture A justifies their moral code primarily through their intuitions. Culture B does the same. If either culture is presented with an argument against their ethical theory they respond by saying "that sounds very counterintuitive." what is counterintuitive is ignored."

    I disagree with this last bit. Not everything that is counterintuitive is ignored.

    "There can no longer be meaningful ethical discourse between parties."

    It depends, Arthur. If neither culture is willing to operate within the moral language of the other, then no communication will take place. I guess that sucks, but we'd be dealing with fundamentally different species, I bet. Or with people who hold really bizarre moral opinions.

    You'll find moral correlations everywhere. Look at Mill and his use of utilitarianism to justify, basically, social libertarianism. The deontological libertarian would use some talk of rights to get to the same point. There's at least the beginnings of a conversation that the two could have (although I have trouble with deontologists since there is no real budging. We have these here rights, they are just plain obvious, and we need only use some deductive mathematics to see what is the right thing to do in every case.)

    So you might, as a Culture A guy, say to the Culture B guy: "You like to do 'x'. But you have these here three other intuitions that seem to imply don't do 'x'. Abandoning the doing of 'x' means you need only abandon this one intuition, whereas continuing to do 'x' means violating these here three other intuitions. And what's more, these three other intuitions you'll like to keep, since they also support the doing of 'y' and 'z,' both of which you really, really like to do."

    Oh, wait, this leads me to this question: Is what matters to you that people do certain things (jump on one foot, or whatever), or that they do them for the right reasons? Or both? Or something else? Because culture A and B can probably agree about doing or not doing 'x,' but they may end up having really, really different stories to tell about why they do or don't do 'x.'

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  12. I'm not claiming to have a moral position that makes no use of intuitions (though, I think one might be possible), the thrust of my original post was something more modest: just that most theories rely too much on intuitions.

    I'm still interested in someone who is fond of intuitions laying out what is and is not an appropriate use of an intuition for justifying an ethical conclusion.

    Utilitarianism is flexible, but is not relativism for the following reason. The rough and ready relativist thesis holds that what is moral is just what my culture (or subgroup, etc.) believes is moral. Morality cannot be sensibly applied across groups because morality is defined by the norms of that particular group. utilitarians, of course, have no problem criticizing other groups or cultures. The rightness of actions do depend on the circumstances (and thus are relative in a superficial sense), but utilitarianism does not recognize the legitimacy of a moral theory based solely in reference to what a particular group agrees upon.

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  13. What you have described as relativism is just the narrow form of cultural relativism, which states, just as you said, that ethics is relative to cultures and their varying norms define morality, and those norms are just norms, so there's no discussion that can take place. And of course utilitarianism isn't this type of relativism.

    But this is just one form of relativism, and there is so much more (for me at least) to being a moral relativist. Why is it superficial to say that ethics is relative to circumstances? It seems pretty damn important that an action can go from being right one day to being wrong another simply because something has changed in our knowledge. Take, for example, Bentham's arguments for animal rights stemming from new physiological discoveries that showed animals might actually experience pain. The impact that that discovery would have on the ethics of certain utilitarians certainly seems more than superficial.

    Relativism also doesn't preclude intercultural (or inter-group or inter-individual or whatever) discussions. A common ground can usually be found in reason and internal consistency. Truth and facts are going to be relative individuals and groups (a contentious claim, I know), so when different groups disagree about the nature and value of facts, then it becomes more difficult to discuss. But hey, that's just going to happen, and I don't see why they both can't be right.

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  14. Hello all - like the new blog, its nice to see a philosophy blog centered on ethics.

    I tend to agree that intuition plays too large a role in moral debate (obligatory disclosure: I'm not quite a utilitarian, but close enough). Its struck me very heavily over the last year or so, particuarly since there have been a few papers I've read which try to appeal to intuitions that I very heavily reject (John Taurek's famous paper being the key example I have in mind)

    It seems to me (and the structure of this thread perhaps lends support to my theory) that we need to find a balance between saying that intuitions play no role in moral theory and that intuitions play the only role in moral theory. The former seems to make moral argument impossible (imagine a utilitarian confronted with the question "Why is happiness good?"), but the latter makes it futile (how do we square the obvious disagreements in intuitions?).

    One balance that I'm tempted by is to say an intuition is valid iff no person would deny it (that might need the rider "if they had full factual information", but I'll take that as read).

    That means that the utilitarian need not answer why happiness is valuable, only note that everyone agrees that it is, in general, good. Of course, we might end up valuing things other than happiness (perhaps everyone also agrees that freedom is good), but we certainly will not end up placing prohibitions on things so culturally sensitive as infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, slavery etc., except in so far as those things impact on those others that we do value.

    Thoughts?

