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The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (review)

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 2, June 2007
pp. 305-325 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0019

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Ethical intuitionism is the label typically affixed to a cluster of distinct meta-ethical and normative ethical views. Roughly speaking, the position contains a commitment to the existence of non-inferential justification or knowledge and to some form of normative pluralism. These and related views were most famously defended in one version or another by certain late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British moralists. By the middle of the last century, however, the philosophical fortunes of ethical intuitionism had declined considerably. The plunge was due in the main to objections directed to the putatively extravagant metaphysical and epistemological commitments of the position. The criticisms were thought to be so devastating that by the early 1960s William Frankena declared that the key meta-ethical aspects of intuitionism were all but impossible to defend. 'An intuitionist must believe in simple properties, properties which are of a peculiar non-natural or normative sort, a priori or non-empirical concepts, intuition, self-evident or synthetic necessary propositions, and so on. All of these beliefs are hard to defend in the present climate of opinion.'

The normative commitments of the framework fared somewhat better, though they too were attacked. John Rawls, for instance, claimed that without some account of how the plurality of normative principles are to be weighed against one another using 'reasonable ethical criteria, the means of rational discussion have come to an end. An intuitionist conception of justice [and by extension ethics] is, one might say, but half a conception.'

Philosophical fashion is changing. The fortunes of intuitionism are now improving as various forms of the position work their way back into the philosophical mainstream. One of the leading figures in the movement to restore the respectability of intuitionism is Robert Audi. In his engaging new book, The Good in the Right, he aims to defend several of the account's traditional components. The book's ambition is, broadly put, to defend a moderate form of ethical intuitionism according to which there are (a) an 'irreducible plurality of moral principles that are non-inferentially and intuitively knowable' and (b) 'a set of basic moral standards ... that directly apply to daily life: principles governing veracity, fidelity, justice, beneficence, reparation, and much more' (197).

Audi's account of intuitionism is inspired in part by the ethical works of W.D. Ross. He adopts the latter's broad framework while refining and defending it. The appeal here to historical figures is not insignificant, for part of what drives the resurgence of various forms of ethical intuitionism is the renewed interest in the historical proponents of its central elements, especially Henry Sidgwick, G.E. Moore, W.D. Ross, C.D. Broad and, to a lesser extent, H.A. Prichard, Hastings Rashdall, E.F. Carritt and others. Indeed, some have alleged that the only way forward in normative ethics is to borrow from these moralists. Thomas Hurka, for example, argues that 'the ideal future of normative ethics ... lies in its past. It must entirely shed its traces of mid-century skepticism if it is to return to the levels of insight provided by G.E. Moore, Hastings Rashdall, J.M.E. McTaggart, W.D. Ross, C.D. Broad, and other early twentieth-century moral theorists.' Audi seems to agree, taking pains to link his own project to the key defenders of intuitionism. Ross and his intuitionist brethren are not the only historical figures from which Audi seeks inspiration. He thinks that an appeal to Immanuel Kant can help rescue ethical intuitionism from some of its alleged defects. His view is that Rossian-type moral principles can be clarified, unified and justified by appeal to some version of Kant's categorical imperative. He further contends that the moral principles that he endorses contribute to human flourishing. He calls the resulting view 'a value-based Kantian intuitionism' (200).

In this critical notice, I focus on Audi's defense of the epistemological aspects of intuitionism as well as his claim that some version of Kant's categorical imperative is a plausible normative structure to rely on for the clarification, unification and justification of the ethical principles that he holds to be self-evident, among others. I argue that he...

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