Henry Sidgwick Intuitionalism and Four Conditions in Determining Trust Worthy Conclusions

In “The Methods of Ethics”, Henry Sidgwick is looking for the proper moral code to use in order to figure out what is it people “ought” to do. In doing so he examines three moral theories seriously, Egoistic hedonism, Universalistic hedonism also known as utilitarianism, and Intuitionalism. Of these three, it is Henry Sidgwick’s review and critique of Intuitionalism with regards to the four conditions he believes must be completely fulfilled in order to arrive at trustworthy conclusions which will be the focus of this paper.

The moral theory of Intuitionalism begins with the fundamental assumption that it is possible for people to clearly see what actions are in themselves right and reasonable. Our intuitions about what is right and wrong relate to the intentions of the individual performing the action. The rightness of an action then depends more on the state of mind of the individual than only the outwards actions themselves. “In other words, what we judge to be ‘wrong’ – in the strictest ethical sense – is not any part of the actual effects, as such, of the muscular movements immediately caused by the agent’s volition, but the effects which he foresaw in willing the act; or, more strictly, his volition of choice of realizing the effects as foreseen.”[1] When analyzing the individual’s state of mind the motives and the intentions of the individual must be examined. While the intention serves as a judge to determine the rightful or wrongness of an action, the motives determine the scale in which that action is right or wrong. For instance, the morality of the simple action of stealing a loaf of bread cannot be determined by the physical action along, a great deal more information needs to be revealed. Two essential bits of information needed to determine the morality of an action under Intuitionalism are the individual’s intentions and motives. One possible scenario is that the individual intended to steal the loaf of bread with the motivation of feeding his family. In this scenario, the act is still wrong but because the motivating factor is taken to be a good one, it lessens how bad the action of stealing is and seems to be intuitively more excusable. If the individual intended to steal the loaf of bread only to see if he could do it than the motivating factor would intuitively not diminish the wrongness of the action. This demonstrates how the rightness or wrongness of an action can be determined intuitively by looking at the intentions and motivations of an action without actually looking at the consequences.

Since Sidgwick is trying to find a usable moral theory to determine what people ought to do, the notion that Intuitionalism can lead to moral judgments of right and wrong is not enough. Many moral theories can tell us what we ought to do but that does not mean that those theories are correct. Sidgwick believes that for Intuitionalism to be a useful theory it must be able to lead us to trustworthy conclusions. In order to distinguish self-evident truths from mere-opinions Sidgwick proposes four conditions, each of which the fulfillment of must be met in order to accept the self-evident truths which follow from Intuitionalism as trustworthy conclusions. The four conditions which must be met are that the terms of the proposition must be clear and precise, the self-evidence of the proposition must be ascertained by careful reflection, it must be mutually consistent, and the intuition must be widely accepted.[2]

Sidgwick thinks that Intuitionalism does not pass the first criteria of being clear and precise. A moral theory must be able to clearly decide every possible case of what is right and what is wrong. It must be that it can determine what our individual duties are in so far as we can reliably say action x is or is not bad. So in the case of the person stealing a loaf of bread, Sidgwick is looking for a moral theory which will have a clear and precise answer i.e. the action of stealing a loaf of bread is bad, what he is trying to avoid is an “it depends answer”. Sidgwick also thinks that Intuitionalism cannot determine what to do in instances where two duties are conflicting with one another. For example, Sidgwick believes that in an instance between meeting someone for lunch, versus saving a person it could not be determined which to do. It seems incorrect though that Intuitionalism cannot make clear and precise principles in both instances of individual duties and when two duties are conflicting with one another. Rather than thinking Intuitionalism fails to meet this criterion it is more the case that Intuitionalism simply needs more specifics in determining whether an action is right or wrong which when dealing with morals is a strong characteristic of the theory rather than a weak characteristic. Although it may be the case that Intuitionalism cannot clearly state whether stealing a loaf of bread is wrong, it is only due to the extreme broadness of the situation. The greater the amount of information provided the stronger and easier it would be for Intuitionalism to make a clear and precise principle from it. For instance if we add to the example of the person stealing a loaf of bread that it is being stolen from a baker who has a large excess of bread which will foreseeable be thrown out, and the person stealing the bread may die of hunger, then it seems that the Intuition that what the person is doing is at least morally neutral if not acceptable. Just how precise the self-evident proposition needs to be is wrongfully left to doubt. It is a fallacy to look for a moral theory which makes sweeping judgments without taking into consideration the context of the action, which by looking at the motives and intentions of an action Intuitionalism is stronger for.