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  15. This Post Rests on a Mistake

    It can be difficult to keep track of all the conversations going on here, so I'll attempt to make it clear from the start the only thing I care to discuss here: the presumption that heavy reliance on intuitions leads to relativism (of some sort).

    The argument that has been given by Arthur is:

    intuitions vary from culture to culture. Culture A justifies their moral code primarily through their intuitions. Culture B does the same. If either culture is presented with an argument against their ethical theory they respond by saying "that sounds very counterintuitive." what is counterintuitive is ignored. There can no longer be meaningful ethical discourse between parties. Of course, not all may see this as unfortunate.

    Hold the phone... we just moved from a claim about epistemological evidence that justifies a position to the metaphysical status of a position. This argument is enthymatic, missing the following premise which to me is clearly false (my intuition): (a) If intuitions differ from person to person or group to group, then the truth of moral propositions must be relative. Whether or not you think this premise is true will partly determine whether or not you're a relativist, but it certainly isn't necessarily true.

    I, for example, am (1) a big fan of intuitions, and I think that (2) they're all we've got, and (3) this problem is endemic to every field of philosophy.

    (1) Yeah, intuitions! I noted that (a) is not necessarilly true, because you can grant that every one has different intuitions and further grant that they're unreliable, but still hold that some view is objectively correct. You'll partly be admitting that we may never come to know which one is correct, but that really shouldn't come as a shock. Furthermore, the acceptance of (a) relies an an intuition, and it's unclear to me how accepting relativism really avoids the bigger issue with respect to Arthur's question. Relativism is no more *justified* than the next theory if it all just boils down to intuitions. Which leads to (2).

    (2) They're all we got. Now, this isn't totally true, but insofar as evaluative claims are concerned, they are all we have. Now empirical claims may come to bear on a thought experiment or an analogous real world situation, but empirical claims don't imply anything on their own. It takes an inferential claim to come to some conclusion given a set of empirical facts. The strenth of that inferential claim (even for deductive systems) relies on some intuitions about good and bad arguments. If we're going to be evaluating anything, then we're going to be relying on some intuitions (maybe not even our own!). This leads to (3).

    (3) Since I've implied that virtually every argument relies on some intuitions, then it seems to follow that all branches of philosophy deal with this issue. Whether you're a utilitarian using intuitions about the maximizing the good (totally intuition laiden, why not satisfice?), or a physicalist about properties. You're going to be relying on intuitions to move from factual claims to your conclusion.

    In sum, intuitions play a central role in all arguments. What probably makes ethical arguments more contentious is that it isn't merely inferential claims that our intuitive, sometimes the acceptance of facts of the situation rely on intuitions (namely, something like determining, does this even count as suicide?). The thing to bear in mind is that these intuitions do not imply relativism. [especially if you have an intuition that they don't ;-)]

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  16. Galen,

    let me back down a bit from the relativism-intuition claim. The source of my complaint, I suppose, is that ethical debate can devolve to something approximating relativism if party A is allowed to rebut the argument of party B largely because B's argument is counterintuitive to A.

    Are we to rely on intuitions in this way to support an argument? Where do intuition-lovers draw the line between justified and unjustified reliance on intuitions in ethics?

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  17. Great comment, Galen.

    A question: Do you think intuitions are primitive, or something else is? It seems to me that you think they are, since you say that they are (mostly) all we've got.

    But what do you say to people who think that theory informs intuitions and vice versa? That intuitions themselves may be theory-laden in some interesting respects?

    In particular, I'm curious if you think this is a problem for the view that you've expressed here, or if the dialectical nature of intuitions and theory is just a bit of a more complicated story? (Unless, of course, you don't think theory informs intuitions, that intuitions somehow by-pass theory, or something similar).

    I'd like to hear your story because, at the moment, it looks like I agree with you about the epistemology of ethics.

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  18. To Arthur and Peter, [your names make feel like I'm giving a speach at the Round-Table]

    I appreciate that you guys read that post. I had nightmares about it all night... seriously, I was dreaming about how I was going to write that post. It's comforting to know I'm no longer alone in my nightmare.

    Arthur, you've asked a number of important questions, and I'm remiss that my responses will not be satisfying. I'll take them in turn.

    "Are we to rely on intuitions in this way to support an argument?" I think it can be a little academically dishonest to say we've 'rebutted' someone elses argument because our intuitions are different. That's no rebutle in my book. Certainly, it raises important issues to a moral theory when we have different intuitions, but to what extent depends on the role the intuition is playing in that theory. I guess I argued that intuitions are playing lots of supporting roles, and because of this we should hesitent to say we rebutted or justified/proved a theory with intuitions. Maybe 'hesitent' is too weak a word here. It's laughable to me when this is done, so pick your place on the scale from laughable to hesitant. The point is that, while I love intuitions, I don't think they prove or disprove anything (justify or render unjustified). That said, I hold that they're *indicators* of *possible* problems. If we present a theory, and we get slammed by an audience because they have different intuitions, we should take that into consideration, but we certainly needn't throw our theory out. I think the important take-home, after-school-special point is to not expect that you'll ever get the be all, end all argument in favor of your theory. [I just felt a small part of me die when I typed that.]

