Drinking Deeply

Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 12:27 PM

Reflections on Moral Philosophy

This quarter I'm just about wrapping up a class entitled "Introduction to Moral Philosophy."

In it we had the chance to read some Ayn Rand, some utilitarian writers, some contractarianism, Kant, Aristotle, and various commentaries on them. It was a basic overview course rather than an indepth study on any one area.

It certainly was interesting. Some of it was entirely new to me and I found it facinating (and saddening because it felt like talking in circles). All I really learned is that it is a lot easier to ask impossible to answer questions than it is to present an impossible to defeat system of thought.

Each system of thought led me to two conclusions:

1) There are some aspects of thought here that reflect the foundational Christian morality. Indeed, God has put His law in our hearts, however imperfect we are in interpreting it.

2) I can really see how a rejection of an omnipotent and omniscient God can lead us to drawing absurd conclusions that look perfectly rational. It is saddening that this happens.

All in all, what I am most dissapointed in the class (and this seems to be true for large sections of moral philosophy) is that it seems to elevate intuition to a point where it is unquestionable. What determines if a system of thought is true or not is if it is consistent with our intuition. There is no point at which we can say "oh, our intuition is wrong on this case," but rather we are to change the system until it aligns with our intuition.

While this idea of a "conscience"-like intuition sounds appealing in some senses, I see no support from Scripture that intuition is an authoritative judge. Now, if I believe some action to be sinful , it certainly is true that it is sinful for me to do(eating foods offered to idols would be an example). But if I believe some action to not be sinful, it does not necessarily follow that that action is not sinful. (As the Scriptures testify to people who deny the truth-claims of itself and give themselves up to lusts and carnal desires)

In this case, intuition has failed. Looking at it from a non-Christian perspective, there is nothing inherantly wrong with something like premarital sex, and someone's intuition may even support the fact that "hey, you're as good as married, might as well." But yet even though our intuition may "think" this, it is utterly devoid of moral good because the meaning of an action is not derived from how we think of it, but how God sees it.

So yeah, I wish philosophy could go somewhere without deifying intuition in so many different ways. Maybe it can and I don't know.

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Blogger jefe said...

Interesting. I don't know what went on in your class, but I would never expect most philosophers to say that intuition is "unquestionable". In fact, I'd say that they tend to err a bit in the opposite direction with a love for counter-intuitive conclusions. For instance, Descartes' claim, "I am essentially a thinking thing, and nothing more", or Hume's claim that we can never know whether one event causes another, both fly in the face of intuition, but lots of philosophers have been happy to accept them.

But there are ways in which philosophers tend to defer to intuition. One of them is logical intuition--like our sense of whether a conclusion validly follows from premises. This is how I know that, if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then it follows that Socrates is mortal. But even this kind of intuition isn't "unquestionable". Lots of conclusions seem intuitively valid at first, but can be shown to fail by arguments.

But just because intuition is fallible doesn't mean it's useless. The way I see it, the fact that some conclusion is deeply counter-intuitive is always a point against it. But it's not the end of the discussion--if there are strong enough reasons for the conclusion, then we can tell our original intuitions to take a hike. I think most philosophers (moral or otherwise) would agree with me here.

But I'm not sure this even addresses what you're talking about. Does it?  

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Blogger mxu said...

It may have just been my class, being an intro level class.

What I was frustrated with was that the argument "but this doesn't agree with our intuitions" was considered enough to discard a theory. I don't believe the possibility of "our intuition is therefore wrong" was considered.

Of course, when it is a lot easier to change a theory rather than to change our intuitions, I guess one should grant some charity to the argument that "it's against our intuitions, therefore it's not valid" being valid.

We never discussed Descartes or Hume,though I'm curious how we get past Descartes and his claim, since if it's true... all other philosophy seems... almost meaningless.  

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Blogger jefe said...

I don't think "It's against our intuitions, therefore it's false" is valid--but I'd say that "It's against our intuitions, therefore we have reason to suspect that it may be false and examine alternatives" is fine. That also squares with my understanding of the way God wired our minds.

Re Descartes. He'd be dismayed to hear that sum res cogitans (Latin for "I am a thinking thing"--the short slogan for the claim I mentioned) makes all other philosophy seem meaningless--since he happened to do quite a bit of other philosophy. One important point is that the word "essentially" does a lot of technical work in the claim. He meant that his essence was thinking. He didn't mean that people don't also eat and sleep and fill out crossword puzzles--but he meant that we could stop doing all of those things and keep being ourselves; but we couldn't stop thinking our thoughts without ceasing to be ourselves. If you take Phil 10 you'd study Descartes more. He's pretty cool--and a math nerd, too.  

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