The second condition Sidgwick puts forth to determine if the apparent self-evident truths that stem from Intuitionalism can be taken as trustworthy conclusions is that they must be ascertained by careful reflection.[3] The careful reflection is necessary in Sidgwick’s view in order to guard against mistaking impulses and impressions with dictates of reason and additionally from opinions which upon frequent repetition may be mistaken as self-evidence. This condition of reflection is important for Sidgwick as he does not want to be tempted to simply approve actions as moral any which brings desire. Not everything that first strikes someone as valid is self-evident and Sidgwick is trying to state that it really must be a judgment of self-evidence, intuition is not sufficient grounds alone. He wants to put intuitions of rightness through rigorous testing in order to see if it really expresses a clear intuition of rightness or if it has just been mistaken as such.

That the propositions be taken to be self-evident must be mutually consistent is Sidgwick’s third criteria. He believes that any collision between two intuitions is evidence that the intuition of at least one of them must be false. Although in general, this may be true it does not seem to hold up when the specifics of a case are added, which as already mentioned is what strengthens Intuitionalism. To illustrate this it can be helpful to look at the stealing of the loaf of bread case. Our general intuition about stealing is that it is morally wrong and our general intuition about saving one’s own life is morally good. If the only way the individual could save his life were to steal the loaf of bread in order to feed himself there is a clear case of two intuitions conflicting with one another and yet it does not seem to be that either one of the intuitions is false. Rather than completely eliminating the intuitions on what is right and wrong, it would be more plausible to state that when there are two conflicting intuitions the specifics of the case will lead to a new intuition for all scenarios in which those two previous intuitions conflict. So it could be said that it is intuitively good, perhaps only to a slight degree, that the person stole the loaf of bread. From then on it would be known that it is intuitively good to save a life at the expense of a minor theft in large part because it is intuitively known that the importance of the former vastly outweighs that of the latter.

General acceptance of the self-evidence of an intuitional proposition is Sidgwick’s fourth and final criteria. Since intuitive propositions are supposed to be self-evident then it should be the case that the majority of people can easily arrive at the same conclusion without any elaborate background information.[4] The denial by some of the self-evidence of the proposition would seemingly force impairment in the confidence of a claim one can hold on just how self-evident it truly is.

It is those four conditions, clear and precise, sustained by careful reflection, mutually consistent, and generally accepted, through which Sidgwick goes against Intuitionalism. It actually seems as though Sidgwick set up the conditions in order for Intuitionalism to fail. If the first and third conditions are met then it seems condition two could not be because of what each one demands. The first and third conditions demand specifics while specifics seem to deny the self-evidence of the proposition and thus failing the second condition. Intuitionalism seems incapable of passing these four conditions laid out by Sidgwick to determine if the conclusions that follow can be trustworthy although he believes that Utilitarianism, which is the moral theory he clearly prefers, can pass the test.

The moral theory of Intuitionalism which holds that through intuition, it is possible to clearly determine whether a certain action is right or wrong is rejected by Sidgwick. It is rejected on the basis that the conclusions which are apparently self-evident are not trustworthy, because they do not meet all four of the conditions for determining whether a method of reasoning leads to trustworthy conclusions. Those conditions being that they be clear and precise, self-evident upon careful reflection, mutually consistent and that there is general acceptance of their validity.

[1] Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (1907; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981) pg.201

[2] ibid pg.338-341

[3] ibid pg.339

[4] ibid pg.341