    "Where do intuition-lovers draw the line between justified and unjustified reliance on intuitions in ethics?" Well I can't speak for us all, but I accept as justified the ones I like and share. Just joshing... well not really. It depends on what a particular intuition is doing. If it's doing all of the theoretical work, then I think there's probably a problem. For example, I would not accept the following argument as a good: All murder is wrong, because this is intuitively obvious. Well, it may be true that all murder is wrong definitionally, murder is the wrongful killing of another, but setting that aside, I think the point is clear. A single premise, which is an intuition, supporting a conclusion is a bad idea. Of course, most all intuitive points are at base, something like this, but few are drawing such grandios conclusions. Typically the strength of the intuition is a function of who accepts it. After all, the point is to get others to accept our argument, or at least avoid being called crazy. If you're using intuitions, my advice is to use as many as you can that are shared by others. This does NOT make them stronger or better or more justified, necessarily, but it makes the argument go forward easier. If you're at odds about an intuition with someone, then the argument needs a shift to intuitions that you both accept. [again, don't attribute a strength in numbers argument here, it's more of a pragmatic point]

    Ok, so on to you Master Peter. I don't know nothin bout no primitive, so I'm inclined to something else. Actually, all joshing aside, I don't know. I suspect intuitions are just whether or not we're ok with *accepting* or not *accepting* some conclusion. I think my response to Arthur here is poignant. We accept because we want to or like to, we deny because we're uncomfortable with or dislike something. Now that doesn't really answer why or what intuitions are, so much as pushes the problem back a little. Intuitions are mostly theory laden, and by theory I mean experience. "Theory-laden" intuitions are just intuitions supported by a frame work of other intuitions... maybe this makes them primative, but more likely it means that I think there are multiple orders of intuitions. At rock bottom they're just what we want or would like to be the case, but higher order or "theory laden" ones have a lot more dressing.

    I don't think I answered either of your questions well. My apologies. I'll give it more thought.

    p.s. Hare's Language of Morals has a great discussion of some of these issues. Not to mention (but I'm gonna) the moral twin earth stuff... also, Nagel or Nozik as a piece trying to justify liberalism that deals with this. It fails (although my grade didn't reflect my success in showing such).

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  19. Arthur - we might distinguish between core intuitions that tend to ground some significant set of ethical claims, and intuitions that have weaker links to various ethical claims, or connect up to fewer of them.

    I suspect there is little hope in arguing about core intuitions. Either someone thinks impartiality matters (at least to some extent), or they don't. Either they think something like more benefit over harm is ethically good (with, maybe, exceptions) or they don't, and so on. And either they place greater weight on core intuitions, or they don't.

    My suspicion is that all intuitions draw on some common set of core intuitions in some way. It would be right to rely on intuitions at the core, fundamental level, but relying on intuitions at the periphery would probably be unjustified. This is because something else, a chain of reasoning, maybe, or some other kind of linkage between core and peripheral intuitions, can be mistaken, or can be shown to clash with a core intuition. If you're dealing with someone who cares about consistency, then you can get somewhere.

    Maybe the relationship is something like the following. We have intuitions about particular cases. We can probably distinguish between what is common about all of these intuitions, or, at least, some smaller set of intuitions that tie the rest of them together somehow. Like colours. Red, Green, and Blue are primary (core) because all other colours can be derived from them. Or like the stuff of the universe. Water, Air, Earth and Fire are primary because everything else can be derived from these (ha ha, oh snap!).

    Back to colours: If someone were to present you with a book and say that they intuit it is a colour (and there's nothing funny going on with how they use language), you could probably say that their intuition is wrong/unjustified, and appeal to all the other things they believe are colours to show them that they need to scrap this intuition if they want to keep the others.

    Alternatively, you might put to them the theory we have about colours, show them just how much other colour-related stuff is explained by it, illustrate its usefulness, show it accords with generally approved-of criteria (desiderata) about colours, and hope they change their mind about this here book being a colour.

    Suppose they don't change their mind. Then either they disagree with the criteria for a colour and have a story to tell about it (or not, in which case walk away), they think it is an exception to the rule and want to stick with it, or something else.

    I can see why colours are a pretty poor analogy, but I can't think of anything else at the moment.

    We might have first-order, second-order, third-order, and so on, sets of intuitions, with each set in the last category relying on the category before it.

