Have you ever seen a situation that seems flatly wrong, but when asked to explain why you find yourself struggling for words? Perhaps you’ve got a strong sense that something is wrong – an immediate, powerful instinct about what should or shouldn’t happen. In ethics, we refer to these as moral intuitions.

Moral intuitions go by a number of different names. Some of us talk about ‘gut instinct’ or whether something passes the ‘sniff test’. Both terms suggest that there is some strong, basic belief about right and wrong that we can use to ground our judgements.

The problem is, despite the speed and strength of these intuitions, they are only as valuable as their source. Our intuitions can come from a range of sources: personal and family history, unconscious biases, custom, culture or a strong, stable and well-founded sense of what’s right.

Opinions differ on what we should do with our moral intuitions. Should we follow them, trusting them as a different kind of knowledge that draws on subconscious, non-rational and emotional cues? Should we ignore them, seeing them as irrational, unjustifiable claims about what’s right or wrong? Or should we treat them as one piece of evidence among many when we’re making a decision?

Resolving these questions requires us to work out what kind of intuitions we’re having. Some of our judgements about ethics can be based in a sense of disgust or ideas about what’s taboo (for instance, thinking about lab-grown meat), they can be the product of psychological biases like availability bias or halo effect, or social prejudices like racism, sexism, ableism or class-based moralities.

However, other intuitions may be based in our emotional response to a situation. Many of our emotions can reflect and inform our rational judgements. If something makes us angry, that’s information worthy of considering. If something makes us proud, that’s data we can use to help shape an opinion. Standing alone, ‘this made me feel sick’ isn’t sufficient information to form a moral judgement. But, the fact that learning about or witnessing something made you feel physically ill also isn’t something you should ignore lightly.

From the Nazis to ISIS, history is littered with groups who have encouraged their members to dismiss the evidence of their minds and bodies – such as feeling of disgust or shame at committing acts of murder – in order to serve some ‘higher’ goal. Dismissing the morally informative role of emotions can be used as a tool to pave the way to atrocity.

Whilst emotions alone should not be taken as sufficient for forming judgement, some believe there are kinds of intuitions that can, in and of themselves, reveal something ethically important to us.

For instance, we might have an intuition that all people are to be treated fairly, that it is wrong to intentionally harm an innocent person for no reason or that all people are to be treated with dignity. These are beliefs that moral intuitionists claim to be self-evident. These ideas don’t need to be justified or proven true, they just are. A moral intuitionist would argue that any person who disputes them is simply wrong.

Of course, not everyone accepts that there are self-evident principles on which to build an ethical system. These people, who are often associated with a philosophical school of thought known as rationalism, prioritise analytic reason, and hold that intuitions should be ignored. The only basis on which we should make ethical judgements is a rationally constructed argument. If, for instance, we think all people should be treated equally, we should make an argument to that effect. If we can’t, we don’t have good reasons to hold that belief.

What intuitionists and rationalists agree on is that making an ethical judgement is distinct from having a moral intuition. Our strong, immediate judgements about a situation are rarely – if ever – enough for us to make a decent appraisal of a situation.

However, the rationalist goal of eliminating emotion and intuition from the realm of ethical judgement is also false. Critical feminist and race scholars have highlighted the way that rationalists tend to paint a male, Western approach to thinking as a ‘universal’ rationality. In doing so, they tend to understate and invalidate other knowledge traditions and sources of moral judgement, including emotion.

For example, psychologist Laurence Kohlberg used a rationalist model of ethical decision-making to develop a stage theory of moral development. He thought rational, theoretical decision-making was more mature than decisions based on emotion, care and relationships. As a result, he concluded that boys tended to be more morally mature than their same-age female peers.

It took his student, feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, to point out that not only was Kohlberg’s assumption about rationality unjustified (it ignored, for example, the work of scholars like David Hume), it painted the difference between male and female moral reasoning as a deficiency in women rather than as a simple difference.

Perhaps we should take guidance from both rationalists and intuitionists. From the rationalist we can learn the understanding that our first judgement of a situation should not be our last. However, intuitionists remind us not to dismiss our initial judgements out of hand, but to interrogate and understand them. That way, next time, our intuitions will be a little closer to the mark.

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