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18.2.04

Inuitionism As Solipsism

There are two general ways to construct ethical systems -- deductive or intuitionistic. A deductive ethics reasons out a logically consistent set of principles and demands that we follow them no matter what their consequences. Intuitionism in its simplest form is a case of "do what your conscience tells you." But it's possible to build a systematic ethics on an intuitionist basis. Systematic intuitionism* is a case of constructing a logically consistent set of principles that must also validate our intuitions. That is, if we know in our hearts that murder is wrong, and our ethical system leads us to justify murder, then the system must go. This type of reasoning is the basis for most of the challenges to deductive systems, generally in the context of contrived situations -- the utilitarian is condemned for being willing to kill 100 people to save 101 people, while the deontologist is condemned for being unwilling to tell a lie to save 1000 people.

This sort of systematic intuitionism is, in a sense, an attempt to do ethics the same way we do science**, to answer "ought" questions the same way we answer "is" questions. Scientific theories have two constraints -- they must be logically consistent, and they must account for our empirical observations. If the observations don't match the theory, the theory must give way. Intuitionism treats our ethical intuitions as observations or data points in this sense.

The usual stumbling block to intuitionism is that different people have different intuitions. It seems self-evident to many of us that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality, for example, but there are hosts of people whose intuition is exactly the opposite. How do we account for this? Well, how does science account for disagreeing observations? Generally, the explanation lies in the perceptual apparatus -- "you're colorblind," or "you're holding the telescope the wrong way." We don't use instruments to make ethical observations, but we can still explain inconsistencies in similar terms -- "you've been indoctrinated by your culture," or "you aren't taking into account all the relevant circumstances." Note, however, a crucial difference: anomalous observations of scientific phenomena are resolved through scientific explanations. Anomalous observations of ethical phenomena are resolved through scientific explanations. Ethics has to turn to science to account for its observations.

Within science, this same kind of realm-shifting can occur. The source of the anomaly may lie in the world being observed, or it may lie in the observer. To the extent that we prefer observer-side explanations for anomalous observed-side observations, we slide into solipsism. To the extent that ethical intuitions are explained away as scientific phenomena and no other basis for ethics is forthcoming, we slide into a sort of ethical solipsism.

*I was originally going to say that Rawls' idea of "reflective equilibrium" is an example of a systematic inductive procedure, but Rawls argues that in case of a conflict either the rule or the intuition must give way. It's thus an appealing concept on the surface, but he gives no indication of how the choice is to be made.

**I'm using the term broadly to mean explanations of the objective world.

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