    Suppose we intuit that lying is wrong. We explain the intuition by appeal to a story like: it treats people as means, and we have a stronger intuition (suppose it's second-order and not, like Kant might think, first-order) about it being wrong to treat people like that. But someone gives us a case where not-lying leads to some disastrous outcome. Suppose we have a first-order intuition that disastrous outcomes are to be avoided. The first-order intuition takes precedence over the others, and we go ahead and lie, and are justified in doing so. Relying on third-order intuitions (assuming everyone agrees that it really is a third-order thing) is unjustified.

    Suppose instead we are dealing with a Kantian who holds that what we've called a second-order intuition (not treating people as means) is, in fact, a first-order intuition, and avoiding disastrous outcomes is only a second-order intuition. Then we don't lie. But relying on the intuition about lying itself is still unjustified, and needs to be justified by appeal to more core intuitions.

    Supposing we think 'don't lie' is a first-order intuition, then we are justified in appealing to it.

    Supposing we think all three are first-order, irreducible, intuitions (don't lie, don't treat people as means, avoid disastrous outcomes), then either we are in a genuine ethical dilemma with no way out (so flip a coin, or whatever), or we appeal to some further intuition about all intuitions like when possible, avoid violating more first-order intuitions when you can violate fewer of them (oh, oh, I'm suspecting that this last begs the question...).

    So my answer is: We are justified in relying on first-order intuitions, all of the rest relying on them in some way. I think all successful ethical theories tease out one or two or a set of these first-order intuitions. Utilitarianism probably draws on 'avoid disastrous outcomes,' 'avoid harming,' 'promote benefits,' 'be impartial,' and so on which, I guess (and the particular instances I've given could all be wrong) are first-order intuitions which utilitarianism puts into a neat and simple theory with a catchy slogan.

    But my really, really strong suspicion is that utilitarians are like Heraclitus who say everything is water, and tell nifty stories about how that is so. For instance, I can't be impartial between my daughter and your daughter, and doubt that I ought to be. I think 'be partial to those who relate to you in particular ways' (I hope you get what I mean there, I see it isn't so clear) *is* a moral ought, and not a moral flaw. That's like my irreducible fire to your water, and I don't think I'll budge.

    I just spent the entire morning writing this. And I just bet that there are posts above this one that I'm either repeating, or offer something that will cause me to revise the view I've just presented. Do forgive.

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  20. Love the new blog! All power to the new blog!

    And this is a very interesting issue that you guys used to kick off the blog. Let me make a few comments, some of which are at least touched on a bit in the previous comments.

    First we need to understand better what we mean when we talk of intuitions. Jaworski’s latest post starts this task. Here are a few examples that show the range of cases that one might have in mind in speaking of intuitions. 1) I just feel that it is right to flip the switch in the trolley case. 2) I think that ethical egoism is conceptually confused. Ethics, if it is real, must be a constraint on what one may do to pursue one’s own interests. 3) I think ethical properties, if they are real, must enter into causal relations with more familiar kinds of entities.

    I suspect everyone thinks (1) above counts as an intuition. But do people agree that (2) and/ or (3) are or are not? There is a danger that we are talking past each other because we do not share an understanding of what an intuition is. Is just any hunch on any topic an intuition or is the concept narrower than that?

    Further, is the complaint especially against ethical intuitions or does it apply to the justificatory force of any intuition, whether the topic is ethics or something else? If the former, what makes ethical intuitions especially suspect (or does the upshot of the suspect nature of intuition create problems outside of ethics)?

    Another issue is, is the opponent (the one who leans heavily on intuitions) seen to claim that matching up with “our” intuitions is part of what makes a moral claim/theory true or do they claim that matching up with our intuitions is an important part of what justifies a moral claim. The former view could be seen as justifying relativism about what is true ethically, the latter claim could be seen as justifying relativism about what the morally justified beliefs are for various groups.

    But even after we sort out the above hard issues, it seems to me serious issues are likely to remain. Suppose we think that, however we understand the term, intuitions cannot bear the weight placed on them in ethics. I think non-cognitivism is likely to be the main beneficiary of such a thought. Perhaps this is because I think moral relativism is (at least close to) conceptually confused. Consider ordinary truth, as in, “it is true that the cat is on the mat.” For my money, if it is true that the cat is on the mat, this must be true for everyone. It can’t be true for you but not me that the cat is on the mat (so long as we are talking about the same time, cat, and mat). The concept of truth requires that if there is a truth of the matter, that there be only one such truth for all—of course different things can be justified for me and you, but different things cannot be true for me and you. One might well deny that there is any truth to be had in ethics, but if there is truth, again I think such thought apply. Thus my hunch is that once we head towards a relativism that says that it is true for me that x is morally right but not true for you that x is morally right (again assuming we are each discussing the same kind of case).

    Now one might rightly say that what is proper etiquette can vary from culture to culture with no threat of non-cognitivism about etiquette. We can see how what makes an etiquette claim true could be determined by features of a culture. But to my ear, at least, morality seem different. When we talk about etiquette we understand that we are talking about only local standards. When we talk about morality we aspire to talk about universal standards of the sort that apply to the cat on the mat case. So, to my ear, relativism (in addition to being normatively unattractive) misses the characteristic content of our moral claims. Such claims are more like claims of ordinary truth than like claims of local standards.

    But this last bit is admittedly controversial and really has to do with what the upshot would be if it could be established that intuitions cannot bear the weight that is typically placed on them in ethical argument (and, I guess I was assuming, that weight cannot be picked up in other ways).

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  21. Ok, ok, there is no way I'm going to be able to incorporate every single comment into my response. Thus, to display impartiality, I won't respond to any of them (specifically.)

    There is a specific point I want to make about local norms, vs. more general principles apparently grounded in intuitions. Community norms never pretend to exist in a vacuum; they're always tied to roles, institutions, etc, that provide the form of the community we're talking about.

    This is MUCH to do with the function I think norms usually play in coordinating individuals and increasing the efficacy of their actions. But, as we know, the stories we tell ourselves about the origin of a convention often have little to do with its true origin.

    However, one might argue, false stories (about the gods, about the terrible things that happen to people who violate norms, etc) may sustain social structure better than stories about the purely functional value of a convention (especially if that value accrues more to some -- say, property holders -- than to others.)

    Intuitions, I want to say, if they're going to have maximum motivational "bite" are going to need to connect to the stories already operating on the ground. Otherwise, an intuition will just be a less effective way of stating something that people already believe; or, if not that, then merely a statement of a philosopher's prejudice that isn't going to convince anyone but other philosophers.

    That's not to say that you won't get motivational "bite" without granting some credence to the stories people tell themselves. But I also worry about what the alien prejudices of an ivory tower philosopher do to "regular people" who try to incorporate them into their moral decision making.

    Conventions, I want to argue, develop out of the same institutions that are greatly responsible for determining an individual's identity -- how he sees himself in the world. Abstracting away from those conventions is going to leave us with principles that will be inevitably alienating and under-motivating for the people who try to embody those principles into their lives.

    That has a lot to do with why I'm a relativist, in any event.

    (And I know my name is spelled wrong.. I did it on purpose, I swear!)

    Terrence

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  22. We cannot do without our moral intuitions in ethical disagreements any more than we can do without semantic intuitions when we disagree about the meaning of words. If we abandon intutions, then what is to guide our inquiry? Without our intuitions to contrain us, "analysis" will just turn to stipulation, as it does in language if we go it alone instead of consulting, say, a dictionary. But this is not to give the game away to the conventionalist. In trying to reach reflective equilbirium with others who don't share some of our intutions, each of us may alter or abandon certain conventional intuitions as we go, but this has to happen Neurath's boat-style. There's at least this much truth in conventionalism -- it's our necessary starting place.


    You may ask, 'What about those who don't share any of our intuitions?' Here I think Davidson is right that the very idea of a (radically different) conceptual scheme is incoherent. Why think a person can conceive of the good at all if she doesn't share any of your core intuitions?

    You may ask, then, 'What about communities who have bankrupt (by our lights) moral intutions -- for instance, communities who permit or encourage the torture of infidels, chattel slavery, or free market capitalism?' So long as we can find some core intutions to agree upon, which we have here by hypothesis, then we can at least get off the ground. Perhaps that's all we can ask for in ethics . . . and it's quite a lot. For there are many features about human beings and our environment that our (more or less) constant across cultures and over time, and this provides some stablility and substance to our discussion/theory-construction.


    Perhaps a cookbook could be full of instructions on how to prepare combinations of mud, nails, lighter fluid and excrement; just as an ethical theory could be a collection of axioms and systemtic inferences about why we should do a variety of harmful and silly things. The fact that these are degenerate examples must guide us, lest we feast on those meals and follow those rules.

    Concepts without intuitions are blind.

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  23. "We cannot do without our moral intuitions in ethical disagreements any more than we can do without semantic intuitions when we disagree about the meaning of words. If we abandon intutions, then what is to guide our inquiry? Without our intuitions to contrain us, "analysis" will just turn to stipulation, as it does in language if we go it alone instead of consulting, say, a dictionary."

    I don't think anyone is talking about completing abandoning intuitions, and, as an example, language tends to work in favor of the conventionalist. Language is "arbitrary but not capricious." Dictionaries reflect common usage. As I recall, a word has to have been used consistently at least 13 times before it makes it into the dictionary. In other words, some consensus on the norms of language must already exist before dictionary-writing activity is really possible.

    We already have a great deal of consensus on some norms. As I was trying to say, that has a lot to do with the reason we have them in the first place (effecient social coordination.)

    But now suppose we have a community of speakers who define a term one way, and we come along with a dictionary in hand to tell them that, no, the proper meaning of "atheism" is something else, something almost entirely alien to the way they currently use the term. Dictionaries don't get us out of stipulation: they only give the stipulators something else to stamp their feet upon.

    What you should want is a dictionary that is appropriate to the pre-existing language norms of THAT community; but, then again, the people in that community probably had one all put together before the philosopher arrived on the scene to tell them why his dictionary is better. Sort of like a used car salesman who passes off a battered old Honda as the greatest innovation on four wheels.

    "So long as we can find some core intutions to agree upon, which we have here by hypothesis, then we can at least get off the ground. Perhaps that's all we can ask for in ethics . . . and it's quite a lot. For there are many features about human beings and our environment that our (more or less) constant across cultures and over time, and this provides some stablility and substance to our discussion/theory-construction."

    The problem I have is the idea that "core intuitions" must be the most general, least conditional, etc. I agree that their are common environmental factors, etc that have resulted in some norms that are accepted in almost all communities.

    But if you check the data (I take this from Pinker's Blank Slate book and something I read from E.O. Wilson a while back), the most universally accepted taboo is that against _mother-son incest._ Not exactly the kind of general moral principle the philosophers usually drag down from the mountain of their intuition, is it?

    I think incest prohibitions make a lot of sense. But they're also rather particular, in the sense that not a lot of other moral rules, etc can be said to logically follow from them. At the same time, they're not perceived of as mere rules of etiquette, like using one kind of fork for salad and another for dessert. Nor can I say a priori that they are "degenerate rules" as in the previous poster's thought experiment.

    What is really objectionable about the thought experiment is not that the recipes chosen are inherently "gross", but that the ingredients were chosen arbitrarily. I am sure with a little research I could come up with real-world recipes from all over the world that would strike us as equally disgusting. So what? The difference would be that I would have paid attention to the culinary customs operating in a given society, instead of coming to them with my moral dictionary open, ready to replace their dietary habits with something more to my own liking.

    This difference gives me one great advantage: knowing a lot about the habits they already have would help me do more to change them, if that is what I desired. Even if I do suspect that, deep down, I have the one true guide to nutrition/morality/etc, what sense is there in hitting people over the head with it?

    Terrence

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  24. You may ask, then, 'What about communities who have bankrupt (by our lights) moral intutions -- for instance, communities who permit or encourage the torture of infidels, chattel slavery, or free market capitalism?'

    I think you meant to write "non-free market capitalism," Pax...

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  25. If no one is really advocating "completely abandoning intuitions," then I suppose the question has to be which kinds of intuitions ought to be used in ethical theory and not the amount used. The original post mentioned "heavy reliance" on intuitions, but it seems to me that the issue is not heavy versus light reliance, but whether certain kinds of intuitions are necessary or helpful at all. Anyway, I don't think there is any meaningful way to count intuitions to see whether there are too many or too few in the neighborhood. By 'intuition' I assume we mean something like 'considered judgment', that is, one that is backed by some more general principles or at least by particular reasons. Not any ol' judgment that is uttered by or occurs to a person counts. Or perhaps we could be more empirically-minded and treat each utterance/occurrence as one data point and then treat the good kinds of intuitions (qua considered judgments) as those that have the greatest statistical frequency in a community. The analogue with a dictionary would, then, be made stronger. But I suspect that this stastical frequency approach won't give us the normativity we are after.


    Torrence writes, "But now suppose we have a community of speakers who define a term one way, and we come along with a dictionary in hand to tell them that, no, the proper meaning of "atheism" is something else, something almost entirely alien to the way they currently use the term. Dictionaries don't get us out of stipulation: they only give the stipulators something else to stamp their feet upon." - - Now, I'm not sure I understand this. If they use the word 'atheism' to refer to squares with dots in the middle of them, then clearly we use the same word to refer to different concepts. So there's no disagreement at all if we start disputing about 'atheism' as opposed to disputing the merits of believing there is no God (regardless of what they call it). Obviously we have to be talking about the same concept in order to make disagreement intelligible. So there is no swapping out of dictionaries -- a dictionary that does not track normal use is no dictionary at all.


    I agree that the most widely shared intuitions will be the most universal and least conditional. I suppose that's what makes them universal. But the point about taboos seems to miss its mark. After all, its the reasons behind the taboos that are relevant and not the taboos themselves. There is likely massive divergence in terms of people's justifications for this taboo (e.g. 'God hates it'; 'It compounds genetic flaws'; 'You will be killed by the state or your father, if you engage in it', etc.) The incest taboo is no moral principle at all -- it is a social practice that is shored up by a (potentially) very wide range of considerations.


    The disgusting recipe analogy: I agree that one could find real-life recipes that we would find disgusting. Anyway, as you say, "So what?" There will be variation at the level of application of various standards, whatever they turn out to be. I assume that we agree that one can endorse a robust role for intuitions in ethics and not be saddled with the impossible task of showing that morality is determinate in every case. So, again, the idea that the philosopher will replace the judgments of others is a straw-man. The point of saying that the standards are universal is that the other person, to the extent that we think they have the concept of The Good at all, shares them. Consequently, these standards will be few and very abstract.

    (p.s. Nope. I meant free market capitalism.)

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  26. Oops. The above post by "B." is actually me. I'm not yet accustomed to blogging. Sorry.

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  27. "Obviously we have to be talking about the same concept in order to make disagreement intelligible."

    I'm not sure what you mean by "make disagreement intelligible." Are you saying that every time people engage in behavior that can descriptively be called disagreement that they're already talking about the same concepts? I'm not even sure of what I mean most of the time until I'm already some way into the process of disagreement.

    More, according to the view of norm development that a few of us here hold, norms develop spontaneously -- the product of human action, but not human design. If this is the case, then of course disagreements about norms may begin without the norm being conceptualized AT ALL.

    "So there is no swapping out of dictionaries -- a dictionary that does not track normal use is no dictionary at all."


    My point is, basically, normal use implies a certain reference class to which the use is considered normal. In the case of moral norms, I wanted to say, the reference class is going to be the community in which the norms actually evolved. That's what I meant by a community that has already agreed on the usage of a term. If they've agreed, then giving them a moral "dictionary" containing different definitions isn't going to do much to improve communication.

    "There is likely massive divergence in terms of people's justifications for this taboo (e.g. 'God hates it'; 'It compounds genetic flaws'; 'You will be killed by the state or your father, if you engage in it', etc.) The incest taboo is no moral principle at all -- it is a social practice that is shored up by a (potentially) very wide range of considerations."

    No, I'm sorry, I don't see a distinction between an incest taboo as "social practice" and moral prohibitions as -- well, what? something other than social practices? When we publically condemn something, isn't that part of a social practice? Without begging the question, how do you make this distinction? Without reference to the one true moral theory, can you tell me why some conventions count as worthy of the description "moral" and others do not?

    Of course the incest taboo is very functional. So are many of our moral prohibitions. And, indeed, there is a great deal of difference in how even philosophers justify taboos (like that on torturing infants.) Those justifications, just like the myths that underlie the incest taboo, are inevitably going to diverge from its "true" function.

    My point is that, insofar as this functional explanation of morality has legs, the deductivist model where we derive norms from very general moral principles is going to be a very inadequate fit with the moral machinery people really employ when making decisions in their lives.

    My personal view is that we should instead engage people on the level of the myths they already tell themselves, rather than trying to convince them of a whole new series of myths. It's not only arrogant for philosophers to do that, but ineffective as well.

    Terrence

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  28. I like calling these things "myths," it has a certain flair, don't you think?

    Pax wrote:
    "By 'intuition' I assume we mean something like 'considered judgment', that is, one that is backed by some more general principles or at least by particular reasons. Not any ol' judgment that is uttered by or occurs to a person counts."

    No, no, by intuition I think we mean gutteral, basic, instinctive-like responses, not considered judgments at all.

    Like this:
    Joe: "Hey Bob, I think I want to lie today."
    Bob: "I don't think you should, Bob, seems wrong to me."
    Joe: "Why do you think it's wrong?"
    Bob: "No reason, Joe, I just feel [read: intuit] it's wrong. Don't you feel [intuit] it's wrong?"
    Joe: "Now that you mention it, it does seem wrong. I share your feelings [intuitions] about the wrongness."
    Bob: "So you won't lie then?"
    Joe: "Oh, I don't know about that. That depends on whether my thinking that lying is wrong is motivational or not. Maybe it isn't. I'll tell you afterward whether I lied or not."
    Bob: "Hey, how about that free market capitalism, don't you love it?"
    Joe: "No. I hate free market capitalism, sunshine, happy toddlers, and puppies. Strangely, I'm attracted to owning slaves as well. But that's another story."

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  29. Thanks for the thoughtful replies.

    On disagreement: I don't see how people can have a meaningful disagreement if they are talking past each other. That's why we often settle on definitions at the outset. For instance, it may turn out that you and I are using the term 'intuition' differently, in which case we would be "ships passing in the night," as the adage goes, instead of having a real disagreement. That's not to say that what we're doing cannot be "descriptively called a disagreement," but this is much too weak of a standard. After all, 'time is a river' and 'time is money' are indeed descriptions, and useful ones at that, but they are not focal cases of description.

    I actually agree in part with the last claim you made. You said that you "prefer to engage people on the level of the myths they already tell themselves, rather than trying to convince them of a whole new series of myths. It's not only arrogant for philosophers to do that, but ineffective as well." I agree with all of this except the part about the mythical status of folks' deepest evaluating convictions. And it seems to me that the real philosophical arrogance is telling folks that their most cherished values are myths. I don't know if you've got an error theory in mind or some kind of noncognitivism, but, if so, you have to subject your own values to these as well, which takes the sting out of calling other peoples' values myths.


    The part where I agree is with engaging others on their own terms. This was Socrates' method most of the time, right? Anyway, the Davidsonian point I made in my original post and the point about getting into reflective equilibrium with others was a claim that we can discover universal principles that we already share, not a claim about imposing our standards on others. That's why I didn't really understand your point about swapping dictionaries, and why I don't understand why you are saddling me with the "one true morality" view which, at least in its familar comic book variety, is that claim that morality is determinate in all cases.


    On the social practice/moral norm distinction. The fact that there is a social practice of criticizing social practices does not entail that the norms referred to in the former practice are justified by or grounded in that practice. For instance, the value of pleasure is not grounded in the social practice of seeking pleasure. Pleasure would be valuable even if not valued in practice, just as human life would be valuable even if not valued in practice. Now, we can tell a genealogical story about how values are "grounded" in history, and those stories are valuable, but that's to change the topic. So perhaps we're talking past each other, because I don't really see how what I am arguing is at odds with a view about spontaneous norm development or any other genealogical account. If so, it would be natural to say "We don't really disagree after all."

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  30. Jaworski -- I don't think people have "guttural, basic, instinctive-like responses" to acts of lying or to economic systems that promote efficient transfers come what may. Lying and Capitalism are both very complex practices, and moral intuitions target only some of the properties and relations that comprise these practices and not the wholes. Your dialogue seems to muddy things by suggesting that moral intuitions are "basic, guttural, instinctive-like" gestalt experiences about complex wholes rather than a kind of experience of some of the properties and relations comprising these wholes. So, if Bob were to ask, "What is it about lying that feels wrong to you?" and Joe responded, "Nothing really, it just feels wrong," then, other things being equal, we should take him at his word and conclude that he does not have any moral intuitions about the component parts of the practice of lying at all. Which is to say, he has no moral intuitions about lying at all. If we were still interested in the feeling he reported or why he reported it, then we should seek some other explanation. The genealogical accounts discussed above would be a good place to start.

    Young children can have moral intuitions about causing or receiving pain; older ones can have intuitions about lying; but a young child cannot have moral intuitions about Capitalism. Even if one's moral intuition-capacity is fully developed in childhood, a child still lacks the intellectual ability to ascertain the properties and relations that comprise Capitalism, so there is nothing for his intuitions to go to work on. Sadly, even when there is this intellectual ability, as in normal adults, there is not always effort, and for other reasons ignorance often extends into adulthood. Just think of all the Americans who would denounce unrestrained Capitalism, if only they properly understood the properties and relations that comprise it! But really, must I flirt with this kind of Platonism and claim that those who endorse the libertarian state are just confused, that if they would look a little harder they would see the light? I don't think this is the only route. It seems we can identify some core intuitions that we all share and then work from the ground up, constructing rather than discovering.

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  31. I found David S's comment very helpful. Everything after that has been Gobbledygook if you ask me.

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  32. An anti-climactic first post, no doubt. Instead of committing myself I thought I might commit someone else. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has an article: "Moral Relativity and Intuitionism", Philosophical Issues, Volume 12: Realism and Relativism (2002), pp. 305-328.

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  33. Dave S writes:

    Consider ordinary truth, as in, “it is true that the cat is on the mat.” For my money, if it is true that the cat is on the mat, this must be true for everyone. It can’t be true for you but not me that the cat is on the mat (so long as we are talking about the same time, cat, and mat). The concept of truth requires that if there is a truth of the matter, that there be only one such truth for all—of course different things can be justified for me and you, but different things cannot be true for me and you.

    Many familiar sentences might are true for some people yet not true for others (at least in a certain sense of "true for"). Consider, for example, the sentence "I was born in New Zealand." This sentence is true for me, in the sense that I would speak truly by uttering it. But it is not true for most other readers of this blog.

    A moral relativist might say something similar about moral sentences. A sentence like "X is wrong" might be understood as meaning something like "I don't like X." In which case, the sentence might be true for some but not for others. But this doesn't rest on any confusion about the concept of truth.

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